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 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.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Smooth Portlanding

So with no license and no car how was I supposed to start this great American tour? How do you get around when all you have is your two legs...and a computer? The internet is a wonderful thing. I turned to Craigslist "Rideshare" postings and scavenged it daily. I found people that were looking for someone to share gas with and were headed to where I was going. I emailed them, talked with them over the phone, and tried to figure out if they were crazy. If I didn't think they'd kill me, and if I didn't think I'd want to kill myself after riding with them, I took it. My first shot at "cyber-hitchhiking" was a short trip from Seattle to Portland. I was a little nervous, and made sure my brother Kevin had my cell phone number and a recent picture of me just in case anything happened, but it all turned out fine. I even shared the back seat with another Penn State graduate. The driver was a nice girl with 4 jobs...4 jobs!!! And they were all "green" jobs. Yes, she was into saving the earth and sharing her car means cutting down on carbon emissions, so that's why she does it. She wasn't looking for people to torture or kill, just looking to help the environment.

When I got to Portland I couldn't believe I was really there. "That's it?" I said. It's a very small looking city, cozy almost. I road the MAX train to my Uncle Paul's house and was happy that the first leg of the American tour went well. I spent the next few days playing with their dog "Rags", walking around the city of Portland, attending a family members birthday party, meeting new people, hiking, boating, fishing, and planning my trip from Portland down towards San Francisco. Luckily my cousin Jenna had friends in from out of town who where from San Francisco and had plenty of good advice to give me.

Portland was a really nice stop. It was nice to be in a house again after living in an apartment for a year in Korea, and then having a blow up mattress in my brothers living room for two weeks. Just seeing my Aunt and Uncle was a special treat. Since they lived most of their lives in Illinois or on the west coast I don't get to see them much, but they are really great people. I loved staying at their place, showing them pictures, telling my travel stories and hearing their thoughts about everything I've been doing. They thought what I was doing was great and wished me all the best. But most of all they just hoped that my next driver wouldn't kill me.