Category Archives: world

Thanksgiving on the Train

This Thanksgiving, Lewis and I headed to West Texas, a favorite destination of ours. My mother in law spearheaded this adventure, and Lewis and I ended up learning a few new variations on the journey. Mainly…train travel.

Here are some tips on train travel.

1) Get a sleeper car. Even if the trip is supposed to take place in daylight hours, get a sleeper car. We boarded the Sunset Express at 2:45 am at the station 4 min from our house. We tucked in an went right to sleep.

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We woke up 5.5 hours later to see this.

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A quick calculation showed that we had moved two blocks, approximately one more minute from our house. Two minutes, if you have to sit at the light because there’s a train crossing.

2) Another advantage of the sleeper car is that your meals are included, and the train food is surprisingly, not bad at all. Trains have that on planes, for sure.

3) On the way to your destination, if there’s daylight (thanks to a 5.5 hour delay), take advantage of the view car. West Texas is lovely when you are not behind the wheel! I enjoyed getting an upclose look at all the train bridges I usually admire from Hwy 90 as we pass over the Pecos River and Lake Amistad.

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4) If you are pregnant, get a room with an en suite bathroom. Ignore the fact that there is a shower in there as well, and the thought of trying to shower on the moving train in a 3 sq.ft stall seems like the recipe for disaster. You will love not having to get up every two hours and walk down the hall with your maternity jeans on backwards, bouncing from wall to wall as you stumble toward the bathroom. Plus, you can reach the sink from the bed.

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If only all sinks were conveniently reached from the bed, making toothbrushing and handwashing far more likely to occur.

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5) Here is a fun game. Train signage is the best. Few enough people travel by Amtrak, that they have not had the mountains of “What IS that?” feedback that have, over time, honed the signage on airplanes and highways. Thus…we have these gems. “Create your own captions” was our favorite train game. (ABC by the Roadside is not so much fun on Highway 90. If you have not gotten past Q by Del Rio, you’re not going to win).

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Apparently damnation awaits those who leave a trail of pee and toilet paper on the floor. As it should

This gave us hours of laughs. Caption for B2, "If you are going to be sick, use the seat for balance and groan loudly."

This gave us hours of laughs. Caption for B2, “If you are going to be sick, use the seat for balance and groan loudly.”

Autumnals and Anniversaries Part 2 – Sicily

Usually mine and Lewis’s vacations are less like a relaxing getaway and more like well-structured 240-hour game show to see how much we can possibly hike, eat, swim, explore and experience before a buzzer goes off and we’re sent home.

We like to go places we haven’t gone before. Which means we’re on a mission to see as much as we can before we leave.

But this time, we were tired. Work had run us both ragged and I was spacey and tired from all the baby growing I’ve been doing. So we were looking to really VACATE. We wanted to sleep in, go slow, and make very few decisions of importance.

So where better than Sicily, where our main objective was to spend quality time with our friends the Garber family? We took in some sights, hiked around a little on Mt. Etna, and ate some gelato (and discovered granita, which is even better!) but the pressure was off, because the whole point of choosing Sicily was to see our friends, and that mission was well-accomplished. We even got in a game of Settlers of Catan.

These are the Garbers. Gil is in the stroller.

These are the Garbers. Gil is in the stroller.

Some highlights:

Hiking on Mt. Etna with Elliott. The volcanic tuff trails and evergreens winding up the side of the volcano seem a world away from the olive groves of the Sicilian countryside. And with the fog rolling in, the whole place felt almost isolated and private. Even with a merry band of German trekkers right behind us.

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The friends we made in Agrigento, on our two night stay at a quirky little B&B overlooking the Greek ruins.

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Lewis fulfilled a lifelong dream of driving in Europe. And we had all the classic experiences. Driving the wrong way down a oneway street, circling endlessly on the roundabout while we figured out where we wanted to go, and wedging ourselves into the tiniest of tiny spaces. The locals seemed entirely unphased by this. I think that’s what Itallians really have in their favor. In a country where “parking space” refers to any place you leave your car (sidewalk, middle of the road, whatever), people are super laid back about flustered tourists running stop signs and breaking other road “rules.”

The stunning views.

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Scala dei turchi. If ever you find yourself on the Mediterranean, this is really worth a stop. On our entire trip, this was the most spectacular thing I saw.

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Our romantic dinner in Agrigento. It was preceded by a high-stakes parking predicament and followed by a dash through a movie shoot. We stopped and ogled with the crowd as a car full of classic Italian hooligans drove up to a storefront and assumed gangland stance (or at least the Hot Cops version of such) over and over and over. If it was menacing they were going for, they were missing it by a mile. If it was entertaining they were trying to achieve, they hit the nail on the head every time.

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The medieval trumpeters rehearsing outside the Garbers fantastic hillside home across the street from the castle. Yep. You read all of that correctly.

Taormina. A lovely day in a picturesque world.

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The antique market in Catania, which was really more like a citywide garage sale. Becca Garber perused antique toys, and I got some Italian leather shoes for 2 Euro. Happy Leather Anniversary to me! I also enjoyed the chaos and junk tables slowly close in around Lewis until I could tell that even if we’d stumbled upon a work of early Renaissance high art, he would not have been able to see it for all the rotary phone parts and doll clothes.

Gil and Lena Garber. Lena won over “That Man” to the world of little girls. Good thing too…

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Autumnals and Anniversaries Part 1 – London

I’ve taken an “autumnal” trip for the last six years. I was 23 when I first escaped the lack-luster Texas fall for the brilliance of the Berkshires and the company of my best friend.  The next year it was Washington DC. Then Tennessee. In those first three years, more than one person snickered at my annual getaway, another of my indulgent little habits.

I have a lot of indulgent little habits, apparently, and in my early 20’s it was wisdom-chic to tell me that I would not be able to carry on in such fashion forever.

To those who doubted my resolve, I say this: do not underestimate my wanderlust.

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In 2010, I conveniently married Lewis McNeel in October, thus replacing my invented holiday with a tradition even the most strident money-manager will recognize: an anniversary.

This year for our anniversary, which doubled as a babymoon, we decided to take some good friends up on their invitation to visit them in Sicily. Becca, Elliott, Lena, and Gil Garber have been in Sicily for two years (well…Gil’s been there for 8 months, but he’s also been there his whole life). It was high time we paid them a visit.

And you just can’t cross the Atlantic without a good multi-day stopover in the best city in the world, my personal favorite, London. It’s been six years since I left, and I had been dying to show Lewis around (and indulge my own nostalgia).

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And that is how Anniversary #3 (or Autumnal #7, however you see it) came to be.

London was almost exactly as I left it in many ways. In others it was like a whole new city. That’s the secret to London’s success, I think. Curated evolution. New skyscrapers dotted the landscape. The blocks around my former residence on the fringe of Bankside were now startlingly posh. The Olympic Park exists. We visited a new Zaha Hadid designed space in Hyde Park.  And yet…there was the Swan. Covent Garden. Spittalfields. Brick Lane. I was able to give Lewis directions for a running route along the Thames without wondering if the landmarks had changed.

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London’s public transport system still gives me a schoolgirl-like swoon. Sitting on the top front seats of a double decker bus heading west on the Strand, I felt so completely satisfied with life.

There was also the familiar frustration, recalled from deep within my memory, of trying to navigate a city developed as a series of shortcuts and courtyards that eventually became roads. “Grid” was not an Anglo-Saxon idea. However, because the British have a little nugget of genius embedded beneath their stalwart nonchalance, no matter how lost you think you are in London, you are somehow always just around the corner from your destination, magically happening upon the restaurant, shop, or tube station just in the nick of time. (We contrasted this later with Italy, where an apparent total lack of civil engineering means that even when you think you are headed straight for your destination, you are in fact getting further away.)

Of course the most fun new thing I found in London was Lewis’s perspective on it all. Seeing the greatest city in the world with an architect is like going to Napa with a winemaker, or the symphony with a composer. The little treasures that would have been whimsies to me pre-Lewis – like when we stumbled upon Sou Fujimoto’s “Cloud” at the Serpentine Gallery- were moments of real (and well-informed) excitement. The Olympic Park would have been a lovely place to read a book, but with Lewis is was a place to read the park itself.

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When we stepped out of the tube at London Bridge, even an ordinary errand became a sightseeing stop. I was marching around looking for the ticket kiosk, a little disoriented because things were not as I’d left them. Meanwhile Lewis looked up and exclaimed “We’re AT the SHARD!” And so we got to explore while I looked for the kiosk. Which is now quite slick in it’s new Shard cladding.

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I loved sharing old things with him as well. Nando’s, pub food, Borough Market…okay, it was mostly food and shopping. But also just walking though Bankside and seeing it differently because I was not a bleary-eyed grad student in search of wi-fi and warmth. It’s actually a pretty romantic little neighborhood, what with it’s cobblestones and narrow passages. Who knew?

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And jetlag? Not bad when you’ve got someone else awake with you at 2 am.

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All in all, the London leg of the autumnal was a return to Neverland. London was the place where I took a one year hiatus from driving and being committed to things. And to return with Lewis didn’t diminish that magical feeling (as reliving nostalgia usually does), but it added yet ANOTHER layer onto my “I love London” cake.

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Gym members of the world unite

Preface: I have lots of lawyers in my family whom I love dearly. They are not the lawyers referred to in this post. Further, I would like to commend Mr. Erwin Inc. A/C repair as a sterling alternative to the shady companies mentioned below.

I was 23 years old. Standing at the checkout desk of a nasty little hotel in Sarajevo, and I had been railroaded for the last time.

After four days of sharing a bed (not a room mind you, a BED) with a chain-smoking Norwegian who slept in black lingerie, being shoved by disrespectful men on public transportation, and otherwise made to feel completely ill-at-ease, I was not taking anymore crap.

When they presented me with my bill, which included two late night minibar raids by the Norwegian, 4 days of calls to Brazil by a third roommate, and miscellaneous charges racked up the fourth roommate, I simply said “no.”

Now, seeing as we were in Eastern Europe, this all played out in a very on-the-nose style. There were no forced smiles or corporate jargon. And thus it serves as a perfect illustration for railroading techniques employed by many huge companies, as they not only profit from selling legitimate products and services, but fatten the margins by imposing penalties, convoluted fee structures, and trapping people into contracts that far exceed the value of needed services.

1) The “There’s nothing that can be done.”

The desk clerk said, “there’s nothing I can do. The system won’t let me check you out until the bill is paid.”

This is a favorite. The helpless underling at the mercy of technology. But thanks to my impaired mental state at the time of check out, I replied with, “Well I’m sorry. I’m simply not paying. But I am leaving. You’re going to have to do something about that.”

This is what I said yesterday to the customer care representative at the billing company who handles my gym membership when I called to cancel my month-to-month membership with Blast Fitness (this is AFTER canceling at the gym itself, and being told that memberships must be cancelled 30 days in advance, so I would still be charged for another month, and then that I must call the billing company to complete the cancellation of services).

She said that she couldn’t help me because the system had me listed under a year long contract, and so I needed to contact my gym again to straighten it out. I wanted her to  patch me through to someone who could help me. Someone with an override pass-code. But she persisted in her victim-of-the-system routine.

2) The “Somehow This is Your Fault” 

Meanwhile, back in Bosnia, upon seeing that I was not just going to wimp out and pay the $350 bail she’d set for my release, the clerk involved the Bosnian conference-organizer who said, “You are responsible for this bill. You should have come to check out with each of your roommates to make sure they didn’t do this to you.”

Aha.  This is a gift that the legal profession has bequeathed upon the world. It’s a favorite of pastors as well. If there is some way that you could have prevented yourself from being defrauded, some moment where you chose to let you guard down or heaven forbid if you messed up even a little, then no one else is responsible for their actions against you.

Thank goodness I was a banshee on the loose at that point.  I replied, “Excuse me? My roommates left at 5 am. And it is NOT my responsibility to make sure that they didn’t leave without paying THEIR bills. In fact, they are your guests, and if those are the kind of people you invite to your conferences, then that’s the risk you take. Furthermore, I requested a single room, so these roommates were less than my responsibility, they were a burden imposed on me.”

This is similar to when we realized that we had misunderstood what a “grace period” was in credit card billing. Apparently, in a normal credit card agreement (billed in a monthly statement) the “grace period” is the 3 days between the due date and the day you start accruing interest. However, if at any point the terms of the agreement change (in our case due to a check written to ourselves against our credit balance), then a “grace period” refers to each passing day between when you swipe your card, and when you transfer money to your credit card company. That’s a fun one to find out when you see that you’d accrued $80 of interest on a tank of gas.

Again this “it’s your fault” tactic was employed during the gym cancellation saga when this conversation happened:

Customer Care Rep:”May I ask why you are cancelling?”

Me:”Because they are closing my preferred location.”

CCR: “I’m sorry to hear that. But there are two other locations within 10 miles of the closing location.”

Me: “Yes, 10 miles further from my house. It would take me 30 minutes each way to get there.”

CCR: “I’m sorry for that, but that’s just not reason enough to waive your cancellation fee.” [which we subsequently established that I was not supposed to incur]

So yes. My choice to live 30 minutes away from the gyms I do not use penalizes me when they close the gym I do use.

OR when Perma Pier leveled our house with the wrong kind of pier and beam system, did a shoddy job, and then offered to come back and fix it for $27,000 (minus $7000 for the shoddy original job…gee thanks). Since we’d signed off on the work, (after seeing ONE appropriately serviced pier) we were liable. Because we should have hired an inspector to crawl under the house to make sure they had not ripped us off before they left. Literally. That’s what they told us.

3) The Guilt Trip

Meanwhile, back in the twilight zone, the conference-organizer then tried to guilt me into paying.

“If you don’t pay, then it will come out of my paycheck.”

I’m pretty sure I just stared at her. But I also said, “That’s really not my problem.”

It’s like when you’re made to feel like a naughty car owner if you don’t upgrade to the super special oil for your oil change.

The happy ending of the Bosnia story is that the American organizers of the conference saw that there was conflict, intervened, and handed over their credit cards without hesitation. And paid for my cab ride to the airport.

The regional manager of the gym cancelled my membership without penalty.

We used another credit card until we could restore our original credit card agreement.

We pestered a foundation company until they reimbursed us for half of the shoddy construction job. (And we hired a wonderfully honest company to fix it, for half of what Perma Pier quoted.)

And from this day forward whenever I am given the runaround by someone who hired a lawyer to write a ten page contract absolving that person from treating me like a human being instead of a bank account, I will say this:

“I want you to patch me through to the person who can write me a personal check for [disputed amount], mail it to my house, and sort it out in the “system” for himself. Because I guarantee you, if he’s out [disputed amount] he’ll tell you the override code. I am tired of living in a world where people are just trying to see how much money they can get me to lose at no cost to themselves. ”

I also have a recurring fantasy of walking up to the lawyers who write the contracts for these horrible, slimy companies, and saying this: “Do you know how the little guy feels when he finds himself taken advantage of by the big guy? Do you know how he feels when he is powerless to free himself from the spiderweb of your contracts? You don’t?”

And then I’d kick him in the testicles. And then I would say, “Well I don’t have testicles, so I don’t know what that feels like.”

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Beer Journal: Local watering holes

Some people have wine journals. Liz James told me about beer journals. Mine will double as a travel journal. More than wine, when I travel, I find beer. Not haute beer. Everyman beer. Beer I can order in any restaurant. And these stories are not the stories of the most amazing places I’ve seen. They are about the times when I had a beer, and the people I was with.

These are our local watering holes.

The Friendly Spot - King William

The Friendly Spot – King William

Here is Lewis at the The Friendly Spot, which has apparently been around longer than I thought. It can be hard to find a seat, but when you do, it’s about as simple a place as ever did grace the hip side of town. And it is oh so hip.That’s why my bike helmet it here. Because we’re trying to be hip like the Southtowners.

We often meet our Southtown friends there.

I was particularly thrilled to see it mentioned in the biography of Ann Richards.

The Granary - Pearl

The Granary – Pearl

The brewmaster at The Granary went to high school with my sister, and the beer is worth a mention. The Root Beer is worth some sort of award.This flight of beers was shared with a group of Australian travel professionals visiting for a conference. More proof that Australians know how to have a good time.

The Granary is not a bar. It’s a restaurant, serving an elevated twist on Texas smoked meets and their accouterments. I, for one, am not a die-hard purist about Texas beer and bbq. People rail about the inherent evils of “high end” bbq and beer flights, but this is good food and good beer. What could be more purist than that?

The Esquire Tavern - Downtown/Riverwalk

The Esquire Tavern – Downtown/Riverwalk

There’s not any beer in the is picture, but Esquire Tavern is simultaneously 1) home to the longest bar in Texas, and 2) the only place downtowners go on the Riverwalk. History and relevance. Some other organizations I know of should take note. The food is all heavy duty, and the drinks are delicious. I’ve had more than one beer here.

On the night this picture was taken, I was with Liz James. We had just left a jazz concert and the Spurs were in the final round of the NBA championship. Liz is committing the crime of getting us to be very attached to her before she leaves us (probably for Boulder, like everyone else). But we’ll forgive her and have a few more beers before she’s gone.

The Luxury - River North

The Luxury – River North

We can reach The Luxury on our bikes, without peddling. We can leave our home, lift our feet, and roll the 7 blocks to this table right here.

You know  the beer in the picture is not actually mine because it’s opaque.

All seating is outside, and I love it. Large plastic animal toys substitute for numbers. In this picture, we are with our friends, the Sedgwicks who pointed out that Lewis’s pants match the saurolophus and the table. It’s cool to have people around who notice that sort of thing.

Blue Box - The Pearl

Blue Box – The Pearl

Blue Box has become a pretty common happy hour spot for me. It’s incredibly hard to find the first time, as there’s no sign out front, and it’s under the Pearl parking garage. But that doesn’t seem to stop it from filling up. People have a thing for places where you have to know. They serve fun cocktails and beer. These pictured were both recommendations of their incredibly knowledgeable head bar tender (who may be the owner, I’m not sure.)

I am here drinking with Haley, my primary happy hour companion for the last three-or-so years. Haley is that person who understands that some days happy hour needs to start at 2pm on a Tuesday, as well as the many reasons that someone might drink most of the bottle of wine in the course of a weeknight. Because, in the words of Haley, “I’m a grown-ass woman.”

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Dallas or (Mega)bust! A play in 3 acts

Prologue: I consider myself a pretty intrepid traveler. I have yet to meet a mode of transportation I can’t endure.

Further, I’ve gotten pretty city-savvy. I enjoy making the most of the latest fad in transportation.

Mostly though, I’m a sucker for a good deal. I’m the girl who plans my vacations around flash sales.

So naturally, hearing that Megabus was coming to town was the kind of good news that could only be topped if RyanAir or EasyJet decided to hop the pond and start offering 15-cent flights to Los Angeles. I took the Megabus to Austin back in December for a lunch date, and it was perfect. On time, low-key, seat to myself, read the whole way. So I didn’t even hesitate to book a trip to Houston for Monday-Tuesday, and a trip to Dallas for Friday-Sunday last week.

Sitting in the parking lot of Katy Mills for an hour with no sign of the 7pm Megabus, I should have seen the writing on the wall. As I griped about the lack of communication, my gracious ride (who was waiting with me so that I could stay in an airconditioned car, instead of sitting on the pavement) said,

“Yeah, I’d pay at least $4 per trip if they would be on time.”

Right. You get what you pay for.

Tickets were already booked for Dallas though. So Haley (who, in all fairness, would never have hazarded such an obviously fallible plan had I not been so exuberant about Megabus) and I boarded in San Antonio at 4:30 pm, and headed for Dallas. You can read Haley’s account of the trip here.

Act One: Austin. Where after seeing a pretty convincing Chris Farley double…

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we backed up right into the spot where he had been sitting, and felt an ominous bump. Followed by an announcement that we would be staying in Austin for an hour to address a “safety concern.”  They also told us to be back on the bus in one hour because they were leaving “regardless of whether or not we were on the bus.”

Though needlessly stern, that’s about as helpful as the Megabus people would be throughout the hours that followed. Also, we saw Chris Farley again, so I don’t know what the bump was, but it was not him.

We were in Austin, on Guadalupe street, though. I’ve been stranded worse places (Ljubljana, for instance). So we made the most of it and had Pho for dinner.

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Better than organic funyuns and dried cherries, which was what I had packed. We also had two bottles of wine and no corkscrew. Little did we know by the end of the evening we’d be willing to claw through and drink whatever cork bits fell into the wine.

The bus left at precisely 7:20. I don’t know how I feel about that kind of punctuality. What kind of safety issue is resolved in exactly one hour as scheduled? How well can you really fix something in an hour? I mean, I was ready to get to Dallas, but I also believe in the importance of actually fixing things.

Because if you don’t, you end up exactly where we were 1.5 hours later.

Act Two: After crawling along in the predictable North Austin/Temple/Belton traffic jam, we realized that while the rest of traffic was speeding up, we were still going about 5-10 miles per hour. Cars whizzing by, efficiently making their way north. No announcement, no explanation.

One concerned passenger jumped up and rushed down the stairs to check on the driver.

“Well, he’s still alive.”

Suddenly, we sped up. A collective sigh of relief. But wait…we were just going down hill. Once the road leveled out, we slowed to a stop.

Still no word from the driver. It should be noted that Haley and I were giggling like idiots the whole time, because we were neither hungry nor alone, and so this was all very entertaining. (The people in the Group Messages are Haley, me, and Amanda Brack, whom I still have listed under her maiden last name…we’ve been friends for a while!)

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Policeman #1 boarded the bus, asking us to please get off the highway. That’s when we got the first and only piece of true information we would get.  We peered down the stairwell, listening to the driver explain that our transmission was out. (the video Haley mentions is of this conversation)

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Policeman #1 explained that there was another southbound Megabus a few miles ahead…also stranded. Then he left.

Policeman #2 appeared about five minutes later, and the scene repeated itself. This is also about the point when our chronical of the trip on social media started generating some worried phone calls and messages from friends.

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“We’re going to die on this bus,” one particularly hopeless passenger said, as the clock neared 9:45.

“We’ve got wine!” Haley and I announced.

“It’s my 21st birthday at midnight!” another passenger exclaimed.

We felt like we’d saved the day. Even though we were still sitting on a bus on the side I-35, and no one from Megabus had spoken up to inform us of our fate.

Finally, another bus, Coach USA, pulled up, and we walked along the grass median to board the smaller vehicle.

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Haley and I could not find seats together, which is when this conversation happened:

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Act Three: The remaining 1.5 hours were uneventful. Over the course of the journey I listened to a confident young man tell his cute seatmate the following (which I relayed by text to Haley and Amanda).

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He then went on to explain that he was classically trained, but just had a knack for rhythm. And he’s an amateur mechanic. “I don’t know, I’m just good at that kind of thing. I’m good with my hands.”

The cute girl relayed her woes of car trouble, and the confident fellow offered to take a look at her car for free when they were back in Austin.

I wanted to take the girl by the shoulders, shake her, and say, “If there is one thing you have learned from this trip: when it comes to transportation, you get what you pay for.”

Epilogue: Our return trip was 2 hours late presumably due to traffic…which is always present…but not accounted for in the eta. If you plan to take the Megabus between San Antonio and Austin, just be advised, it’s a seven hour trip. You could literally fly to Peru.

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Last Call Adventure: Bruja Canyon Part II

When we last left our intrepid team of trekkers, they were setting off across the desert in the dark…

Part II: Up, over, around, and down

With our gaiters firmly in place and the desert air still dry and “cool,” we crossed Terlingua Creek (which was exactly as technical as Lewis nudging a rock into place and us skipping across), walked the dry tributary creek bed, and out on to the clay flats.

The terrain.

The terrain.

The expanse of soft clay felt like we were walking across a macaroon, leaving easily trackable footprints that we would later appreciate. The clay also radiated heat that it had been holding from the days before. Suddenly we all started doing math in our heads, wondering how it would feel to walk the flat in the scourge of the afternoon sun on our way back to the car.

My guess was that it would feel really hot. Like if you were put in an oven. Satan’s oven.

The open flat was soon interrupted by a stubble of desert plants. Mesquite, all thorn, prickly pear, lechuguilla, ocotillo, cholla, and the particularly sinister claret cup. Everything in the desert wants to kill you. Or rather, it wants to keep you from getting close to it, which I respect. Since some unfortunate childhood experiences, I have given cacti a wide berth. While my gaiters did reduce the diameter of my bubble, it was soon popped altogether by invading spines.

We got up close and personal with some very surly plants.

Bruja is a slot canyon, like a stab wound in the side of a Mesa de Anguilla. Standing on top of the mesa it would have looked like a fissure running across the ground. From where we stood on the plain, the vertical face of the plateau’s northeastern wall loomed, Bruja was just a void. A crack in the wall.

We picked our way through and eventually scrambled up the rocks at the base of the wall, still dodging the “pokies” as Jenna named them.

Then it was time for the adventure to begin in earnest.

The grade of the wall varies from report to report, but it’s in the high 4’s or low 5’s, if that means anything to anyone. There were some moments where those extra inches of arms and legs that the boys had on us girls really made a difference. My own first hurdle came somewhere near the bottom of the wall when it was fingers,toes, and pokies  between the ledge I was on and the ledge where I needed to be. There was a rope too, but we were not tied to it.

The little white dot is Colin on reconnaissance.

The little white dot is Colin on reconnaissance.

In life, I’ve made a habit of saying “one, two, three, go!” and jumping off of things. Or cutting things. Or pushing buttons. I can count to three and shut off my brain. But lunging at the next hand hold or sloped surface requires, “one, two, three, quickly-do-the-next-thing.” That’s harder.

Our feet on the first ledge.

Our feet on the first ledge.

Jenna on the other side of the gap.

Jenna on the other side of the gap.

So we needed a new chant. Fortunately as I hung there quivering, Colin said, “Trust yourself!”

And then I was on the next ledge. The rest of the wall was no problem, not simply because I now trusted my feet, but because it really was a lot easier. We just walked on up the sticky rocks.

From there we walked two miles along a ridge that was like the rim inside the rim of the canyon. This was pretty thick cactus habitat, but we were high on life after a quick ascent.

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At the back of the canyon we had snacks in a cave with burn marks on the cieling, and little Native American grain grinding holes outside. We were like ancient peoples…with Camelbacks, a decided evolutionary advantage.

From there we dropped down into the canyon itself. It was a fairly mild drop, just sliding down the smooth walls of the shallowest pool, which happened to be dry. From there we would slowly work our way back to the plane, dropping from pool to pool via rope, wiggle, and hopping.

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We moved along in full sun, finding shade along the edge or in crevasses where we could. We were almost to the highlight, the big rappel into water, when came to what would be, for me, the scariest moment of the trek. To get to our rappelling point for the first major drop, we first had to clear a gap. Colin suggested we take a running leap.

“Um…I don’t do run-and-jump,” I said. Playing the one princess card I would allow myself. I don’t. It’s one of those “one, two, three, be coordinated” moments that I avoid. Whenever I try to run and jump, I second guess myself at the last second, try to stop mid-flight, and fall.

Aborting this jump would end in death…or paralysis…and waiting to be rescued…in the heat.

Colin is setting up the rappel on the other side of the gap...while we pretend not to worry about the crossing.

Colin is setting up the rappel on the other side of the gap…while we pretend not to worry about the crossing.

So we figured out another method, which still required leaning across the gap, hands on one side, feet on the other, and pushing off into a precarious hand hold. But “trust yourself” did the trick and we all made it safely across.

From there Colin rigged the rappelling system. I say rappel. Really he lowered us into the pool of water beneath. There was little rappeling involved. Somehow even this uncomplicated plan still found me with my bare feet above my head, butt against the wall. Laughing too hard to help myself.

Once we were lowered into the pool, and safely past the floating cactus on the other side, we watched Colin actually rappel, put our boots back on and continued.

Before long we would rappel again. This time the drop was far more dramatic, into a bigger pool. The boys swam the pool with the packs on their back, keeping them amazingly dry while Jenna and I cleared cacti from the exit of the pool.

Just before we exited the canyon I got to rappel one more time, thanks to a particular feature of my anatomy wedging itself so tightly into a hole that everything from my ribcage on down was dangling in mid-air. I wiggled back out and opted to go over the boulder, rather than have a distinctly female reenactment of 127 Hours.

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We polished off the snacks, and made a mad dash for the mouth of the canyon, stunned at our quick pace thus far, and now just going for a quick finish. So many of these adventures fall apart in the last hour.

Ours did not. We were quiet, yes. My trudging was more trudge-like. I’d been wrong about what the clay flat would feel like in the heat of the day. Not an oven. A griddle. Satan’s griddle.

We ran out of water about 1,000 steps from the car. Part of the strategy game that is desert trekking is rationing water, and we were shocked at how well we’d done.

We soaked our top layers in Terlingua Creek (long sleeves are a must in the desert, in one of natures cruelest ironies), and made the final push to the car, where the beer was still cold.

Campsite number two, 1,000 feet higher, 10 degrees cooler.

Campsite number two, 1,000 feet higher, 10 degrees cooler.

That night at our 10-degrees-cooler campsite in the Chisos Basin, we marveled at how well the hike had gone. No injuries. No water shortage. And we all still liked each other.

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Last Call Adventure: Bruja Canyon, Part I

Prologue:

This was the big one.

When Colin first told us about canyoneering Bruja Canyon in a remote corner of Big Bend National Park, I was hooked at “rappel into a pool of freezing water.” I also knew that to make it happen, we would have to find a rare surplus of two extremely scarce resources: time and water. Looking for that magical moment when it had rained in Big Bend, and all four of us were free to skip town would be a challenge.

That magical moment was this weekend, July 5-7, 2013.

And whyever not? The forecast seemed totally amenable to a 10 mile desert trek. (Hike scheduled for Saturday)

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Part I: The journey West

So we loaded up Colin’s car with 4 friends, an ice chest, and every durable synthetic fiber known to man.

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Along the way we carefully rationed our David Sedaris Live CD, and did our best to listen to a Cormac McCarthy audiobook (by doing my best, I mean that I went straight to sleep). At some point everyone indulged in “I-only-eat-this-on-roadtrips” snacks. A sharp contrast to the meals we would be eating for the rest of the trip.

Yes, Lewis is using a sour straw to drink a Cherry Coke. We'd been in the car for many hours.

Yes, Lewis is using a sour straw to drink a Cherry Coke. We’d been in the car for many hours.

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What we ate outside the car.

 Once inside the Park we went through the rigmarole of permitting, paying fees, and not getting to go into Mexico.

We’ll save that for the next adventure, because it does involve 1) ferrying across the river, 2) possibly riding a horse into Boquillas, Mexico, and 3) chatting with U.S. Officials via virtual passport control upon return. All things I’m dying to do.

However, we were informed by the helpful NPS employees that we’d probably be stuck over there if we left after 4 pm. They reassured us, however, that there was no night life we were missing. Something about our sunhats and trekking shoes must have screamed, “I like to party hard.”

Here’s my question…do people really still go party at night in Mexican border towns? That’s terrifying.

This fancy border control station closes at 6pm folks.

This fancy border control station closes at 6pm, folks.

Jenna utilizes to topographical map at the headquarters to make tomorrow's hike look like "no biggie."

Jenna (who conquered Bruja back in March) utilizes to topographical map at the headquarters to make tomorrow’s hike look like no biggie.

So from there all we could do was set up our campsite along Terlingua Creek. We camped under the stars, being slow roasted by the desert floor which radiated heat through our inflatable sleeping pads like some device used by celebrity chefs to make the perfect braised duck.

It was far too warm for sleeping bags, so we slept largely exposed, which is thrilling in it’s own way.

Few things are more majestic than falling asleep under a glittering canopy of shooting stars with Scorpio rising up from the horizon as you drift off to sleep with no one around for miles… except the three other people lying shoulder-to-shoulder with you on a tarp.

Our first campsite, and the tarp we shared.

Our first campsite, and the tarp we shared.

We set our alarms for 4:40 am, only to awaken to a completely dark sky that looked no closer to daylight than when we’d gone to sleep. Big Bend is at the western edge of the timezone. So we slept another hour, until distant coyote howls woke us and the horizon was growing lighter.

Still, this is what “getting ready” looked like:

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Jenna and I added a clever, if not particularly trendy, piece of equipment to our desert gear: gaiters. Mine were “3 season” gaiters. I’m willing to guess that blistering summer is not one of those seasons. But I didn’t care. The desert is thick with pokey flora, and I intended to trudge like a pro. Gaiters on!

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From there we set out and the adventure really began.

Stay tuned for Part II of the story to find out if all four intrepid travelers remain intact as they climb, rappel, scramble, and swim their way out of Bruja Canyon.

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Beer Journal: Corona

 

This entry in the beer journal is not about travel. It’s about home.

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And sitting behind that Corona is Lewis, my company of choice. He’s having a Shiner Black.

When I am home, I drink light, effervescent, (preferably Mexican) beer. Lewis is pretty loyal to “whatever you have that’s really dark.” He likes words like “stout.” I like words like “crisp.” And I like my Mexican lagers dressed. That means with salt and lime (it was alarming to me that this is not common knowledge everywhere in the world, as it took me 10 minutes to explain it to a waiter in Yosemite National Park).

Our different taste in beer is a pretty good metaphor for the rest of our differences. He’s mysterious, minor-key, and and meticulous. I’m…not any of that.

Over years of marriage, from what I’ve heard, you start to know things about each other. Important stuff like, what cacao percentage to choose (70% for Bekah, 80% for Lewis). Which color of clothing will be a hard sell (purple, for Lewis). Which herbs to avoid (cilantro, for Bekah).

But there’s something really really special about the first time someone successfully pegs your drink order. You go out, it’s really crowded, and you finally manage to find a place to perch. Before you can even peruse the list, your partner senses the urgency of having drinks-in-hand, disappears to the bar, and comes back holding exactly what you would have ordered.

Lewis does that for me, and he also knows those deeper differences. He can order my drink, squeeze my hand at the right time, and know that my storms will pass. He knows me.

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Beer Journal: Aguila

Some people have wine journals. Liz James told me about beer journals. Mine will double as a travel journal. More than wine, when I travel, I find beer. Not haute beer. Everyman beer. Beer I can order in any restaurant. And these stories are not the stories of the most amazing places I’ve seen. They are about the times when I had a beer, and the people I was with.

This is Aguila, a Colombian Beer.

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I drank…a lot of it. With Benja, who was never really a stranger, but is now an old friend. Also some lovely Australians.

Somehow, Australians always know where to find beer. We could be in the middle of nowhere, and one of them would show up with armfuls of beer, passing it around, for the good of all.

Benja and the Australians gave me a three day crash course in not “overthinking.”

On our last day we hiked through Tayrona National Park, one of the more fascinatingly beautiful places on earth. We sweated out the remnants of the night before, and then soaked in the sea on a 7 km hike in 95 degree weather at around 100% humidity. It was like some kind of purification ritual.

It’s weird how many times I’ve called up that day. When vines start creeping around my ankles asking, “What will they think?” or “Do they like you?” or “Won’t they expect you to…?”

Sometimes you have to look disapproval/pressure/judgement in the eye… and have a beer.

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