Category Archives: experiences

Early thoughts on COVID-19

First slowly, and then very rapidly, the world has changed. A week ago, we were discussing whether to cancel a baby shower for my inlaws. Two days later, my kids’ school was closed, provisionally until April 1, but almost certainly much, much longer. People who can work from home, like me, are doing so. People who can’t are losing their jobs. Everyone is talking about flattening the curve. Models and projections about the eventual decline of the coronavirus outbreak range from May to September, while its re-emergence next year seems possible, and maybe even likely.

This virus presents a fascinating public health issue, in that most people who get it remain asymptomatic, and have very low risk of death. That low risk of succumbing to the virus belies the risk to those who are older and have underlying health issues. Social distancing is so vital not because of our personal risk, but because of the risk to others. There is, of course, the second order risk that our medical and other systems will be overwhelmed, leaving everyone in a very scary place.

We are waking up to the reality that this is an essentially wartime effort, requiring the same degree of sacrifice and privation that earlier generations have endured. Crucially, though, humans are united against an enemy, rather than fighting among themselves. Every day, the consideration and generosity I see from so many individuals is heartwarming.

What is important at a time like this? My thoughts:

  1. Taking care of each other. We can do this by preventing the spread of disease,. We can find and commit to remedies for those affected by the disease and subsequent impacts on families, schools, and businesses.
  2. Refocus our priorities on creating our own fun, tapping into our creativity, relationships, and the world of ideas rather than simply consuming.
  3. Understand that so many of our systems and so much of our lives rely on assumptions that tomorrow will be like today. Adaptability is the only option, we all must reconcile ourselves to letting go of an event we’ve been eagerly anticipating or a creature comfort that is no longer available.
  4. Joining the ranks of parents who will be working with children at home, I understood that my days and evenings would change dramatically as childcare and work are rearranged. With the increased stress of juggling more responsibilities during the day and giving up relaxation time in the evening to make up work, avoiding burnout will challenge everyone. But it’s crucial to find equilibrium, a way of being that we can maintain for as long as we need to live without the liberties to which we’ve grown accustomed.

Most of all, I am grateful for the many advantages I have, and will look for opportunities to assist others during this crisis.

Hiking the Pemigewasset Wilderness

For our second annual “men trip,” my father, brother and I decided on a multi-day hike along the northern edge of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. We chose to balance the rigorous White Mountain trails with slightly cushy accommodations at three huts run by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC).

Day 1

I woke at 4:15am to catch my taxi to the airport. By 7:30am, I was in Boston, and worked until meeting Aaron at noon. Dad picked us up soon after and we were on our way to the White Mountains.

It was early, but it was also Friday, and we battled heavy traffic out of Massachusetts and into New Hampshire. We began to despair of reaching our hut in time for dinner, and it was 4pm before we were at the Old Bridle Path trailhead. The book time for our uphill, 2.3 mile hike is listed as 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Flower

We attacked the trail, reaching Greenleaf Hut in less than two hours and giving us time for a celebratory beer before sitting down to dinner. After eating we sat outside sipping Japanese whiskey, taking in views of the hills to the south and watching Mt. Lafayette mottle red as the sun set.

Lichen on Greenleaf Hut.

Back inside before bed, our conversation turned to politics and Aaron was relieved to learn that toilet paper did not need to be packed out when used at the huts.

Day 2

At 6:30am, the Greenleaf Hut croo officially woke the hut with an acapella song. Breakfast was followed by the customary skit encouraging guests to fold their blankets, pack out their trash, and tip the croo.

Breakfast at Greenleaf Hut

We were heading up Mt. Lafayette by 8:15 and soon reached the top, where we spent some time enjoying the vista and snapping pictures.

Climb up to Mt Lafayette

Marker on top of Mt Lafayette
Peering out into the Pemigewasset Wilderness
Pretending to climb

From there, our route took us down and up along a ridge to the windy peak of Mt. Garfield.

Along the ridge from Mt Lafayette
Walking the ridge
Cairns
Among the clouds
Lovely woods

On went the layers and we hunkered down out of the wind with our lunch of protein bars, trail mix, and fruit. Dad kindly shared his chocolate-covered espresso beans for dessert.

Sheltering for lunch on top of Mt Garfield

The trail from Mt. Garfield to Galehead Hut included lots of up and down, with large rocks and a good deal of water. At times, the trail seemed to merge with the stream alongside and we had to pick our way carefully down the slick rocks.

We reached Galehead Hut at 3pm and picked our bunks. The place was hopping on Saturday afternoon with guests, day hikers and thru-hikers inside, on the porch, and clustered among the rocks and grass outside.

Resting at Galehead Hut

We cleaned up, relaxed, sipped beer and played Trivial Pursuit while we waited for dinner, which was served at 6pm.

Trivial Pursuit at Galehead Hut

Dinner was turkey and mashed potatoes, with curried chick pea patties for the vegetarians.

Turkey dinner at Galehead Hut

We went to bed early to the sound of laughter and accordion music.

Day 3

The accordion announced the start of a wet and misty day at 6:30am.

Morning stretches, Galehead Hut

Breakfast at Galehead Hut featured oatmeal, eggs, pancakes and coffee. We took our time given the short distance we had to walk to Zealand Falls Hut.

Watching the mist roll in

Still, we were on our way up South Twin Mountain by 8:30 in a light drizzle that continued all day.

Setting out from Galehead Hut
Starting up South Twin
Wet walking

It was socked in by fog, and we didn’t linger.

On top of South Twin
Summit of South Twin

Instead, we headed down, then up and over Mt Guyot.

Approaching the top of Mt Guyot

From there the trail evened out for a very pleasant walk through boreal forest, rock, and water. The miles ticked by with gentle grade and engaging conversation about topics ranging from Onset to New Zealand to thru-hikers to the economics of the AMC huts.

Delicate mushroom
Traversing a bog

We opted to take the short spur to the top of Zealand Mountain, a peak so humble that it had to be marked with a cairn and a sign telling hikers they’d reached it. Without so much as a water break, we continued on to Zealand Falls Hut, which we reached around 1:45pm.

Lunch at Zealand Falls Hut

It was immediately our favorite–small yet spacious, and situated next to beautiful falls that could be heard all night. Each of us spent the afternoon reading or napping.

Bunk room at Zealand Falls Hut

We gathered for a tasty dinner of soup, bread, salad, roasted broccoli, stuffed shells, and carrot cake. After dinner, we took our bottle of Yamato out to the falls and sat watching the sky darken, while the yellow lights of the hut twinkled through the pines.

Day 4

I woke before 6am, poured myself a mixture of coffee and cocoa powder, and walked out to the falls, where I found Aaron watching the mist roll up the valley.

Mist in the valley

Dad joined us and we watched the sun rise before the morning song and call to breakfast.

Sun rising on Zealand Falls
Coffee with a view
Morning joe outside Zealand Falls Hut
Hot “coffee” at Zealand Falls Hut

We packed up and left shortly after 8, the trail descending alongside the falls and then leveling off as it skirted around a lake and headed deeper into birches and evergreens, mosses and ferns.

Starting down from Zealand Falls Hut

It was another wonderful walk, with fragrances of pine, mushrooms and flowers. The trail rose to the saddle of Mt Tom, which we declined to climb.

Approaching Mt Tom Spur

From there, the trail followed a creek where we emerged at Crawford Notch.

Reaching Crawford Depot
Finishing up at Crawford Depot

The wildflowers were blooming around the train depot and the lodge.

Wildflowers in Crawford Notch

As a bonus, we were early enough to take showers at the depot and have a beer while we waited for the shuttle to bring us back to our car. We redistributed our gear and headed south, stopping at The Common Man for dinner before Dad dropped us back at the airport.

It was another great trip, full of conversation and camaraderie. We’re already looking forward to next year.

Cook Men at Zealand Falls

Biking the Great Allegheny Passage

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.

Day 0

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).

Day 1

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.

 

Day 2

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.

Day 3

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

3 men

3 days

Day 1

62 miles

Day 2

48 miles

Day 3

47 miles

7,939 calories burned

8 coffee stops

RANKED

  1. Mountain City Coffee House & Creamery, Frostburg*
  2. Gasoline Street Coffee Co, Pittsburgh
  3. Springhill Suites, Pittsburgh
  4. Connellsville B&B, Connellsville
  5. Sweet Treats, Rockwood
  6. Market Square Bakery & Cafe, Meyersdale
  7. Falls Market Restaurant, Ohiopyle
  8. The Betsy Shoppe, McKeesport

1 crash

The Election of Donald J Trump

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.

Forecasting the Future

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.

Transportation

  • 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.

Food

  • By 2040, I believe that insects will make up more than 25% of human protein consumption, supplanting factory farming of cows, chickens, and pigs.

Government

  • 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.

Natural Resources

  • 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.

Society

  • 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.

More Than Honey

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 Really Big One

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?

Riding the Coast Starlight

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.

trainMountains

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.

trainMountains2

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.

A Visit to Puerto Rico

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.

prTiles

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.

prTunnel

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.

prCar2

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.

prSand