Over the summer, my father, brother and I decided to go on a trip together. Months of ideas, emails and calls finally coalesced into a plan to bike the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD. We would do it over three days, renting bikes and staying in B&Bs and hostels along the way.
I drove out of DC on Wednesday afternoon, intending to leave my car in Cumberland and catch a train to Pittsburgh. Traffic was bad enough that I missed the train and we had to adjust our plans. Instead, I drove straight to Pittsburgh, where Dad and A were waiting with pizza and beer.
We ribbed A about leaving his wedding ring at home, and spent the evening catching up and calling home from our Airbnb (a converted dorm room).
Leisurely morning. Packing up and walking to coffee and breakfast, then bike shop. Quick fitting and packing then back to the Point for a quick photo op. Weather gorgeous as we pedal through and then out of Pittsburgh.
Over the hot metal bridge and past the Steelers’ practice facility, whistles and horns and cameras in the air. Narrowly avoided a large snake across the path. Past train tracks and scrap metal years, old brick buildings, graneries, warehouses.
Through small towns, lots of American flags and bunting, also many signs of urban decay. A train had derailed the day before in McKee sport, and many men in helmets & reflective vests were swarming the bridge with hand tools trying to get it back on the tracks.
Coffee at a tea shop in Boston, lunch in West Newton. Long stretches through woods under canopy, winding so that the sun came from every direction. Conversation dealt mostly with physics, specifically batteries and energy.
Past attractive campgrounds and lovely houses on the river. Photo op at the 100 mile marker.
Started getting saddle sore the last 15 miles. Pulled in to Connellsville, unpacked, grabbed beer from Sheetz, and enjoyed a sundowner on the back porch.
Pasta dinner at Ruvos. Bed at 9:30.
Woke at 7. Talked to Kiran. Great breakfast of sausage, egg and cheese with pesto. Chilly start leaving Connellsville and rode through woods next to river until Ohiopyle.
Stopped for coffee then on to Confluence, a very quiet town that reminded us of Shelton, NE. Fly fishermen stood in the sparkling, wide river. Had lunch at Parkview Grill. Proceeded on. Caused a collision with Dad when stopping short for a (dead) chipmunk. He was OK and we kept riding.
Climbed a ridge to look at the train tracks at Pinkerton Tunnel. Got into Rockwood around 3:30pm and had a celebratory ice cream cone. We also stumped up $2 each for blankets and $1 for towels at the hostel. After unpacking and showering, we walked the main street and had a couple of beers plus dinner at Rock City Cafe, talking mostly of politics.
Back at the hostel, searched in vain for good books or games and all were in bed by 8:30.
Woke at 7:15. Dad turned up The Writer’s Almanac and we all lay listening. Breakfast at the general store: a donut, coffee and breakfast sandwich special. We were cold to start. Saw a couple of deer and an eagle.
Gained elevation, more color, farms, corn, cows, a little cemetery. Into Meyersdale. Found three coffee shops closed before locating one open, but with awkward service and mediocre coffee. Talked to a local who biked a lot back and forth between the towns we’ve passed. Back up the steep hill to the trail, then on to the Continental Divide.
Took a few pictures, then started moving very quickly downhill. In Frostburg, climbed a long, steep hill into town and ate a good meal at Mountain City. Back down and then on to Cumberland, with just a couple stops to read placards and have a look at the Bone Cave. Lots of weekenders on the trail. Finished in Cumberland, dropped off bikes, washed up, changed into clean clothes. Dropped into a sports bar and had beer and watched football. Ate a quick dinner and then walked to the train station on the other side of the tracks, leaving plenty of time for any mishaps.
Waited a while for the train then found our seats. Enjoyed one last brew in the observation car. It was dark, but we picked out some of the places we had been as we rumbled by in the black night, Meyersdale, Rockwood, Confluence. Dozed for the last couple of hours to Pittsburgh. Picked up the car, drove to the airport hotel and got in around midnight.
By the Numbers
7,939 calories burned
8 coffee stops
- Mountain City Coffee House & Creamery, Frostburg*
- Gasoline Street Coffee Co, Pittsburgh
- Springhill Suites, Pittsburgh
- Connellsville B&B, Connellsville
- Sweet Treats, Rockwood
- Market Square Bakery & Cafe, Meyersdale
- Falls Market Restaurant, Ohiopyle
- The Betsy Shoppe, McKeesport
I voted on November 8, 2016 to make Hillary Clinton the next President of the United States. In the District of Columbia, where I live, 93% of my neighbors did likewise. Across the country, most Americans did the same. But where it counted, enough voters chose to elect Donald Trump.
The shock in my community is palpable, and primarily manifests itself in numbly trying to divine what caused our nation to take this step and worrying about what might happen next.
I’ve seen several theories that attempt to explain the vote, many of them laced with anger and almost all saturated in the despair felt by those of us who felt that the country was progressing in the right direction, albeit slowly. The most common of these are:
- Racism and misogyny, evidenced by the white male (65%) and white female (53%) vote for Trump
- The intervention of Russian hackers
- The intervention of the FBI’s James Comey
- The proliferation of alt-right news sources available on the internet
- The mainstream or liberal media’s failure to recognize or accurately report Trump’s support
- America’s infatuation with celebrity
- Hillary Clinton being exactly the wrong candidate to challenge Trump
I believe that all of these contributed to the eventual result. The best piece of reportage I’ve read about this is Alec MacGillis’ piece in Pro Publica. It provides a compelling narrative about how huge swathes of former Obama voters embraced Trump. Key themes raised by the subjects of these interviews are Clinton’s perceived dishonesty vs Trump’s straight-talking, Clinton’s failure to deliver anything meaningful (to them) during her political career vs Trump’s campaign promises, and most of all, the dire economic climate in their communities vs Trump’s reputation as a job-creator.
My feeling is that these people will be sorely disappointed in four years, as their personal economic circumstances fail to significantly improve. That is, unless Trump is able to realize his campaign pledge to liberate energy reserves at the expense of the environment.
The social impact of this election is heartbreaking. Bigots will be emboldened. Minorities will be further marginalized. Corporations will benefit at the expense of citizens. America has chosen to elect an almost perfect personification of a business, complete with lack of conscience and accountability.
President Obama was a good, and perhaps even great president. His administration oversaw a number of important improvements to the country and to the world: the legalization of same-sex marriage, the institution of Obamacare, and commitments to controlling climate change. At the same time, he is widely criticized for not doing more, despite being faced with the least cooperative congress in history. Hillary Clinton suffers also from this oversimplification of how government operates, by those who wonder what she has done with all of her years in government.
Trump, with a Republican-controlled congress and at least one Supreme Court appointment (which by all rights, should have been appointed by President Obama), will find it infinitely easier to push through legislation and count of rulings that swing sharply to the right. The only thing more frightening than this paucity of checks and balances is the potential for retaliation if and when Trump antagonizes a person or group willing to commit violence. I certainly fear for my family and my country, which is now a very different place.
One of my favorite books as kid was Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. Packed with trivia that I would regurgitate ad nauseum to any family member that would listen, one of my favorite pages dealt with predictions of the future that turned out to be amazingly dumb.
Still, I can’t resist the temptation to imagine our future world and make a few predictions of my own. Here are some of which I remain particularly convinced. If they don’t come to pass, I hope that they will at least be amusing.
- My friend, Scott, also believes that “2035, smart cars will be ubiquitous the way smart phones are in 2015. There will be fewer traffic deaths, especially those linked to drunk driving, better traffic flow, and less parking issues. I think we’ll just share smart cars by participating in a something like a ride share – for $500/month a car will pick you up wherever you want and drop you off wherever you say, on demand. You won’t own your car, but we’ll all have so much more time, space, and safety. Smart cars are a smart bet for the future.”
- I believe this also, and will add that by 2050, cars will run on some sort of rail or wire system with centralized power, rather than each car needing to convey its own energy source.
- By 2040, I believe that insects will make up more than 25% of human protein consumption, supplanting factory farming of cows, chickens, and pigs.
- By 2040, I believe that the United States Government will offer financial incentives for smaller families in order to slow or reverse population growth. By 2060, family sizes may be legally constricted.
- By 2050, humans will be earnestly engaged in extraterrestrial resource harvesting. This includes bringing these resources back to earth for refinement, and also establishing working colonies on other planets.
- By 2030, the concept of private life will be radically different. Facial recognition software and connections between publicly available data will allow anyone to quickly and easily summon large amounts of information on anyone they happen to see. There will also by a significant market for products that help obfuscate a person’s identity and corrupt their publicly available personal data.
The future will be frighteningly fast-paced. While governments will continue to improve protection of their citizens from physical violence, they will be increasingly powerless to prevent financial and psychological criminality.
Did our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents grow up amid such numerous warnings of cataclysm? There were World Wars, the Cuban Missile Crisis, but those were overt threats of which nearly everyone was aware. After generations of increasingly efficient violence between people, the earth is now the object of our violence instead.
Bees are, in some ways, the complete opposite of us. Each functions in service of the whole, as our organs work together to support a body. One of the many revelations in the fantastic documentary, More Than Honey (Amazon), is that a human being is analogous to a whole hive, rather than to an individual bee. There are many more philosophically and scientifically profound moments in this film, which also features incredible photography. Take the time to watch it.
The New Yorker carries a fascinating article by Kathryn Schulz explaining that an earthquake will destroy a huge swath of the United States’ northwest coast. The only question is when.
How should a society respond to a looming crisis of uncertain timing but of catastrophic proportions? How can it begin to right itself when its entire infrastructure and culture developed in a way that leaves it profoundly vulnerable to natural disaster?
As the piece mentions, this has implications far beyond an earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone. Climate, food, natural resources, pandemics…. Does preparedness demand more than we are prepared to give up?
The poetry of train travel is alive and well on the Coast Starlight.
Boarding in Oxnard, California, our route hugged a coast bursting with yellow and red wildflowers that bent toward the brilliant blue Pacific. Surfers, swimmers, and black rocks ribbed by decades of waves zipped across our windows. How could any screen compare, in depth or capacity to capture one’s imagination? The sky alone teemed with life: stubby-headed hawks wheeling high above arid fields; bright blue birds nestling in their thickets; prehistoric pelicans following the rhumb line south along the endless beach.
The dining car rules dictate that strangers sit together, a rare opportunity to share space and companionship in our increasingly segregated and personal (if not private) lives. My first meal was lunch, which I took with two brothers. One, a veteran, watched the coast go by outside the window and called it “peaceful.” In the observation car, many passengers come simply to look, putting their devices away and gazing instead at the dry riverbeds and dirt roads etched into the landscape.
By San Luis Obispo, the train had turned inland, skirting vast rows of produce and winding around or tunneling through grassy hills studded with cattle. There were also people and their buildings: at a crossing, a whole family stepped out of their car to watch the train roll past; behind a small house, a man leaned on his rake to witness us rumbling by his garden; in the distance, a sprawling beige prison complex shimmered in the heat.
To reach Portland from Oxnard by rail takes more than 27 hours. This deliberate pace seems to attract large numbers of retirees, and they largely seem to appreciate the advantages of train travel: friendly staff, splendid panoramas, early afternoon wine tastings. They relish the communal dining experience as much as the food, which is cooked on the train and is delectable.
North of Paso Robles’ grape vines: a forest of oil derricks. By the time we reached Salinas (“Salad Bowl of the World”), the towns had become dry and desperate. Makeshift but permanent-looking shelters dotted the gravel beside the tracks, one with a tricycle parked outside the cloth threshold.
I went to sleep near Sacramento, and awoke for the last time before 6am, somewhere close to the Oregon border. Strawberry fields and vineyards had given way to lumber mills and frost. We passed pens of stamping horses with breath billowing from their nostrils. Fetching a banana from my luggage, I made my way to the observation car and watched the pine-stitched hills south of Klamath Falls emerge against the mottling sky. Streams and floodplains reflected power lines, low red clouds, and thousands of birds so that it seemed two days were being born at once. Our train swept forward, stirring the stiff morning mist hanging thick over the ground.
By the time the sun had properly risen, we were racing among snow-capped peaks and broad lakes, surveyed from craggy branches by eagles along the shore. This landscape eventually faded into vast, undulating swathes of timber, cathedrals of trees admitting only an occasional sunbeam or frozen creek. North toward Bend, the terrain became hilly and rich with ferns, mosses, and brooks.
South of Eugene, we met and ran alongside the broad, turquoise waters of the mighty Columbia River. On the banks of the river and the railroad bed, every shade of green seemed to burst forth in dappled sunlight. A blank sky stretched to the horizon. Pastures and orchards grew next to low houses and yards studded with machinery. After Eugene, the route was populated. Agricultural concerns continued alongside other industry. By the time we trundled through the residential neighborhoods of Salem, children were scattering after the end of their school day. The landscape remained lush, but became carved up with fences, sheds and chicken coops. Mt. Hood floated up in the distance, and we arrived in Portland.
Even after more than a day on the train, I gathered my things with reluctance. Profound experiences can often only be recognized as such in retrospect. On the Coast Starlight, the alchemy of nature’s grace and travel by rail was apparent at every stage of the journey.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the concept of a babymoon. The basic idea is that an expecting couple takes a trip to a relaxing, ideally beachy destination to revel in each other’s company and stock up on sleep before the arrival of a child. It also gives a very pregnant mom the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the water where the invisible hand of gravity doesn’t press quite so hard.
It was on this manner of errand that my wife and I repaired to Puerto Rico for a week. In addition to lots of swimming, reading, chatting, watching US Open tennis, and lazing around, we also went on two excursions. The first was into Old San Juan, a charming old city easily covered by foot. The buildings lent a seductive European flavor to the area, while the drowsiness of late summer kept most of the tourist hordes at bay.
The second outing proved less sedate. We zipped off in a rental car toward Jayuya, the highways giving way to back roads and then to back-back-roads and then to roads that seemed not to be roads at all. Our local guide, Google Maps, seemed unconcerned that Route 530 was little more than two strips of dirt running through the meadow of an abandoned farm. We picked our way through the landscape as softball-sized rocks clattered off the undercarriage of our rented vehicle.
After a mile of this, it seemed foolish to turn around and subject ourselves to the same punishment, so we pushed on into a rutted, muddy track that wound up through a wood. Like a hero in an old book, I asked my pregnant wife to walk ahead and roll away the larger rocks and branches so that our car could safely pass. Even then, there were moments when it seemed we could progress no further.
Finally, we rounded the last bend and found… a chain across the drive, blocking our access to the paved roadway beyond. Proving the theorem that two wrongs can make a right, we decided to prop up the chain as best we could with a bamboo pole on one side and my wife on the other, wrapping that chain in our clothes so as not to scratch the roof as we eased the car under. It was quite a sight, or would have been if anyone else was around.
This concluded the most adventurous part of our drive, though there were still several hours of rain-drenched, impossibly steep, and sharply curving roads ahead to fray the nerves. In between, we sampled fresh coffee at a plantation and visited a couple out-of-the-way museums. One told the tale of the island’s very brief uprising in the name of independence, promptly quashed by American bombs. The other was devoted to the native culture, which we follow up with a swim in a river, surrounded by Taíno petroglyphs carved into the boulders. When lightning and rain came, we climbed out of the water and lay there, savoring the cool drops falling from above and the sun-baked rock warming us from below.
It was a good trip.
A few years ago, for the first time, I consciously limited my packing for a trip to single carry-on backpack. By the time I’d passed through security and was strolling through the airport, my feeling of liberation was palpable. I felt able to absorb delays, change plans, and move freely upon arrival. I had minimized my baggage. Since then, I try to be thoughtful about the items I carry with me, particularly when traveling long distances. Related to that, I attach more value to freedom and to the stimulation of exercising it.
I’m spending part of this summer in Jackson, WY for the second consecutive year, thanks to my wife’s job. For about a month, we are living in small cabin on a ranch next to the Hoback River, which joins the Snake River a few miles away. Downtown Jackson is 12 miles north of that confluence, and you’re treated to a view of the Tetons peeking over smaller hills as you approach. My job, which I can do virtually, requires a high-speed internet connection, so I commute into the downtown area while I’m here.
Jackson appears homogenous at the first and even second glance: affluent, outdoorsy, white. Art galleries, gear shops and ice cream parlors proliferate, with a streak of cowboy sensibility to remind everyone that they’re in Jackson instead of Vail. But under the money and outside downtown, a working-class and Hispanic population helps keep it all running. Without a car, that’s the group I tend to travel with to pick up groceries on the free town shuttle, and ride beside on the commuter bus in and out of town.
I catch that bus from Hoback Junction after a four-mile bike ride from the ranch, astride the ranch cook’s old Rock Hopper. The mornings are early and cold, but the days are long, with enough light to read by until nearly 10pm. While having a car here would simplify logistics, it would keep me at arm’s length from the place. It would also involve traveling with something large and expensive, eroding the kind of freedom that I’ve come to value so much.
My pleasure in this freedom seems almost absurd. With some research, a bit of planning, and a few small sacrifices, I can get where I need to go and do what I need to do minimally, without adding another car to the road, spending a lot of money, or asking for favors. In a place like this, where I am still new and distances are large, living with a light touch is intensely satisfying. Just as I traveled here with only a carry-on bag, I hope that this lesson will continue to stay with me.
My typical route, which I run about three times per week, is between 5 and 6 miles. I head down the street to the National Mall and turn west toward the Potomac River. There are always other runners, and a variable amount of tourists, depending on the time of year and what’s happening on the Mall. I pass the Washington Monument (still under renovation from the earthquake in 2012), the World War II Memorial, and the Reflecting Pool. Some mornings, I’ll climb the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial and pause to watch the sun rise over the Capitol. Occasionally, I’ll stand on the same spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood and gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. More often, I’ll simply run around the Lincoln Memorial and retrace my steps back home.
In September 2012, without otherwise deviating from this routine, I decided to try a half-marathon to see what it felt like and whether I could make it. I made it, and didn’t feel too bad. Since then, I’d gone on a couple of 9-milers, and those also felt pretty good. A significantly longer run appealed to me, and I wanted to really push myself.
On a warm Friday evening last month, I had just finished my first week at a new job and was enjoying a taco and beer with some friends. Among them was Carl, a much faster, longer and more devoted runner. I casually mentioned to him that I was considering a long run the next day, around 20 miles. Being familiar with my routine, he was surprised.
I woke up at 9am on the next morning, checked the weather, saw that it would be getting fairly warm later, and decided to get started quickly my run. I drank a glass of water, grabbed my keys and iPhone, and did some stretching before heading out. As I jogged along the familiar path of my usual route, I kept my pace very slow in the hope that I could sustain it over a several miles. Instead of rounding the Lincoln Memorial, I kept going across the Memorial Bridge and entered Virginia.
At this point, some four miles in, I started considering the logistics of my route and how far I was really going to run. My body felt fine, and when I thought about 20 miles, I couldn’t help but feel that, if I was going that far, I might as well run a marathon. In calculating my out-and-back route, I nonchalantly prepared myself only for the distance out, assuming that the distance back would sort of take care of itself. After all, I had no choice but to get home, right?
Once over the Memorial Bridge and out of the District of Columbia, I had hopped over a battered fence and joined the Mount Vernon Trail, which soon became the Custis Trail, and headed toward Falls Church. It was on that trail, full of cyclists on a sunny Saturday morning, that I decided to try to finish the marathon, and the resolution that I felt in that moment stayed with me. I was at Mile 7.
The Custis Trail joined the Washington and Old Dominion Trail, which went missing in Banneker Park. I managed to find signs and ran on suburban streets for a couple of blocks before joining the trail again, passing a power station that buzzed audibly with electricity. Music was a comfort, and I allowed my entire library to shuffle randomly, which has resulted in an enduring synesthetic association with profound exhaustion for many songs in my collection. I turned around after 13.5 miles, almost at the Capital Beltway, and started back.
I flagged, of course, and slowed with heat and fatigue. There were quite a few hills, which proved slow going both up and down. My legs became painful and cramped, and I stopped at each of the few water fountains I passed. Even my shoulders and arms, kept in a crooked position to hold my keys and phone, grew extremely sore and required stretching as I ran. Back in Rosslyn (Mile 22), I opted to take the Key Bridge and run through Georgetown because I didn’t trust my legs to hop the fence again.
I badly needed water. Georgetown proved a disaster in that respect, with not a single water fountain to be found along the boardwalk by the river. It seemed intentional, designed to make people buy plastic bottles of mineral water, and I still haven’t forgiven the neighborhood. I pushed on toward the familiar territory around the Lincoln Memorial, where I knew there was a water fountain.
After reaching it (Mile 24), I wisely started listening to my body. There was no sweat on my forehead, despite the heat, because I was too dehydrated. It was lunch time and I hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before. I was dizzy and struggling to focus. I wanted only to lie down in the grass and sleep. I felt dangerously giddy.
At the same time, I possessed an incredibly deep understanding of my body, and a kind of elation in finding my physical limit, and how far I had pushed it. My friend John, in talking about his marathon experience, said “I felt more connected to my primitive impulses than I had ever experienced before…I had no filter that was keeping me from crying, so my eyes just started leaking.”
I walked two slow miles, my head gradually clearing. Most of the water fountains were out of order, but I drank at the ones that weren’t. For the last quarter mile, I managed a slow trot across my imaginary finish line, then walked a few more blocks home. I drank a glass of water, drank a fruit smoothie with two bananas, ate leftover pizza, a sandwich and a pint of ice cream. Then I slept for three hours.
I finished my marathon in 4 hours 22 minutes and 41 seconds.
Did I underestimate the difficulty and distance? Of course, though I’d guess that most first time marathoners do the same, whether or not they train for it. I would have certainly done some things different, like eating breakfast, starting earlier, carrying water and not holding anything in my hands. It was difficult to walk for a few days afterward due to tendonitis in my left foot, and it was a couple of weeks before it fully healed, but I was lucky to avoid worse. I am happy that I did it, and believe I’ll do it again. This time, I think I’ll train for it first.