Tag Archives: travel

Reunion Ride

3 Jul

“His twenty-two was still clean as a whistle.”

Image courtesy of Dartmouth Cycling Team

R. and I were riding up Kinsman’s Notch, quoting lines from Krabbé’s The Rider to each other like we were old friends. Which we were, though neither of us had read Krabbé when we used to ride together. No matter; scores of hours and hundreds of miles spent in the saddle together over these same roads made for an easy comfort when we met up again for the first time in 13 years. We could share a reference and be confident the other guy would get the joke. Neither of us had a clean 22 cog at that point in the day.

I smiled to myself in the first ten miles of the ride (and, for a moment before I could break free of the tar of self-awareness and arched eyebrow irony that drenches modern life, smiled at myself smiling at myself), heading out on the familiar rollers of Route 5 across the river and north from the College. I could glance up the paceline and see two others in jerseys like my own, lime green slightly faded from being over a decade old but still in good shape and, cushion to the ego, still the right size.  Even more comforting, I could have picked them both out by pedaling style.  Both of my old teammates claimed they hadn’t really been riding at all, much less in a big group, but both were clearly right at home.  Smooth, steady.  You could tell they were racers.  Others in the group looked strong (and would prove to be such) but they weren’t riders whose wheels I would comfortably follow.

Three old guys

You can start to take it for granted after a while of riding only with other racers, but a mixed group will quickly remind you of the difference.  It’s a joy to ride with experienced racers, and on this cool morning heading north through Vermont and New Hampshire, I was practically gleeful. Riding with old friends, on familiar roads through gorgeous country:  I just couldn’t stop smiling.

We cruised over some of the smaller climbs early on, swooping down through the covered bridge at Thetford, around Lake Fairlee and crossing back into New Hampshire at Orford.  Our new friends from the Strava.com team had turned back around Fairlee, and the group riding the 100-mile route was down to six as we headed up Mt. Cube.  This was where things started to split up a bit, former teammates M. and R. and I having to deliberately throttle back to avoid rudely dumping the rest of our small group.  There were still over sixty miles to go, after all.  R’s flat tire partway up gave a convenient regrouping point.

Magic as we came off the descent from Cube and turned north to Warren: the first sight of Mt. Moosilauke.  Poking up baldly among the other wooded hills, waiting there.  It felt like it was asking me if I wasn’t really a bit overdue in coming back, hm?

Into the wind

The sun was warm as we headed north towards Haverhill and Woodsville, but a growing breeze kept the air cool.  The three of us (with occasional help from one or two others in the group) switched off pulling into the headwind, with R’s familiar low, forward-leaning posture on the bike seeming to tear a hole in the air for the rest of us to follow.  We caught up on kids, careers, home buying decisions.  I was already delirious from the sweet, clean air and the nostalgia; hearing R. talk about moving to a small town in New Hampshire as everything he and his wife ever hoped for was almost too much to bear.  I wondered for days and weeks afterwards if I could or should do the same.

Kinsman’s Notch was our penultimate climb of the day, and we slipped the leash a little bit, finding a hard rhythm that still allowed for literary references and noticing the waterfall on the side of the road.  The descent is a speed freak’s joy, ramrod straight and wide open sight lines.  It dropped us off at the foot of the eastern climb up to the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, and I decided to just punch it.  Thirty minutes and a short regroup later, we dropped down the last descent to the access road turn and two miles of mostly uphill dirt to the Lodge.

The College could guarantee record rates of alumni giving by getting every graduate to the Lodge once a year.  I have no doubt the return on investment would be worth it.  I wanted to kiss the building timbers, I was so in love with that rustic old place.

Dinnertime at the Lodge

No white-tented event with nametags and caterers could come anywhere close to this for reminding me what I took with me from college, but even more, The College, and hell, all of New England itself.

Everything I adored about the College — the outdoors, the sense of independence, bicycle racing, the dizzying feeling of limitless possibility — all of it merged in that moment as I sat there admiring the strip of sunburnt skin on my thigh and drinking a cup from the keg of Switchback Ale the cycling team students had procured.

Image courtesy of Dartmouth Cycling Team

It won’t be another decade before my next trip back.

Image courtesy of Dartmouth Cycling Team

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How to Fly With Small Children

3 Feb

It’s not all overwrought musings about bike racing around here.  If air travel with small kids doesn’t qualify as a form of discomfort, voluntary or otherwise, I don’t know what does.

My wife and I decided early on that not traveling once we had kids was unacceptable. For starters, our jobs require a nomadic lifestyle. Secondly, we knew we would have to compromise on so many other areas that letting go of travel — one of our shared loves — seemed a bridge too far. Finally, kids today are coddled and mollified in virtually every way imaginable. Becoming part of that by saying, “ok, we’ll bend to the whims of this child and never go anywhere” seemed like it would send the wrong message to our children about who we wanted them to be.

That’s not to say travel, especially air travel, with kids doesn’t suck. Quite often it does, even when the baby doesn’t throw up all over you while you’re solo parenting two kids on an all-day trip.  (OK, that happened to my wife on the train, but the point is the same.) My rules for how to cope:

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An old and familiar seduction

25 Feb

Oh, Austrian Air. How I’ve missed you these past five years.

It began with those first Euro-tranced notes of “Summertime (and the livin’ is easy)” as I boarded. I knew you hadn’t changed.

You still serve me real food and ply me with complimentary liquor, even in coach. And though I could have used an extra inch or two of seat recline, you gave me a blanket and a pillow. For free, even.

Your pre-flight safety video is still that CGI animated thing with the guy who keeps staring lewdly at the woman with the curvy ass and the mannish face, and I still can’t decide whether it’s funny or demeaning.

In short, you charmed me in the old, familiar way, you sly emissaries of a fallen empire.

And then, over breakfast, you sweetly, tenderly fooled me yet again with a spoiled cup of orange juice. WTF?

But I’ll probably still sleep with you again anyway.

Bags (an accounting)

9 Feb

Contents of two well-worn bags unpacked from a moving carton last week:

1. Tumi laptop attaché in black ballistic nylon, circa 1997:

  • Immodium A-D (two tablets) carried in case of emergency during a year in Xinjiang. Not taken as the cure was often worse than letting a violent but quick purge run its course.
  • Sheaffer rollerball pen, red marbled finish, high school graduation present. No ink.
  • Cheap disposable rollerball pen, black. Ink still wet.
  • Plastic llama, white, 0.5″ in. high. Gift from then-girlfriend, now wife.
  • Photos in wallet holder: sister in jr. high, mini-polaroid of grad school roomate’s perfectly rectangular ass bruise after she borrowed my bike once and fell over after not being able to get out of the toe clips.
  • Missing: AM/FM/Shortwave radio, battery-powered, black. Removed from bag during a pee stop on an all-night bus trip to Khotan; came back from bathroom to find bag upended, radio missing, laptop, field notes, camera still there. Loudly cursed the thief who must have been still sitting there within arm’s reach, while silently thanking him for not making me pay more dearly for my stupidity.

2. Jansport daypack, purple with green trim:

  • Button pin with rainbow flag; meant as an expression of support but led to me being hit on several times in college, with disappointing results for the other party.
  • Receipt for spine-warping load of groceries from Safeway in Manoa Valley, Honolulu, January 1997. Groceries carried by bike to a group house shared with seven others, consumed therein.
  • Bootlace, black, broken.
  • Twenty-use punch card for Reykjavík city swimming pools, used.

Getting a taste for it.

29 Jan

This is an account I wrote of the trip that probably opened my eyes up to just how far you could go if you don’t care about how uncomfortable you are.  Though my travel rookie sense of “can you believe that this is actually happening?” is apparent throughout, the feeling that day that I could just keep going on that road — all the way into Pakistan and who knows where after that — stuck with me.

Kashgar to Tashkorgan on the Karakoram Highway, Xinjiang, China.

July 26, 1995: The road seems to stretch on forever, disappearing into the horizon somewhere around the area of the distant blue mountains. The morning cool as we leave Kashgar makes the traveling comfortable as we sweep past rows of wind-breaking trees, agricultural fields, and coal piles. Gradually, the shade and trees give way to dusty, scrub-filled plains, until finally we are truly in the desert. Open, windswept stretches on right and left, with the ever- present mountains looming closer.

The road goes on, and as we reach the edge of the plateau to begin our ascent, the heat of the day seems to suddenly arrive. The foothills now on either side rapidly grow into mountains, Karakorams on the west and Pamirs on the right, as the sun bakes us onto the pavement. A river appears on the left side, water the color of coffee with cream, born of glacial water and muddied by desert clay. Bare, craggy mountainsides hemming us in, the road condition deteriorating with every increase in altitude, and all the while the mountains wait in front of us, guarding their secrets in silence.

Now snow appears on the peaks to the fore, as we bounce along over a road that can hardly be called paved. The peaks are white year-round here, immense height giving the snow a permanent home. The road hugs the mountainside to our right, climbing still. Occasional streams of glacial melt force us to slow down every now and then, as the water has strewn the road with rocks and sand. The slowing and stopping as agony, as ventilation comes to an absolute halt and the sun threatens to dissolve us into a puddle on the mountainside. Between the sun and the precarious tilting of the bus as it rolls over rocks the size of small grapefruits, it’s a wonder no one becomes ill. And somehow, the road still stretches ahead of us.

Rounding a bend, we discover that the road has been washed out by expansion of the glacial river to our left. We pull off to the side to drive across a more stable section of land, bouncing over rocks the entire way.

Thick, brown dust from the road fills the bus, forcing us to close the windows and seal off all breeze. We’re told the same sections of the road wash out year after year…perhaps some sort of perpetual employment measure? The washout past, we pull back onto the road and press on, slowing from the now-significant incline.

The road winds on around the mountains, with more washouts along the way. We have to get out at some points so the bus will ride high enough to clear the rocks. We jump across what is practically a river, then turn to watch the bus ford the same stream, water reaching halfway up the tires. Three hours of driving have passed. The mountains have changed in appearance now, from rocky conglomerations of boulders to seemingly carved sawteeth.

Some switchbacks, and then we arrive at the buffer checkpoint for the Sino- Pakistani border. Only those with official permission are allowed to pass, which means most Chinese residents are forbidden unless they are connected with a specific tour group. Five or six PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in sweaty uniforms stand around the gate, looking bored.

A small stand on the other side sells cigarettes, bread, and drinks. On the wall of the guard station are two signs. One, painted directly onto the wall, reads: “No urinating or defecating within 20 meters of this building.” The other reads: “No photography allowed.” There are no other travelers around.

Our guides Sadik and Mohtar finish with the paperwork, and we start again. We are surrounded by mountains, with only the thin ribbon of road winding along the slopes providing a means of escape. The ever-present glacial river follows the curve of the road, muddy water still flowing downhill. The wind swirls by, whipping up dust that settles upon anything exposed, coating it in a thin layer of brown.

We pass other vehicles, mostly heavy commercial trucks carrying wire, car parts, coal, and the like. By the end of the day the sensation of barely squeaking by on a road that is simply too narrow for two vehicles no longer bothers anyone on the bus. Four hours have passed…

After seven hours of driving, we reach another buffer checkpoint. This one seems a bit more established, with multiple buildings under a shady grove of trees. The paperwork proceeds smoothly, and we press onward, now descending. After another 90 minutes, we arrive in the town of Tashkorgan, our stop for the night.

Relieved to be off the bus, we are greeted at the door of the Pamir Hotel by what appears to be the entire staff of five. Unfortunately, the hotel is refinishing its lobby, the fumes causing our near-asphyxiation while we check in and sort out room assignments.

We head out across the hotel grounds to the wing our rooms are in, passing along the way the incongruously named “Pamir Hotel Pakistan Restöurent.” Debate at dinner focuses on whether the name stems from the restaurant’s menu of Pakistani food, or from a case of geographical confusion on the part of the hotel, as the Pakistani border lies 84 kilometers from Tashkorgan. We can be sure of neither, as the “restöurent” shows no signs of having been open at any time in the last five years.

Though night has yet to fall, the sun has already slipped behind the mountains that ring Tashkorgan, and the temperature descends rapidly. Some take this as a sign to stay indoors and rest, while others head out for a walk down the town’s one main street. The street runs the length of the town, and is lined on either side by poplars.

It appears we’ve arrived a bit late, as most of the small number of shops are closed already. The group as a whole takes an early rest, most eschewing use of the rather frightening bathrooms and instead intending to bathe once we make the 260-km return trip to Kashgar tomorrow.