Category Archives: experiences

Freedom in Wyoming

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.

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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.

Running a Marathon Without Training

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.

10 Best US State License Plate Designs of All Time

License plate design has interested me for a few years. It’s surprising how little thought seems to have gone into so many plate designs, considering their high visibility. My wife and I have spent hours debating the merits of the Texas plate, and our DC plates have gained national attention recently after President Obama agreed to use the District’s “Taxation Without Representation” plates on his presidential limousine.

This month, the Automobile License Plate Collectors Association announced their pick for Best Plate of 2012, the deeply mediocre effort from Nebraska that celebrates the Union Pacific Railroad Museum. Runners up included fairly rubbish plates from Nunavut, Oregon, and Arkansas. The criteria for the vote are supposedly “legibility and attractiveness.”

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Hurricane Island Outward Bound School

I recently had the opportunity to visit Hurricane Island Outward Bound School (HIOBS), which runs sailing schools for teens, adult sailing courses and women’s sailing courses in Maine. Unlike other adventuring schools, which typically offer courses aimed at certifications, HIOBS focuses on building character and leadership skills. They also have a programs like corporate teambuilding events in Maine.

After touring the headquarters and site of the sailing school, I’ll definitely be looking for opportunities to take an Outward Bound course at Hurricane Island at some point in the future.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

This year, P and I took advantage of her west coast work trip to catch Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, a free music festival in the heart of San Francisco. We stayed with her college friend, Joe, and got to see some great performers, eat some tasty food, meet some new folks, unexpectedly run into old folks and walk a lot.

The lineup was great for any festival, let alone a free one, though the price of easy access was a massive crowd of people who seemed to prefer altering their minds with drugs rather than music. Not that I’m opposed to honoring a soulful rendition of “If the River Was Whiskey”, but I do prefer attentive listening. Due to crowds and transport logistics, we didn’t quite get to see everyone we wanted; Jolie Holland, AA Bondy, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn were a few victims of circumstance. We did get to see M Ward (good), Robert Plant (not so good), Robert Earl Keen (pretty good), The Felice Brothers (quite good) and Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings (very good). The clear standout, though, was Frank Fairfield.

A cynic might suggest that Fairfield’s style and personality is an affectation or a schtick. The man looks and talks as if he stepped into the outhouse beside his southern Appalachian cabin in 1870 and stepped out 140 years later. From his clothes to his humility, there’s very little that seems modern about him. Seeing him live, it’s clear that he’s genuinely a man out of time.

Frank Fairfield

We were running late and were thrilled to discover him playing the smallest stage of the festival. Despite a decent crowd, we walked right up to the front row and got to watch him from about 20 feet away. He played with vigor and feeling, and the instant he stopped, he was bashful, awkward, almost autistic. He was also the most consummate musician I’ve ever seen, starting with the fiddle, then moving to the banjo, then to the guitar, then back to the banjo, then to the fiddle again. The speed of his banjo playing seemed supernatural, and he played with the fiddle so ardently that he barely had any horsehair left on his bow by the end of his song. When he was done, he took a couple of quick bows, picked up his three instruments and walked off the stage to really good applause. It was great to see people lined up to buy his newest album, Out on the Open West, from his wife, who P tried to convince to come to DC.

As a treat just for you, here’s “Chilly Winds”, with a little background chatter, recorded from Frank Fairfield’s set:
Frank Fairfield – Chilly Winds (Live at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2011)

Connecticut Metro Map

As a companion piece to the Hartford Metro Map, I put together an imaginary metro system for the entire state of Connecticut in the celebrated Modernist style of Massimo Vignelli. The state is rotated counterclockwise, its contours are smoothed into basic shapes and major cities are nudged to fit along the main southwest to northeast artery, dubbed the Constitution Line. Other corners of the state are served by the Colonial, Nutmeg, Mill and Mystic Lines.

The Connecticut Metro Map is for sale now as a 23″ x 29″ poster through Zazzle, with all proceeds (about $7 per poster) going to Teach For America in Connecticut.

See a larger version here >>

Buy the map here >>

Connecticut Metro Map

Hartford Metro Map

I just completed an imaginary Hartford Metro map and am currently exploring printing options. At this point, it looks like a run of about 100 prints, 27″ x 16.5″ on heavy paper with a matte finish.

The price point hasn’t yet been set, but all proceeds will go to ConnectiKids, a Hartford-based “independent, non-profit youth development agency whose mission is to connect kids in Hartford to their potential by providing year-round enrichment opportunities linked directly to school curricula, taking a holistic approach to youth development, and exposing kids to role models who inspire positive choices and big dreams.”

In the coming days, I’ll be preparing a process post, where I detail the evolution of the project including station selection, line layout and timetable development while discussing the various design choices made along the way.

UPDATE: You can order your copy here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/886104268/hartford-metro-map

Volunteering for the Homeless Vulnerability Index

Last week, I volunteered as part of the Homeless Vulnerability Index (PDF), a method of determining which Hartford-area homeless were at the greatest risk. Based on the information gathered, those with the greatest need would be helped first. The project involved searching for the homeless in the early morning hours over two days, and visiting homeless shelters in the city in order to administer a survey. I was part of the latter effort at a shelter called Immaculate Conception, temporary home to about 80 men.

My first reaction was astonishment at the friendless and high spirits of the men I interviewed. While I expected them be guarded and reticent, they were remarkably candid in speaking about their history on the streets, where they typically slept, their medical conditions and how they made money. Since five of us had to survey all of the men over just three hours, I was disappointed that I didn’t have time to ask follow-up questions outside the scope of the study. I wanted to understand more about how they became homeless, what they did during the day and what was most difficult about their situations.

Ultimately, it was a touching and deeply fulfilling experience, particularly the results. An organization called Journey Home is now focusing on the 40 most vulnerable individuals of those surveyed, with the remaining 115 classified as “vulnerable” next in line for help finding housing. I’m already looking to volunteer again doing something similar, hopefully with the same group of men.