Friday, October 24, 2008

Fortuitous Diversion

There I was, looking for a change of venue, a big city to call home for the month of November. Boston and Montreal emerged as the two best (or only) options. A few craigslist conversations later and I was poised to accept a stranger's offer of a month-long sublet in downtown Montreal.

Then a blog post about a contest being put on by Collazo Projects caught my eye. Julie Schwietert Collazo is managing editor of the Matador Network, where much of my online writing can be found (see the blue box to the right for links). In addition to being a fantastic writer and intrepid journalist (she just got back from a self-arranged press trip to Guantanamo Bay!), Julie, along with her husband Francisco, has founded the Voces de Mompox project to provide educational opportunities to young students in Mompox, Colombia.

The contest was simple: make a donation to the cause, write a short letter of interest, and win the chance to stay at Julie and Francisco's apartment for free while they're away. So that's what I did.

And just like that, I'm headed to Mexico City next week.

Why is this so fortuitous? Next year, my goal is to travel to South America and take part in some type of long-term volunteer program. Living in Mexico City will be the perfect primer, allowing me to soak up the language and culture at my own pace as I work on a few projects and figure out exactly where I want to be and what I want to be doing next year.

When fate knocks this loudly, I'd be foolish not to answer.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Fire on the Mountain

The yellowing aspens of Colorado burned the evergreen slopes. Frigid winds fanned the bright dancing leaves. But these isolated blazes fizzle before the forests of flames on Maine's hills.

Mt. Megunticook's western approach is pocketed, still smoldering though the reds have already browned on the surrounding rises. Its trail, shadowed in woods, is bright. A carpet of sparks rustles and pops underfoot. I sweat in spite of the air's chill.

Maiden Cliff opens out of the fire, and I drink in the view of lake waters far below. On the edge of the bluff the metal cross stands rigid, its stark white cutting against the burning hillside. Legend says that here, in 1862, 11-year-old Elenora French plunged to her death.

The mountain is her candle today.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Cracking the Shell: How to Enjoy Great Smoky Mountains National Park

***This piece was published on last January, but it seems the site has tanked. So here it is again!***

The second you exit I-40 and head south, doubt sets in: Is this really the destination for me? Exhaust-fume stench from the throngs of traffic hits you like chemical warfare. The temperature jumps 15 degrees, simmering above the naked pavement. While it’s true there are few places in the world with such a high concentration of hokey dinner theaters brandishing 80-foot-high neon signs, garish amusement park rides, mega churches fronted by faux-marble columns, sprawling chain hotels, and grimy diners advertising the “world’s best pancake,” no one would argue that that's a bad thing.

As you approach the park, it only gets worse, until you’re positive you’ve been duped. This attraction, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the country, is surely a fake. The scraggly humps rising in the distance are papier mache, the trees and their orangeing leaves cheap plastic, the majestic, smoky, enveloping mist the product of thousands of well concealed fog machines. Nothing authentic could exist so near to the monuments to thoughtless excess that are Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg.

But wait. Don’t cancel your hotel bookings and rental car reservations just yet. There’s a happy ending to this story.

Despite the artificial shell surrounding it, the park is real. Honest. Get away from the main road, the parking lots with bus-size spaces, the jam-packed scenic overlooks, and you’ll find it. With 800 square miles of mountainous terrain blanketed with deciduous forest, wildflowers, and waterfalls, and more than 800 miles of trails, it’s possible to get lost here.

Head to the secluded Cosby area for an overnight backcountry hike along a segment of the Appalachian Trail. Cycle along quiet roads in the rugged Cataloochee Valley, keeping an eye out for black bear, elk, and wild turkey. Or, in the early morning, ascend to the lonely, windblown summit of one of the park’s several peaks. Up here, there’s no trace of the scars cut into the land below, and you can catch a glimpse of what this natural wonderland was like before someone decided people needed a gondola to reach it.

And on top of everything else, as if to provide a deliberate rebuttal to the incessant mantra of consumerism along its northern border, there is no entrance fee for the park.

There’s also a way to avoid entirely the mess that Tennessee built: Come in through North Carolina’s back door. You’re guaranteed to appreciate the Native American culture on display in Cherokee more than the strip-mall approach on the other side. The atmosphere is more down-to-earth, with hilly little neighborhoods that run right up to the trailhead signs. Vegetation is lush, streams trickle, and traffic is more manageable.

Whatever your experience in getting here, rest assured: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a sweet nut. You just need to crack the shell.

Friday, October 10, 2008

From Wales to the West...

...the hike continues. Yes, I've returned to the homeland, but I'm still on the road and in the mountains. After attending a wedding in Denver, my wife and I headed west to stay with an old friend in Breckenridge, CO. A soft snowfall greeted our arrival but temperatures subsided the next day--thankfully, because we were woefully unprepared for winter weather.

With the glorious outdoors at our doorstep, a hike was irresistible. Just west of Breckenridge, the Tenmile Range stretches from north to south like a rocky spine, its vertebrae of east-west-oriented ridges growing ever larger, culminating in the 14,265-foot Quandary Peak. This was our target.

A short drive brought us to the trail head on the east side of the mountain, and despite a most unprofessional start time of 11:30, Carey, Peter, and I struck out in high spirits. The bright blue sky spread uninterrupted in all directions; visibility was crisp.

Before we knew it, we had reached the treeline. The views opened up, and the trail transformed from dirt path to rock pile. This Class-1 hike had us panting and straining, but after braving an encounter with a pair of mountain goats and gasping up the final ascent, we reached the narrow, snow-covered peak.

I've been hiking Colorado my entire life, but for some reason this was my first 14-er, as it was for both my companions. With plenty of daylight remaining, we took time to revel in the unrivaled panorama you only get by standing on top of the tallest mountain around. The wind was chilled but not fierce, the sun shining warmth, and in the hollow of a small rock cubby we ate the avocado and garlic-mayo bagel sandwiches we'd been looking forward to the whole way up.

Finally, it was time to retrace our 3,375 feet of vertical. All that downhill took its toll on our already-fatigued legs, but we made it back to the car just five hours after we'd started. One down, 50 to go.