Belarus: Europe’s Last Frontier

Hailed as the last European dictatorship, Belarus had long been on Loc’s radar – and mine, once I met him. See, Loc has been on a quest to visit every country in Europe, and after visiting both Moldova and the Ukraine last year, he was down to just one, and I, along for the ride.

There was just one problem: Belarus didn’t want us.

We booked our trips to the Ukraine and Belarus at the same time last fall. At the time, such a trip required that we purchase travel insurance, a visa, and a tour guide’s company for the duration of our stay; it could easily cost $1,000 just to get past customs. Nonetheless, we booked our flight, then scoured the shoddy English of the state’s poorly maintained immigration page, then canceled our flight – more courage required.

This past January, President Alexander Lukashenko announced that he would be opening his country to the residents of 80 nations globally, including America, provided that a) they fly into Minsk, but not from Russia, and b) they spend no more than five days in the country. He announced his policy a month before it came into effect, so we waited our month – and then some – before booking our tickets.

Our first inclination that this hermetic nation still didn’t reeeealy want us came when I purchased our flight: goodbye, hello? I’d never seen such an itinerary before – every other

Flight Itinerary - Goodbye,Hello

Our second inclination came when we checked Apple Maps, simply to find our hotel: nothing.

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By contrast, here’s a map of Vilnius at the same scale:

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We teased out the location of our hotel through Google Maps, which, for some reason, has markedly better imagery than its competitor. We booked it, paid for it, and laid on parking at the Prague airport as well.

In the interim, our car died. Fortunately, we were not in it when it died. Unfortunately, it could not be revived. So, we made other arrangements. Fortunately, we had an afternoon flight.

To get to the Prague airport, we left our apartment at 0540 to walk the 900 meters to our train station, from which we caught a train into Nuremberg. We arrived just before 0700 for an 0720 departure via bus to Prague. After grabbing a coffee, we walked over to the bus station to catch our scheduled bus. The appointed time came and went, and still, there was no bus. There were, however, three German women waiting to catch the same bus, and they allayed our fears. Twenty minutes later, our ride arrived, and we boarded and departed in short order.

It’s a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Nuremberg to Prague, and ours was largely an uneventful one. DeutschBahn buses are a lot cleaner than Greyhound buses, and our fellow passengers were an almost uniformly tidy lot. It had wifi too, which an automatic voice announced over the broadcasting system… in Czech and English. I could have streamed movies on that wifi. Instead, I tried to check in to our flight, but was denied: check-in opens two hours before departure and closes eighty minutes later, full stop.

We took a different route into Prague than we normally do when we drive, and it brought us up from the south along the west side of the river – it was beautiful. We arrived at Prague’s main bus station, which is likewise beautiful, and wandered around a good twenty minutes looking for the ticket counter to procure our bus tickets to ride a half hour back west. We found them and fell in line behind a busload of people… we boarded, standing room only.

Check-in was indeed limited to a very precise window, and we made it just in time for its (grand) opening. Though entirely old school, it flowed smoothly, and we had our boarding passes in hand within minutes.

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Customs, however, was a monstrosity. I typically allow Loc to go first through security, as he is my sponsor while we are in Germany, and my paperwork is all linked to his. However, a new line opened up next to mine when I was the third person back, and I quickly jumped into that new line, beckoning to Loc to move over too. Alas, this grumpy German couple fell in between the two of us, and I went into the maws of the beast all alone.

Ten minutes later, I was still standing there. The Germans were audibly disgruntled. I was physically shaken… I’ve never been held up at customs before. The officers had never seen anything like my SOFA card and didn’t know what to do with it. Their superior had never seen anything like it and didn’t know what to do with it either. At this point, Loc came forward and provided his passport and ID card, which helped the Czechs sort things out, and we were both through in relatively short order. I opened a new account in my empathy bank that day.

Our plane boarded late and departed about fifteen minutes behind schedule. It must have been a 1970s-era plane, as it had absolutely unintelligible overhead compartment clasps; I was surprised that it didn’t have ashtrays in the armrests. Takeoff was smooth and silent – no headphones allowed. What a pity.

After we’d reached cruising altitude, the flight attendants distributed boxed lunches. I wish I’d taken a picture of these. My meal included a white roll, a wedge of Laughing Cow-like cheese, three small dry pickles, two small dry black olives, two slices of a cheddar-like cheese, three pieces of gummy mystery meat, and a small bar of chocolate. Loc warned me that the meat was inedible as a sandwich, though I found mine quite chewable. Everything was wrapped in bulky cellophane – it reminded me of Little Shop of Horrors.

The flight was a short one, about an hour and a half, and shortly before landing, the flight attendants came around with migration cards. I drew two, which was fortunate because absolutely no mistakes are allowed on these cards. They asked for simple things like my passport number, my birthdate and nationality, my destination hotel, and departure flight – the most important of all bits of information. We are allowed but a five-day stay, and an unauthorized extension comes with complications and fines.

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Passing through customs was surprisingly easy. We had been advised to purchase travel insurance through a Belarusian agency, and a machine was available to do just that before you reached the queues. Loc had purchased our insurance at a rate of $7 for our stay; this piece of paper coupled with our migration cards was required to enter the country; the customs official took the arrival half of our cards and stamped the front side of our departure half.

The tourist information booth was open and helpful, though under stocked and a bit strange. The attendant spoke English and helped us book a taxi at half the rate of the drivers hawking their service outside. The informational pamphlets were few, and exclusively in Russian, Hebrew, and Chinese. It was really no bother; we had a tour guide waiting for us at our hotel.

Even Minsk has a rush hour, and it happens to be the five o’clock hour. Our taxi driver took an odd turn heading into town, and we spent fifteen minutes slowly inching our way up a six-degree slope… in a manual. He did this cool thing where he’d pull the emergency brake when he stopped, then accelerate out of his position with the emergency brake still initially in place. It was a much cooler alternative to rolling backward a bit and potentially bumping into your new friend.

Migration_backLoc had booked us a stay at the President Hotel, which happens to be right next to the presidential compound. It’s a gaudy thing, with lots of translucent beads suspended from a backlit-mirrored ceiling. The attendant there took our migration cards, returning them with a signature atop the hotel’s stamp. Our tour guide was waiting for us, so we dropped off our bags in our room then returned downstairs to head out on our way.

Of note here: Loc and I took off our wedding rings in the Czech, or Czechia as they now like to be called. We would not be the remotest bit gay in Minsk, because homosexuality is still listed as a psychiatric disorder and same-sex marriage is constitutionally banned. Same-sex activity is legal, but same-sex couples are not afforded the protections given to their heterosexual counterparts.

Anyway, Minsk is built in the Soviet authoritarian style. On the outskirts of the city, there are monstrous apartment complexes that must house thousands of people apiece, but in the city proper, all of the buildings are the same height. You can get a same idea of the effect in eastern Berlin – Karl Marx Allee, to be precise. The city is home to two million people but has an incredibly abundant amount of green space – made possible, no doubt, by stacking people sky high.

Only a handful survived the Great Patriotic War, and they’re all made out of stone – a few churches, an art gallery, a circus. These have positions of prominence in the city, and they’re all in pretty good condition. In fact, Minsk as a whole is in very good condition; the streets are wide and clean, and much busier than I’d read they’d be. There were actually a good number of people on the streets, both young and old, and smartly dressed: there is no hipster movement there, yet.

LeninThe most iconic square in town is Independence Square, one of the largest in Europe and a landmark of the 15-kilometer Independence Avenue. It boasts a triumphal obelisk, a Roman Catholic cathedral, and a monumental statue of a very intense Vladimir Lenin in front of one of Minsk’s oldest buildings, built in 1934 (the city was first mentioned in 1067). That building has a Belarusian flag on it, and we were advised against photographing any building with such a flag on it. Nonetheless, we did snap a few shots, and no green men came in pursuit.

Lee Harvey Oswald, a former Marine and self-declared Marxist, spent three years living in Minsk, from 1959-1962. While there, he built a life and took a wife – all under the watchful eye of the KGB, who assigned him both an apartment and a job, then monitored him around the clock. His apartment is still standing in the heart of the city today, but it is deliberately unmarked, lest some sadistic form of tourism arise akin to that of Jim Morrison’s gravestone in Paris. Our guide, Andrei, pointed out the bland building as we passed but could not – or would not – provide more specificity. We walked on.

Our next stop was the Isle of Tears, just a brief distance from the apartment. Inaugurated in 1996, the Isle of Tears commemorates the 700 Belarusian soldiers who died in the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989. It features a small chapel that’s seemingly borne on the backs of grieving mothers facing the four cardinal directions. Behind it, a small Madonna and Child stands enshrined in a stone alcove; I can find neither literature nor photography to expand upon its meaning there. And most poignantly, at the opposite end of the small island, a single angel stands weeping over a pool of tears; he symbolizes the grief of those who came home whole in body, but not in spirit. Today, newlyweds rub his genitalia in the belief that the act will guarantee the bride children.

Darkness having fallen, we retired for dinner. Our guide took us to a basement restaurant near our hotel; a shiny TripAdvisor sticker adorned the door. We entered, checked our coats at the bottom of the stairs, then proceeded to our table inside. A woman sang traditional folk songs to the accompaniment of a guitar – it was lovely, though our guide could shed no light to its authenticity. Surprisingly, the menu was not just in English, but it had a full three pages of the history of Belarusian cuisine, with further paragraphs explaining each unique item on the menu. We had a delicious savory mushroom soup with a course of potato pancakes and a cup of Kvass, a drink traditionally made of rye bread. It was delicious – and they took card! Our local restaurant scene is still very much a cash economy.. oh Deutschland.

With that, we turned in for the night. I took the opportunity to catch up with an old friend via Facebook video chat – the hotel wifi was strong enough to stream live video feed! We went to bed shortly thereafter and fell asleep to the rhythmic thump of club music ten stories down – across the street from the presidential compound.

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In the background, the presidential palace

Breakfast at the hotel was a steep 25 Euro, so we balked and headed out into the streets to find our own fare. The first plausible spot we found was a McDonald’s, which we passed up in favor of whatever the locals were eating along the long plate glass windows next door. They were eating pastries, and we ordered with pointed finger – croissants and madeleines, with a cappuccino. Following breakfast, we climbed up a set of stairs to the grocery store on the second floor. I picked up a few bottles of water, a Snickers bar, and a pint of milk advertising a fat percentage between 3.2%-4.0%. Realizing we were running up against our next appointment, we returned to the hotel, put the milk in the fridge, and met Andrei in the lobby.

On our drive to Nesvizh Palace, Andrei delivered a century-by-century history of the Republic of Belarus. It’s long and full of occupational forces and fires. Nesvizh is some 120 kilometers from Minsk, so we saw a lot of the very flat countryside, broad and deep swaths of farmland for days. The country’s growing season spans from May to October, so the most we saw was tilled or fallow fields. At one point, we did drive through a cloud of topsoil sweeping across the road – I wonder at the agricultural practices in this windy place.

Nesvizh PalaceFacing a rainstorm, we ran from our parking lot to the palace. Inside, we paid our entrance fee and donned little plastic slippers over our shoes before touring the building. It’s a fairly typical European country palace, though I suppose not at all typical for Belarus. It’s nicely situated on an ornamental lake with gardens around it. The interior is simple with touches of myriad European cultures inside. Most amusingly, only the lady’s chambers feature a double bed; the lord led a life of some poverty in his own opulent chambers. He and his entourage got their entertainment afield; a downstairs room boasts hunting trophies and some pretty fancy cannons.

Back in our van, we retraced our route a bit, then Mir_Fortressdetoured off the highway a bit to Mir Castle. Similar in landscaping to its palatial cousin (they were owned by the same family), Mir Castle is much more of a fortification than a palace. Andrei told us that the interior wasn’t worth the price of admission, so we had borsch, bread, and potato pancakes in the castle’s basement restaurant before exploring the town – shabby but proud. We also picked up a handful of souvenirs from the parking lot souvenir tents by the castle.

Our tour concluded, Andrei dropped us off back at the hotel. We regrouped briefly, then went out on our own to hunt for souvenirs and see the sights on our own timeline.

By intuition more than anything else, we worked our way towards the historic old town, where we found information boards in English amidst beautiful white church architecture. We also found souvenir kiosks in a square there, meeting Loc’s quest. Exploring the surroundings, we walked past a band of four teens playing music, with a fifth teen aggressively shoving a cup in people’s faces – that was a bit weird.

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Wending our way back to the murals of the day previous, we stumbled onto the People’s KFC, so I took a picture. Okay, I took a few pictures. We then found a Papa John’s! Loc didn’t want pizza though, so we continued on to the murals, near which Andrei had told us there were great burgers. We did burgers before photographing the murals; I got their signature burger, and Loc got one with bacon and an egg. Loc’s burger was simply bacon and egg… but it was delicious, and the service staff spoke English too. Following, we shot photos of our murals, then turned in. I was super excited for my morning’s pint of whole milk – easy calories.

I ended up dumping that milk; I’d been looking forward to drinking it all day Saturday, but it smelled so strongly of sulfur when I opened it that I couldn’t stomach the thought of tasting it. So, down the drain it went. With a fat content range of .8% in one carton, their whole dairy industry seems mighty questionable to me…

We caught an uneventful taxi ride back to the airport and arrived 30 minutes before the check-in window opened. A souvenir shop proved a worthy distraction; we bought a lot of stuff there.

Outbound passport control was surprisingly easy; they just took our migration cards, stamped our passports, and sent us on our way. Security was interesting; I began to pull out my computer and liquids but was told to stop. I placed my entire bag, computer on top of tablet on top of toiletries, on the belt; doffed my jacket and belt into a bucket; and went through security. Too easy.

There are thirteen gates on the departure floor of the airport; access to each of them hinges on successful navigation of heavily perfumed commercial overload. We made it.

The flight again featured mystery meat; Loc and I both passed, having eaten at the airport. Upon landing, the people clapped; it was a much smoother landing than our outbound flight. Passport control was easy – I made Loc go through first – and two good friends picked us up to whisk us away to Deutschland.

Loc had met his goal: all 44 European countries in five years. I’d explored a quirky hermetic kingdom. And we’d both evaded the clutches of the KGB.

The Dinner Crew Does London

A few months ago, as Loc and I were contemplating the remainder of our time in Europe, we cajoled our dental dinner friends into coming to London with us, simply to watch The Lion King and have a good ethnic meal. That trip, long scheduled, came due this past Friday.

As arranged, the Lassiters met us at our house at 1900, and we left for the airport consolidated in our one car. This worked nicely until a fierce red ‘Generator Werkstatt’ message came on, complete with bright red lights and jarring beeps on a three-second interval, as we were approaching the highway. Kevin directed us to a parking lot just beyond the junction, and we flipped a U, beeper beeping and lights alight, and drove home. With no time to troubleshoot our vehicle, I backed it into a spot outside the garage, and we transferred both personnel and baggage to the Lassiter’s vehicle. Disaster averted, we departed anew a mere fifteen minutes after our first attempt. The ride passed without incident.

We met Griffiths at the airport, got our visa stamps from the counter, got the Lounge Pass card from the information desk, and went through security – an easy process at that hour. Boarding was called as we processed through security, so we briefly went to the lounge, grabbed a few snacks, then walked to the gate. RyanAir is getting smarter – they scanned our tickets on our way into the gate’s waiting area, and once we began moving, we boarded the plane without any delay. Sweet.

We landed at 2320, short the trumpet fanfare typical of RyanAir. It was a decent flight by RyanAir standards, though the kid behind me woke up to a nightmare or sinus pressure or something of the like as we began our descent, and he whined and whimpered the whole way down – and substantially beyond. Clustered together as we were, we all appreciated stepping off that plane.

Border security was not terribly scrutinizing, nor busy at 2330. We managed to get through it all by midnight (yes, that’s typical of the London border fence), then walked to the rail station to take the Stansted Express into town – a 45-minute ride. That ride was uneventful, and a few of us even managed to stay awake. I love Liverpool Station – it is an awe-inspiring building from the early 20th century with almost cathedral-like architecture and much wrought-iron embellishment. We walked the platform at our leisure, then got shepherded out of the atrium in single file by transportation workers clad in neon yellow, who hustled us out along a narrow corridor into the night.

We queued (because that is what one does in Britan) to purchase Oyster cards at the metro station across the street, but there was only one machine functioning, and the line to use it was both very long and very drunk. Recoiling from the mess, we opted to take an Uber, which Kevin requested in short order. We walked a few hundred yards down the street, passing a number of embarrassingly drunk and scantily clad girls in 3” heels… on cobblestones. The common sentiment among us was one of thanks for having made it through that phase of life with our dignity intact. Our car arrived, and we took it to the traffic jam a few hundred yards from our hotel. Checking in was a breeze, and we all turned in for the night – it’s been a while since any of us have been up that late.

Our plans for the day were few. They included breakfast, then a stop at Anthropologie for Ellie and Made in London for Loc, then the show that evening. We did breakfast at Muriel’s, which is a cute pastel-colored restaurant with a swinging table and chairs at the front window. We were too numerous for said table, but we enjoyed a hearty breakfast all the same. Ellie and Kevin then split off to get a tag removed from an article of clothing she’d bought in the States, and Loc and I led Bethany and Ryan to Made in London, where we picked up a lithographic print of London by air – it’s cool. We moseyed up the road after that, meeting the Lassiters at Hamley’s. where four employees danced cheerfully to an earworm-worthy tune in the street. We all agreed that mustering such cheer all day must be exhausting… they reminded me of David Sedaris’s Santa Diaries: so much secret snark. We explored the basement Star Wars section, but made it no further; it was enough.

IMG_5037Inspired by an ice cream join, we took the metro up to Camden, where we spent the day in the Horse Market – a market in a massive complex that was formerly a stable. There’s a bustling counterculture scene there, with lots of art and solid street eats. The architecture is all brick, with hints of Spanish influence in its adaptation to its modern purpose. Loc and I bought a bunch of small superhero prints, then joined the crew at Chin Chin Ice Cream, which advertised razor-thin ice cream scraped off of a nitrogen-frozen slate board; it was good, but not *THAT* good. We wandered, ate, wandered some more, ate some more, (I) burned a little, and then took the tube to Hyde Park to see the blooms.

Row upon row of browned daffodils greeted us; the blooms were past their prime. Loc proposed, then led, a course from our location to our hotel through various gardens. We passed in front of Buckingham Palace and got our fill of vibrant and orderly floral arrangements, then walked through St James Park and enjoyed more traditional English gardens and a diverse array of waterfowl. It seemed that the whole city was out, soaking up one of the few dozen sunny days they get a year – there were even sunbathers aplenty in the park! Before we knew it, we were again at our hotel.

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Opting against the typical dinner before the show, we took an hour to refresh, then capitalized on the hotel’s three-hour happy hour – wine, cheese, wine, and ice cream! Those of us drinking drank the better part of a bottle apiece, and we all enjoyed our second helping of ice cream that day – vacation is nice, eh? To balance the heavy snack and aid in restful slumber, we booked a reservation at a Japanese restaurant near our theater and left around 1840 to wind our way over there.

We had prime tickets to the Lion King, and Loc picked them at 1900 while we waited outside the theater. We then we descended on the Wellington, the bar at the corner, for a drink. I thought it would be a stodgy British place, but it was pumping club beats and churning out pre-theater drinks. It was a quick one – by the time I was halfway through mine, the theater workers were calling everybody inside… curtains up at 1930 sharp. Bottoms up, we filed inside and to our seats.

Ours were six seats right of center in rows I and H. Loc and I sat behind our four friends, two empty seats to our left. After the awe-inspiring opening number, probably a dozen people filtered in to fill their seats in the front ten rows (I could write a volume on why this irks me); a large Syrian man and his wife filed in next to me. Of course, the man sat on the inside to protect his wife, and of course, he had the widest leg stance he could possibly have, which he maintained for the entire first act; I felt my Arabic returning to mind as if I’d spoken it yesterday. I held my tongue, happy for their happiness.

The show’s a good one, and largely true to the movie. The set, costumes, and stage work impressed me most – they’re simple, yet wonderfully rich in their simplicity. In our final tally, Loc enjoyed the opening number most, while I favored the opening of the second act – He Lives in You; I was blown away by the kaleidoscope of puzzle pieces that coalesced into Mufasa’s face, and then faded away just as fluidly into the night. And, well, Elton John wrote the score – what’s not to love?

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Satisfied by the performance and worn out from our travels, we emerged from the theater and walked to dinner, where we found my friends Megan and Annette waiting. We enjoyed a wide array of unique and delicious sushi and sashimi while discussing the show and catching up with my friends. Megan is moving back in with her parents in New York in 17 days and is super anxious about it all – I don’t blame her; moving, especially transcontinental, is stupid stressful. Following dinner, we parted ways with Megan and Annette and went to the hotel and up to our rooms – no alarms set, thank you. The girls went out; I just couldn’t.

Loc and I woke up around 0800 and checked out around 0930. Our friends decided to go to church for Good Friday mass, and we considered watching Power Rangers in Leicester Square. We opted instead to have a small breakfast at Muriel’s, then worshiped in our own chapel, a bookstore (I opted against mass because I felt underdressed in my jeans and t-shirt). We emerged with books on Brexit (for those who still trust experts), urban gardening, and a xenophobe’s guide to Americans – a solid win; check out their work at http://www.xenophobes.com!

Instead of fancy dining, we all opted for a burger at Shake Shack, where we all convened following the church service. ‘Twas a satisfying meal; the strawberry lemonade was on point, and I’ve never enjoyed cheese fries quite so much. Even we European-minded foodies sometimes pine for the fast food of our home country.

Loc and I had passed a Harry Potter ephemera store on our way up to Shake Shack, and we broke away to work our way back down there after our communal lunch. The store is four floors of limited edition Harry Potter prints, the work of the two artists behind the movies. There was some really impressive art, though prices were a bit more than either of us was willing to pay. We may regret our choice someday; the premium stuff was all signed by the artists. We burned the rest of our time at a TK Maxx, where I acquired two Pyrex loaf pans for a song, the French stuff. My pack gained ten pounds in two days… worth it.

With that, our time was nigh, and we returned to the hotel to secure our baggage and begin the trek to the airport. Our friends met us there, and we took the metro to the train and the train to the airport. We made said train by a whopping 70 seconds, and only found seats in the last car – but we found seats, by prodding people to remove feet and luggage from otherwise vacant spots. It was hot – warmer than yesterday – so we opened the windows in our compartment. I dozed off in the heat.

Stansted Airport is… a zoo, but one that played to our advantage. We made it through security, by my count, in seven minutes and thirty seconds, then through the commercial melee and to the Escape Lounge in another fifteen. Credit for the short security line goes to a worker who opened a new lane and ushered us from the middle of the queue to it. That latter part was utter chaos; whoever designed the terminal did not design for traffic flow. Thus, the Escape Lounge was truly an escape – good food and drink in a peaceful setting. My greatest regret there was that I did not grab brownies earlier; as I closed in on them to grab them (there were six little bites remaining), a worker picked up the slate slab that held them, and took them away. I skulked away in defeat – wah. Loc and I walked up a few minutes later to ask for them, but were rebuffed; a cake slate took the brownie slate’s place.

In compensation, I bought a bag of M&Ms at our gate. We boarded the plane and found ourselves in the company of an American family, father, mother, and three girls. They were a boisterous lot that calmed after takeoff, and the most eventful in-flight happening was a sunset that I managed to capture – schön.

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It turns out that that American family was both American and military, as were a number of families on the plane. This one, however, had a trick to clear customs up their sleeve. They deployed daddy, looking worn, to weave his way from the back of the customs line to the front, then mommy conspiratorially coaxed her three daughters, from youngest to oldest, to go stand with daddy; I watched this all from the baggage carousel. The only two people separating the family were… Kevin and Ellie. Traffic in another lane flowed by as a man ahead of them worked through documentation issues for his young child; I watched the Rasta family who joined the line last pass through while the Lassiters waited. As this drama unfolded, Ellie turned around and asked the woman bluntly if she’d like to pass her. The woman stuttered, sputtered, and choked, then passed anyway, caught red-handed but carefree. Kevin was the last passenger on that plane to clear customs – it made for good comedy on our ride home.

We arrived home to find our car truly dead, five weeks short of our homebound flight. I suspect marmots, but it is an eighteen-year-old car, so perhaps it’s just lived its natural life.

Watch this video. Get hyped. Go see Lion King.

28 Days to an Empty Home

After a leisurely weekend devoid of both travel and football, it hit us this morning: the movers will be here in less than a month! One month from now, all of our furniture and the bulk of our belongings will be boxed, crated, and en route to Dallas, our new home. To bridge the two-month gap between pack out and our move, the government will provide us with loaner furniture, luxury stuff that will encourage us to be, uh, anywhere but here… and we’re working on that most earnestly.

Given the half day granted to us by the powers that be today, we spent the morning packing and purging, divesting ourselves of the trappings of two households newly merged and carefully stowing the delicate collection of souvenirs collected across nearly five years in Europe. We’ll spend some time every evening for the next few days between a myriad of remaining tasks: purging wardrobes of excess shirts and such; preparing the trappings of my various earthy hobbies for shipping; and setting aside piles, one for our second pack out in April and one to be carted along with us in May. Loc wants to use two pieces of large rolling luggage apiece; I’d almost rather use a military issue duffel bag in lieu of my second set of wheels.

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From where I sit right now, one piece of luggage will be almost entirely culinary in nature: bowls, scale, measuring spoons, measuring cups, spoons, bench knife, bowl scraper, proofing baskets, loaf pans, bread box, cutting board, cooling racks, knife block… Dutch oven. I’m deeply invested in the world of artisanal hearth baking right now, and that Dutch oven, though heavy, is much more portable than a pizza stone and broiling pan, my only alternative to it at the moment. I’ve used it to make many a beautiful loaf of late, and I fully intend to continue baking until I fly and resume baking when my feet hit the ground. I’ve read four cookbooks cover to cover in the past ten days, two of which were baking books… like, Loc and I recently went to London for 48 hours and spent a solid 8 of those hours in bookstores just reading.

With our wine shipment paperwork submitted and our bottle count capped, we’ve turned our acquisition efforts to things that are reasonably priced here and absurdly priced at home. These things include Wusthof and Henckels knives, Weck jars, and a smattering of shelf-stable European cheeses. I’ve taken to using Weck jars for desserts, breakfasts, preservation, and simple storage – they rock. I’m gearing up to begin my maiden effort in mozzarella making, but I won’t have the equipment or connections to make aged cheeses until we get to Dallas (I have the equipment all scouted out, believe you me).

So ya… I’m hoping to just follow my enduring interest in food into the culinary world. My father is a food scientist; my younger brother is studying to be a food scientist; and I am reading a tome called ‘On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen’ with sincere interest: I could easily see myself walking down that well-trod path. That, and I seem to have the greatest of trouble in giving a damn about corporate aspirations. I think it’d be fun to work in urban agriculture too – I’m so pumped to be moving to USDA Zone 8: year-round growing! One of the books I picked up in London is called ‘Kew on a Plate’ and it’s chock-full of practical heirloom gardening information… so much happiness.

I’m pretty excited to move to Dallas, not gonna lie. Anybody who’s known me for a while is probably as taken aback as my friends and family were when I decided to go to West Point. Buuuuut there are certain things that Dallas has to offer culturally that were integral to my life before Germany, and I am looking forward to diving back into them. That, and I’ve found a few networks that I’ve already tapped and am excited to join. Hell, I even have an in to local politics, and in the current political climate, I’m more fascinated than I have been in a loooooong time by that world. My days are full of political talk shows right now. Such is life as an unemployed dependa, or as we prefer to say here, a man of leisure.

Texas? Texas!

I’ve fallen out of the habit of writing on my blog, largely because I find it hard to hone in on any one particular subject that I can write about week after week… that hasn’t already been written about exhaustively. I’m currently on a sourdough kick, and in addition to an armful of great books, I’ve also got three fantastic websites that I use for inspiration and motivation. If you want them, I’d be glad to share them with you; they’re more useful than anything I might publish on the matter.

Buuuut life just got much more interesting, so here it is:

In mid-December, after we’d binged thoroughly on what we thought were our last bout of Christmas markets in Europe, Loc got into the pediatric dentistry residency that he’d applied for (for the third year in a row). The next day, we learned that his tour in Germany had been extended until June 2018, at which time we would move to Dallas, Texas. We were a little bit bummed – we had told all of our friends that we’d be in Savannah in the spring – but we settled into our new reality. We finally addressed some long-standing issues with our landlord, and between Christmas and New Year’s, we dropped a wad of cash at IKEA to bring our kitchen to an enjoyable standard. By the time Loc went back to work, we had trips slated for the next eighteen months, and I had a few job prospects lined up right here in Germany. We were prepared for the long haul.

I was just about to start my first post-holiday workout – legs – on the afternoon of January 3rd when Loc texted me to tell me that we can PCS (Army term; permanent change of station) early and start his program this year. Somebody in the 2017 class had dropped out, and Loc was the only dentist eligible to fill the slot; he owed a response the following day.

Talk about a wrench in life plans…  we had to say yes, of course. The pros of saying yes dramatically outweighed the cons. He’d be able to study for a year with his two friends in the year group ahead of him. I’d be able to break free of my treading water here and start working for real. We’d be able to consolidate all of our belongings under one roof, and possibly find a kitchen that doesn’t need structural improvements, maybe even a yard! All of these prospects didn’t dull the frustration of having to suspend all of the plans I’d laid in anticipation of being in Germany for an entire growing season… yes, I’m a culinary dork with back-to-the-earth inclinations. I’d bought vegetable seeds just that morning and was laying out my potted garden in my head when I got the news.

But, of course, being a nomad at heart means being adaptable to change. I’ll just save those seeds and plant them in 2018… and we can focus on saving money and getting educated in Texas. Having such a short timeline also made us prioritize what we wanted to do most in the months remaining to us here, and I’ve honed in on a week-long intensive baking program on offer in Paris this spring. Loc is on board with it, and pending my acceptance to the program, I’ll go off to Paris for a week to don a chef’s garb and manipulate flour, water, salt, and yeast under the tutelage of a master. Never say never, yo.

Now, here’s the weird thing: my stay here is tied to Loc’s current set of orders, which have him here until 2 April 2017. That means, come 3 April 2017, I’m here illegally. Of course, there are bureaucratic procedures that can be done to extend my (legal) stay, but we are both rather ambivalent on pursuing them. I may just go to America and pursue my study of bread in one of a few target locations… I have a mind full of ideas, a supportive husband, and an unresolved timeline. Once the timeline falls into place, we will begin to execute our plan. Loc does get summer and winter (non-chargeable) leave though – and that is super sweet.

In the short term, our wine collection is a priority again. I spent a full day inventorying and researching the 200+ wines on our shelves right now, and we’ve laid plans to cap out at 250 bottles for our two years in Texas. Loc doesn’t drink, and we won’t be traveling like we do; we’ll be throwing dinner parties.

And, thanks to this new reality, I’ve suspended my job search and am fully devoted to my craft. I’ve got a batch of dough fermenting right now; it’ll cold proof overnight and bake in the morning. Freedom to pursue one’s interests and aspirations is all too rare in the modern era, and I am privileged enough to have that freedom AND a reliable source of income and a roof over my head. Suppose I’d best not waste it, eh?

Corn fields and cow pastures to the fourth most populous metropolitan area in the States… I gotta find me some mountains.

Here’s to… whatever the hell awaits us in Texas.

Sincerely,

A blue-blooded New Yorker who’s in for a real education

Making Lemonade

Loc and I have some awesome friends here. Case and point:

Lufthansa’s pilots went on a previously announced strike last Wednesday morning. This was all well and good, as our flight to Sicily for our Italian Thanksgiving was not to depart until the following morning. All well and good, that is, until the pilots announced that their strike was to extend through the following day, the day we were to fly. Darn. At least they told us at 11:30.

11:30, you see, happens to be the beginning of Loc’s lunch hour. It’s also the lunch hour of our friend Kevin up at Vilseck. Further, we have three savvy stay-at-home types, two of whom put a good deal of effort into planning our Sicilian extravaganza. And up in Grafenwoehr, our friend Ryan spent his day without his phone, so he knew nothing about the proceedings until he arrived home and was told to pack his bags – honey, we’re leaving; let’s go!

In the 90 minutes from 11:30 to 13:00, our crew canceled all of our coordinations for our Sicily trip (except for the airfare…  Lufthansa’s lines were backed up for days), set our collective eyes on a new destination, and decided to drive that same afternoon. We chose to visit the wine country of eastern France, and we chose to book our lodging as our impromptu plan unfolded – spontaneity is the spice of life, right? Bethany even downloaded an audiobook for our journey, Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance (we’re all so happy we’re married).

We set our sights for the night on Colmar or Strasbourg, two Alsatian towns on the Franco-German border, and left Loc to secure the lodging. As we’d agreed to leave that same night, I volunteered to go to Nuremberg to retrieve the rental in a timely fashion – we’d gotten a 7-passenger van that could hold all six of us and our bags. I spent the 13:00 hour packing my bags and talking to my buddy Aaron, who gave me a low-down on the region, on the phone. By 14:00, I was out the door and walking to the train station, and I was rolling towards my automotive by locomotive by 14:20.

I’d listed 16:00 as my time of pick-up, and I walked up to the rental counter at the Nuremberg airport with several minutes to spare. I’d originally rented a VW Caddy Maxilife, primarily because it has a cool name for a bunch of married foodies to roll around in, but upon presenting my credit card, I was offered an upgrade. I got upgraded to a Mercedez-Benz Vito, which not only increased our storage capacity but came with an automatic transmission AND an onboard navigation system. Super spiffy – I tested the navigator on my way home and found it to be accurate, in English, and adept at pronouncing German names. Good, good.

Our friends still had to finish their duty days out and pack and such, so we didn’t begin our journey until after 18:00. Loc and I had a quick meal of vegetarian frikadellen, butternut squash, and bread. The rest of the crew brought their dinners along for a mobile picnic. All of us brought grocery bags of fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go bad while we were away. We all loaded up into the van, appreciating for the first time just how much space we really did have, and ruminated on how best to fill that space (read: wine) – and off we went.

With Loc as my right-hand man, I drove off into the darkness and across the land. Let me tell you, there’s just something wonderful about leaving Bavaria. It’s not that I don’t love the place, because I do, but there’s this forcefield of terrible weather  just beyond Nuremberg, the far side of which is, uh, pleasant weather. It’s like stepping through the wardrobe in one of CS Lewis’ books. Every time.

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Loc had booked a nice apartment in downtown Colmar, and we parked the van with relative ease and were inside by 2300. There was some goofiness here, because the entry code we’d been given did not jive with the keypad on the door, nor did the two successive codes that the receptionist gave Loc over the phone… but there was a bottle of Riesling and a bottle of water sitting on the table for us when we did get in. That was cool. The place was full of such nerddom as a full-blown map of Middle Earth and a beautiful book about a goofy Giraffe that J.R.R. Tolkien had both written and illustrated for his son – it’s called Mr. Bliss. Suffice it to say, I would very much have liked to meet the decorators of that apartment.

In the morning, after breakfast and a brief walk about town, we embarked on the next leg of our journey. I’d had Beaune and the road connecting it to Dijon recommended to me by my friend Aaron, so we all set off to have a look. Beaune, in addition to being impossible to pronounce, is home to an architecturally world-renowned hospice. Alas, we reached the town at the beginning of sieste (yes, the French do it too) hours and decided to move on to Dijon before the hospice opened back up. Dijon is home to the world’s oldest mustard empire!

Our journey northward along the A31 took us past a number of reputed wineries, among them the Clos de Vougeot estate. It also took us past a number of wine bars, and we stopped at one of these to use its facilities and drink a bottle of wine before continuing on our way. It is here that I learned about the Gamay grape and the wines it yields, the kingpin being Beaujolais. We had a 2011 bottle of Gamay, which we all quite enjoyed. The Vougeot estate likewise proved a worthwhile visit, though due to our timing and our desire to get to the Maille flagship store before closing time, we did not tour the chateau. We did, however, pass by a wine vendor and flip a U-turn in the van to pay a visit. Worth it.

Dijon is a foodie haven, yo. Kevin booked us a dinner venue, a French tapas place, for 2000, and we set out to go find Maille, that emporium of fine mustards – so fresh, they’re onimg_1282 tap. Well, we found it. We spent time aplenty sampling mustards, vinaigrettes, oils, and gurkens, and left with mustards, vinaigrettes, and oils. Tip: crush some garlic and pop the whole crushed cloves into a bottle of good olive oil; after a few days, mix the oil with a tasty Balsamic vinaigrette and have at it – soooo yummy. Anyway, dinner was great; my favorite dish among delicious dishes was an open sandwich with goat cheese and fig compote. Breakfast was great too – croissants, éclairs, and a baguette from a superb boulangerie. And then we found a coffee shop that advertised coffee art on its window; Loc walked out with a panda on his cappuccino. Each one of our individual drinks was crafted with great care… it was just awesome. Also, I will learn how to make a worthy baguette. I left that city so happy.

img_1283Pressing on, we moved for Reims. It was on this leg of our voyage that we listened to Aziz Ansari tell us how much dating has changed and how hard it is to find a mate now – yay marriage. Loc had booked us a place with jaw-dropping views and a parking lot, and we made it into that lot with nary an issue. While Loc and the rest of the crew went off to find the owner of our apartment, I parried with a Frenchwoman who ardently insisted that I could not park where I had parked because the police had forbidden it. It was a numbered parking spot; I didn’t move. The owner came down and met me just as Loc and the gang came back into sight. She didn’t have any issue with where I’d parked, and we all filed upstairs. The living room window looks directly at the facade of the cathedral; our jaws dropped.

As we’d arrived around 1500, we wandered around the town and its Christmas market looking for a lunch venue, but came up short on something agreeable to all and just went to the pub by our place. It was good but unremarkable, save for the fried soft boiled egg that Loc got – none of us had ever seen that before.

Reims was the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division in 1944. In early 1945, GEN Eimg_3192isenhower and his staff took the infrastructure for their own. It was chosen for its proximity to rail, road, and canal, and also for the intact telephone system housed therein. Reims is where the Germans surrendered to Eisenhower’s staff. Today, there’s a rarely-visited museum in that same building, with the operation center laid out as it was in 1945. We walked up there, watched a movie about the war and the building’s importance, then toured the rest of the facility. The surrender at Reims was overshadowed by the surrender that Stalin demanded in Berlin, so it was a cool piece of history to stumble upon.

This night, the group settled on Moroccan food. People, I had good Moroccan wine. The last time I drank Moroccan wine, it was out of a repurposed 1.5L water bottle, and it turned me off wine for a looong time. Chateau Roslane – put it on your bucket list. I guided my culinarily adventurous friends through the ins and outs of the menu, and we briouats, tajines, and couscous dishes laden with vegetables and fall-off-the-bone tender meats. All left supremely satisfied, no room for dessert.

Oh, and Reims has a fantastic light overlay projected onto the facade of the cathedral at night during the Christmas markets – it’s sweet. Per Wikipedia, that facade is one of the masterpieces of the Middle Ages. By the way, that cathedral is built on the site where Clovis converted to Christianity, establishing France as a Christian nation. It’s also where 25 kings of France were coronated. I just really like it.
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On the way out of town, we visited the Pommery champagne estate for a tour of its cellars. It’s a rather eclectically decorated building with a most impressive cellar lined with bottles of champagne dating back to 1874. Yes, 1874. I didn’t get to taste it. We did get to learn all about champagne production, which was pretty cool – the way they do the in-bottle fermentation, then expel the yeast is pretty ingenious. We sampled a glass apiece of their Brut champagne, then continued on to Strasbourg.

Strasbourg proudly declares itself the Home of Christmas, and it pulls out all of the stoppers to prove it. If ever there is a Christmas market to visit for its aesthetic beauty, this one is it. There are six or seven markets set up in the city, and the streets connecting them all are beautifully decorated in Christmas spirit. We wandered all over these markets, having laid on reservations at a Lebanese place a bit outside of the city. We thoroughly enjoyed the markets and found an Argentinian cantina in our rambling. I canceled my reservation at the Lebanese place – he was stressed to have us coming anyway – and we went Argentinian instead. That restaurant is called La Pampa. It’s worth a visit.

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In short, go to France for food, wine, architecture, history, and happiness.

The following morning, we ate a hearty breakfast of toasted sandwiches, fruit salads, and a delicious yogurt topped with jam, then we said one last goodbye to France, hopped into our van (which we did manage to park in a garage the night previous, ground guides front and back), and drove into the sunrise. And on the following day, I did return the behemoth wagon to its rightful home.

All of this, my friends, was planned on the fly.

And it was awesome.

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My AT Gear List (and Why I Chose It)

Happy Monday, everybody!

As you all know, I set out last week in the pursuit of an array of objectives of varying levels of interest to me: yoga, piano, guitar, cooking, baking, and employment all pressed into some semblance of self-imposed structure in a day. As you may also know, one of these has clearly won out over all the others, and it is baking… artisanal baking at home. I could wax rhapsodic about all I’ve learned from my deep dive into the manipulation of that noble grain (wheat), and might just do that someday soon. Alas, I’ve been dragging my feet on publishing my gear list, so with no further ado, here we go.

I initially started out under the strong influence of the ultralight community, the premise being that the lighter the pack, the easier the miles. To achieve a lighter pack, one sacrifices creature comforts and/or spends a lot of money, ofttimes doing both. Imagine a line with hiking comfort at one end and camping comfort at the other: the ultralight hiker leans aggressively left. I myself came to be much more of a centrist: there is truth in the adage “ultralight, ultra miserable.” The list below is my refined  ‘centrist’ gear list, the one that I carried en route from Harper’s Ferry to Mount Springer. Enjoy!

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Pack and Waterproofing

I carried a Gossamer Mariposa 60L pack. I chose it for its light weight and reputed durability. Further, its maximum recommended carrying capacity is 35 pounds, which is a good benchmark for any long hike… you just don’t want that much weight on your back. That being said, I routinely carried over 40 pounds in my pack, and the most it ever suffered was some frayed stitching on a load lifter strap, which held after I stitched it back into place with a needle and nylon thread. I heartily recommend this pack: its back pad doubles as a seat, and its hip belt is modular, so you can replace it with a smaller size once you’ve shrunk enough that your current belt fails you (it happens). The only thing I didn’t like about this pack was its chest strap, which is prone to falling off when one is unaware; after losing two sets, I opted to buy an aftermarket strap at EMS that worked like a charm. Still, this is an exceptional pack.

Rather than rely on an external pack cover to keep my belongings dry, I elected for an internal waterproofing system. My decision was largely based my military experience, but you only need to experience one rain storm to realize the frailty of a pack cover, to devastating consequence. When it’s wet outside, nothing matters more to morale than the prospect of a hot drink and dry clothes… and nothing matters more to fighting another day than actually having them.

I lined my pack with the Gossamer Gear pack liner, in which I placed first my sleeping bag, then my clothes bag, one stacked atop the other. Both my sleeping bag and my clothes bag were in Sea-to-Summit dry bags; I used their Ultra-Sil View 8L bag for the latter and an Ultra-Sil 9L Stuff Sack for the former and never had an issue. I also put my sleeping pad inside the bag, then folded it over and rolled it tight. On top of this, my food and my hammock sat, both in their own dry sacks.

As to rain gear, I personally opted to just get wet, wearing nylon clothes that dry quickly – more on that later. My one piece of dedicated personal rain gear was the Outdoor Research Helium II jacket, which I used primarily on cold mornings before I began hiking; after it stopped raining and I was cold and static; and in conjunction with my down jacket as a layering system on cold evenings. I absolutely love it – it packs tight, is lightweight, and does a damn fine job. My friend also carried the Helium II pants, but I saw no need.

Daily Wear, Top to Bottom

Essential to getting into gear each morning was the donning of the hiker garb; it is effectively a transformation from camper to hiker affected by a bandana headband and a pair of sunglasses. These were the last two things I put on each morning before I put on my pack and picked up my poles. Aside from its function as a sweatband, a bandana just makes you feel cool. As to the sunglasses, I kept them poised on my head during the day and hung them on one of my hiking pole wrist straps at night.

I carried two nylon shirts, one with long sleeves, and one with short sleeves. The idea is to have a hiking shirt and an evening/town shirt, such that you’re keeping all of the scents that may attract wildlife away from you at night while also reducing the chance of some fun skin infection from all of the compounded salty sweat. I carried the Columbia Tamiami II shirt, which is a breathable fishing shirt that makes for great hiking in full sun (no sunscreen), and a simple nylon button-up by Jack Wolfskin (it was on sale). I bought button-up shirts at the recommendation of Ray Jardine; these allow for greater breathability in hot weather.

For poles, I recommend Leki; I started with a Black Diamond Long Distance Z set that lasted for all of 300 miles before it became dead weight, at no fault of my own. I switched to Leki Corklite trekking poles and loved them all the way home. Cork is the best thing going for trekking pole grips, and Leki is the best thing going for trekking poles; their gear is guaranteed for life and their customer service is exceptional.

For pants, I carried the following:

Columbia Men’s Silver Ridge Convertible Pants: these are great three-season hiking pants. I heartily, heartily recommend them. They are thin, lightweight, and sturdy. You don’t want a thick layer, as you’ll overheat and wilt. No fun.

Ex-Officio Give-N-Go Boxer Briefs: I carried two of these and wore only these in the humidity of Virginia; they were excellent protection against chafing. I carried two so I could rotate out of my salty set. These are badass.

Soffee Running Shorts: AKA Ranger Panties. I kept a quick pace; these shorts kept me cool. I wore them – and only them – as much as conditions would allow me… and that was much of the Trail.

Socks:

Nylon Sock Liners: This was the last thing I decided on before I flew to begin my hike, and it was a good thing too: these are the only socks I ever wore hiking, and they worked like a charm. The link is more for the picture than to hawk the brand – I carried four pairs of these because they weigh nothing and foot hygiene matters.

I carried one pair of Smartwool hiking socks, largely for evening wear. These are great for winter days at home too.

And footwear:

Salewa MS Speed Hiking Shoe: I picked up three pairs of these in my desired size on Amazon for $68 a pop in March and broke all of them in before I flew. My desired size was one size larger than my regular foot size to allow room for my feet to swell (it happens). I lined all three of them with Superfeet insoles. This combination of shoe and insole was faaaantastic. It was comfortable throughout the lifespan of the shoe, and it had superb traction in all conditions. I don’t necessarily advise doing what I did, as you may not like the shoes that you buy, but it worked well for me. I changed out my shoes about every 700 miles: the first pair took me from Harper’s Ferry, WV to Hanover, NH; the second, from Hanover down to Catawba, VA; and the third from Catawba down to Mt Springer.

Vivo Barefoot Men’s Ultra II Water Shoe: These were the envy of the Trail, which is where I learned of them. I typically saw them on people who had packs identical to or comparable to my own. They are great for fording streams and for camp wear; I hung mine off of the back of my pack with a small carabiner apiece. Great piece of gear.

Sleep System and Layering

This is one area where I initially leaned significantly to the ultralight. My original shelter ensemble consisted of a Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Tarp-Poncho strung over a cord suspended between my two hiking poles and held tight with titanium stakes. I used the tarp once to build a fourth wall on a lean-to, which saved me from hypothermia in Pennsylvania, and once in a fierce rainstorm in Maine. It works, but it’s not very much fun. Hiker’s preference, I suppose.

I switched over to a hammock for my southbound journey. I went with Hennessy, they have the best thing going at its price point, and it comes as a complete ensemble: hammock with integrated bug net, suspending ropes, webbing straps, rain fly, and a ripstop nylon stuff sack. You can’t find that with Eno. It took me a few days to adjust to sleeping in the hammock, but once I did, I was sleeping better than I ever had on the Trail. That, and it’s an excellent siesta shelter when the heat index is 115 and bugs are swarming all around.

My hammock worked well for me with a sleeping pad and sleeping bag for most of my hike, only becoming a bit less than ideal as the nights cooled near the end of my journey. Hammocks are best insulated with an under quilt, which insulates the hammock by attaching to its exterior, which keeps your body from crushing the down and spending your night shivering. Under quilts are expensive and typically custom made, so they are not as easy to purchase as a hammock is. I made up the difference in my comfort with an emergency blanket lining the interior of my sleeping bag. I have room for growth here.

As sleeping pads go, I started with a Gossamer Air Beam – lightweight by merit of components and the fact that it’s a 3/4-length pad, the premise being that your pack compensates for the rest of that length. It’s not available online anymore, which is all you need to know about it. I switched to a Sea to Summit Comfort Light Sleeping Pad in Vermont, which made me much, much happier.

I carried an REI Flash 29 sleeping bag and a Sea-to-Summit Silk Stretch Traveller Liner; the former served me well on cooler nights, the latter served me well on warmer nights and in hostels, and the combination served me well on the coldest of nights. The silk liner lends an additional 10 degrees of warmth to a hiker; it’s a valuable asset.

On the topic of warmth, I carried the following to nullify environmental trauma:

Patagonia Ultralight Down Hoodie  – aside from my Soffe shorts, I wore this more than any other piece of clothing. I will wear it for years to come.

An Army Polartec fleece cap – this is another must have item.

Icebreaker merino wool gloves – I carried these for a few hundred miles, then sent them home. They were much appreciated the one time I needed them, though.

Polypropelyne shirt and pants – Army issue, lightweight, packs tight, and great insulating value as part of a layered system.

Sea to Summit Head Net  – Other people I know used this heavily to deter bugs from flying into their eyes… I relied on my sunglasses more. Nice to have.

I also carried a wide brimmed hat with a neck guard; I used this in the Whites and other exposed terrain.

Cook System

Titanium, titanium, titanium. It’s lightweight and durable.

Snow Peak Trek 900 Titanium Cookset – Reliable from beginning to end, sized to fit a large fuel canister for transport too. I cooked enough food for two normal people every time I used this… it was great.

Sea to Summit Alpha Light Spoon – There were others before this one, but it is my favorite. You do not need a spork on the Trail. You do not need a spork on the Trail. You do not need a spork on the Trail. Also, the carabiner is good for peace of mind.

I bought a titanium cup, but I never used it. If I really wanted coffee or tea, I’d heat it and drink it before I started cooking. That being said, I largely found hot drinks unnecessary or undesirable.

MSR PocketRocket – A hiker staple. I started with a Trangia alcohol stove but switched to my PocketRocket when I got sick of the limitations of alcohol. I needed a simmer capability; this is not a realistic demand of an alcohol stove. I am entirely satisfied with my PocketRocket, though my friend tipped me off to this little BRS stove that weighs a paltry 25 grams… for $15, I may just have to try it.

A windscreen. I used folded aluminum foil. There are many options here; yours should nest with your cook system given both small and large fuel canisters.

Nalgene HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) Bottles – I used these for both liquids and spices; they never failed me, and I was not gentle with them. I carried a collection of 1- and 2-ounce bottles for spices with one 8-ounce bottle of olive oil.

Two BIC mini lighters. They lasted the entirety of my hike.

A 1″ Victorinox mini. I cut meat and cheese with this knife with regularity. Next time, I might swing for a full sized Victorinox, but nothing more. Frankly, a simple folding knife will suffice… but I did like having scissors on occasion.

One of my four bandanas served as a towel to wipe down my pot; it also served to muffle the fuel canister so it wasn’t rattling against my pan in my pack all day.

I tried several methods of overnight food storage. I started with a Bear Vault BV500, which is required along the Pacific Crest Trail, but not on the Appalachian Trail. It is secure and multipurpose (a chair), but heavy (41oz empty). I tried an Ursack for a night per the manufacturer’s instructions; a raccoon chewed through it (and it’s bulletproof). If you want to use an Ursack, I highly recommend  putting your smellables inside Loksak Opsak odor proof bags, then in the Ursack. Ultimately, I settled on a 13L UltraSil View bag suspended by 40′ of cord; it was simple, and I could see what was in my food bag.

All three systems can hold a week’s worth of my Trail food.

Water Filtration System

Sawyer Squeeze – This thing is solid. You do not need the pouch, nor the plunger. The pouch is not durable enough for outdoor living, and the plunger’s function is adequately met by a Smart Water bottle with a sports cap. Do not make the mistake of purchasing the Sawyer Mini; you will rue the day.

Platypus Water Tank, 2L – A water tank like this is great for pulling enough water at the end of the day to keep you from making a return trip to the source in the morning. It’s also great for helping you through dry patches; on the Trail, there were times when I went 15-18 miles without a single water source this year.

Smart Water bottles – I carried two 1L bottles, both of which fit in one side pouch on my pack. One of these bottles had a sports cap that I yanked off of a 750mL bottle. I used this bottle to periodically flush my Sawyer, which kept sediment build up from obstructing the flow of water through the filter. This is a vital function.

A small plastic cup – This came in handy at water sources with little to no flow. I picked one up in Harper’s Ferry before I started going south and used it almost every day.

Hygiene and Electronics

I carried the following:

2 bandanas – one to wipe clean at the end of a day, the other to wipe dry on any number of occasions. There be many methods of bandana use. All of them obviate the need to carry a microfiber towel.

Deuce of Spades Back Country Potty Trowel – At .6oz, this thing is a solid option to fill a necessary function.

Dual USB Wall Charger – Either you charge two devices, or you make a new friend. It’s just worth it.

iPhone (Verizon) with charging cable and headphones – Verizon has the best coverage up and down the Trail. I used a pay-as-you-go plan and had no issues. Note that rodents like earwax and will eat your headphones. DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU. 

Kindle – I didn’t use this as much as I thought I would, but it was nice to have for siestas in the heat of the day.

External battery – I recommend Anker. A 3350mAh battery will charge an iPhone once. I carried a 20000mAh battery; I used my phone to write my journal entries, which used 10-15% of my battery daily, and to listen to podcasts and music, which expended considerable battery daily too. I charged all of my electronics in towns; where there is a need, there is a way.

In a small bag, I carried the following hygiene items: toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, fingernail clippers, a Victorinox mini, a needle & thread, ibuprofen, assorted band-aids, Neosporin, sunscreen (unscented), ear plugs, a CrunchIt tool, toilet paper, alcohol gel, Dr Bronner’s liquid soap (unscented), tick tweezers, and Q-tips.

The CrunchIt is helpful in the disposal of fuel canisters: you twist it tightly onto the nozzle of the canister, which will cause the canister to disperse any remaining fuel in the canister; you can then puncture the wall of the canister, which allows you to recycle it with ease. I lost count of how many empty fuel canisters I found in shelters; don’t be that guy.

Scents attract animals. A hiker got dragged out of his tent by a bear because he went to bed wearing coconut sunscreen this spring. Anything scented, including toothpaste, should be hung at night. You don’t want to wake up to bear hovering over you… or to find that a rodent has chewed through your food bag, your hat, or your toothpaste. And yes, rodents ate through my first straw hat; they loved the salt on the brim.

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In Sum

It’s really easy to get lost in an onslaught of information when you’re planning a backpacking trip – there are many companies out there, large and small, competing for your dollars. If you do decide to go with a given company’s gear, look up their repair and return policy; these companies do a substantial portion of their business on the Trail and rely heavily on word of mouth for growth, which means that they should have exceptional warranties on their products. You’ll find that many of them do!

I hope this list, with all of the rambling and rationale wrapped up therein, is helpful to you. If I can assist you in planning your trek in any way, please let me know.

Until next time –

James

New Beginnings

Dear readers,

‘Round these parts, there be much change afoot.

Shortly after my arrival to the Vaterland, I found myself untended in the exotic land of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, accessory to my boo. He, however, had lectures and classes all day, and I was left to my own devices for much of the week. I attempted a summit of the Zugspitze via the Reintal Valley early in the week, but turned back after I realized that  a) I’d hobbled myself in my aggressive pace, and b) I didn’t have the time I’d have liked to summit the mountain and take the cable car down, and I certainly didn’t have the gear to survive the night. That walk back was at a decidedly slower trot, and I returned to my room with time to lick my wounds before dinner. And with that, my week of hiking evaporated into the ether. As if to endorse my decision, it rained… for days.

Now, there’s only so much media that I can consume in a day. I thought I was on a pretty good kick with Downton Abbey, which I began for the first time down at Garmisch (so good), but I found that I am a terribly antsy couch potato. I became increasingly agitated: act, be not acted upon! I did venture into town each day, but that ain’t no freedom of the hills. Poking around the Interwebs in my ennui on Wednesday or Thursday of that week, I discovered two sites that appeared as if manna from Heaven, which seems to be how my life works. These two sites, Proofread Anywhere and Transcribe Anywhere, are legitimate work from home sites that offer to teach you the skills of their respective freelance trade. Each offers a weeklong introduction course, which is conducted daily via email. I took both of these and found that I quite enjoyed them. Oh, and I stumbled upon and purchased the Genius Blogger Toolkit – a bundle marketed for one week at 97% off retail price. That’s pretty cool.

With the conclusion of the annual dental conference on Friday morning, I got my husband back. We spent the day and a half remaining to us there in the outdoors, riding a really cool coaster in Oberammergau on Friday, and climbing the Kramerspitz to the north of Garmisch on Saturday morning. We’d timed the hike to allow us ample time to drive to Memmingen Airport for our flight to Portugal, site of Honeymoon The Second. On our way there, we passed under this magnificent pedestrian suspension bridge in Reutte and flipped a U-turn to go check it out. Loc suffered a bit on our Kramerspitz hike, and he had me push him up the hill to that long bridge; the incredulous looks of passers-by was well worth the effort. Oh, the bridge was nice too.

We flew to the Algarve region of Portugal with one attraction on our agenda: the Benagil Sea Cave. The southern coast of Portugal is riddled with sea caves, the result of millennia of erosion, and this one is the creme de la creme of sea caves – an Instagram fave. Alas that the ocean was not in our favor and the one attempt we made was by speed boat from 30 kilometers away. The location of the cave is deliberately obscured, and it was with some chagrin that we discovered it an honest 150 meters from Benagil Beach. We attempted to reach it on our own several times after that boat ride but were ill-equipped and unsuccessful. My personal highlight of that trip was our stay at Vinha do Gaio, an agrotourism B&B perched on a mountain north of Monchique. Put simply, it is what I envision paradise to be.

But the changes:

1) I’m launching a career as a professional proofreader and transcriptionist. Right now, my goal is to become a legal transcriptionist, which I hope will lead to other opportunities as I establish myself in the industry. Legal transcriptionists work predominately with court reporters. Proper English is a matter of reputation in this world, so I am getting grammar and punctuation through a firehose (it’s not easy). I am also taking the proofreading course, as these two fields nest nicely and allow me the freedom to work from home (stay at home dad!).

2) I’m doing yoga with Adriene, my YouTube crush. I’m on day 6 of her Yoga Camp, a 30-day program that is challenging, but gently so. I like to start my mornings with yoga, as it awakens both body and mind and encourages synchronization between the two; it is active meditation.

3) I’m baking bread! I have a lovely sourdough starter bubbling away in the corner, and yesterday, I made both a quick bread with a small portion of my thru-hike grains and cornbread done right. I have several bread books on hand, chief among them The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, and I am just rolling in gluten.

4) I’m expanding my (vegetarian) culinary repertoire. I’ve long had vegetarian leanings, but after watching a particularly frightful PETA video (damn you, Paul McCartney), they’ve intensified. Since that fateful day, I’ve nearly gagged several times while eating hamburgers at restaurants. My qualm is largely an ethical one: I cannot support industrial farming. I’ll write a whole post about that some day. Yesterday’s chili had beef in it, but I bought it on the German economy rather than at the commissary. Your money is your voice in this modern economy, and I’m becoming increasingly judicious in how I use mine.

5) At the recommendation of a friend, I’m keeping a line-a-day journal. I’ve been doing it for a month now, and I really like both how it forces me to focus on what I deem most important in a day and how it serves as a historical record.

6) I found BookBub. If you’re at all literary, I highly recommend this site. It aggregates sales from across the web on books that may appeal to you. I’m still tailoring it to my interests; yesterday, it suggested a book of lesbian erotica to me, but also the Bar Tartine cookbook, which is chock-full of instruction on culinary techniques! Oh, and it was $2.99. Speaking of culinary techniques, The Kitchn offers a free culinary school online.

That about sums it up: English, yoga, food. I’m about to dive into music too; I have a keyboard and a guitar that have spent months in lonely isolation and they are calling my name.

Here’s to living deliberately –

James

 

 

Greetings Anew

Hello gentle people,

It’s been a minute since I’ve written on my blog here, primarily because I reasoned that my primary audience was on Facebook during my hike, and I didn’t want to add any obstacle to reading my posts. Even one unnecessary click is too much; it’s too much like the bureaucracy from which I am now free. And would you believe that my determination to document my life on my device would dissipate completely when I reached my destination? Neither my thumbs nor my will could hack it anymore; I still don’t have my final journal entry fully recorded.

I’ve been off of the Trail for three weeks now, and home for about a week. Yes, it took two weeks of plying the system before it yielded me a seat on a plane. Fortunately, I have good friends all around who looked out for me, housed me, fed me, and kept me entertained… and now I am back beside my husband, who so diligently supported me for the five months that I was away; to him I owe my eternal gratitude.

I am also reunited with my computer, from which I am now happily writing. As the dust settles and I establish a new routine as an unemployed dependapotomus abroad, I expect that I will use said computer to that end quite often. The Trail indeed fulfilled its purpose, allowing me to both shed the bitterness accrued in five years in uniform and find a sense of purpose and direction for the way forward. If the Trail taught me one thing over all others, it’s that I know who I am, and I know where I belong – it just took me some time to fully embrace it.

That interval came full term yesterday afternoon, when I experienced a paradigm shift of such magnitude that only my ultimate acceptance of my whole self can boast greater importance. I’ve slid from the ephemeral world of ifs and maybes to the concrete world of wills and will nots. Even at a dramatic pay cut, I will not follow the well trod path from junior military officer to mid level corporate manager; it is anathema to my soul, and I won’t have it. I will pursue my interests in the natural world, the arts, and the humanities, building upon what skills I do have and acquiring those that I must to succeed. It’s not an easy life per se, but it is much more personally satisfying – there is so much more to life than the acquisition of wealth, and I want it.

Accordingly, I’ll be writing with increased frequency, perhaps even regularity. I’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to share, and this is my ideal platform for delivering on the latter. I hope you’ll join me on my merry way.

All the best –

James

 

In Memoriam

I woke up to news this morning that I could scarce comprehend: a soldier of mine had lost his life, cause undeclared.

I was always conflicted about serving in the Afghan war – college wrought an idealogical transformation that put me forever at odds with the government’s foreign policy – but I was never conflicted about my commitment to the wellbeing of my soldiers. It was my greatest joy to put every single one of them on a plane back to Germany at the end of the deployment, perhaps a bit roughed up, but alive and well; I didn’t have to live with the terrible burden of informing a mother of her son’s passing. This one thing I ardently believe: no woman ought to live to bury her son.

But nature is indifferent to our beliefs.

The same day that I gained my freedom, my old platoon medic lost his life. He was 21, having deployed to Afghanistan at 19 and showing us all what a man under fire can be. He was disarmingly young, baby faced even, yet despite his youth, he was a fierce soldier. When he, with a steady hand amid a cloud of acrid smoke, patched up two men who had been wounded by a detonating suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), he showed us just what army training coupled with personal mettle can produce. I was proud to see him pinned his Combat Medic Badge, though the dude was so stunned by the pinning that he passed out and fell over – a comedic moment for sure. The young kid was no worse for the wear. 

I left my platoon leader position for a desk in an office midway through my deployment, but I never lost sight of the soldiers that my non-commissioned officers and I personally prepared for combat. I also personally laid the coordination to send them home, and as I was sifting through flight manifests, I checked every single one of my soldiers against those manifests, my mind put at ease as the list of the missing narrowed down to zero. 

Of course, I knew that there had been no combat casualties in my platoon; working as the chief of operations for my unit, my job was to aggregate and publish each day’s significant events. I did this from the time I left my platoon until my unit left Afghanistan. I also knew that other units had borne terrible losses – a helicopter full of men went down in the mountains to the northeast of us, killing all of them; a Ranger raid to our north went bad, killing many, among them Jennifer Moreno, a friend to my friends; a lone young soldier in an anonymous uniform walked into a deserted dining facility at Kandahar Air Field, put his rifle to his throat, and pulled the trigger. All events were tragic, but none were directly personal. And yet, I grieved for all of them, for shattered youth, for dreams forever deferred.

I thought we had made it back whole. I was proud of those boys, those fantastic young men who had banded together to face the most significant experience of their young lives and surmount the slow itch of sheer boredom and the the thrill of frenetic activity together. I thought that we would all remain forever connected, our lives irrevocably intertwined. But the passing of years coupled with the way that people flow in, out, and around the army wears at relationships – not that the commitment to one another fades, but the frequency of contact certainly does. Even in this era of eternal connectivity, I lost sight of Doc Nieto.

And then I woke up to news of his death. 

There’s an oft touted statistic – 22 veterans commit suicide a day. This is used as a rallying cry to do something about an epidemic raging through the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. This statistic is disputed; the majority of veterans committing suicide are over 60 years old, Vietnam vets undoubtedly in need of greater care. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans kill themselves at closer to one a day – but even one needless death is too many. I respect the motivation behind the 22 push-up challenge going around Facebook, the work to bring awareness to a blight on our nation, my brothers and sisters. I respect more the effort to tell the stories of our fallen: moments shared, memories relived. Every story is worth the telling; every life has worth; and every death is a tragedy. 

I don’t know what Doc Nieto was going through, nor do I know the cause of his passing. One of my peers, seemingly perfectly healthy, died on a run – just fell over and was done; another died peacefully in his sleep. Weird things happen. But at such a young age for such a physically healthy young man, one cannot help but draw logical conclusions, and it hurts. It hurts that I was not there for him. It hurts to think that he suffered to such a point that he felt death preferable to life. I know this pain; I credit music, literature, family, and friends for sustaining me through some very rough times. And now, I’m pursuing my own dream, deferred no longer. 

Life is worth living. Dreams are worth pursuing. It’s never too late to change. It’s never too late to learn something new – and it’s certainly never too late to reach out to somebody you haven’t spoken to in years. So write an email. Send a text message. Make a phone call. They matter. God, do they matter. 

Just do it.  

 

Testing, testing, testing 

Hello gentle people,

This is a test of my personal broadcasting system. From henceforth, all correspondence will flow from my handheld digital device out to the world at large (you, my fantastic readers).

Over the past year, my Appalachian Trail ambition has evolved from a fuzzy eventuality to a crystallized plan, complicated in a way that only a logistician can truly enjoy. Owing to a particular mode of European life, I have acquired most everything (save the Haribo gummies) through the United States Postal Service. Research and the military theory (not oft employed) of backwards planning gave me the framework to, say, order 40 pounds of peanuts and 25 pounds of dried fruit with respect to its shelf life, and those and other culinary delights fill each of the (now) seventeen large Priority Mail boxes, each weighing just under 16 pounds to provide for a week of sustainment. My dauntless husband Loc, who only so recently came into my life, will send me each weekly installment with the same trepidation of anybody using a military post office with a definite deadline (no less than two weeks lead!). I owe him a debt of gratitude, payable upon my return by a steady presence ever afterward – he’s so easy to love.

Not pictured: one box.

I received my coveted DD214, the document releasing me from military service, this past Thursday. Of particular pleasure is the printed date of my final day of my reserve requirement: 00000000 (YYYYMMDD). Yup, no reserve requirement – I really am just free! I also received a well researched and thoughtfully written award and final evaluation from my boss, which will serve me well in the pursuit of future employment. I leave the military with a lingering dislike of government bureaucracy, but with gratitude and appreciation for the people and experiences that have shaped who I am today. I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

Tomorrow, Sunday 1 May 2016, I fly from Munich to Washington, DC. I’ll be staying with an old high school buddy, acquiring a last few items on Monday (phone plan and fuel), and embarking on my Appalachian adventure on Tuesday, 3 May 2016. I will hike northbound from Harper’s Ferry to Mount Katahdin, then I will stay with another good high school buddy until my flight back to DC. After Independence Day festivities in the Capitol, I will embark on my southbound voyage to Mount Springer. I’m dreadfully serious about my ambition to feed young Ranger stud Snickers bars at the southern terminus too… one of my old army buddies is a Ranger Instructor in Dahlonega, GA, and I intend to complicate his existence. Game on, ole buddy.

I’ll be hiking an average of 18 miles a day – me and my little Lego Loc. I’ll post daily pics on my Instagram (@gingerguyjay) of my little buddy and me… and I’m not bringing a razor.

Slightly giddy with anticipation

You’re welcome to come along.

James