New York City Part 1: When the big city beckons…

I never do a great job getting these blogs written with anything that may resemble timeliness.  Usually I have big plans to write it on the airplane home, or the following weekday night.  But I went to Indianapolis for a weekend in June and that blog still hasn’t happened, so…

Who knows.  Maybe we’ll get around to that blog one of these days.

This one was a little different, though.  The longer I put this one off the less I wanted to write it.  The less I wanted to return to my memories of the trip because it was so, so wonderful it makes my heart physically ache with nostalgia.  This thought made me wonder, briefly, if you could feel nostalgic about something that happened 2 months ago, but then I remembered I felt pained with nostalgia just riding away from the city on a bus from Manhattan to Queens on my way to La Guardia for my return flight.  So I guess there’s my answer.

Oww, my heart.

New York was my fourth solo trip – really my third big solo trip, not counting Indianapolis – and I think this trip I really hit my stride for a couple of reasons.  1) I had a few solo trips under my belt, 2) I had booked my flights and hostel for the trip probably back in March or April and put it in the back of my mind.  Then I was so busy leading up to the trip that suddenly it was September and the trip had crept up on me without me even realizing it.  Which I think was a good thing – I didn’t have time to feel nervous, and 3) It’s New York City.  C’mon.

For this trip I finally had my flights out of and into Dayton – versus Columbus and CHICAGO – so Beau kindly dropped me off at the airport on Friday morning, September 8th.  I breezed through security, probably grabbed a cp of coffee, and got to my gate.  Around me were a retired married couple, a woman in a straw fedora dressed like she was flying to the Caribbean, a college age girl with a unicorn backpack, and a guy who looked to be about my age.  We loaded the plane and took off.  The flight was fairly unremarkable, but it was a clear, sunny day and a beautiful view from my window seat on the left side of the plane and I caught some awesome glimpses at Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan before we curved and landed at La Guardia in Queens.

IMG_0399.jpg

We unloaded the plane and at this point I didn’t have, let’s say, any idea how I was going to get from the airport in Queens to my hostel in the Upper West Side.  I could have Ubered or taken a taxi but it would have been expensive and timely.  I ended up pulling up my Transit app and found it would take about as much or less time to grab a bus and the hop on the subway, for significantly less money.  First I would need a Metro Card, and as it turns out the one Metro Card machine in the terminal I landed at was down, so I had to board the airport’s shuttle and ride it to the next terminal where I finally found its Metro Card machine.  Even though I was only in the city for three days, I bought the 7-day unlimited pass for $32.  A single ride fair is about three bucks and I’m sure I took the subway more than 10 times so it ended up being a a pretty good deal.  

My original plan had been to go straight to my hostel to check in and drop my things, however the plane had landed just a touch late, and with having to chase down a Metro Card I was behind by a good hour and so instead decided to just go straight into the city and truck around with my oversized backpack all day.  I finally boarded the Q70 bus to the Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue/74th Street Subway station, went down the steps to the platform to wait for the F train, looked up and saw the guy who had been at my gate and on my flight from Dayton.  We got on different cars on the same train and sped off into the city.  

My destination for the morning was Chelsea and the High Line.  I got off the Subway a few stations early, though, at 34th Street and Herald Square.  I saw Macy’s, looped around the Empire State Building to Madison Avenue, through Madison Square Park and popped out on 5th Avenue and, unexpectedly, at the Flatiron Building.  I walked a few blocks down 5th Avenue and the cut over on 20th Street past Kleinfeld’s Bridal.  Several blocks later I was at Chelsea Piers.  I walked along the waterside there for a while before making my way to Chelsea Market.  Chelsea Market is a “food hall”/shopping mall and overall very, very crowded place at noon on a Friday.  I wasn’t hungry, but aside from a package of about 9 almonds I had on the plane, my stomach was empty and it was a good opportunity for some lunch.  I ended up at Cream Line – a “farm to tray” (what?) stand in Chelsea Market, and while the chicken sandwich with honey butter and hot sauce and strawberry milkshake I ordered didn’t blow me away, I did develop an appreciation for honey on fried chicken.  Try it – you’re welcome.

Next was the High Line, an abandoned-elevated-railway-turned-walkway-urban-park.  It was beautiful, and bustling, and the first time I had seen green since my front yard leaving my house earlier that morning.  Portions of the walkway have built-in seating and I found an empty lounge seat and sat for a time to take a deep breath and people watch.  I walked along the walkway a little farther – to be honest my memory fades a bit here – I think I looped around Chelsea Piers again and then made my way back to the Subway and eventually to my hostel in the 100s of the Upper West Side. 

I guess this is a good place for me to talk about the subway while we wait for my memory to catch up with the timeline of the day.  I was a little leery at first of riding the New York City Subway.  But it’s, like cheap, and I’m, like, poor.  So I rode the thing the whole damn weekend.  And it was awesome.  The thing about the subway is that, right next to a homeless person sleeping or a guy playing saxophone for tips, you have a business person, and next to them is a family, and next to them is a group of teenagers, and next to them are some tourists.  Everybody rides the subway.  It’s well-organized and well-traveled and while some stations are certainly cleaner and nicer than others, I felt perfectly comfortable riding the subway well past midnight both nights of my trip.  In fact, I felt perfectly comfortable and safe my entire time in New York.  Not one time did I really feel unsafe.  Granted, I stayed in fairly populated, touristy areas.  But that is one thing that stands out to me from the trip – I felt safer in New York City than I did at times in Indianapolis, or than I do in Dayton sometimes for that matter.

I’m piecing some things together here but I think I probably took the 1 Train or the C Train to about the 86th Street station and walked along the edge of Central Park up to 103rd Street and over to Amsterdam Avenue to the hostel.  The hostel was huge.  And aside from the fact that my 12-bed dorm smelled like socks most of the weekend, it was bright and clean and friendly.  It had a little cafe near the lobby, and beautiful back patio, and hosted what appeared to be a few birthday parties and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs over the course of the weekend.  It was just far enough away from the craziness of the city to feel a little quieter, but close enough to be convenient, and just a couple blocks off of Central Park.  

I put my things away, freshened up, probably rested for just a while, and then set out for what would become my favorite place this trip and the epitome of my people-watching career – Washington Square Park.  

My plan for Friday night was a guided World Trade Center Memorial and Brooklyn Bridge night tour.  The tour was supposed to meet at Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan and so I took the subway from my hostel to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village – a mile or two walk from the meeting area.  This was around maybe 6:00PM and the early evening sun had begun to set just enough to take the edge off the brightness of the day.  The park was golden and filled with street performers and NYU students and so many people who were there just to be there – to be out in the city – to talk and read and blow bubbles and play music and chess.  There was a group of people who would intermittently take off in a dead sprint around the fountain at the center of the park and a group of people standing in a group who would just scream at the top of their lungs occasionally.  I sat down on one of the black stone benches that encircle the park and watched and watched and watched all the people passing through, all the conversations and laughter.  It was busy and buzzing but not chaotic – as if the volume of the city had been turned down – just a bit.  It felt alluring and magical and I could easily have sat there for hours, warmed by the early evening sun.  Soon enough, however, I had to make my way downtown for the tour.  I believe I walked a block or two over and walked down Broadway through SoHo stopping along the way to grab a quick sandwich and a coffee and made my way past New York City Hall to Zuccotti Park.

IMG_0412

The tour began around 8PM – the sun had set and a chill was picking up in the air.  The tour was in two parts – a tour of the World Trade Center Complex and Memorial, and a Brooklyn Bridge tour.  We toured the 9/11 Memorial and our tour guide recounted his personal experience from September 11, 2001 and talked about his friends and firefighters that he knew who died.  We explored the Oculus – a transportation hub and shopping area – the newest addition to the World Trade Center Complex.  We walked past nearby St. Paul’s Chapel and Trinity Church – the oldest church in Manhattan and the oldest building in use in New York City.  It also served to house rescue and recovery workers in the months following 9/11 and despite it’s proximity to the World Trade Center, survived without any damage.  


We then made our way out to Centre Street and learned about the Brooklyn Bridge history and construction.  A few tidbits: the gentleman who designed and oversaw the construction of the Bridge died in the process.  The project was overtaken by his son, who became ill and was unable to finish supervising the construction.  Finally the project was supervised his wife,  who saw it through to its completion.  Also, there was originally some fear surrounding the Bridge after it opened, however P.T. Barnum led a parade of elephants across the Bridge, which I imagine pretty well put those fears to rest.  We walked halfway across the Bridge over the East River, snapped more than a few pictures, and then returned back.

My original plans had been to return to my hostel following the tour.  But it was only 10:30 and I was in New York City and I was experiencing a tiny bit of traveller’s high and who sleeps in New York anyway and so made a spur-of-the-moment decision to try and book it up to Midtown to try and catch the last ride to the top of Rockefeller Center.  And I made it – barely.  I think they sell the last tickets at 11PM and I think I bought mine at like 10:57.

Wow.  Standing at the top of Rockefeller Center overlooking Manhattan late on a chilly fall night was an incredible moment.  To stare out and look at what felt like a million lights: traffic lights, headlights, streetlights, Times Square glowing in the distance, countless windows filled with dim light.  I stood there until I was one of the last people on the observation deck and could have easily stood there another hour – just staring – and was reminded of how I felt on my first trip during my first moments by myself in San Fransisco: I’m really here, I’m really doing this.  I posted a photo of this moment on Facebook with the quote: “The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.”

Oww, my heart.

IMG_0469.jpg

It took everything in me to force myself back to my hostel.  It was well past midnight – easily nearing 1AM by the time I got back and settled in for the night.  

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Advertisements

I think I’ll go to Boston.

This is long.  Get yourself a cuppa cawfee.


I had a bad morning one day in June.  Nothing life-altering.  Just a woke-up-late, no-clean-laundry, dropped-my-phone-in-my-coffee-cup type of bad morning.  And so I booked a trip to Boston.

Thinking back, that may have been an overreaction.  I’m still working out that whole “impulse control” thing.

Regardless, I had a bad morning one day in June so I booked a trip to Boston in October because didn’t that just sound lovely and crisp and distant and idyllic and as far away from the monotony as I could get for the cost of a reasonably-priced American Airlines Economy ticket?

Ah, and it was.

Things I didn’t anticipate that morning in June: beginning an American Sign Language Interpreter Training program in August, moving in with my boyfriend in September, getting engaged in January, simultaneously planning a wedding while working full-time and taking classes part-time.  So now it’s February.  And I took a trip to Boston in October.  Because I had a bad morning one day in June.  And this is what I remember.


I had my first solo trip under my belt.  I had successfully flown myself across the country, spent a day speed-walking the streets of San Fransisco, and rode an Amtrak through the mountains, canyons, and plains of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois.  Certainly flying into one city and just staying put for a few days would be much easier.  Certainly packing would be much simpler as I wouldn’t have to haul a week’s worth of my belongings around the city of San Fransisco all day, no?  Less to worry about, right?  Less anxiety-provoking…

It was when I called out to my boyfriend in the living room to come lay, literally dead weight pressure, on top of me in bed to help me ground my nerves the evening before my flight that I realized I was still a little green regarding this whole “solo travel” thing.

Oh, but the excitement is in the anticipation.  And I was, truly, excited about my second adventure.

I made it to the airport with an appropriate amount of time to spare this go-around.  I was checked in, through security, at my gate forcing down a protein bar and some coffee and pretending to read my book (does anybody get any actual reading done in airports?) for the better part of an hour before I boarded the plane and was off on my first flight: DAY→LGA.

Arriving in La Guardia was an unexpected treat to begin my trip.  Sitting on the left side of the plane I had an incredible view of Lower Manhattan: Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, One World Trade Center, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Empire State Building all in one-fell-swoop as we descended to landing.  Back on the ground, my phone immediately lit up with emails and alerts telling me that my flight second flight – LGA→BOS – had been cancelled.  I briefly panicked, briefly considered re-routing my trip entirely and spending the next 5 days in New York City recalling the view I had on the plane, and quickly made my way to what was supposed to be my next gate where I found they had already placed my on the next flight out.  A short set-back.  New York would have to wait.  (More on that later…)

I grabbed another coffee (because I like spending 20% the cost of a night in a hostel on an 8oz. airport Americano) and waited.  My plane arrived.  I got on.  And we flew up the jagged east coastline to Boston Logan.

14720594_10211373812407799_6933984649418962590_n

Judge me all you want for this basic-ass filtered-to-death photo.  I love it.  And you do, too.

After landing I gathered my things, de-boarded (un-boarded? de-planed?) and started for the exit as one does in an airport – as through a labyrinth.  I had done a bit of research preparing for the trip and so I knew I could take the Silver Line to South Station for free from the airport.  This would put me within about a half-mile walking distance from my hostel.  And such began my first experience on the T – loud, a little scary, but not entirely unpleasant.  It was also kind enough to let me know that it would be switching between gas and electric about halfway through the trip.  And soon enough we were at South Station.  I seem to have a knack for ascending from underground public transit, worse-for-wear from travel, into the heart of a city’s financial district during lunch hour.  Silently cursing myself for not working for a start-up or owning even a single pair of Tieks, I tightened my grip on my duffle bag and waddled as quickly as I could through the Financial District into Chinatown and came to stop between Chinatown and the Theater District at my hostel.

You guys.

If you ever need a cheap place to stay in Boston.  If you ever want to have the experience of staying in a hostel.  If you want your first experience of hostels to set your expectations so high that you’ll forever be disappointed with any other hostel you stay in, stay in Hosteling International’s Boston Hostel.  It’s huge and bright and clean and beautiful.  And it captured my heart with its nod to the hostel I stayed in while in San Fransisco.


I got into my room, unpacked, freshened up, and set out for the evening.  My first goal was dinner.  My second goal was free entertainment.  After about a mile walk, having passed approximately three dozen Dunkin’ Donuts – give or take – I ended up at Flour Bakery off of Congress Street.  It was cooling down outside and a bit misty and so stepping into the cozy, warm bakery was a welcome home.  I got a roasted turkey sandwich, some eggplant parmesan soup to help me warm up, and a cookie for later.  I stayed there a while, sitting, and reading, and be-ing.  A funny thing about being inside a place like that – it doesn’t feel much different from home.  I could be in Dayton or Boston or Australia.  Sitting and drinking coffee and reading with quiet conversation bubbling in the background – the familiarity itself becomes disorienting.  A funny thing about spending time alone – the more you do it, the less aware you become of your alone-ness.

Eventually I cleaned up my table and set out for the Institute of Contemporary Art.  The museum is free from 5pm to close every Thursday and I’m so glad I took advantage of the opportunity to drop in.  After taking in the view of the  Harbor from the expansive back steps of the building, the first, and most worthwhile installation I saw was Nalini Malani’s “In Search of Vanished Blood”.  I’ll borrow a photo from the Boston Globe to post here.

“The work comprises six 11-minute video projections streamed around the room through five clear Mylar cylinders, hand-painted with a variety of cultural and historical iconography, which hang in the center of the room. As the Mylar cylinders rotate, the colorful and layered imagery is projected onto the walls, creating a magical environment reminiscent of lantern slide presentations and other proto-cinema experiments in the 18th and 19th centuries.”  You can read more about it on the ICA’s website.  The piece was hauntingly beautiful, strikingly painful, immersive, mesmerizing.  Interestingly, the video ends with ASL finger-spelled letters flashing with increasing speed and intensity.  I spoke with a docent about the artist’s connection to the Deaf community.  The docent wasn’t aware of any direct connection, that the artist had used that imagery to represent women’s oppression and silence.  I do wonder how much the artist knows about the Deaf community’s own history of oppression, and how they would view their language representing “silence”.

After winding my way through the museum, I started out to return to the hostel for the night.  It was beyond dusk by then and beginning to spit rain.  By the time I made it back to South Station it was pouring.  I went inside to buy and umbrella and, finding none, wandered around the shops there until either the rain stopped or I stopped waiting for it to stop – I can’t recall – and walked/ran/scurried the rest of the way back to the hostel, stopping only for a small cup of Dunkin’ Decaf to go with my leftover cookie from Flour, and settled in for the night.

Friday was Freedom Trail day.  On the way to begin the Freedom Trail I stumbled upon the cutest outdoor used bookstore called Brattle Book Shop.  (I would visit at least 3-4 more used bookstores over the next few days).  I was browsing through the shelves when I came across Anne Lamott’s “Bird By Bird”.  I’d be surprised to learn of a more well-loved book about writing.  I’ve borrowed this book before – from friends, from libraries – and I finally have a copy of my own to keep.  I just had to fly to Boston to find it.

screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-5-25-09-am

No one is allowed to visit Boston without doing the Freedom Trail, and if you don’t they throw you in olde-timey-jail, or so I am told.  You can pay for a tour guide in a costume to prance around Boston with you or you can do what I did: pin-drop all the Freedom Trail sites into your Maps app in order, sip on your coffee, and listen to some music through your earbuds while the app tells you exactly where to walk.  You look like you know where you’re going, nobody is any wiser to your ploy, and you can conspicuously listen in on the tours as you please.  The Freedom Trail is a couple mile walk through Boston that includes some pretty cool historical sites.  I ate a bowl of New England clam chowder at Quincy Market which I suppose seems significant enough to include here.  I saw a lot of really old things, and took a lot of pictures of things other people were also taking pictures of.  Here are some of those.

I reached the USS Constitution – the end of the line as far as the Freedom Trail is concerned – and hopped on a ferry back to Long Wharf, not too terribly far from where I’d been at the ICA the night before, and trekked back once more to the hostel.

Just before reaching my destination I stopped at a grimy pizza place on the corner adjacent to the hostel.  This would, in fact, be the first of three times I would frequent this corner shop during my trip.  Even now, months later, I still think about this pizza on a near-daily basis.

I took some time to veg at the hostel.  I tried to take a nap, but was too restless.  I’m learning I have a really difficult time resting on these solo trips.  I feel such enormous pressure to take advantage of my time, to “see it all” and make many vivid memories for myself, which doesn’t allow for a lot of sitting and relaxing.  I finally showered and got ready to go out for the night.  I had bought a cheap ticket to see some local stand-up at a nearby theater but didn’t have the patience to wait around the hostel until showtime.  Instead I took a long, winding walk through Boston Common and Boston Public Garden.  The sun was setting and the moon was magnificent and I briefly followed an older, distinguished looking grey-haired woman who looked to be with her two daughters walking around the Common.  The way she said the word “beautiful” was so endearing – Minnesotan – “byootiful”.  I heard her impart to them that she would never forget that night.  I have no idea what made that night so special for the three, but hearing her share that that was, well “byootiful”.

I arrived at the theater and after realizing that I was not, in fact, the only one in attendance, that my Diet Coke had not been spiked with any questionable drugs, and that I was not indeed going to be killed in the basement of the club, the comedy show was actually pretty great.  They were all local comedians and so I got a bit of insight into the culture.  On the way home I stopped into Jaho Coffee & Tea for some drinking chocolate, which was not a regrettable decision.

The next day I had another big day planned.  This, of course, included more walking which was important because of all the calories I would be consuming participating in Boston Chocolate’s Cupcake Crawl!  I joined a group for a walking tour of bakeries throughout the Back Bay area of Boston.  We serendipitously made a stop at another Flour Bakery location as well as CuppaCoffee (where I tasted a lamington for the first time) and the famous Georgetown Cupcakes.

The tour ended a short distance from Copley Square which includes such sites as Trinity Church, the finish line of the Boston Marathon, and Boston Public Library.  I happened to stumble upon the Boston Book Festival taking place at Copley that day and so after wandering through the sprawling rooms and hallways of the Public Library, I grabbed some lunch from Bon Me food truck and sat down curbside to listen to some local music and do some quality people watching.

IMG_0310.jpg

That night I had tickets to a show called Shear Madness which is a comedy murder whodunit that takes place in a hair salon.  The theater was very intimate which was perfect for the interactive nature of the show.  It was a highlight of the trip and made for the perfect Saturday night.  I honestly laughed until my stomach hurt and would recommend the show to anyone.

The following day was Sunday – my last full day in Boston.  I had another full day planned beginning with a fall foliage riverboat tour up the St. Charles river past MIT, Boston University, and Harvard.  I was also planning on spending the afternoon and evening in Cambridge.  I had a pretty long walk in the morning to get to the starting place of the riverboat cruise, but it was only a small bother because the walk was through the gorgeous brickstreet-laeden Beacon Hill area of Boston.  I stopped at yet another bakery – Tatte Bakery & Cafe.  Having been a patron at a majority of Boston’s bakeries at this point, I can easily say that Tatte was the most beautiful.  Their display cases are overflowing with oversized pastries.  It was impossible to choose which to try.  I ended up with some sort of spinach and cream cheese danish and a pistachio “nut box”.  Neither proved disappointing.

I reached the St. Charles river and boarded the small riverboat.  The tour was actually pretty engaging and informative and we were able to glimpse some beautiful shots of Boston and Cambridge and the changing fall colors.

By the time the cruise was over I was feeling… not right.  Not the fault of the boat – I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten seasick – just… not right.  I couldn’t bring myself to make the trip afternoon to Cambridge.  It seemed too far away and too stressful, for whatever reason, at the time.  I was forced to give into my body and my emotional state, and maybe my instinct, and instead of an evening out in Cambridge, I picked up some cheese and olives and crackers at a deli in Beacon Hill (that sold Jeni’s Ice Cream!  Shout out, to Columbus!) on the way back to the hostel.  I relaxed in my bunk and watched some Netflix and ate my snacks.  Later that night I went out again – to do a bit of shopping at Primark – but I took it easy.  Instead, exchanging the sights of the big city for conversation with two women bunking across the room from me.  They were retired teachers who now travel together frequently and were in the middle of a month-or-so long trip.  Surprisingly, they had lived in Cincinnati and were very familiar with the Dayton area.  To say it’s a small world is not a cliche – it is in fact a beautiful truth – and it seems to become more true with each journey I take.  I’m glad I stayed in that night.  Quiet and connection and conversation were what I needed.

Having been re-feuled by the previous night, I decided to take a lightning quick trip over to Cambridge to see Harvard in the morning before leaving for my flight.  I’m happy I did go, if only just to see that Miami University is still “the most beautiful campus there ever was”.

IMG_0348.JPG

I hopped on the T to return one last time to the hostel, gathered my belongings and set out on foot to South Station where I would board the Silver Line T to Logan and fly home.

I think I’ll go to Boston
I think that I’m just tired
I think I need a new town, to leave this all behind
I think I need a sunrise, I’m tired of the sunset
I hear its nice in the summer, some snow would be nice
Boston, where no one knows my name

Next up: New York, New York.  September 2017.

California Zephyr Part 2: Amtrak #6

I woke up to a sleepy, quiet dawn.  I use the word “dawn” here intentionally because it is a rare and special occasion for me to experience dawn – the sacred time of day when the world is catching its last moments of rest before morning begins.  Like the city of San Fransisco the previous day, it felt as if this time existed solely for me.  It was mine alone.  And I savored it for a few minutes while orienting myself from sleep and reflecting on the previous day and the days to come.  We had slept with the window open.  Open-open.  No screen.  And the light mist from the Bay had made its way into our dorm.  I descended the bunk, stripped my bed, and gathered – clattered – my things together in the dark grey light of the room provided by the single open window.  I exited the dorm room and went to freshen up in the bathroom.

I learned a number of things on this trip – like how to hold a conversation for three hours with a complete stranger (more on that later) – but one that was most valuable to me was how to stay grounded in myself while alone and far away from home.  As I mentioned in my previous post, solo travel, it seems so far, requires continuous observation, planning, thinking, thinking, thinking.  You’re entirely responsible for not only your own logistics and safety, but also for your own entertainment, enjoyment, and memories.  I found it easy at times to get wrapped up in my own head.  How do I do this?  Can I do this?  Am I doing this right?  Am I enjoying this?  What if… what if… what if?  And so it became important for me to learn how to ground myself – in transit.  This trip I found three things I could rely on to stay grounded: a cup of coffee, an episode of SVU, and doing my makeup.  I’ve long valued the sacred ritual of a cup of coffee.  Whether fresh from my French press drunk from my favorite of 50+ mugs in the comfort of my bed at home (in which I am partaking as I type) or on the go from a cardboard cup of overpriced airport coffee, the spiritual call of warmth, focus, and energy was a frequent practice during my trip. This particular morning, as I worried still how exactly I was going to get myself across the Bay to the train station, it was makeup that quieted my thoughts.  Grooming.  Caring for myself.  I had done this, too, when I first landed at SFO the day before.  I hadn’t been quite ready to head out into my adventure and so after off-boarding the plane, I purchased a cup of coffee, and sat, in the middle of the airport, applying my makeup, until I was ready to go.

Hair done,  makeup applied, and teeth brushed, I grabbed my bags and linens, left the bathroom for the small hostel lobby, placed my linens in the designate receptacle as instructed when I checked in, and set out into the quiet dawn to somehow make my way across the Bay.

13015671_10209651180383075_65202989138545908_n

A beautiful view in a quiet moment

With the help of my Transit app once again I walked a few blocks to a bus stop and boarded the MUNI.  I must have had some luck following me around, the Clipper Card reader wasn’t working on this particular bus.  I sat down to follow the route with the GPS and did some Googling.  Apparently when the Clipper Card reader isn’t working, riders can ride for free.  Not a bad start to the morning.  The MUNI ride ended at the Transbay Terminal where I switched buses to an AC Transit line that took me across the Bay to Emeryville.  I got of the bus at Emeryville and after a bit of a walk through some alleys and under train tracks, I spotted the train station.  And also a Peet’s Coffee.  I was relieved in so many ways.

13006582_10209651181663107_5735181492648614808_n

Emeryville Amtrak Station

I stocked up at Peet’s figuring even coffee shop food would be cheaper (and tastier) than Amtrak train food, and still working against my appetite I enjoyed a breakfast sandwich and an iced coffee on a picnic table while I watched the trains come and go.  As departure time neared, I stuck the deli sandwich and Naked juice I bought at the coffee shop into my bag and made my way up the concrete steps, across the walking bridge that spanned the train tracks, and down to the other side in front of the station.  I took a final opportunity to charge my phone and my portable battery charger, although I wouldn’t need it – every seat on the train has an outlet.  And the double decker, Train #6 California Zephyr finally pulled into the station.

Everybody waited outside and as we loaded the train were assigned cars based on our accommodations (coach vs. sleeper) and final destination.  I was one of a handful of people riding coach to Chicago.  Many were getting off at other big stops – Reno, Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha.  We took some time to find a seat and acclimate to the train before it finally pulled out of the station and we were on our way.

The train was made up of coach cars, sleeper cars, an observation car, a cafe car, and a dining car.  Most of the action took place on the top deck, however the cafe car, restrooms, and some seating were on the lower deck.  Riders were free to move around any areas of the train at all times.  Cars were connected by a set of double doors that automatically slid open when pressed on them so you could walk between cars.  I spent a lot of my time in the observation car where windows along the walls and ceiling allowed a nearly 360 degree view of the scenery.

I found the first leg of the trip – from San Fransisco to Reno – particularly enjoyable in the observation car because volunteer docents from the California State Railroad Museum provided a narrative of the landscape and history of the Transcontinental Railroad which added so much to the already breathtakingly beautiful scenery.

13043394_10209654037414499_7276427141458149239_n

American River Canyon

13077078_10209655488650779_6603540873164442945_n

Donner Lake

It was during this leg of the trip that I fell into an easy conversation with a fellow traveler – I think he said his name was Mike.  I had heard – overheard – Mike and an older gentleman talking in the observation car behind me.  The older gentleman, surprisingly, shared with Mike that he and his wife lived in Cincinnati.  I turned around and gently butted my way into the conversation, “You live in Cincinnati?  I live near the Dayton area!  Well, east of Dayton, in Xenia…”  As it turns out the gentleman and his wife lived in Xenia for 20 years prior to moving to Cincinnati.  He knew the dog park I bring Reggie to.  He knew my grocery store.  We of course shared a short discussion about the 1974 tornado.  Everybody in Xenia has a tornado story.  It’s how Xenia marks the passage of time.  There exists two spans of time in Xenia – all of the time before February of 1974, and the blink of an eye since: “Can you believe it’s been that long?”

Mike also had a connection to the Dayton area – he spent some time at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base while in the reserves.  He brought up Yellow Springs.  The three of us enjoyed a laugh together having the shared knowledge of a tiny corner of the world in Ohio while on a train climbing the Sierra Nevadas in the middle of California.  All three of us in transit on the train and in our lives, all pausing in a shared moment together.

Mike and I continued an intermittent conversation for the remainder of the afternoon.  He had left his home in Washington D.C. for a month of travel.  He was two weeks in and said he had finally fallen into a comfortable rhythm of his short life on the road.  He was an 8th-grade-school-trip-tour-guide/life coach/improv performer/teacher which basically means that he uses the word “and” when he really means “but”.  (“I love going on vacations with my little nephews and I’m really enjoying this month of travel by myself.”)  However he, like I, had traveller’s high, and the buzz of opportunities and possibilities and wanderlust powered our conversation.  We spoke quickly and  I tripped over my words.  It was so wonderful to share a few hours of my trip in conversation with a passing stranger.  Three hours watching the mountains passed faster than I’d ever experienced and Mike excused himself for the dining car.  I grabbed something from the cafe car and went back to my seat to settle in for the night.  We were nearing Reno as I slipped down to the restrooms to wash my face and change into some more comfortable clothes in which to sleep.  I returned to my seat and with the help of earplugs, a sleep mask, a neck pillow, and a warm blanket, along with my seat which reclined well past 45 degrees and a foot rest, I drifted off to a decent sleep until we reached Salt Lake City in the early morning.

The next day we covered Utah and Colorado.  Utah, like California, was beyond gorgeous.  It was also my first experience seeing canyons.  As I did through California, I watched from the observation car as the train zipped along the Utah landscape and hours melted away.  At any moment I could have snapped a picture from my phone and it would have been as beautiful as the next.  Golden yellow turned orange turned red clay turned white snow as the day passed and Salt Lake turned into Provo turned into Glenwood Springs turned into Winter Park.  I ate in the dining car that night as we wound through snow-covered peaks of the well-known ski destination.  Had I not been, less than 48 hours earlier, walking along the bay in sunny San Fransisco?  After dinner I settled into a seat in the observation car as, slowly, the mountains opened up to flatland and we descended into Denver.  The buildings sparkled below as the darkness of sunset fell on the city – our first view of civilization since leaving Salt Lake City over 12 hours prior.  After we were through Denver it was completely dark outside and I again settled into my seat for a night of surprisingly restful sleep.

IMG_9813

Apparently it has become tradition in Colorado to moon the Amtrak train. Can you spot our friendly welcome to the state?

I woke up in Omaha.  The landscape had returned to familiar plains.  That afternoon we would be reaching Chicago and it was a bittersweet last day on the train.  My trip was coming to an end.  I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend some hours that day looking up flights and trains and hostels and drives to other adventures in other places.  It took everything in me not to book a night at a Chicago hostel – to extend my trip by just one more sleep.

We entered Chicago and the train came to its final destination at Union Station.  I emerged from underground onto Chicago sidewalks.  The first hint of familiarity I’d felt in days.  I was no more than a couple miles away from Millennium Park and so I walked – across the river and past Willis Tower (where the wait to the Skydeck was 2 hours otherwise I would have been standing, suspended over the city in clear plexiglass holding all of my belongings from the trip, in a heartbeat – through Millennium Park instead, making a loop passed Cloud Gate before finally making my way to the Blue Line of the “L” back to O’Hare where I found myself back on the Airport Transit to the economy lot and back inside my car facing the long drive home.

13087549_10209667196743474_8068461531888875995_n

IMG_6349

Union Station

13062510_10209669270475316_2822591368394357228_n

“I was never going to go if I waited for someone to come with me.”

By the numbers:
Days: 4
Nights: 3
Miles covered: 5,025
States covered: 9
Forms of transportation: 10 – car, Airport Transit System, plane, BART, MUNI, Metro, cable car, (almost scooter), AC Transit, Amtrak, Chicago L

The purpose of travel for me, to this point, is the accomplishment of getting my body around in time and space on my own.  This may not have been the most adventurous trip – I spent most of it passively being moved around on a train – but if the point was to travel, I think this was a good place to start.  The theme of this trip was certainly transportation.  I think I covered that pretty well.

Coach vs. Sleeper

I chose to ride coach because I was able to purchase a “Saver” ticket on Amtrak’s website.  From my understanding these tickets are limited in quantity but will save you some money if you are able to book further in advance.  This saved me a few hundred dollars compared to a ticket in a roomette and I figured I could deal with a couple rough nights to sleep to bring the cost of my trip down.  This way my plane ticket, hostel, and train ticket came to less than $250 altogether.  The coach seat was worth it for me.  I would recommend traveling coach if you are young and in decent physical condition, can sleep easily anywhere, or perhaps if you will only be on the train for one night and can deal with a night of poor sleep.  The downside of coach certainly is the lack of privacy while sleeping, however at least on my train, everybody in coach who wanted to had two seats to themselves.  I was able to get comfortable and sleep without feeling like I was in anybody’s way.  If you have to ride coach, I would suspect the California Zephyr is the train to ride coach.  Plenty of room, very comfortable.  The seat almost folds into a bed.

If you are a light sleeper or are traveling with others to help bring the cost down, I would recommend a sleeper car.  The upside of the sleeper car is more privacy, a closed place to keep your belongings (although I stored all of my things in my seat and in the storage above my seat and never felt uncomfortable leaving my things) and meals in the dining car are provided with the cost of your ticket.  With a coach ticket, I had to buy all of my meals out of pocket.

Next up: Boston, Massachusetts!

Read the blog from the first part of my trip here!

California Zephyr Part 1: San Fransisco

It’s 2:30am.

My iPhone laying next to me in bed has illuminated my previously dark, quiet, and calm room with its loud tinny jingle and I jolt awake with my heart beating in my eardrums.  The clamor is enough to rouse my sleepy pup and he squints at me as his eyes adjust to the light from the bedside lamp I’ve switched on.  He looks like he’s ready to pull a pillow over his face, roll over, and resume snoring.  Meanwhile, I pull on some leggings, a tank top, and an oversized sweater and head out to the living room where my boyfriend and his dog are both sleeping on their backs (one on the couch, one on the floor, doesn’t much matter who was where) with every light in my apartment turned on.  It’s a habit that I don’t mind this particular “morning” as I try to clear the sleep from my brain.  I start a pot of coffee.  I pee.  I brush my teeth.  I pull my electronics from their chargers and double check my bags.  Coffee is ready.  I pee again because I’m nervous.  Shoes go on.  I load up my bags around my shoulders, kiss the pups and the boy “goodbye” and I’m out the door, down the stairs, and out into the chilly, quiet, night-turning-early-morning.

The clock in my car reads 3:07.  6 hours and 18 minutes to get to Gate C16 in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.  7 hours and 18 minutes with the time zone change.  I should have “plenty” of “time”.

My nervousness as I drive is a U-shaped curve.  The further I get from Xenia the less nervous I feel, as the numbness of the dark cocoons around me and I feel suspended in time and space as I zip across Ohio’s I-70 and up along Indiana’s I-65 – until about halfway through the drive and it increases again.  The sky brightens, I near Chicago, and reality settles in with the morning light.  I no sooner start humming The Music Man as I loop around Gary, IN onto I-90 into Chicago than I am met with bumper to bumper traffic for the near remainder of the drive.  It’s 6:30am Central Time.  Two hours and 55 minutes until my plane takes off.  I’m fine.

I am not fine.  My gas light is on.  It’s nearing 7:00 and I am not nearing the airport with any momentum.  I stop to get gas and add 15 minutes to my time.  I make it to the Economy Lot by 7:45 and take the Airport Transit System all the way to Terminal 1.  United Airlines.  I’m in line for security by 8:00.  I make it through by 9:00.  Gate closes in 10 minutes.  I run the wrong direction.  I run back again.  I run down a concourse, across 3 people-movers, up an escalator and to my gate.  It’s 9:08.  I scurry onto the airplane and find my seat.  I sit down.  I sleep until we land in San Fransisco.


It’s now been a solid month since my trip.  Looking back on my day in San Fransisco is bittersweet.  It was wonderful – a truly more perfect day than I could have planned for or imagined.  But I doubt I’ll ever again be able to capture that feeling of newness, being alone far away from home with a whole day and city to myself.  And that’s truly how it felt, as if the city existed solely for me to explore it for this one day.  The city was all mine for nine daylight hours.  It was a feeling I’ve spent a month trying to put into words.  Though I still can’t quite reach it, the best I’ve come to is “intimate anonymity”.  I felt the exhilaration of anonymity when I emerged into the sunny-and-75-day from the BART’s underground Montgomery station onto Market Street in the heart of the Financial District during a crowded lunch hour, flung across the country from Small Town, Ohio, participating alongside, but not part of this new larger mass.  The immediate realization of self-reliance is what brings the word “intimate” to mind.  I’m learning solo travel necessitates sustained and persistent observation, calculation, analysis, however I wasn’t so much trapped in my brain but rather firmly rooted in my mind – in my instincts.  When I look back on that day I see it as though looking through two toilet-paper-tubes-turned-imaginary-binoculars – like a young explorer – open, but focused.  A shadowed vignette hangs around the images I recall.  Relying on myself not only to navigate a new city, but to savor it and perhaps, more arduously, to capture it, to remember it.  All mine.

Considering this was my first solo trip, I did a few things right.  I planned as much as I could and left the rest to chance.  But what I did plan, I did well.  I pre-ordered and loaded a Clipper Card which is the transit card for the Bay Area.  It’s essentially a debit card you can use to pay for the myriad public transit systems including the BART, MUNI, cable cars, street cars, etc.  I also downloaded an app called “Transit” which allows you to enter in a destination and it populates a list of all nearby departure times and routes.  It also has a GPS/map component so you can see where you are and if you are headed in the right direction.  Without having transportation costs to worry about and knowing I could find out how to get anywhere from where I was made it easier to enjoy the day with minimal logistics-related stress.

My first destination was a short walk from the BART station: Benefit Cosmetics.  Benefit was founded in San Fransisco in the seventies.  I stopped in, gave a quick explanation to the sales associate about why I was there nearly knocking over all their displays with my huge backpack, picked up a bottle of Benetint (one of two souvenirs I purchased – my memories of San Fransisco will forever be rose-scented) and made my way back out onto the sunny streets.

With the help of my Clipper Card and Transit app I hopped on the first of several MUNI busses I would use that day and made my way down Market Street out of the Financial District to Steiner Street along Alamo Square to the Painted Ladies.  Truly as beautiful as the pictures, the Painted Ladies were a wonderful sight to enjoy while I rested in the grass at the park for a moment to re-center and collect myself (“I’m really here.  I’m really doing this.”).

IMG_5782

Cue the “Full House” theme song

A few wrong turns, an extra half mile or so, and a probably unnecessary Metro ride away, I made it to the Powell-Market Cable Car Turntable and got in what I’m finding after a little research was a relatively short line.  Because the cable cars only go in one direction, when they reach the end of the line the operators jump off and turn the car on a wooden turntable until they’re facing the direction from which they came.  I got to the front of the line and hopped on, I was lucky enough to secure an outside seat.  We went, somewhat gruelingly, up and down the hills of the city, passing Lombard Street (more on that later), finally reaching our destination within walking distance of Fisherman’s Wharf.

IMG_5784

There are two cable car lines – I took the Powell-Hyde line

My plan before getting on the cable car was to ride it to the end and then walk to my hostel to check in and drop my things for the evening, but when I found myself crossing over Lombard Street on the cable car, I decided to add another stop: the famous “hairpin turn” east-west brick street.  It was a short walk from the cable car stop back to Lombard Street, but a challenging hike to make it up to the turns.  The road is steep.  Steep enough that the sidewalks are decorated with signs warning drivers to park at 90 degrees, lest sheer gravity pull their car down the hill.  White parking lines jut out perpendicular to the curb.  I glanced at a red motorized scooter, one of many dotted around the city for rent, but thought the better of zipping around an unknown city on an unfamiliar scooter, alone and tired, and carrying all my belongings on my back.  I finally made it to the top.  I won’t say I was disappointed after the strenuous hike.  I will say that the pictures of the street that you see online are from a higher plane than one can see at the bottom of the eight turns.  The visibility was less than I would have preferred.  And it turns out that cars driving through the intersection are not shy about their opinions of flocks of tourists taking pictures.  Two things that made the hike worth it: 1) a surprisingly beautiful view I stumbled upon on my way to the hostel from Lombard street, and 2) a story that a guy I met on the Amtrak shared with me: a race is held down Lombard Street every Easter.  They call it “Bring Your Own Big-wheel”.

IMG_5786

What a view!  Fransisco and Leavenworth Streets

By now, from recall, it was nearing 5 or 6pm.  I made my way back town toward the Wharf, across Ghirardelli Square, to the entrance of Fort Mason which housed my hostel.  I checked into the hostel, which was the perfect accommodation.  From the hostel I could see both the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.  Everybody was very friendly.  I took some time to make my bunk, freshen up, and rehydrate before heading down to Fisherman’s Wharf, about a mile away.
IMG_5787

My first hostel!

It was breezy and chilly along the water and I was glad I had taken the time to change my clothes, thankful in particular for the cardigan I had thrown on as an afterthought.  It was still a beautiful evening and the Wharf was busy with tourists.  I walked along the shops and made it to Musee Mecanique, a museum of coin operated antique and vintage arcade games.  I saw Laffing Sal “laff” and touched the hand of the arm wrestling machine Julie Andrews played in The Princess Diaries (anybody else remember that scene?).  I then made it along the water further to Pier 39 and the sea lions who were so funny I found myself standing alone laughing aloud without the slightest bit of self-consciousness.  Had it been earlier in the day I would have spent more time enjoying their antics, they really were quite amusing, but the long day was beginning to wear on me.  I was beginning to feel anxious about making it back to my hostel before dark, about how and if I would make it across the Bay in time for my train the next morning.  I stopped into In-N-Out, ordered a Double Double and some fries, and trekked back once more to the hostel.
IMG_5792

A tourist trap well worth the trip

In an attempt to be at least somewhat social with the other guests, I ate (read: force fed myself because I hadn’t eaten all day, had no appetite, but knew that were I to survive to the train the next day, I needed to eat something) my In-N-Out in the lounge area, but I was sleepier by the minute and decided on a quick shower and early bedtime.  I made small-talk with my bunkmate for the night while I gathered my shower things from my locker, and headed down the hall to wash the grime of the city away.  The showers were… interesting.  The bathroom was divided into two areas by a dividing wall.  Toilet stalls to the right.  Sinks on the right side of the wall.  Four 3×3 foot shower stalls around the left side of the wall, in front of which sat a park bench.  A thin, white shower curtain liner kept your privacy.  The logistics of me, the shower, my towel, my dirty clothes, and my clean clothes was a bit like that river crossing riddle: a farmer must transport a fox, goose and bag of beans from one side of a river to another using a boat which can only hold one item in addition to the farmer, subject to the constraints that the fox cannot be left alone with the goose, and the goose cannot be left alone with the beans.  At this point, however I would have showered naked in front of any number of people, I was just ready to be clean and asleep.  So I stripped, and walked my naked beans foxily into the shower stall, trying my best not to get goosed.

Sleep came easily after 20 hours of travel.  I woke up once to two roommates coming into the room but remember that hardly more than a dream.  I slept until just before my alarm went off.

 
Read the blog from the next part of my trip here!

To live will be an awfully big adventure

It seems to be a good time for me to get back to living again.  Let me explain…

While in the throes of my undergraduate program at a university that prides itself on liberal arts education, in the spirit of academic exploration – or misadventure – and at a most convincing plea from my best friend, Morgan, I took a course on postmodern literature.  The professor was remarkably attractive despite his terribly cliche college professor appearance, and I went to class equally to stare at him and to listen to him so eloquently tear apart a novel (from behind his sexy-as-hell horn-rimmed glasses).  To this day my friend and I speak of him frequently, debating which of his starched button up shirts best accentuated his salt and pepper hair or which of his square-toed dress shoes were our favorite.  When I wasn’t playing out elaborate student-teacher porno scenarios in my mind, I somehow managed to absorb a Cliff’s Notes amount of information about Postmodernism.  I could hold my own at a dinner party in a conversation on the subject.  And I also found in a course text, in two sentences, an idea that fits me better than any other I’ve come across to date:  “The world is full of abandoned meanings. In the commonplace I find unexpected themes and intensities.”

Fair warning: shit’s about to get deep.

I’ve done a lot of scar-gazing.  At the thin horizontal slices of history that span the length of my inner left forearm.  They number, depending on the lighting, from twenty – under the buzz of  cold, hard fluorescence – to maybe two – under the warm, dim glow of a summer night sky.  And it’s under that same night sky that I’ve sat on my third-floor balcony with the buzz of alcohol and mosquitos in my ears, doing a far share of stargazing as well.

I’ve driven myself crazy and back, into a tree – flipped my world upside-down – trying to make things connect.  Trying to make meaning from something – or maybe from nothing.  And that’s what we do.  We’re meaning-makers.  We see Jesus on our toast and stories in our stars.  But the stars that make up the shapes of our constellations appear completely different when viewed from above or below or behind.  The world isn’t flat and neither is the sky.  It is – we are – multidimensional.  Things have meaning from the angle, the perspective, from which we see them.  My scars appear and disappear depending on the light that is shed on them.

Alcohol, for me, was the mechanism that allowed me to arrange my thoughts into something meaningful – to pluck just one thought out of the incoherent tangle in my brain.  It made me feel cozy and comfortable and safe.  But the fact is that once I start drinking I can’t predict with much accuracy when and where that will stop – and that’s why I’m alcoholic.  When I drink, I lie and cause arguments and crash cars.  And until recently the thought of being a real, in the flesh, living breathing alcoholic has been so shameful and so terribly terrifying.

So let’s go back to November of 2014.  The 8th to be exact.  The day I stopped dying.  The day I got sober.  I had spent the better part of the previous three or so years in an accelerating downward swirl of alcoholic haze, and the trajectory I saw my path taking was down, down, and downer.  As the lovely writer Anne Lamott says, “Like most drunks who’ve gotten sober, I got to the point where I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.”  I finally skid to a place where I had no other choice: the idea of continuing to drink finally became more terrifying than the idea of getting sober.

Coming to terms with alcoholism for myself has been a coming out in every sense of the phrase.  But what has followed in the past year or so has been a slowly growing sense of pride, bravery, maturity, and hope.  Sobriety had been a such a scary thought for me.  I scratched and clawed away from it like a trapped, frenzied wild animal.  Now, I’m smitten by the possibilities it brings.  I know I will never regret not drinking.  I’m so comforted by that.  And it makes me feel so strong.

So maybe the world is full of abandoned meanings.  And I’ve spent my life collecting them, organizing them, color coding them, and chasing them down with a shot of whiskey.  But now I’m happy to abandon the meanings I’ve attached to words like “scars” and “alcoholic” – like unclaimed baggage – in favor of new meanings.

I am a messy smattering of glimmers of woman, daughter, girlfriend, friend.  I have scars – stories, maybe – on my arms and in my memories.  I’m a meaning-maker.  And I finally understand the beauty that is this: I can find meaning in each of these things, and be defined by none.

The last year-or-so of sobriety has consisted mostly of learning and waiting.  Learning to pay my bills and clean my apartment and walk my dog and drive my car without an alcoholic buzz to motivate me.  Learning to fall asleep without the lullaby of a bottle of wine.  Waiting for the minutes and hours and days to pass.  Waiting for the cravings to go away.  Waiting for the next episode of Law & Order: SVU to start on Netflix.  Waiting for the distance between the present moment and my last drink to grow longer.  Waiting, waiting waiting.  And then I realized I needed to stop waiting on other people and circumstances in order for me to do what I wanted to do.  So I stopped waiting.  I bought tickets and I booked an adventure.

And so it seems to be a good time for me to get back to living again.  And I plan on doing so from as many places and perspectives as I can.  I invite you to follow me as I learn to navigate the world of travel.

“To live will be an awfully big adventure…”