Last Adventures of 2017

Somehow, it’s the end of December and this year has whizzed by and long story short I’m going to be 85 any day now and screaming at children to get off my lawn. As I make plans for upcoming travels next year (Scotland, here I come!), I started to think back on where I’ve been this year as well. At first, I was a little disappointed with myself. I ended 2016 and started 2017 strong, in terms of traveling. Going on two international trips back-to-back within six months of each other while on a nonprofit budget is no easy feat, but if I could explore a new place every month, I would.

And because of this, I took the rest of 2017 easy, and stayed stateside. Although I initially was a little bitter that I hadn’t managed to squeeze another international trip into my schedule in the last six months of this year, I’ve come to realize that sometimes the trips that are based just as much in friendship as they are in adventure are just as important.

I spent summer re-introducing myself to D.C. I hiked a lot, took on new responsibilities at my job, and spent a lot of time on those iconic D.C. rooftop bars with friends. But by the time August rolled around, I wasn’t just getting antsy from a lack of new location – I was drowning in heat. Washington, D.C., had one of its longest summers yet, and we were sweltering in humid temperatures well into October. As someone who un-ironically loves autumn (minus the Pumpkin Spiced Lattes), this was not fun for me. So although my fingers hovered over purchasing a quick flight to the wilderness of northern Canada, I instead planned two trips within the United States to visit friends, save money, and escape the humidity.

In late August, I visited my friend Kate Hay – the tiny, fiery woman in my life who I was lucky enough to meet when living in Bath, England, as my housemate. Kate has more spark and personality than the next ten people combined, so a spontaneous trip to her family’s home in Harrisonburg, Virginia, was the perfect getaway from baking in the marble and concrete-lined streets of our capital city. She is my go-to adventure buddy – the only friend I can rely on to immediately say “Where are we going?” when I ask her to book a plane ticket with me.

Almost as important as her love of international travel is Kate’s understanding of the important things in life. A.K.A., tacos. Get yourself a friend who immediately takes you to tacos and margaritas upon arrival after a hellish 4 hour drive that involved an entire tree hitting the side of your car in the middle of a storm. This, coupled with a long couple weeks at work, made Kate and her brother Elliott (and the entire Hay family, to be honest) my heroes for taking me in. And for bringing me to tacos.

Even though I claim a pretty small, historic Virginia college town as home to my alma mater, I have to admit that I’ve always thought of Harrisonburg as kind of just a tiny little farming town with a strip of bars that catered to James Madison University students. Harrisonburg is still surrounded by farms and does indeed have plenty of bars for JMU students, but it was also charming and had so much more to do than I expected and have I mentioned tacos?

We ate tacos and drank margaritas on the roof of Magnolia’s Taco and Tequila Bar and talked about Kate and Elliott’s upcoming plans to hike coast-to-coast through England’s countryside with their parents. We talked about Elliott’s life in the Philippines, where he goes to school, and we talked about all the places we all still want to go. Having friends who understand the constant need to board planes is such an incredible, refreshing thing.

We went to an arcade bar before calling it a night, and got up bright and early for Harrisonburg’s farmer’s market, which was predictably adorable. Here, we ate waffles out of a food truck which I, predictably spilled all over myself. We then for some reason decided to walk three miles across town with the entire Hay family to go to a co-op restaurant, where I had all the southern trappings of biscuits and sausage. I was in heaven.

Afterwards, we explored Harrisonburg and drank fancy things like lavender lattes. We then drove one town over for food and my first Escape Room experience! Kate and her entire family have a…special obsession with escape rooms. They go to so many that you would think they’re preparing for the apocalypse. But if the apocalypse comes, I want to be locked in a room with Kate and her family. Alongside a few friends, we managed to get out of a military bunker-themed escape room with ten minutes to spare, and I was way too proud of the ONE clue I figured out (it was a team effort, okay?).

The next morning we drove out to do two of my favorite things: drink wine and play with puppies. We got flights of wine out in the sunshine at CrossKeys Vineyards before heading to Gap View Ranch. And lemme tell ya – there is no better way to cheer yourself up after a rough couple weeks than to arrive at ranch full of Golden Retriever puppies in the sunshine while slightly buzzed on wine.

Gap View Ranch is home to a highly esteemed Golden Retriever breeder. I know, I know. Adopt, don’t shop. I’m all about rescuing dogs and I have to constantly restrain myself from driving down to my local shelter and taking every animal home with me (except for cats – what kind of monster wants to own one of those unloving creatures?). However, my family has always had Golden Retrievers, and there’s a reason why they’re one of the most popular dogs on the planet. Our current dog, Breaker, is the light of my life and literally exists just to love and be loved.

So Gap View Ranch, a large farm with rolling hills and pastures with horses and turkeys, is a dream. They allow people to make reservations to come and socialize the puppies, so they’re ready to live and interact with humans when they finally go home with a nice family. This means that I dropped $5 into a tin and got unlimited hours to be covered in big balls of fluff/excitement/love. It is one of the happiest places on earth, and it’s where I want to go to die. Honestly. I want to leave this planet just smothered in puppies.

It was a great way to end a quick, weekend trip. Unfortunately, I had to leave Kate and Elliott and their wonderful, gracious parents immediately afterwards because the entire family was leaving for Europe the very next morning.

 

Summer rolled into fall, but my God, D.C. was really owning up to our dear president’s claim of it being a “swamp.” The humidity and the heat were awful, and it was sometime on a very sweaty walk home in mid-September that I remembered I had a flight voucher that expired at the end of the month. So I, you know, got home and immediately bought a plane ticket to Colorado.

Four months is a long time to go without spending a full weekend with your best friend, so this free ticket to Denver was the perfect opportunity to reunite with my former travel buddy, Patrick, who had just moved to Denver this summer. We started my trip off in the most predictable way possible: we went to a bar that also had a dog park attached to it. Beers and dogs? Yes and yes.

Next up was Patrick’s local haunt, Fiction Beer Company. I was an English major in a literature-themed bar, with beers named after Winnie the Pooh and A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was perfect and I loved it (even though we lost spectacularly at trivia).

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The next day we explored Patrick’s neighborhood, got some Popeye’s (of course), and later I met up with my oldest friend since birth, Jessica Weathers. Jessica was born just three weeks before me in the exact same hospital in Naples, Italy, and our families have been close ever since. She had quite literally just moved back to Denver that morning, but still made the time to meet up with me and share a few beers (because I was in Colorado – what else was I supposed to consume?). I hadn’t seen her in years, so this was such a nice surprise!

Afterwards, Patrick and I went to a Colorado Rockies game with his friends and roommates, and although the Nats’ field is still my favorite, that sunset view of the mountains from those high seats wasn’t too shabby either.

Essentially eating and drinking my way through Denver, we hit up an empanada restaurant and then bar-hopped. I was eerily aware of how many white people were everywhere. Yeah, okay, I know I’m white. But Denver looked as if an entire congregation of Episcopalians from the suburbs moved into one city district. It was weird. After living for two and a half years in one of the most diverse cities in the country, it was a bit of an adjustment to be surrounded by a bar of people who looked exactly like me, but with slightly better shoes.

The next morning we did one of my favorite things, and one of the most obnoxiously Colorado things you can do: we went hiking. Unfortunately due to the altitude and the possibility of me vomiting and passing out, we couldn’t do anything crazy cool or with high elevation, but it was still incredibly beautiful. Everyone on the trail looked like a Patagonia model and had a dog with a customized leash. I heard at least five people complaining that their horoscopes didn’t match up with their Tinder dates’. Welcome to Colorful Colorado.

We planned to camp that night but unfortunately all the spots that Patrick had picked out were uh…covered in sleet and snow. I knew it would be colder in Colorado than back in D.C., and I had brought layers, but I was definitely not prepared for snow. It’s also hard to fit all necessary camping gear into one carry-on bag. The conditions were looking pretty terrible, so sadly, we did not get to camp. We drove back to Denver, but with the promise that the next time I visited, we would definitely make sure to spend a night on a mountain.

Coming back to Denver wasn’t so bad though! We ended up having an incredible meal out and then somehow ended up in another arcade bar, which I loved. We killed it at skee ball and I played my first game of Pac-Man ever, which was stressful. I screamed a lot and spilled my beer. People stared. We went to an excellent gay bar and some very nice but very intimidatingly tall ladies tried to flirt with me and I had to very gently turn them down.

The next day we drove out to Boulder to hike some more but while on the trail some sketchy-looking storms started to roll in over the mountains. Once again, my dreams of becoming the next Emma Gatewood were thwarted by weather. We instead uh…went back to the start of the trailhead and illegally drank some beers that were intended for the top of the mountain. Really felt like the outdoorswoman I’ve always aspired to be.

In a move that was beginning to feel very similar to our pub-hopping adventure in Dublin earlier this year, Patrick and I promptly found Avery Brewing Co. and ordered more beer. We also very ambitiously ordered a $50 plate of meat, which included at least 3 different kinds of brisket. The waitress led us into this trap and told us that it was “probably enough to share between two people.” The leftovers lasted through Patrick’s lunches for the rest of the week.

It was another short trip, but an incredible one. In an age where most people get distracted by the next swipe on Tinder, it’s nice to know that relationships with people like Kate, Jessica, and Patrick can withstand distance and time. And after months of being apart, it was so nice to finally be back with my best friend, falling into old patterns of staying up until 4 a.m. talking and watching Trainspotting.

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Both trips were also a nice reminder that although I’ve traveled to twenty countries (and am planning many more for next year), there are so many places in the United States that I still haven’t explored. My bad knee is still a little shaky from that ACL reconstruction surgery those years ago, but seeing the Rocky Mountains made me even more determined to get stronger, to climb more mountains, to push myself harder. Since returning to the rolling peaks of the Shenandoah, I’ve spent the past few months hiking more and more by myself, and I can’t wait to go back to Colorado soon and – pending adjustment to the altitude – hike some more mountains and drink some more beers.

I’m home now, back at the beach with my family for the holidays. And I love being near the ocean. I have always grown up beside it, and I somehow become magically graceful in the water, so it’s a nice, familiar thing to come back to. But I’ve come to really like the accomplishment of reaching a mountain’s peak. And most importantly, I’m grateful to have friends who are still willing to adventure with me, no matter where we are in the country. As this year comes to a close, I’m looking forward to exploring even more in 2018. Kate – get ready for Scotland in a few months.

Learning to #OptOutside

When I was little, my parents used to describe what seemed like magical childhoods. They talked about running through the streets, unsupervised. They got lost in the woods and played until dusk and scraped both their knees and no one cared. Their idyllic times in upstate New York felt very distant from my suburban years in Virginia Beach, and especially different from the very urban upbringing I had when we lived in Italy. I didn’t have the luxury of that wildness, that freedom. My escape was always in books, and as a result, I probably spent far too much time inside reading than I should have.

Now let’s all just admit it: REI has always been one for clever campaigns (I’m personally a huge fan of the #ForceofNature movement happening right now) and their one particular 2015 campaign was simple, but ingenious: #OptOutside.

REI tried to get people outside, and away from the insane spending and consumerism that we all inevitably fall into around the holidays. In 2016, Americans spent $655.8 billion on Black Friday. That’s BILLIONS we’re talking about. A day after a holiday that encourages gratefulness and time spent with loved ones, most of us were sprinting through malls, fighting for the cheapest flat screen tv.

In response to this, the outdoors community embraced REI’s #OptOutside campaign, which encouraged would-be-shoppers to go outdoors the day after Thanksgiving, rather than rush to the nearest shopping center. They opted to step away from the chaos, away from the malls, and take a break from it all. A marketing campaign that returned no profits, but committed their audience to a lifestyle that guaranteed they’d be coming back for more (after all, everyone’s a sucker for those hip REI stickers to put on their water bottles).

Lately, I’ve been applying the #OptOutside hashtag to not just that spending-spree-day after Thanksgiving, but to my entire life. Compared to most people, I’ve got it pretty good, but things inevitably pile up. Stress about money, doing a good job at work, and balancing personal relationships can take a toll.

Distracting myself turns into a constant game of trying to trick my brain to shut off. Netflix doesn’t do the trick, as I’m constantly watching outlandish scenes from CW shows and inwardly screaming Oh God, it’s me! That’s my life! Even though my life in no way parallels the plotline of an ironic portrayal of telenovelas.

I’m a social media manager, so you would think that I revel in jumping on Twitter, filling my brain with the latest topics and funny quips from my friends as a method to decompress. But since Twitter is my job (and because my Twitter feed is dominated by ugly politics), that can be exhausting. Facebook has become overrun with constant life updates from friends I no longer talk to. Instagram is my absolute favorite social media platform, and the pictures of far-off destinations are their own version of escapism, but even this tends to lend itself to comparing your life to others’, and that’s never good.

Even when hanging out with friends at happy hours, our lives are constantly being filtered by how we’re portraying our time on Snapchat, or discussing what we’re doing to advance our careers, or that latest, ground-breaking NPR article. We are always talking about what we’re doing, what we should be doing, what we plan to be doing, instead of going out and actually doing things. Discounted happy hour margaritas are great, but they can only do so much to quiet the constant humming in my own brain.

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Now that I’m a (pseudo) grown-up and the toll of adulthood is getting a little heavy, I find myself spending more and more time thinking about my parents’ stories of childhood Mom and Uncle Tomfreedom when trying to “turn my brain off.” I think of getting your hands dirty and breathing in air that wasn’t given an F-grade by the American Lung Association (great job, D.C.). Of focusing on the right here, right now – not just how my life looks online, or the endless to-do list in the Notes section of my phone. I love working in social media and marketing, but on hectic days, I find myself thinking of how my parents stayed outside until my grandparents screamed their names down the streets and they came running back in time for dinner. How their lives were not always tied to screens.

So because of this, and despite the fact that I’m a mosquito magnet and still frantically Google “what to do during a bear attack” before I head out the door, I’ve turned to hiking. I #OptOutside. I get away from the news and from my buzzing phone and from the people in my life that make my stress levels skyrocket and I just…get out.

Although my family and I spent most of our summers outdoors in upstate New York, Maine, and Switzerland (pretentious, I know, but I did grow up in Italy), I’m not a professional hiker by any means. I’m still not great at reading maps, and I check obsessively around me to make sure I don’t have an audience when peeing in the woods.

But boy, do I love it. I love the stretching of sinewy limbs, of struggling to catch my breath, of scraping against rocks. I love the smell of sweat and the feeling of mud drying in the lines of my hands. I love the way sunlight filters through the trees and how there’s no concrete in sight. I love all the green. Do you ever think about how much green you see in a day? Not enough, I bet. Not by a long shot.

I love knowing that when my ribcage feels like it’s closing in, when the emails are piling up and the unanswered text messages are looming, that I can take a break from it all. I can opt outside.  

This past Friday, the National Park Service opened its doors, so to speak, and made entrance to all national parks free to celebrate the National Park Service’s 101st birthday. I sacrificed one of my long-hoarded vacation days and took the day off work. I convinced a few friends to join me. We laughed on the drive to the Shenandoah and traded embarrassing stories from high school. We stopped looking at our phones, and focused on the trail ahead. We didn’t talk about our jobs. My bad knee shook on the ascent because I’m a little out of shape, and the water in the pools was just a smidge too cold.

The iciness of that first jump into the water knocks the air out of your chest. It’s sharp. It pulls you away from thinking about all the chaos waiting for you back home and says, look here, be here. Inhale, exhale. Stare up at all the green around you. Be outside.

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