Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The End?

After the chance meeting with Tobi and the week long adventure that followed I really felt like I had done all that I had set out to do. This trip started months earlier in Korea but went through Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and the west coast of the United States. My main focus was to get to the Grand Canyon, and I did that and then some. The feeling of complete freedom is something I will always remember about this trip. It was the feeling I was looking for when I decided to move to Korea, but when you have a job you can never feel completely free. A vacation from work is nothing compared to a vacation from life as you know it, but still life goes on and for the first time in months I felt I was ready to return home.

After dropping off the new pimped out rental car I had to return to the Las Vegas hostel that I had stayed at for almost a full week before I finally met Tobi. I left all of my belongings in a black garbage back in a storage room there. Yes, it was very high class and continuing with my luxurious ways I bought a Greyhound ticket out of Vegas all the way to Knoxville Tennessee. This wasn't the initial plan of how I was going to get to Tennessee but I just felt like it was time to make an exact date of completion, so buying the ticket did that...almost.

The bus ride from Vegas to Tennessee is almost 2 days on a bus, so I decided to stop at a friends place in Denver, Colorado. It kind of brought the whole trip full circle since the friend I was visiting was one that I made in Seoul. Rachel's best friend Mindy was willing to show me around Denver for a few days. It's a really nice city, but I was just happy to see her. I also got to see some old high school friends as well, and that's always fun. Caitlin and Dan also showed me some of the city's finer points, or better places to get a drink at least. But this was the final stop, the rest of the trip was a long, long, long bus ride. I thank G-d to this day for giving me the superpower of being able to fall asleep at anytime, anywhere. There were times in my life where I felt this superpower wasn't a great honor but then you take a bus across the country and you realize that everything happens for a reason.

So I made it home, but home wasn't my home anymore. Since my parents retired to Tennessee the home I knew growing up is long gone. I got to my new home and had to adjust to my new room, new people, a new area, and a new life. But hey, adjusting to new areas is nothing new to me, and at least they speak English here...kinda.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Death Valley Experience

So there we were, sitting on the side of the road in 110 degree heat with a dashboard that was blinking like we just won the jackpot on a slot machine. The car wasn't running, our phones weren't working, and the sun was going down in the desert. Tobi and I sat silently in the car for minutes that seemed like really long minutes. Just moments earlier we were racing the sunset in Death Valley, pushing a rental car to its extremes, and loving life. Now we were stranded, uncertain about how we were going to get the car back to Vegas on time, where we were going to sleep tonight, who was going to help us, why had this happened to us, we thought we were untouchable. We tried to turn the car over once every fifteen minutes, but there was nothing. We were stuck, and we didn't know what to do.

When it looked like we would have to wait for the next mornings tourists, and camp overnight on the concrete, one last car came from Badwater returning towards the middle of town. We decided they were our only chance of salvation and we flagged them down. It was a nice retired couple and they were extremely friendly. They cleared out their back seat and Tobi and I filled our backpacks with food and hopped in. They were kind enough to drive us down to the center of town. Now when I say "town" I mean a hotel, a tourist information building and a gas station. The gas station would have been the most likely place for us to go since we needed a mechanic but it was closed. Second would be the tourist information building because we were tourists and we needed a lot of information on what to do at this moment. But it was closed too. So instead we found ourselves talking to the midnight shift bell boy at the Death Valley hotel.

First things first, we needed to call the rental car company and figure things out. Easy enough, right? Nope, we left the rental car phone number back in the car. Nice move on our part. The nice retired couple drove Tobi back to get it, and then they left us to deal for ourselves after we showered them with thanks (Thanks again if you're out there, thank you so much!). So now that we had the rental car phone number calling should be easy right? Wrong... We had to use a payphone. A payphone. Did you know these things were even still around? Luckily Tobi and I had a decent amount of change but if the phone ate a few quarters we might be totally out of luck. But I made the call and it actually worked, thank you AT&T. As soon as I got through to the rental car company I was sure that our worries were over.

Boy was I wrong about thinking our worries were over. The night shift at the rental car company was even more clueless than the bell boy. Here is an almost word for word account of our conversation:
Me - Hey, our car broke down in Death Valley. What should we do?
The rental car guy -You shouldn't be driving in Death Valley. It's hot our there. Probably like 105 degrees.
Me - Thanks it is actually 110, but we're out here and our car has died. We bought insurance and we want to know how we can figure things out.
The rental car guy - Insurance don't cover that. Were you running the AC?
Me - Did I mention how hot is was today?
The rental car guy - Aww damn, you can't run AC in a car in that heat. That's crazy.
Me - Interesting, they didn't mention not using the AC when we rented the car in 100 degree heat in Vegas. Thanks for you information, now how are we getting out of here?
The Rental car guy - You gotta get back to Vegas.
Me - Did I mention the car was broken down?
The Rental car guy - Just get that thing back here.
Me - Tow it?
The Rental car guy - I don't care.
Me - Will you pay for towing?
The Rental car guy - We don't pay for that.
Me - Will you come get us?
The Rental car guy - Out there in Death Valley? We don't do that.
Me - What do you do?
The Rental car guy - Hold on. (He then proceeded to put the phone down and tell our story to a friend while I can hear him. They were laughing and making jokes and I honestly was laughing my ass off while describing it to Tobi.) Hey man, it's late we can't do anything for ya. Good luck getting it back here.
Me - Thanks for all of your help, you've been a life saver. Enjoy the rest of your night.

As I told Tobi about this phone call we realized that we might have been better off spending a little bit more money for a rental car company that we had actually heard of before. That being said, we could not stop laughing. Even the bell boy got a kick out of over hearing my phone conversation with the rental car company. The sun might have been down but our spirits were still up. We tried to swing a deal with the hotel for a free overnight stay, but they weren't having it. We were now without a place to sleep.

We had our tent, but the ground in Death Valley is about as comfortable as sleeping on a barbed wire fence. But we remembered that the Tourist Information building had a nice green lawn, if we could only get there, we might be able to actually sleep tonight. We asked a French man who was driving a convertible if he would give us a ride. Talk about a strange situation (An American man who is traveling with a Swiss man asked a French man for a ride in his convertible in Death Valley). After explaining our situation to him he said he would want someone to do the same for him, so he took us a mile down the road and dropped us off at the Tourist Information building.

Once we were there we felt like we had struck a gold mine because they didn't lock the bathrooms at night. So we were able to have running water, light, and we were able to brush our teeth. That stuff alone already makes it better than some of the other places we camped. We set our tent up near the side of the building and climbed inside. Then it REALLY hit us. We were not lucky. We were planning on camping in the "coolest" part of Death Valley, and not on the lawn of the Tourist Information building for a reason...it's unbearably hot.

We laid there in our tent together recounting the days events. I still remember this conversation as one of the funniest conversations I've ever had. In retrospect we were both a little delirious. We thought everything bad that happened would just be a great story someday. Until we tried to get some sleep and we had to silently think to ourselves about all that could still go wrong. This is when Tobi sat up and asked me, "Do you think, if you were to die in your sleep, would you wake up first? Or just die?" I laughed out loud until my stomach hurt when he said this in his German accent. I told him I don't know, but I hope we don't die. But in this dry heat, death was definitely a possibility.

Then when you didn't think things could get any worse and we were dieing of heat when the unthinkable happened. The sprinkler system came on. It as if we were in the middle of a bad sitcom and no one told us. We ran out of the tent in our boxers and got a freezing cold shower at around 2 in the morning in 110 degree heat. This sign that someone was watching out for us from above was all we needed to get some rest. We didn't even move when the sprinklers came on for their second session at 4.

We woke up and had the car towed out of Death valley to a town about an hour away. A town that we later learned is famous for its prostitution (just a side note), but when we got there we talked with the owner of a car dealership that told us we should be fine. We called the rental car company again and this time the morning crew was much more helpful. They sent us a beautiful car to bring us back to Vegas, payed us for the towing and in the end they only charged us for 3 days because of all the hassle they caused. Tobi and I walked out of "Giddy UP Car Rental" with the biggest smiles on our faces. We really were invincible...and I think it really did make a great story.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Near Death (Valley) Experience

It's been a while but recently I've been trying to find a job here in Tennessee and I've gotten away from my blog, but one of the reasons I wanted to spend time her in the dirty south was to have more time writing, so I'm focused on getting back on it. This chapter of my trip picks up after visiting Joshua Tree National Park, and after seeing much of the west coast of the United States. The Climax was the Grand Canyon, but little did I know then, that after the finale there would be a crazy twist ending...

We left Joshua tree really pumped. It was exciting because we didn't have to return the rental car yet. While we had planned on getting a rental car for only 5 days, the friendly, fast talking, teenager behind the counter at the airport rental car dealer told us that 5 days is the same price as a week so we'd get two additional days if we wanted them for no additional charge. So instead of rushing back to Vegas in a hurry we had 2 more days to leisurely head to the pleasantly named "Death Valley" and take in all the sights there as if it was an unexpected cherry on top of the Grand Canyon cake that already had Joshua Tree icing on it. Looking back it should have seemed obvious that getting "extra time" to see a place called "Death Valley" is not so much of a cherry on top, but more like a death sentence. But in the moment we took our worry free traveling smiles to the road and put the petal down in the direction of the hottest place in the United States.

Driving to Death Valley was an experience in itself. Growing up in New Jersey it's not uncommon to share the road (and I use the term "share" lightly) with about 10,000 other cars all going in the same direction. Yet here, on these open roads in the west it was the norm to be the only car in sight. Heck, we were the only man made object in sight for hours on end. It was just road, dirt, cactus's and us. Without too much to look at our attention become fixed upon the car dashboard. Why you might ask? Well in the high heat even the littlest things can become entertaining. Our entertainment was watching the temperature gauge go up degree by degree, each time getting a little cheer out of us. Again, our ignorance in hind sight seems obvious, but in a new rental car with the AC going full blast we weren't feeling the ill effects of the rising temperature, well, not yet.

Our map showed a little town called "Shoshone" a ways outside of the Death Valley entrance but we thought we'd stop anyway because we were hungry. The Famous Crowbar Cafe and Saloon, seemed to be the only restaurant in town. It was next to a museum that looked like an old barn, and across the street from the post office that doubled as the towns reminder that they might actually be connected to other people, even if only by mail. We stopped at the Crowbar. It was Thursday so I went in an asked for 5 beers for 25 cents, but sadly this Crowbar did not have the same "Thirsty Thursdays" drink specials that my Crowbar back at Penn State had. Oh the good old days of drinks for a nickel, I guess it was a bit of wishful thinking, but it was worth a try.

After lunch at the Crowbar we figured we'd hit plenty of tourist places before and after the Death Valley entrance but we could not have been more wrong. While I know I pictured a large overhanging sign across the road, maybe even with large doors like Jurassic Park, the entrance to National Park was much less theatrical. It was a small booth on the side of the road. One that even a one hour Kodak booth might spit on. No people, not Ranger to tell us good information and give us a map, just a slot to take our money, give us a receipt, and we had to begrudgingly take our own map from a stack of maps.

But we were there! Death Valley was real, we were in it, and it was HOT! We stopped all over the place. Trying to take in everything we could. It was interesting seeing the names they gave to the different parts of this deserted area of land. Death Valley is just strange area after strange area, but they are all strange because they are completely deserted and under some of the most extreme temperatures on the planet. One area looks like a desert, one like a dried up ocean, one like a waste land, another like a desert, some like hills of different color sands, but they all had one thing in common...HEAT!

We took plenty of pictures during the day we were there. Please check them out. But one picture we never got to take was one of the sand dunes during the sunset. You see, we were at the lowest point in North America, a spot called "Badwater", one of the furthest spots in Death Valley that you have to drive to. And when did we go there? Of course right before the sunset when the number one thing we wanted to see were the sand dunes during the sunset. As we realized the sun was going down faster than we had expected we jumped in the rental and pealed out of there. Tobi was being a bit aggressive as the car started to reach the fastest speeds that we had seen all week. We both sat silent as the speedometer raised, and the sun fell. The bright yellow ball in the sky was coming closer to the horizon every second and we were racing it to the sand dunes.

It may have been that "invincible" feeling that we had as travelers to think we could beat the sunset, but it was invigorating. As the car hit ninety-five not a word was spoken but we both thought we were going to make it. We were certain that we would be sitting relaxed in the desert as the sun set beautifully on the horizon, there was no doubt. Then, doubt didn't just creep into our thoughts, it smacked us in the face. The cars dashboard began to light up as if we had won a jackpot on a slot machine in Vegas. Only the car didn't spit out money, instead it started coughing and seizing, and we had to pull it over. The five or six cars that we recently flew by all slowly drove by us pulled over on the side of the road with a new appreciation for the childrens book "The Tortoise and the Hair". We were stranded. Not stranded like you think about being stranded today. Today if you pull over on the side of the road hundreds if not thousands of people will see you, you have a cell phone to call help, and if you really needed to you could walk to a gas station. No this was not our definition of stranded, we were in a whole different situation.

We are now on the side of one of the longest roads in Death Valley that only leads to a lookout spot called "Badwater". A lookout stop that is worthless during the night, so during a sunset we are pretty certain that no more cars will be coming this way until the next day. We are miles away from anything, it is 119 degrees out, and our cell phones ceased having service back in Shoshone. The sunset was no longer a race but a ticking clock for our survival.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Icing on the Grand Canyon Cake

After seeing the waterfalls 12 miles deep in the Grand Canyon everything else was just icing on the cake. When we left the south rim we headed in the general direction of Joshua Tree National Park. Yup, just the general direction, no plans, the sun was going down, no reservations, just an idea. We knew we had a tent, and by find a way to camp the Grand Canyon when we were firmly told it was impossible we actually felt like we couldn't really do anything wrong. We were more right than we realized. As night fell we watched a beautiful sunset on the highway in Arizona. After following the Atlas for hours it showed us there were camping sites on Lake Havasu that wasn't too far out of our path. We thought that since our stop at Havasupi Falls went so well it'd be stupid to pass up a chance to go to the Lake Havasu (completely unrelated places).

We went and camped but because we came so late and left so early the night was FREE!!! That's always good price for travelers. We did wake up and take a dip in the water, were able to get showered up, and took in some of the beautiful scenery. It's too bad we didn't hang around long enough to meet some of the locals, I've since heard that Lake Havasu can be a pretty crazy place to party. Eh, well maybe next time.

We were only a short drive from Joshua Tree from there and we were able to get to get there and spend the whole day hiking. This place is strait out of the Flintstones. The rock formations make you feel like your back in the day of the dinosaurs. We went everywhere we could, and that purchase of 80 bottles of water (for $3.50 a 20 pack, thank you Walmart) way back in Vegas was still paying dividends.

I was amazed that I felt the beauty of this area was comparable to that of the south rim of the Grand Canyon, but there was no comparison in the amount of tourists. Joshua Tree seemed empty, while the south rim was like a crowded super market. I liked the openness of Joshua Tree. We ended up camping there beside some huge boulders strategically to be in the shad when the sun rose the next morning. Thanks to Cousin Billy I was able to teach Tobi how to find the North Star and even though I never thought it would come in handy, then next morning waking up in the shade felt so good temperature wise, but even better as an accomplishment for the both of us.

Joshua Tree is a hot place, but it's amazing to see all the different types of plants that can survive in that environment. It was also a place for mining many years ago and you can take a short break from the heat inside some mine shafts if your lucky.
One of the coolest experiences at Joshua Tree was when we met a couple riding there motorcycle through the area. They were very friendly (as most travelers tend to be) but they were just completely taken by the situation of Tobi and I. They were many years older than us and had been to some amazing places but they couldn't believe that a guy from Switzerland met a guy from Jersey, in Vegas, and that we were having such an amazing time traveling around together. It kind of made us feel even better about an already good situation. Like I said, everything was just icing on the cake from here on out.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Grand Canyon That I Saw

We hiked the 10 miles down to the Indian Reservation and slowly entered the visitors office. I was sweating profusely after the desert hike, but now I began to sweat out of nervousness. We were supposed to have a reservation but we didn't and we didn't know what would happen to us. As we entered I heard the man behind the counter having a similar phone conversation to the one I had with them the day before, "Sorry, we're booked solid, try again next year...early." Tobi and I looked at each other and took a deep breath. I was thinking about telling them that Tobi had a terminal disease and his last wish was to see these waterfalls before he died. I was also considering going through with the "We don't speak English" plan. There were a few options for us, but one I would not except was getting turned around now.

So what happened? Nothing. The woman behind the counter just assumed we had a reservation, took our names, our money, and gave us the camping permit. It was great. The only bad part was that there were 2 more miles of hiking left. The rest of the story will be told through the pictures we took. The pictures don't do this place justice, but my writing wouldn't either. I loved this place. Take a gander:

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Best Choice I've Ever Made

The next morning when Tobi and I woke up in our 19 dollar Walmart tent beside the Colorado river while surrounded by the cliffs of the Grand Canyon it's safe to say we felt slightly untouchable. This rush of over confidence led us to wake up early and head to secret waterfalls in the Grand Canyon even though the day before we were told we were not welcome. We were told there was no room, we were not allowed to hike or camp there, and we needed reservations. We also had to drive an hour out of our way to even get to the places parking lot, which if we got turned away would waste more than 2 hours of prime daylight time at the South Rim. These aren't things you really think about when you're untouchable. Sure there are risks but do you think Superman worries about finding the oven mitt before taking brownies out of the oven? Of course not. Sometimes you know what you want when you want it, so Tobi and I began our 18 mile drive out of the Grand Canyon at 7am to hopefully make it to the parking lot of our next destination by 10am, an hour out of the way, just in the hope that they might let us hike their trail.

I will never understand how perspective can switch so much inside my own head. My head stays the same, relatively. I mean besides bed head, which I've now taken care of thanks to shaving my head, and a huge spider bite scar, my outward appearance stays pretty much the same from moment to moment. But inside my head I can go from feeling like a million bucks to 10 cents in no time at all. When I met Tobi I went from feeling that the end of my trip would be a failure to thinking the end of my trip was going to be the best week of my life in the time span of an hour. Yet on the road, when I was told we were not welcome to the Canyon waterfalls because we didn't have reservations I was depressed again. It's terrible to have great hopes, dreams, and desires that someone can put an end to over the phone, "Sorry, we're booked solid." Those simple words made everything we were hoping to see impossible. But one nights sleep and the impossible seemed possible again.

It was mostly a silent 3 hour drive to where we were headed. Tobi and I didn't say much outwardly and inside we were in knots. We knew what we were doing was crazy, but we just kept thinking that if we believed it would work out, it would work out. We reached the parking lot and it became obviously clear that the person on the phone wasn't kidding when they said they were full. Cars were parked everywhere. I mean, there was a "parking lot" but the lines drawn on the ground did only about half the job for all the cars there. For a moment while driving in we got behind a line of cars thinking it was traffic before realizing they were parked there because the lot was full. Lucky for us we did find a spot right between the donkeys and the porta-potties.

So we were there! That was a big enough step, but what to do now? Besides a small shed, about 50 donkeys, some great views, and more cars than we've seen since leaving Vegas we couldn't tell what all the fuss was about. Where were the people that drove these cars in here? We had to ask. The fear of getting kicked out made us hesitate from asking workers dumb questions about things anyone with a reservation should already know. So instead we asked a few people we saw in the parking lot about some information.

Where do we go from here? Is it worth it? Do you think they'd kick us out? We threw a barrage of questions at these clearly tired travelers (we'd come to find out why later). Apparently the parking lot is only the starting point. You need to hike 10 miles along the Canyon floor to get to the Indian reservation, and then check in. Once you're there it's two more miles of hiking to get to the camp site and the falls. Is it worth it? We repeated. I will never forget the look on the mans face when he said "If you came this far only to turn around at this parking lot you'll never forgive yourself. The scenery down there is some of the most contrasting beauties the world has to offer put right along side of each other. Desert cliffs, with crystal blue water rushing over it. Is it worth it? Yeah, it's worth it."

That sealed the deal. We would push on. As soon as we had that in our heads (a perspective change from fearful, to determined) we even asked some of the workers some questions, and to our surprise they were welcoming. "Just head down the trail, you'll see it in 10 miles." We didn't need anyone else to point us in the right direction but it was someone comforting to know that at least someone working at this place told us we could hike it. Even though we knew a lowly donkey renter had no business speaking for the tribe, you take any little victory you can when you're in our position.

So we began our hike. Not knowing what laid ahead, not knowing if we'd get turned back, but we did know there was a chance we'd see something amazing, and that was why we pushed on. Just as we were about to embark on the trail we asked a group of hikers to take our picture. We were on cloud nine, and it was just about the right time to get brought down to earth again. "Yeah, we'll take your picture," they said "you're smiling now, but you won't be later. This is the hike goes through hell." Funny, no one we talked to mentioned the grueling nature of the hike. Not my cousin, my friend Mimi, the man in the parking lot, or the donkey salesman. But come to think of it, the man in the parking lot did look extremely worn out, and granted the guy selling donkeys wasn't looking up to snuff but I thought that was the nature of his business. Now I was on the head of the trail smiling for a picture in front of about 15 teenagers that all looked like they'd just finished their house chores at the Hearst Castle. Their faces somehow backed up the claim that this hike went through hell, but if it takes walking through hell to get to heaven, I'd be up for that because, let's not forget, I'm untouchable again.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Hoober Dam

The first stop after leaving Las Vegas is an easy choice, the Hoover Dam. You've just got to stop here. If this place was good enough for the Clark Griswold and his family, it's good enough for me. We didn't stop for long though. Just snapped some pictures and then were back on the open road heading towards the Grand Canyon.

Our destination was a remote, almost secretive place deep in the canyon that I had only been told about by other travelers (Billy, my cousin, and Mimi from Big Sur). They told me of beautiful blue water waterfalls deep in the canyon. Beauty amongst the desert, a real life mirage that looks too good to be true, but for once is real, and we were headed there. We found the dot on the Atlas and aimed for it. A few hours after leaving Las Vegas we stopped to get gas, and use the phone so we could call and make camping reservations. Yes, this is something we should have done before driving almost all the way to it. The phone conversation went something like this:

Me-"We'd like to camp at your reservation"
Worker- "We're booked solid for the rest of the year, sorry."
Me- "No, No, I just want to hike down to the waterfalls and put up a tent."
Worker- "Sorry we don't have any vacancies. We open up reservations on January 7th and we sell out the entire year by January 14th. So try again next year."
Me- "Wow. That's interesting, but I don't need a room, we have our own tent."
Worker- "Sir there is no room."
Me- "There is no room in the desert for a two person tent?"
Worker- 'I'm sorry, have a good day, goodbye."

Tobi and I were in shock. To add insult to injury some Germans were at the gas station with us and told us how the waterfalls were the most amazing things they ever saw. They would have payed anything to see them again, done anything, and they will never forget them. Of course they booked their stay a year in advance. Tobi and I had known each other for 22 hours and weren't able to plan a year in advance, so we did the what we thought would be the next best thing.

It was getting later in the day, and we were near the "only road into the Grand Canyon", Diamond Creek Road, so we thought it was worth a try. We'd camp there, discuss our options, and then get started again the next morning. It seemed like the safe option. That was until the Ranger told us that it's easy for cars to get stranded on Diamond Creek road. She warned us of popped tires, broken gas tanks, rocks, flooded road ways, bumps, etc... They took a look at our rental and said, "I wouldn't take the chance, but I can't stop you." and she was right. We couldn't be stopped.

We pressed on, with your Dodge Caliber, and hoped for the best. They told us the road was 5 miles long, a small miscommunication I guess because it was 18 miles long. 18 miles of unpaved desert ground that reminded me of my driving experience on Fraser Island in Australia. The majority of which were done with a fear of becoming stranded in the middle of nowhere fresh on our minds. The scenery was spectacular though. Every turn showed a new view of the canyon until we were actually in it. Small streams along the side of the car turned into the mighty Colorado, and we only decided to hike about the last mile of the road to our campsite.

We camped right on the Colorado. Read books before the sunset on cliffs in the Grand Canyon. Went to sleep under the brightest moon I can ever remember with sounds of rushing water nearby. We were both very please with our decision to stop here. Who else has driven a car in the Grand Canyon? You? I doubt it.

However, the BIG decision still hung over our heads. What to do about going to see the waterfalls. Should we try and go anyway? If they turn us away it will be a wasted day because it's so far away from anything else. Should we skip it and possibly miss out on the greatest beauty in the world without even trying? It didn't look good, but we talked and thought we'd figure it out in the morning, bright and early.

Friday, July 18, 2008

First Step Towards the Unknown

I had nearly stepped off the edge of no return. Nearly succumb to the powers that be. I had Nearly given in, resided to the outcome that seeing the Grand Canyon by tour bus just like everyone else would somehow be the anticlimax to my partial-world-tour. Until at the last moment I was saved. Saved by the Swiss. Tobi and I hit it off from minute one, and by minute two we had already rented a car for a week together. This was a meeting that was destined. Be it by God or what, I do think that him sitting near me, with his over sized Atlas, as I walked up to the desk to sign away my dream of hiking and camping the Grand Canyon was just too big of a coincidence to see it as one. I went from calling my parents and telling them I'd be home in two days, to the possibility of doing anything my heart desires for the next week. It was an overwhelming swing of emotion.

After renting the car with Tobi we drove it to the Bellagio and watched the worlds largest fountain show. As I stood there, with a new feeling of adventure, watching the fountains burst into the air in amazing unison at astounding heights all to the sounds of "God Bless America" I had a moment of clarity. I moment I realized I was lucky. No matter what happened after that, I felt like I had it all at that moment. Anything was possible, and I was set to take advantage of all the possibilities that laid before me. Thanks to Tobi, this semi-world-tour was destined to have nothing short of the rightful climax it deserved.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Vegas Baby Vegas

As we all do, I love to travel. If you have been reading this blog at all, you already know that about me, but one thing you might not know is that visiting cities can get a little repetitive when you travel extensively. Take my advice, it never gets bad, each city brings its own tastes, smells, sights, and people that make it special and stand out from the rest, however, after you've been to so many cities you don't "look forward" to them as much. It's just natural because they all offer "similar" sights. Before heading to China it had been maybe 8 years since I had gone to a zoo, so I jumped at the chance to go to a zoo in China. Now I've been to 4 zoos in less than 3 months. It's because you hear the same thing when you get to a city: "We have nice places to eat, great museums, beautiful parks, and did I mention the zoo?" Now like I said before, if you are there, you must do these things because even though they sound similar to what you've done recently, something will make it stand out. Every zoo, restaurant, museum, and park are not the same, and I can't stress to you enough, that in the moment it does all seems new and exciting, but before you are in the moment it sounds old, like you've already done it, and uninteresting.

When you travel outside of cities to natural wonders you are naturally excited because you know you've never seen this mountain, or that waterfall before, this desert, or that crater, skied here, hiked there, swam here or snorkeled there. Those things always sound interesting and exciting because you already envision them as singular events that can "only" happen in those particular places and nowhere else. But when I tell you about a museum, park or zoo after a while you think you can see them anywhere.

This is how I felt about cities after Seoul, Shenghi, Beging, Sydney, Hong Kong, Despensar, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and LA in just a few months. But there are always exceptions to the rule, and to that I give you...Las Vegas. I don't remember another city I looked forward to visiting as much as Vegas. Foreigners I met seem to look forward to visiting San Francisco like it is some beacon of American idealism and utopia. I however, looked forward to Las Vegas. I'm not sure why exactly. Of course it could be my propensity for gambling, but I really thought about Vegas as a big city unlike any other city in America, and I wanted to see what it was like.

Vegas, Vegas, Vegas...Where do I start? The stretch limo ride? The Hawaiian Tropics Swimsuit competition? The clubs? The cool people I met? The staying up all night in the hot tub? The thousand dollars I won? The hooker that was killed? Okay so not all of those things really happened, I was a HUGE loser when it came to gambling this visit, and the hooker wasn't "killed" she was...well, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Ha.

Vegas was so much grander than I even thought it would be. I mean how do you explain the picture of me with a huge green bird on my shoulder? Vegas... It is amazing what money can do. Everywhere there is music, fountains, lights, wedding chapels, cars, buildings, and they all seemed to be tricked out by some crazy visionary who a long time ago had the belief that "if we make everything Extremely Tacky but Huge and Overdone, someday when it gets big enough the city will all come together and work" he was right.

The casinos are ridiculous. I'm not sure you can really describe them, there are too many and they have too many things in them. I took a water slide through a shark tank at one, and watched a lion feeding at another. These places are larger than life. They are confusing, five steps after walking in you can't find your way out. There are so many lights, and bells you think people have to be winning, you're wrong. The buffets are really good. However, unlike in Sydney, luck was not on my side during this trip to Vegas. I think I lost everything I played actually. But I still played everything I wanted. Since I had no "wining" highlights I would have to say that my losing highlight was when I played hold'em at the meca of hold'em, Binion's. Some obese woman sitting behind a stack of chips that nearly blocked out her gut called me with 9 high. I had 8 high. She said something was telling her to call. I said it was too bad something didn't tell her to go on a diet, honestly it looked like she only sat at that table for the year, with her only breaks being to the hotel buffet. Either way, it was a small thrill to be all in and called on a bluff.

What next? I stayed out almost every night until early in the morning. I have now seen the sun rise in Las Vegas and that is a good feeling. While seeing the sun rise on a normal night out might make you think maybe you've been out too long, in Vegas you feel like you're doing something right. I met a ton of cool people from all around the world; Swiss, German, Irish, French, English, Spanish, Canadian (should that make the list?), and probably more but I don't remember now. My favorite was when I met 2 girls from Jersey! Not "Dirty Jersey" that's "New" Jersey. They were from the real "Jersey", old Jersey which floats in the English Channel between France and England. Who would have thunk it? They were cool too, but I told them they had to work on their accents if they were going around telling people they were from Jersey. They didn't get the joke either.

I tried to see as much as I could in Vegas, on a budget that is, but I think I did alright. When you walk around everything seems so cheap; a steak dinner for 5 dollars, glasses for 2 dollars, a shirt for a dollar, drinks for 50 cents, a quarter for a dime, I don't know how they get away with it. Well, that's not true, it's the gambling, I know, but damn, everything else seems to cost nothing. I've been to China, and a number of Asian markets where things are supposed to be really cheap, but I think Vegas might have them all beat. Vegas had everything, and for almost nothing.

I spent almost a full week in Vegas, that's about half a week longer than I was expecting to stay, but I couldn't find anyone who wanted to hike and camp the Grand Canyon with me. So I waited...gambled and waited, drank and waited, laid in the sun and waited until I finally thought I could wait no longer. If I kept waiting in Vegas I would run out of money in no time. I was about to bite the bullet and just take the standard bus tour of the Grand Canyon that everyone else takes. I even began to tell myself that this would be good. 15 hours for $115 only about 4 hours that are actually at the Canyon, but I was gonna do it because I had to get there. The Grand Canyon was my number one destination on this trip. I couldn't get to Vegas and then not get there, I had to go while I still had money. I wanted to find someone to rent a car with, hike with, camp with, but after 6 days of asking everyone I ran into it didn't look like that was going to happen.

Again, I was saved at the last moment. I was sitting in the sun waiting for the guy at the counter to come back so I could sign up for the bus tour. I was ready to give in. Then I saw a guy looking at an Atlas. I thought about it, wondered my chances, then asked him, "where ya headed?" His response was, "I'm looking to hike and camp the Grand Canyon." Toby from Switzerland became my new best friend :)

Check out the pictures:

Monday, July 7, 2008


So after the Greyhound fiasco I did finally make it to LA and one of my high school friends picked me as I got off the bus. It had been years since we saw each other and his first words he said to me were some I will always remember, "Dude, this place is in the ghetto. Greyhound riders must be some bad mama-jamas if they take the bus down here. Drug dealers avoid this block. You, you're lucky I was here because if I wasn't, you'd be gettin shot. But keep your head down as we drive out of here, just in case." I said it was nice to see him too...really, and not only because I didn't want to get shot. I hadn't seen Greg in a while but we grew up together. We'd visit each others house's to play video games when we were younger, play whiffle ball together, rent movies, and then play more video games. That was basically what our friendship revolved around from 6th grade to the end of high school, we were young and dumb, but I think that is what most kids did.

So what did we do when I got to his apartment? Now, many years later, and wiser we played video games. But it was on the Nintendo Wii, that's totally different than the Nintendo, Super Nintendo, or Nintendo 64 we used to play on as kids. This was much more grown up...we played Mario Party. When we were younger video games would always be a source of frustration between the two of us because more often than not, one of us would win the video game more than the other. Well, you think that might be something you grow out of but only minutes into my first experience playing Nintendo Wii, when I didn't even know what I was doing, I got a Star (this is a good think in Mario Party). Greg was very unhappy with my beginners luck, and by the end, when I finished in first, he seemed to be almost regretting letting me stay at his place. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.

My LA stop was fun because I got to see an old friend and he was able to show me around, but it was a short one. I had already been to LA and wasn't that interested in seeing it all again. LA was supposed to just be a break stop on my way down to San Diego to stay with another friend, but only days earlier that fell through due to some family issues. So instead LA quickly became my jumping off point for Vegas! But how to get there? Hmmm, I'm sure I'll figure something out.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Greyhound Graveyard

The next stop was supposed to be LA, but I didn't know how I was going to get there. My new friends were going back to San Francisco because they have normal lives and jobs to return to, but I was hoping to find new friends at Big Sur that were headed further south. However, Sykes Hot Springs had about 10 people at it and all of them were from San Francisco, none even thinking about going to LA. So what to do?

I've always thought the idea of hitchhiking sounded crazy, but in the past few weeks of meeting people randomly or on the internet and driving with them, the idea now seemed almost ordinary. So far what I've done has worked out so well that even if this doesn't work out as well, it could still be a lot worse and not that bad at all. I also started getting the feeling that somehow hitchhiking would connect me more closely with the roots of my travel ancestry. The ones who came before me, before the internet, craigslist, hostels, and the like. Those who only had a bag and a thumb. Somehow if I did it maybe I would understand a little bit more about what they went through, maybe I'd find out a little bit more about myself, and maybe, just maybe I'd be better off for having done it. Well I'm here to tell you that I did learn something about myself and something about the hitchhikers that came before me. They didn't just have a bag and a thumb, they had guts too. I instead used my "brains" and decided that going back to San Francisco and taking the Greayhound would be the safest, and best decision for me to not end up dead on the side of the road.

What I learned is that any choice that isn't Grayhound is a good choice. An hour and a half after leaving San Fran on the "express" bus to LA the bus started to shake. We pulled over in the middle of Nowheresville, CA to realize the 9 of the 10 lug nuts on the bus's front right tire had popped off. Yup, we were one lug nut, or seconds away from losing a tire going 65 miles per hour on highway 5. I appreciated the irony that I chose this mode of transportation for its safety and reliability as I sun tanned on the side of the highway in my Greyhound Graveyard.

After three quick hours in the mild 100 degree heat in the middle of the pleasant wasteland we were pleasantly surprised with a second bus that would drive us the rest of the way to LA only 5 hours later than we were expected. We got into the bus and drove NO FURTHER than 10 minutes down the road and took our regularly scheduled "Burger King" 45 minute lunch break. Greyhound...you are the class of the travel business. The next time I want to be stranded in the middle of no where on a defective machine for hours only to be saved to eat at Burger King, you better believe I'll think once more about putting my damn thumb up on the side of the road.Thank you Greyhound...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur, CA

Before nearly every single leg of my trip there reached a point where it looked like it wasn't going to turn out. There was a point while I was sick in Seattle I thought about calling the whole trip off, then I got better. In Portland I had all but given in to cut out Redwood National Park and Napa Valley, then I met Elizabeth, and it was the same thing all over again leaving Berkeley. I thought it would be a travesty if I traveled from northern California to Southern California without traveling on supposedly, the most beautiful road in the country, Highway 1, but that was just what I was going to do since I couldn't find a ride going that way. I was almost out the door in Berkeley to head directly down to LA taking the ugly Highway 5 on a bus most likely, until a girl named Mimi emailed me at the last minute. Mimi became my savior for this leg of the trip.

Mimi and two of her close friends were going to hike Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur California, and they were willing to give me a ride. Little did they know that after hearing their plans I wanted to hike and camp with them as well, and after some extensive conversation with Mimi she decided it would be fine for me to come along. She broke it to her friends nice and easy, "So like, this hitchhiker guy is going to come camping with us."

I didn't know until Mimi and I were picking her friends up that they weren't in on the decision to let me come, Mimi made it on her own, and then just dropped that bomb on them. So as we pulled up basically next to the "Full House" houses in downtown San Francisco to pick up Sarah and John I was really nervous about getting the cold shoulder. I don't know what I would have acted like if I was John, and I had to share a tent with some stranger that my friend just decided could come with. The nervousness grew as they came out the front door and approached the steps. The handshakes and hellos were understandably forced, and rigid, but I gave up the front seat as a sign of good faith. Soon after, all my worries were forgotten because not only was John from Jersey, he's a staunch Jersey supporter and defender like I am, so we got along great. And now with another person to make fun of easily because I was from Jersey, Mimi and Sarah enjoyed having double the impact on their old Jersey jokes. It worked out well for all parties, but none more than me.

We even stopped over in Santa Cruz for a night which worked out UNBELIEVABLY perfect for me because I got to spend the night at a high school friends place, who I wanted to see in San Fran, but she was busy moving to Santa Cruz the whole week I was in the area. So again at the last moment I called her and things fell into place. Not only did I see her and meet her friends and roommates, but I got to attend her housewarming party! A Santa Cruz party is something I will not soon forget. Nor will I forget being introduced to "the Box Game", a drinking game that was undoubtedly created by a heavily intoxicated human being who's only possessions were alcohol and a cardboard box. I had to say goodbye to Sally within 24 hours, but I felt so lucky to be able to see her at all.

Then we were off to Big Sur, and more specifically, Sykes Hot Springs. I got to see the northern part of the Pacific Coast Highway on the way though, and it did not disappoint. This strip of pavement is truly an amazing thing. It is basically untouched beauty for miles and miles. Blue oceans with cliffs, rocks coming right out of the water, empty beaches, and white waves crashing relentlessly creating a beautiful surf on the right side. Then on the other side of the road there are beautiful green hills, huge Redwoods, and an entirely different but still breathtaking beauty. Highway 1 was even better than I expected, and the fact that it led to Big Sur was just another bonus.

We ended up hiking the 10 miles through Big Sur to get to Sykes Hot Springs, and it wasn't what any of us expected. Although I don't think we knew what to expect. These "hippie" getaways can be pretty secretive, Sykes was no exception. The 10 mile hike in may have been a bit much for these 4 small hot tubs, but it was still quite the experience. Out of the 10 people there I ran into an old Penn State friend (lucky), and was able to see a few nudists (not lucky).

We camped around a fire, took dips in the hot springs that hugged the edge of a beautiful river, and relaxed. I really liked it but if I had to do it again I would pack more than 12 peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches for food, and I'd stay longer than one night. Twenty miles in two days for only a few hours in a hot spring isn't worth it. I had a great time though. Meeting Mimi, Sarah, and John made this part of the trip awesome. They have done a lot of traveling together and it was great hanging out with them, getting to know them, and hearing some of their stories.

Ok, check out the pictures if you're interested, otherwise, next stop is LA.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Berkeley & San Fran Sandwich

If you would have asked me anytime before this trip if I had relatives living in Berkeley California I would have answered no. But that answer would have been wrong. As it turns out I have two cousins living in Berkeley with their families. Cousins Jon and Billy Witort and they were most accommodating to my travel plans.

It's funny how things turn out really. I planned on traveling alone on this trip and planned to see amazing natural wonders, special things I thought I should stop and take notice of on this planet before it's too late. But one thing I learned in Berkeley is that family is a special thing, and one you can experience in much the same way as many of the worlds natural wonders.

Seeing the beauty that this world has to offer makes you feel like you're doing something right. It makes you feel like you belong in that place for that moment that you discover it. Well my cousins (along with their parents while I was in Portland) made me feel as if I belonged when I came to see them. Even more so it seemed as if there was an instant connection. As if there was no judgment, no predispositions, just a discovery of not something wonderful, but someone wonderful. I feel so blessed to have a family that I love, and who loves me, but I've come to realize that the circle of family that I thought I had is actually much bigger than I first thought.

Berkeley was a great stop though, even more so than just being able to spend sometime with some wonderful people. I was able to visit UC Berkeley and walk around a beautiful college campus which always puts me in a good mood. Anything that can bring memories of 4 years at Penn State to my mind always makes me feel great. I was also in town for another birthday party, Jon's, which was fun, but what I will remember most about it was the group of hippies that we shared the park with. Classic...

Berkeley really seemed like a different place than anywhere I'd ever been before though. On the surface it was just like any other nice, well to do area where people have money, and live what appears to be carefree lives, but if you look a little closer it's has something different about it. My first hint was when I got in Billy's car and he said it ran on vegetable oil, and my second was when Jon's car didn't make a sound. Not only did these people have money, but they were eco-friendly too! There were recycling bins for every type of material you can imagine, solar panels, hybrid cars, community cars, and some people even rode bikes! Honestly, I used to think that America can change with time, that someday in the future we can be more conscious of our effects on the environment, but I was wrong. It doesn't need to happen "someday" it really can happen now. It already is, in Berkeley.

Berkeley was also my jumping off point for San Francisco. Billy lent me his bike and I rode around the busy streets of San Francisco for a whole day like I was Kevin Bacon from "Quicksilver". I usually love walking around big cities but this bike experience was great. I went all over from the Pier 39 to the Golden Gate Bridge, beach front parks to AT&T Park to catch a free baseball game. This was the best city experience I had on my trip.

All that and they had a dog I could play with too. What more could I ask for, right? Well Billy ended up trumping all of that by giving me the best advice for where I should go when I get to the Grand Canyon. I will always be indebted to him for that. "If you wanna just look at the Canyon, yeah, go where everyone else goes, but if you want to hike it, go here." Man was he right. But you'll have to wait to hear about that place later because I wasn't off to the grand canyon yet.
Next stop Santa Cruz!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Hiking Spree in Yosemite

After sobering up, a decent nights sleep in a roadside hotel (actual name "Roadside Hotel), and taking a few bottles of wine for the road, Elizabeth and I were able to descend into Yosemite Valley in the middle of the night. We probably should have done a little more research because without any welcome signs, or street lights, Yosemite Valley can appear to be a pretty unwelcoming place when it's pitch black. The winding roads go up, down, and around hills in such extreme ways you can see the same road you're on changing its direction several times in the distance as if the road itself doesn't know which way to go. A large flashing sign that read "Yosemite Valley Closed 10pm-4am" freaked us out and for a second it felt like I'd just reached Walley World with the Griswold family, but luckily enough for us it was only 9:30pm and Yosemite Valley wasn't closed for maintenance. There were no rangers working at that time though, and we just pulled through the entrance gate not knowing if we were breaking the law or what.

However, even after going through the "entrance" of Yosemite, you still have to drive a ways to get to the camp grounds. More winding roads along sharp cliffs were ahead until we saw something even more frightening looking appear right in front of us. Just like a good teen horror movie, our car headlights illuminated two large men carrying ropes, boots, and gear at the last second. Elizabeth screeched the car to a halt because she was so scared. While I tried to ask her why she stopped instead of getting as far away as possible from those two imposing figures, it was too late...those imposing figures were now both knocking on my window.

There is absolutely zero light around so two dark shadows stand over the car able to see in where the inside light is spotlighting our scared faces. Then in broken English I hear one of them say "You ride us camp?" These weren't hitchhikers from a teen horror movie, these were just over aambitious foreigners stranded after a day of rock climbing. The whole scenario was hysterical though. You would have had to been crazy to stop for these two guys (Elizabeth???), but then they sounded so helpless while still looking like a nightmare. Then while letting them in the whole time Willow was barking at them like they were Terminators. When they finally squeezed into the back seat with their over sized backpacks and climbing equipment you couldn't tell there were people sitting there. You would have just guessed Elizabeth and I packed the whole car to the brim with camping gear. So for the next 10 minutes or so of the ride we chatted with our new passengers.

They were from Austria, and seemed quite harmless. Talking with them was difficult though because it sounded like their bodies were rejecting the English language, and Elizabeth and I kept laughing while talking to them because their voices weren't coming from them. To us it looked like we were talking to two overstuffed backpacks. We got near camp and they stumbled out of the car with all of their equipment. Overall a very strange experience, and since Willow never stopped barking at them I'm still suspicious they might have been a new generation of "T-1000's". I never did actually see their faces. I guess we'll never know, but at least I survived.

We then checked into Curry Village and unloaded our stuff into our heated tent. Yes, the tent was heated, thank you Curry Village, and than you Elizabeth. A heated tent is definitely not something I would spring for if I were alone. The accommodations were nice but you can't really keep anything in your tent. Almost all belongings that look like food, smell like food, taste like food, or have been in the same country as food in the past 6 weeks need to be locked your provided the bear locker. Being that there was a "bear locker" and bear warnings all over the place I was hoping I would see one. I didn't...

But I did see nature at its finest. I also met a couple really cool guys to hike with and I did every trail I could (although Half Dome was closed for snow). The waterfalls were spectacular, rock faces were unreal, lakes, streams, paths, trails, they all blew me away. I loved Yosemite and felt so lucky to be able to visit there because I thought it was something special. Then I saw pictures of families that had been coming to Yosemite for vacations for over a hundred years. It made it seem a little less "adventurous" but a bit more educational. Either way, I got some amazing photos:

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Backpacker Goes Where No Others of His Kind Have Gone Before

That's right, I went to Napa Valley. Of course during my budget travels I've slept on couches, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for three meals a day, and gone days without showering, but that doesn't mean I don't enjoy the finer things in life too. Wine and cheese is taste I picked up in France, and I've enjoyed it ever since. Granted it's a rare treat for me, but a spectacular treat none-the-less. So I wasn't going to just pass through America's wine region because I didn't have nice enough clothes to wear, I was going to treat myself just like everyone else...well, kinda like everyone else.

The region is really pretty, that goes without saying. It is one of those places that looks exactly like how you picture it in your mind. Vast fields of grapes growing on their vines dispersed amongst a landscape of green rolling hills under a blue sky. Just driving around there you feel like you should be drinking wine, probably not the most ethical feeling, but still a good feeling when your body senses what it's purpose is in a place. Drink wine. It's that simple. Drink, taste, swirl, smell or spit. It doesn't really matter what you do as long as you are connecting with the spirit of the valley.

Wine is life there, socially and spiritually. I would never have believed how many different adjectives they can use to describe some wines, but still give you no clue as to how it's going to taste; mellow but still complex, a bit chewy, astringent, balanced, big, closed, connected, dry, fat, firm, flabby, hollow, lean, round, and toasty...what the hell does that mean?

I didn't know, but didn't care. I wasn't putting up a front. They saw my Penn State hoodie and new that I was there to taste the wine and describe them in my own terms of drinkable, too girlie, out of my price range, or perfect (under $5 a bottle). I still give them credit for trying to express the importance of the aging process, the temperature of the vines, and precious soil needed to create such a tasty beverage, but my mouth lacks the skill to notice those minute factors. Some might say that's too bad, but I also think sometimes...ignorance is bliss.

Thanks for the wine Napa! Next stop...Yosemite National Park, where I'll fit in a little better.

See more pictures here.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Redwood National Forest

Back on the road again! This time headed to multiple destinations with one other traveler, who has a car and is willing to drive me! I was lucky enough to meet Elizabeth who also wanted to see Redwood National Park, Napa Valley and Yosemite. She was a blessing from above and even picked me up at my Aunt and Uncles house...an hour EARLY! I'm not sure if it was her kind smile, jovial demeanor, or her friendly dog, Willow, that she brought along, but my family and I were pretty confident right off the bat that this was going to work out well.

Elizabeth enjoyed talking just as much as I do, if not more, so we got along well, and had very little moments of silence. But when there was silence I would just turn around and pet Willow who was an extra special bonus traveler for me because, as we all know, I love dogs.

Our drive down to Redwood National Forrest went as well as I could have hoped for. Being the navigator, the fact that I didn't get us lost made it a success, but we made it down there without any unnecessary excitement, well, that was until we got close. We were just one turn away from the Youth Hostel we looking for when something unexpected happened. Being from New Jersey it's nothing special to see an animal run across the street right in front of your car, but it's usually a deer or a squirrel. But from the size of the paws on this cat that swiftly bolted across the street directly in front of our car, I was instantly cognizant that I was not in New Jersey anymore...and I liked it.

After discussing with some locals, what we saw was either a young mountain lion or bobcat, but we had an instant conversation starter for when we got to the hostel.

The frail, rail thin, dread locked, white, 20 something behind the hostel check in counter was exactly what I expected to see and worked with the slow pace you can only chalk up to a hippie in his absolute prime. While checking us in, after minutes of long silences that he didn't seem to notice, he mentioned that the hostel, with a whopping 8 people staying at it, was going to be performing a "concert" soon after we checked in. I chuckled at the idea of what might pass as a "concert" to a hippie living at a youth hostel, and completely disregarded his invitation right then and there. I was VERY HUNGRY though, and I had a Subway "5 dollar footlong" (great buy) that needed to be eaten quickly so I could get a short hike in before the sun went down. I hurried to put my bags down in my room that could fit 10 people, but I only shared it with one middle aged man who resembled a hippie Santa Clause.

I initially entered the kitchen to eat my sub, but was alone at a table that could have seated 30, so I decided to take it into the more cozy family room where some other people were sitting around. Little did I know, I had just unwittingly upped the attendance at tonights "concert" I had only minutes earlier swore off. Only 5 people were sitting around. I'm happy I took the open seat on the couch because it would have been really awkward if I sat in the open seat that was now obviously set for the performer. But once he did sit down I was almost trapped into staying and listening. Yet, I'm a fan of music, and who turns down live entertainment while eating unless you're alone at a Mexican restaurant with a large Mariachi band walking around? So I sat, and ate, and listened...

Wow! The performers name was Jim Page and I was hooked as soon as he started strumming his guitar. Honestly, it was like I was in a trance, hanging on every word, every chorus, listening for the rhymes, trying to predict the next word, but being pleasantly surprised when the lyrics were better than my own. This was a true American experience, sitting around in a small group listening to an old man sing about the problems of the government, the religious extremists, the struggles of day to day life, and the hidden beauty behind it all. He might as well have been singing around a campfire.

Living outside of America for a year really made this a much fuller experience for me. Instead of being a tourist who couldn't understand a word of what what monks, native, or local people were singing about while I was on my travels, this was something completely different. I was part of the experience, not watching from the outside, staring at something so alien to me it's entertaining, but actually connecting with the performers words, sounds, and spirit. There was something great about hearing his thoughts, dreams, fears, and desires. There was something uniquely American about it all.

After living in Korea, making friends there, being accepted into families there, and enjoying their culture I felt an unusual connection to the place. Like I've said before, I now, as oddly as it sounds, see Seoul as a second home. Much the way I looked at college while I was attending Penn State. It's a place where I've proved that I can live a great life. But while I was in Korea my admiration of and connection to America weakened. I was hoping, but not too confident that this trip might rekindle the strong connection I had once felt for my own country. This wonderful concert was a big step forward in doing that. I would have never expected it, but there are little, seemingly insignificant experiences that can have a great impact on our lives, and how we live them. This concert was something I could have easily walked away from without giving it a chance, but instead I sat, listened, and ate it all up...every last word.

Of course then the next few days I went out and hiked through amazing forests with enormous trees older than dirt. My new mindset just made it all that much more enjoyable.

Next stop, the wine regions of Sonoma and Napa Valley! Ready or not, here I come with a new CD in hand, haha, I had to support a musician who stays at hostels.