Pacific Northwest (Part 2)

20 09 2015

Despite my many attempts to sit down and capture the second half of our road trip with eloquent words, it seems the new school year has already gotten the best of me.  With a lack of energy and an abundance of dissatisfaction, I leave you with nothing but pictures.  I am told they are worth a pretty good amount of words.

Crater Lake is an alpine lake that formed in the caldera of Mount Mazama after it erupted some 7,500 years ago.  No rivers feed into Crater Lake, so its unpolluted, dark blue waters come from rain and snow melt.  With a maximum depth of 1,943 feet, it is the deepest in the United States and one of the deepest in the world.

Crater Lake is an alpine lake that formed in the caldera of Mount Mazama after it erupted some 7,500 years ago. No rivers feed into Crater Lake, so its unpolluted, dark blue waters come from rain and snow melt. With a maximum depth of 1,943 feet, it is the deepest in the United States and one of the deepest in the world.


The southeast shore of Crater Lake as seen from Garfield Peak.  Phantom Ship Island is barely visible through the haze created from forest fires in the area.

The southeast shore of Crater Lake as seen from Garfield Peak. Phantom Ship Island is visible despite the haze created from forest fires burning nearby.


Our campsite just outside of Crater Lake was quite picturesque as well.

Our campsite just outside of Crater Lake was quite picturesque as well.  The only thing Red hates more than a nice bath is being forced into a canoe.


Oneonta Gorge in the Columbia River Gorge  was probably not the best hike to do with Red as it started with a climb over a log jam that blocked access to the waterfall.  However, the end result was worth all the work.  At least that's what Kelly told me.  I did not help carry Red over the logs at all.

Oneonta Gorge in the Columbia River Gorge was probably not the best hike to do with Red as it started with a climb over a logjam that blocked access to the waterfall. However, the end result was worth all the work. At least that’s what Kelly told me. I did not help carry Red over the logs at all.  We discovered Red also hates swimming.


The lush flora of the United States largest temperate rainforest, the Hoh Rainforest located within Olympic National Park in Washington.

The lush flora of the United States largest temperate rainforest, the Hoh Rainforest located within Olympic National Park in Washington.


Kelly amongst some rather large trees.

Kelly amongst some rather large trees.


A bit of perspective.

A bit of perspective.


Where We Are Supposed to Be

6 08 2015

In the early hours of July 29th, my roommate Kelly and I forced ourselves out of bed and into his Sequoia. The body of this four wheeled warrior sat lower than usual, weighed down by ample camping gear, a kayak, and one sleepy, albeit anxious pit-lab mix. For Kelly this journey marked an important transition from the working world to graduate school. I simply hoped to squeeze the last bit of adventure from my final weeks of summer vacation.

On day one we watched the sun rise over the Texas hill country and set over Pikes Peak just outside of Colorado Springs. We broke up the sixteen hour journey by trading off time behind the wheel and entertaining each other with memories from our time in College Station and quotes from Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. When our voices grew weary we sat silent, engrossed in the stories told by Jason Isbell’s new album Something More than Free.

Old Teach for America friends Danny McCormick and Michael Carey were there to welcome us to Denver. Our tired minds and heavy eyes were only able to sustain through a beer or two of conversation before we collapsed into a deep sleep. Our original intention was to stay with Danny and Mike for the entirety of our time in Denver. However, their work weeks looked daunting and the mountains to the west of the Mile High City beckoned. So we departed, jumping on highway 72 just outside of the city and weaving our way deeper into the mountains.

We reached Kelly Dahl campground around midday allowing us our choice of campsites. One highlight of this location was its access to Lost Lake and the series of hiking trails around it. After picking up Kelly’s friend Mike from the Denver airport, we worked our way through six miles of trail before finding a nice resting spot alongside the lake. The time of day provided for warm light and a placid lake surface. Red in particular loved the journey as well as the opportunity to break in some of his new gear.

The following morning we packed up camp and found our way back into the city. Mike and Kelly departed quickly. They had a twenty-two hour journey to northern California ahead of them. I remained behind to explore Denver and pass time with friends before flying out to San Antonio to attend the memorial for my great Aunt Barb.

Her memorial service was simple and quirky, just as she would have liked it. I am sure not many people can say they’ve attended a funeral service where the Eucharist is followed by an a cappella rendition of “Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz.” Yet, in the context of the person my aunt was, it seemed the most appropriate way to conclude the ceremony. True to form, the night ended on her back porch. Friends and family gathered around two tanker-sized coolers filled with Miller Lite and white wine to share some of our favorite stories of the woman who wore out a pair of sandals traversing Europe only to later realize both shoes were left-footed. Or my mom’s personal favorite, when she spent an afternoon believing she was being held at gunpoint while mopping only to be discovered hours later by my uncle, hysterically pleading for her life to the freezer door that had slipped open and pressed its corner against her back.

While there are numerous memories to share about Aunt Barb, I suppose what sticks with me most is that she is the first person in my life to express an intense passion for travel. From a young age she told me of her globetrotting expeditions and sparked within me an interest in the same. As my Uncle Wayne commonly quipped, “Barb never seemed to know where she was going, but she always ended up where she was supposed to be.”

I suppose that is why I find myself back on the road, waiting for Kelly and Mike to swing by the Medford Airport and whisk me off to Crater Lake. Before the cancer became too much for my aunt, she regularly threatened paranormal hauntings if her postmortem requests were not met. I am certain missing any more of my trip than was absolutely necessary would have made me one of her first victims.

The beauty of this road trip is that while a skeletal itinerary exists, ultimately we do not know where we are going or what we will do when we get there. However, like my Aunt Barb, I am confident the places we go will be exactly where we’re supposed to be. Travel has a magical way of calming the soul, of provoking introspection and reflection upon one’s place in the world. In honor of the full life my aunt led, I plan to continue to strive for the same. The common day to day so many people resign themselves to is not enough. I hope to be something more than free.

The creek running along the trail to Lost Lake.

The creek running along the trail to Lost Lake.

Lost Lake

Lost Lake


Red enjoying the view.

Red enjoying the view.

Bluegrass, a Bride, and Bourbon

18 07 2014

I am uncertain at what point in my life I formed such plain assumptions about Kentucky or her landscape. However, as my plane approached the landing at Blue Grass Airport, it became clear that preconceived notions are often false. Through my porthole of a window, I saw stretched out before me Keeneland Farms. Its green hills and white picket fences rolled off into the distance and blended with the numerous other farms that divide up the land running along Versailles road and the rest of the Lexington countryside.

Despite flying into Lexington, my first three days in Kentucky were spent in Louisville. I arrived by a bus that was piloted by perhaps the kindest bus driver ever. Before departure he went person to person, explaining when they would get off and where they could find their connection. The entire journey I peered out at the land passing by. My observations from the plane were confirmed. These hills seemed to stretch forever.

Louisville is similar to Austin in many ways. Ask any local how you should spend your time and they will generally respond with a list of restaurants and bars. The weather was spectacular, so day one involved walking the expanse of the city and simply observing, stopping here for a coffee or there for a quick bite to eat at a farm-to-table establishment. As the workday ended and the streets began buzzing with life, I walked through German Town into Shelby Park where I would meet with Whitney, a friend from Turkey and host for my stay in Louisville.

Whitney and her boyfriend were both working, so I had to fill my days well. On day two I rented a bike and headed across the newly built pedestrian bridge to visit Ohio. I cruised through a few neighborhoods before making my way over to the Falls of the Ohio, a former stretch of rapids that exposed fossil-rich limestone from the Devonian Period. I hiked down into the Falls and appreciated the unique formations as well as the view of Louisville’s skyline. Afterwards I biked back into town for a late breakfast in NuLu before continuing on to Cherokee Park to complete the scenic loop.


The Falls of the Ohio looking towards downtown Louisville.

That night I was able to meet a group of Whitney’s friends as they packed and prepared for a trip out to the Red River Gorge. We sipped local brews and they shared thoughts on how I should spend my final day in Louisville. I decided to forgo a visit to Churchill Downs and instead see the Muhammad Ali Center followed by a tour of Heaven Hill Distillery. It was a relaxing and far less intensive day than my bike around the city, but I felt exhausted nonetheless. The following morning I was off to Lexington for Juli and Jamyle’s wedding.

Jamyle picked me up from the bus station with a car-full of groomsmen. These guys were fellow TFA corps members from Phoenix, only a year behind me. So what began as common pleasantries evolved over the afternoon into reminiscing on the good ol’ days and plenty of hearty laughter. I went to bed that night looking back on my time in Phoenix in a much more positive light. Shared experiences have an incredible way of uniting people across time and space.

The hours before the wedding were spent running errands. They seemed to never end, as if our to-do list wanted a good game of chicken with the start of the ceremony. However, by the time the wedding rolled around everything flowed seamlessly. In the calm before the storm we sat with Jamyle as John Mayer’s “Gravity” played in the background. Jamyle was an NCAA championship boxer for the University of Kentucky and this was his pre-fight song, and now his pre-wedding song. As the tune ended, the men around the room all gave him a toast, and we started our walk across the farm feeling powerful and inspired.

The ceremony was short and sweet, filled with scriptural readings, poetry, a song by yours truly, and even a reflection on some Dylan lyrics. As we moved to the reception area the sun began to set behind an old barn and the horses lined up along the fence to appreciate it. Most everyone put a bourbon in their hand as they took in the view and the joyous occasion. The night ensued with plenty of dancing, games of bags, cigars, and lively conversation that drifted late into the night.

The view from the reception.

The view from the reception.

While most everyone departed for home the following morning, I had three more days to spend in Lexington. Through CouchSurfing I found fellow Aggie, Carrie, who agreed to give me shelter. I hitched a ride into town where Carrie and her fiancé Mike picked me up and drove me out to Buffallo Trace Distillery.  Here we toured the campus and learned about the bourbon making process. Buffallo Trace is a national historic monument as it was one of only four distilleries allowed to stay open through prohibition. They were charged with making whiskey for medicinal purposes and were heavily regulated. The buildings still have metal gates over doors and windows that were locked tight throughout the 20’s.

Buffalo Trace Distillery.  The green shutters are what regulators used to secure the building during Prohibition.

Buffalo Trace Distillery. The green shutters are what regulators used to secure the building during Prohibition.

The bottom of the rick house experiences less extreme temperature and therefore allows the whiskey to age longer.  So here are barrels of that 15+ year old bourbon you love.

The bottom of the rick house experiences less extreme temperature and therefore allows the whiskey to age longer. So here are barrels of that 15+ year old bourbon you love.

The following day I walked downtown Lexington, seeing the Mary Todd Lincoln House, Town Brach Distillery, and neighborhoods of historic homes. All day, I fought to avoid the on-again-off-again rain. Once relieved from work, Carrie picked me up outside Rupp Arena and drove me by Keeneland Racetrack before heading back to her house. There we prepared for a trip to a horse farm for some riding.  At this point, the rain had cleared and we were able to spend the final daylight hours taking in the beautiful countryside from horseback. I was gratefully given the many years veteran horse named Domino. He wasn’t very temperamental but did try to stop and eat mid-ride at several points.



Throughout my week of travels, I got somewhat varied responses when I asked Kentuckians what to do in their state. However, one response that was consistent was a trip to the Red River Gorge. It seemed there were little options to get there in ways of public transportation. So, being a working, almost-adult I rented a car and drove out to the Gorge for a day away from the buzz of city life. The Gorge is part of Daniel Boone National Forest. However, just outside of the park’s boundary is Natural Bridge State Park. At the recommendation of a gas station attendant, I made this my first pit stop.

For a few hours I looped in an out of the many trails surrounding the Natural Bridge. My routes were not always the most direct or efficient, but I was in it for the journey not the destination. Along the way were many interesting vistas and rock formations. All in all, I probably covered four miles before calling it quits. Working up quite a hunger, I headed to Miguel’s Pizza for a delicious lunch that I washed down with Kentucky’s famous Ale 8. From there, I got back in the car, put on Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, rolled down the windows, and drove the entire scenic loop around the Gorge, stopping at every overlook along the way.

The more I travel the more I am drawn to natural beauty. Every now and again you come across something in city life that captivates, but hardly anything can match the majesty of our natural world. Needless to say, the Gorge was the perfect farewell to Kentucky.

The Original Trail.

The Original Trail.

Natural Bridge.

Natural Bridge.

Battleship Rock Trail.

Battleship Rock Trail.

Balanced Rock Trail.

Balanced Rock Trail.

Scenic Overlook.

Scenic Overlook.

Forming Roots

7 07 2014

After a rather tumultuous start, the year finally came to an end.  Adrian’s suicide had a ripple effect throughout the year, leaving all teachers and staff constantly vigilant.  In my class alone there were several students “on-watch” and even a few suicide attempts.  Through it all, it was inspiring to see our school community come together and overcome.  Despite the weight of such events, we were able to keep the school moving forward.

We celebrated victories that outshone the years prior.  Our agriculture students opened a community garden in coordination with the Multicultural Refugee Coalition and various other community groups.  Our basketball and baseball teams made it into the state playoffs.  A group of HOSA students advanced to state level competition and were invited to present their research on Healthy Living Choices at SXSW Edu.  In true form, our FFA students placed 6th in the state and advanced to nationals.

Academically speaking, we put ourselves in a position to move out of the dreaded “underperforming” label.  In Algebra, 84% of our first time test takers were deemed proficient by the state.  Our U.S. History teachers achieved 92% proficiency, even beating some of the more affluent “west-side” schools.  These are incredible feats when you consider that around 40% of our students are special population – Limited English Proficient, Special Education, or both.  It is even more amazing considering the tone that was set that day on October 15th.

One of the highlights of my year was bringing a group of eight students to Boston over Spring Break.  There were no beaches or sunshine during this trip.  It was mostly bitterly cold wind and healthy dose of snow, at least by Texas standards.  For many of my students, it was their first time on a plane, first time out of the city/state, and first time seeing snow.

I was shocked the first morning to arrive at breakfast around 7 AM only to meet all eight teenagers fed and ready to go.  “Can we go play in the snow?” they asked.  I looked at the ragtag bunch – thin hoodies, no gloves, jeans, and tennis shoes.  “I hardly think you’re prepared,” I said.  “We will be walking around in the cold all day and you guys are going to be sopping wet.”  “We don’t care,” they said.   “You will hear no complaining from us,” they said.  They were right.  And so the cycle repeated itself all four mornings.  They were ready a half hour early every day just for the chance to make snow angels and pelt each other with snowballs.  They then participated in every tour and every long, windy walk while soaking wet and undoubtedly bitterly cold.  No one muttered a single complaint.

We walked the Freedom Trail, admired Fenway Park, shuffled our way through Southie, and imagined the initial outbreak of the Revolutionary War throughout Lexington and Concord.  The students sat silently perplexed through a tour of the Old Manse House until our discussion at the end.  Who was Nathaniel Hawthorne?  What about this Thoreau character and his friend Emerson?  What’s a transcendentalist?  By the time we reached the House of the Seven Gables in Salem they were anxiously reading some of Hawthorne’s letters to his wife and appreciating the beauty of the language.

Thanks to the efforts of Seth, my roommate from Turkey, the students were able to meet a group of Harvard students.  After short introductions they were allowed to ask questions.  “What did you do to get into Harvard?”  “How can I make myself more competitive?”  And then as they got more comfortable – “Do you party?”  Thankfully at this point, it was about time to close up shop and move on.  I hope seeing students from similar backgrounds being successful at one of our more prestigious universities made an impact.

I was proud to see my students soak in the city.  I can only imagine it was an overwhelming first trip for a majority of them.  Even so, we had to practically drag them off the bus at the airport donning their Harvard and Boston College shirts.  “Mr. Hawkins I am going to runaway now.  I do not want to leave Boston.”  “Okay well at least bring your bag with you.  I can’t afford the extra $25 service charge.”  They were all smiles until they were snoring in the back of the plane, completely wiped from a whirlwind of a trip.


The Snowball Heard Around the World – A snowball fight broke out at the site of Old North Bridge in Concord.

Such success as a teacher makes me feel at home in Austin.  Not only do I enjoy the weather, the culture, the music, the plethora of outdoor activities, but I have a job that is meaningful, one that invests in something that matters.  Having these sentiments led me to buy a house last October – something I viewed as not only a financial investment but also an investment in my school community, as I live within walking distance of campus.  Now, when I involve myself in my school, I am inherently involving myself in my neighborhood.  When I vote for issues affecting my community, I am able to vote with my students in mind.

Navigating homeownership has been a fun yet time consuming process.  I am sure there are moments when my Dad gets tired of my phone calls about fixing things or financial questions.  After traveling so much for most of my adolescent life, it feels strange to be so tied down, to have started to form roots.  However, all in all I am enjoying myself.  It feels nice to have a community and a sense of home.

House 1

The front of my crib.

To mark the shift to a more domesticated me, and as a small housewarming gift, my sister Lindsey brought this guy to visit in early April.  His name is Red.  Somehow Red did not return with Lindsey when she headed back to Waco.  We have been enjoying Austin together ever since.

Red lounging in his photogenic fashion.

Red lounging in his photogenic fashion.


Red enjoying a hike of Lost Creek.

Red enjoying a hike of Lost Creek.

My summer has a few adventures in store.  As we speak, I am sitting in DFW Airport prepping for a week-long trip to Kentucky.  TFA friends Juli and Jamyle are getting married and have graciously asked me to play in the wedding.  I will be exploring Louisville and Lexington before flying to Vegas for an educator’s conference.  Upon my return I will be helping my friend Gregorio Casar gear up for his City Council run.  Before I know it, another school year will be knocking at the door.  Big changes are on the horizon for the math department.  However, for now I am basking in the sunshine, a little relaxation, and some travel.

More than the Bottom Line

26 10 2013

Around 3:15 PM they finally let us back in the building.  At this point, most of the crime scene had been cleaned up.  The yellow tape had been taken down and all of the blood except what had pooled around some small piece of evidence, a shell casing perhaps, had been wiped away.  Maybe it was my imagination, but the scent of exploded gun powder still seemed to linger in the air of our semi-open courtyard.

After retrieving my keys and wallet from my desk drawer, I stepped out of the 100’s wing and took a right to go upstairs.  I nervously stepped over his black backpack, the one he always wore whether seated at his desk or sauntering through the hallways.  It had been tossed to the side in the chaos that ensued after he decided to take his own life ten minutes into lunch in the midst of a crowded hallway full of his peers.

The lounge upstairs remained just as it had been left some three hours before – tables cluttered with lunch boxes, food still in the microwave, a half eaten apple tossed to the side, and a spoon stuck in a fresh cup of yogurt.  It was here that my coworker Jamie calmly walked in the room and announced that she thought someone may have been shot.  After running outside and peering down into the courtyard it became clear something was amiss.  From my angle all I could see was a torso and legs and an already inordinate amount of blood.

Immediately we began grabbing students and moving them into nearby classrooms.  We cleared the hallways and moved downstairs.  I glanced over to the scene.  Campus police had already begun CPR.  All students were pushed back into the cafeteria, and I was asked, along with a group of fellow teachers, to stay and monitor.  At this point I knew little of the situation, but slowly through students, teachers, and administrators the gaps began to fill in: self-inflicted wound, gun in possession, Adrian, no last name, no word on his condition. 

An hour or so went by.  Media gathered out front of the school.  Panicked parents arrived attempting to remove their children.  Students became anxious and requested to be released.  Last names began circulating.  There was still no word on his condition. 

When the busses arrived to take students home, we pushed them out the side and back exits.  As I turned around to reenter the building, a teacher opened the window to her dark classroom and hissed at me, “Are we still in lockdown?”  “Do you have students in there?” I asked.  “Yeah,” she says, “we have been in lock down for over an hour.”  “Okay, hold on, I will let someone know,” I responded. 

As I entered the courtyard, a police officer asked me to wait.  I stopped and told him that students were still in the building that needed to be released.  “Alright,” he said, “come with me.”  We walked to the front of the science wing and ushered the kids through the door at the far end of the hallway and out the back exit leading to the teacher parking lot.  At the time I felt in the dark.  There were so many rumors and so few answers.  I don’t know why, but I thought it would make me feel better:  I peered over my shoulder towards the opposite end of the courtyard where the scene had unfolded.

It is a strange sight to gaze upon – a young boy lying still on the ground in a puddle of his own blood, paramedics and police circled around him, their hands calmly placed on their hips as they look down upon the body.  You want to sprint up to them and scream, “What are you doing?  Help him!”  You want to push them out of the way and start CPR all over again.  But you know it has been tried.  You know it’s too late.  “Is that the body?” I asked to the nearest officer.  “It’s a real tragedy,” was his only response. 

Trying to understand why a former student chose to take their own life in such a violent and public way is not a great use of time or emotional resources.  You flash back to daily interactions with him, the times he joked with you in class, or went out of his way to come shake your hand and say “Good morning, Mister,” before moving down the hallway to deliver a soda to his girlfriend.

It goes to show that you can never understand the depths of what someone may be feeling, what kind of demons they may be taming in their personal lives.  Many stories have arisen about all that was going wrong in Adrian’s life.  Despite all the conjecture, I assume we will never know the full truth about what happened or what motivated him to put that gun to his chest.  We will never know what may have been shared in the final conversations he had with his mother or the mother of his baby boy.  We will never understand if his final Facebook post was one last cry for help or simply a bold declaration of what was to come.

The school day that followed was somber and still.  Students held vigils at the table where Adrian spent his final moments.  Unfamiliar faces filled the school as district representatives, crisis management teams, counselors, social workers, and additional police all came to offer assistance.  Despite being freshmen and generally unfamiliar with Adrian, my students were greatly affected by the gloom surrounding the school.  I asked them if they wanted to talk.  They didn’t.  I gave them parameters for what they could do.  They listened.  Then, for an hour and a half in each class, they silently journaled, drew, completed missing activities, and reflected while we all listened to “Chutes too Narrow.”

I imagine as a school we will continue to face the blowback of this event for some time.  Like one of the district counselors mentioned, when one student chooses to take their life, it brings similar feelings to the forefront for others who are hurting.  Already we have had copy-cat threats, students blaming themselves, students blaming others, and both students and staff trying to shake the violent images they witnessed that day.

Through all of this I have been reminded that as an educator, I am responsible for far more than the bottom line.  My job is not simply to pass a body of knowledge along to my students, but to contribute to the holistic development of each child.  This is not to say that I blame myself for not recognizing Adrian’s suffering and acting earlier.  On the contrary, I felt as though Adrian and I had a positive and healthy relationship.  However, within the demographic of our student body, there are any number of variables that can tip the balance of an already instable environment.  As teachers we must recognize this and do our best to advocate for both the social-emotional and academic health of our students.

I am sure more details will become public as this still active investigation comes to a close.  Of course the media seems bent on perpetuating a state of fear and a false sense of insecurity.  However, in the past few days I have seen the strength of our school community shoulder a heavy burden.  It is awe inspiring to see a group of professionals encourage and uplift each other while facing the daunting and formidable task of trying to get the school “back to normal.”  More than ever, I am proud to say that I am a member of the Lanier Viking Family.  And perhaps more than ever, I recognize the importance of being a teacher that serves as a stable force in my students’ lives, one who strives to mend more than just their academic deficiencies.

Out of the City and Into the Wild

26 07 2013

About three weeks ago, my bus from Madison left me in Chicago Union Station.  From there I walked to the heart of the city to meet former Phoenix roommate, Joe Zatkoff.  His brother was kindly letting us use his swanky condo in Marina City for the weekend.  With the short time given, we hit most of the major Chicago activities: Giordano’s deep dish pizza, a riverboat architecture tour, a stroll through Millennium and Grant Park, and of course a visit to Cloud Gate.

When not tearing around the city, we were reuniting with old TFA friends.  We met newly engaged Juli Smith and Jamyle Cannon at a blues concert at the Underground Wonder Bar and shared some local beers with Audrey Porter atop Hancock Tower.  A brunch with Lindsey Goldsmith and her fiance Mark Weiss brought us out to Wicker Park where we strolled the calm, hipster-filled streets and visited the engaged couple’s beautiful new town home.

After two unsuccessful attempts tackling the long lines at the museum district, we gave up and began our road trip to Detroit, Joe’s current place of residence.  In a day and a half, Joe shared with me his love for this city of contrasts.  New high-end apartment developments stand next abandoned projects.  Vacant, burnt-out homes have become controversial art exhibits.  At the 8 Mile separating the city and suburbs the potholes smooth out of the roads and the landscaping flourishes.  Large houses instantly increase in value from $20,000 to many millions.  There is also a marked shift in the residential demographic.

Despite the many problems Detroit has and will continue to face, Joe has a hopeful outlook for his city.  “There is so much potential here,” he tells me.  Indeed I caught glimpses of that as we biked the new RiverWalk, strolled through the large Eastern Market, and cruised past a street of experimental “pop-up” businesses.  People from Detroit take pride in their city and show a vested interest in seeing a turnaround.  With enough citizens like Joe, I am sure this is possible.

As July 4th approached, we jumped in the car again and made our way north for a stay at Joe’s house on Lake Otsego.  There is not much to be written about this time except that it was filled with plenty of reading, sunbathing, campfires, and guitar.  Early morning on the 4th, we headed up to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.  Here we did about 5 miles of hiking through the sandy dunes overlooking Lake Michigan.  That night the surrounding neighbors treated us an impressive amateur fireworks display.

This week, things came around full circle as Joe and his girlfriend, Cate, picked me up from the Minneapolis Airport.  As soon as I left Detroit for New York, they began a road trip westward, heading back through Chicago, Madison, Chippewa Falls, and on to the Twin Cities.  When we reunited, our ultimate destination was the Boundary Waters for an outdoor adventure.  However, with several days to kill before our expedition, we explored Minneapolis’ many cafes, restaurants, bike trails, and even its annual music festival Basilica Block Party.  Saturday’s headliners were Goo Goo Dolls and Matchbox 20.  Fourteen year old me came out of the woodwork and began singing along to all of the songs written before the Y2K crisis struck us all.

On Monday, July 16th, we drove up to Duluth and, after stopping for coffee, put Lake Superior on our right and pushed towards the Boundary Waters.  Hungry Jack Outfitters provided us with all our supplies and drove us twenty miles down the road to Gunflint Lake.  From there we disembarked on a canoeing journey where we would row between 20 – 25 miles and complete six portages (dry land transfers) while carrying all of our gear, including the canoe.

I am not sure what I was expecting, but this was not reminiscent of my childhood camping experiences where dad took care of all the set-up and food preparations while I determined what to light on fire or shoot next.  No, most of these three days were spent working through fatigued muscles, skirting thunderstorms, praying our canoe did not conduct electricity, and wondering how I still managed to get bites on my face despite wearing the ever-stylish mosquito net.  At least I avoided any incident involving a leach and the boyfriend duties which come with removing it.

Despite the difficulty and discomfort, the trip was a worthwhile experience.  I cannot say every moment was enjoyable.  However, looking back on the journey I feel an incredible sense of accomplishment.  It is by far one of the most physically demanding things I have ever done, and I was happy to have spent three days in the presence of friends and incredible natural beauty.

Feeling tired and disgusting, we slowly made our way back south, stopping in Duluth for a night to take extra showers and wash all of our clothes.  Having an actual bed provided for a good night’s sleep and allowed us to continue on to Minneapolis where Joe and Cate dropped me off.  I had a teacher conference to attend and they had plans to meet Cate’s parents before continuing on their adventure.

The school district put us up in the Hilton Downtown and gave us about $75 per diem to buy food.  This is a significant amount considering the conference provided us both breakfast and lunch.  As you can imagine, a 5-star hotel stay and rich food were quite the culture shock coming from my days in the wild.  However, I managed to handle the transition without much fuss.

I suppose most of my time at the conference was earmarked for sitting through sessions on teaching and leadership.  However, without going into much detail, I managed to carve out some additional time to go to a Twins game, bike around the city, and frequent some recommended brunch spots.  I cannot say I took too much from the conference on a professional level, but I did form stronger relationships with many of my coworkers and administrators.  It seemed fitting note on which to end my travels—making new friends after a long vacation of reconnecting with old ones.

Chicago skyline as seen from the museum district.

Chicago skyline as seen from the museum district.

Marina City towers served as our place of residence in Chicago.

Marina City towers served as our place of residence in Chicago.

The Heidelberg Project transforms abandoned homes into works of art.

The Heidelberg Project transforms abandoned homes into works of art.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

The Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis, MN.

The Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis, MN.

Sunset from the Stone Bridge in Minneapolis.

Sunset from the Stone Bridge in Minneapolis.

Fireworks over the Mississippi River.

Fireworks over the Mississippi River.

An Empire State of Mind

14 07 2013

In his song “New York, New York”, Ryan Adams sings of the many hazards of the city—blistering cold, noise, drugs, trouble on Avenue B, and being busted up and broken by love.  While not being able to sympathize with a majority of these, I still had plenty of my own issues upon arriving to the Big Apple.  Southwest had lost my bag.  I was scrounging to find a place to stay.  Public transit from LaGuardia would put me in the city well after the start of my friend’s show.  Cabs are expensive.  And as I soon discovered, the heat and humidity duo is almost as bad as the blistering cold.

Yet once the initial frustrations were over and my bag was returned, I spent my days exploring parts of the city unknown to me.  With generally good weather and the hiccups behind me, I found myself humming Adams’ refrained final line of the chorus: “Hell, I still love you, New York.”  Headaches and painful memories aside, Ryan and I can both agree.  This city is simply captivating.

Night one was spent on the Lower East Side watching friend Emily Elbert and a variety of her musical comrades perform.  Between sets Emily and I stepped out to grab some Indian food and stumbled upon a rooftop party.  Returning home at 4:30 AM when your bag is supposed to be delivered at 5 AM is generally not good protocol.  However, that is what I did.  I had a restless few hours of sleep fearing that I would miss my wake-up call.  Of course my bag was not delivered until that afternoon and my worries were completely unfounded.

When Emily rushed off to some gigs in Boston, I relocated to another part of Brooklyn.  My college friend Tahni lives in Bed-Stuy, a stone’s throw away from the projects Jay-Z grew up in.  With my restless sleep the night before and Tahni tired from shooting a wedding all weekend, we decided to take it easy for the evening.  We climbed up to her roof to catch up and watch lightening streak across the skies above Manhattan.  As the dark settled in we move back down to Tahni’s apartment to watch Dark Days, a documentary focusing on homeless communities dwelling in New York’s subway system.

The following day I hit the city hard, trekking across the Brooklyn Bridge and into Little Italy for some delicious food.  That night I moved upward to Harlem to stay with my former roommate from Turkey, Seth.  Seth has an internship with UNICEF for the summer and found a place with his girlfriend in Harlem just a few blocks off Central Park’s northwest corner. It is strange to think it has almost been a year since last seeing Seth but we dove right into conversation as if it were only yesterday.

After several days of crashing on couches, there is little that compares to a full night’s sleep on a bed, even if it is a pull-out couch.  I woke up feeling refreshed and ready for a 3-mile run through Central Park and a tour of Harlem.  After the subways cleared of commuters, I met middle-school camping buddy JB at his office downtown.  JB works as an architect designing skyscrapers constructed everywhere between New York and Beijing.  We chatted at a café in Bryant Park before sharing new music at his apartment in the Upper West Side.

I was happy to have hosts that actually work through the summers.  Their early wake-up calls forced me to make the most of the daylight.  As JB stepped out in the morning, I got up, showered, and departed for a tour of the historic Greenwich Village.  Books could be written (as I am sure they are) on the various social movements, writers, musicians, and actors that have called the Village home.  With streets so quaint and quiet, it is hard to believe this neighborhood falls within the boundaries of Manhattan.

Just as the rain began to fall from overcast skies, I made my way towards the newly opened and not yet complete World Trade Center Memorial.  While making reservations, securing a ticket, and entering the site were quite the ordeal, the visit was well worth it.  It was inspiring to see people from around the world showing respect to grounds so sacred to modern America.  Too tired to head all the way back to Harlem, I returned to the West Village for what was rumored to be one of the best slices of pizza in all of New York.  The food at Bleecker Street Pizza is incredible, but the service, as in many cases in New York, was less than the best.  Apparently not carrying cash nor meeting $10 credit card minimums is something worth getting very upset over.

Shortly after sunset, Seth, Amanda, Vito, and I headed to the South Pier to watch a movie before heading back to Harlem.  I had one more day to soak in the city.  I spent it touring High Line Park and more of the Upper West Side.  After about 2 miles of walking, I ducked into Amy Ruth’s for some soul food.  I ordered the first thing on the menu—the Rev. Al Sharpton Plate with a side of collard greens.  I could only hope the meal would be better than his news show.  And it was.  Chicken and waffles are hard to beat.  That night I spent some more quality time with Seth and Amanda before moving my bags to yet another friend’s apartment.

Meredith and I would spend way too much money on some olives and a third of baguette, but the conversation more than made up for it.  Early in the morning, I hit the subway and then the M60 from 125th to LaGuardia.  I found the airport bordering on chaos with many disheveled, red-faced passengers, and I soon found out why.  Inclement weather caused my flight (and many others) to be rerouted, delayed, and then pushed back by further delays.  Thankfully, I managed to fly on standby on an earlier flight to prevent missing my connection.  However, upon landing in the Twin Cities, I discovered my bag was lost once again.  I was frustrated and tired, but I just shook my head and could not keep from saying, “Hell, I still love you New York.”

Lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge.  Freedom Tower is tallest on left.

Lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge. Freedom Tower is tallest on left.

Cliche shot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Cliche shot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

The "Friends" apartment in Greenwich Village.

The “Friends” apartment in Greenwich Village.