Portland, Land of Coffee and Donuts and Beer

We arrived in Portland around 6pm on April 29th, after another long day of northbound driving, punctuated by the jaw dropping scenery of the rugged Oregon coastline. After 800 miles in two days, we happily parked our rental at the Marriott Waterfront and struck out on foot, eager to stretch our legs and explore a new city.

Dusk was settling in as we exited the hotel and the air was warm and light with the perfect fragrance of late spring. A fading sun cast golden hues on the industrial buildings of east Portland as a rowing club wrapped up practice on the lovely and impressive Willamette River.

We walked west a half-mile or so in the fading light, admiring Portland’s handsome buildings and clean streets and there were bicycles everywhere – the one word that kept popping into my mind was “green”. We were instantly comfortable in Portland. It exuded that funky vibe and laid-back charm of a mid-sized town, not a city large enough to boast an NBA franchise.

After a wonderful meal at one of the city’s great seafood restaurants, Southpark Seafood Grill, (I did not carry my notebook with me that night, so the details of that meal are lost), we were anxious to get out for more walking and fresh air. We strolled through the darkened streets, feeling tired but wonderfully sated and excited about the prospect of very limited windshield time over the remainder of our trip.
After a nightcap overlooking the Willamette in the dimly lit 16th floor bar back at the hotel, we turned in, exhausted yet again.

The first day of May found us well rested and ready for a long walk. Our plan was to fall back into our “Paris routine”, which would involve lots of walking, interspersed by frequent breaks for eating and drinking coffee or beer. The weather was spectacular – cool in the morning with highs in the mid-70’s and not a cloud in the sky. Perfect for leisurely ambling.

We walked all over Portland, stopping first at the gorgeous International Rose Test Garden, then over to iconic Powell’s Books, where we had coffee and pastries before wandering around it’s shelves for an hour or so in that heady reverie familiar to all bibliophiles in such settings. For lunch, we stopped at one of Portland’s famous food trucks – one in particular, which we had seen reviewed, that specialized in Czech food. Melissa ordered goulash and dumplings while I ordered the “Schnitzelwitch”, a fried pork sandwich as big as my head. We walked several blocks to the riverfront and stood eating our lunch while gazing over the Willamette. Ravenous after miles of hilly trekking, we polished off that considerable lunch and basked in the warming sunlight while taking in the awesome people watching (of which Portland abounds).

After a while we strolled slowly, with leaden bellies, north along the river to Hawthorne Bridge and crossed over to east Portland and the city’s recently thriving warehouse district. We walked six blocks to Hair of the Dog Brewery where we sat outside in warm sunlight sipping on a pint of golden ale, which was refreshing beyond description. It was one of those perfect days, mid-vacation with still much to do and see, a marathon under our belts, a brilliant cloudless sky overhead and nothing to do but amble about at our leisure in an interesting and lovely town. We were in our element.

We continued in that walk/stop/walk pattern for the rest of the day until we had covered a good ten miles or so. For dinner we found Higgins at SW Broadway. We shared a wonderful charcuterie plate with local sausages, a salad and Oregon wine, then espresso after.

Thursday dawned and we were excited to be heading to Seattle later in the day, but there was still more to see in Portland. After breakfast at the hotel, we walked to the Oregon Historical Society Museum, then over to Barista Coffee – the top rated coffee shop in Portland, which is saying something as Portland has recently overtaken Seattle as the nation’s craft coffee hotspot.

We shared an excellent latte as we walked the half-mile or so to Voodoo donuts – a pastry shop with the punk attitude and quirky vibe of a tattoo parlor on the shady fringes of a middling seaport town. We had heard of this place from friends and seen it on the Food Network and were drawn by the novelty of eating donuts (and nothing but donuts) for lunch. After a 15 minute wait in line, we ordered two apiece – me the famous maple bacon and raspberry jelly (both awesome), and her the chocolate cake and their signature creation, the Voodoo Doll – a doll shaped donut with a stake through it’s heart from which raspberry jelly flowed, blood-like. We sat on a picnic bench outside of the shop and wordlessly polished off 1,000 calories each worth of Voodoo donut goodness.

From here we walked slowly, in a mild diabetic haze back to the hotel, glazed residue on our lips, veins coursing with sugar and finely crafted caffeine. Though we hated to say goodbye to Portland, we were ready for the short drive north to our final destination, Seattle.

Dad

My Dad has played many roles in his life. Father, husband, brother, uncle and son. Navy seaman, Army officer, successful businessman, civic leader, Sunday school teacher, coach and pilot. He has been a mentor and a friend and at times when I needed it, a disciplinarian. From him I inherited a deep and abiding love of the South, of Gamecock sports and of all things old and dusty and historical.

He passed on his great love of music – from Bluegrass to the Blues Brothers, from the Temptations to Hank Williams, Stevie Wonder to Bill Monroe and Electric Light Orchestra to Johnny Cash. My sister and I laugh often about him dancing in the middle of our living room, circa mid 80’s, to Cameo’s “Word Up” – stereo cranked, head down, fists pumping, and showing impressive rhythm for a man descended from East Tennessee hill people. These impromptu jigs always seemed to occur as he was dressing for work or changing clothes after, which resulted in an underwear and business socks ensemble, as if he was possessed by an urge to boogie too powerful for attention to menial details – like pants. He was a strange amalgam of pale Cliff Huxtable and Tom Cruise in “Risky Business”, but he taught us not to take ourselves too seriously, to be open to the joy of music and to embrace our inner James Brown on occasion.

When I was in second grade he held me out of class one morning and drove me out to Owens Field, the municipal airport in Columbia, where he took me flying in a rented Cessna 150. We flew over Williams-Brice Stadium and the buildings of downtown and out towards Northeast Columbia where we lived. We banked right over my school and our house on Weybourne Way. It was magical to see those things from high in the air – to have that expanded perspective. It was both comforting and impressive to see him confidently at the controls and talking with the tower in that mysterious and phonetic staccato of pilot-speak over the crackling and ancient Cessna radio. Later we had lunch together and he dropped me back off at class just in time for “show and tell” where I told proudly – breathlessly – about my awesome pilot-Dad and our early morning recon at 3,000 feet over the Capital City. And it just doesn’t get much better than that for a second grader.

We attended countless basketball games at Frank McGuire Arena and there was no better place to be on a cold winter evening than the cozy confines of “The Frank”. And even though Gamecock hoops was not what it was in McGuire’s glory days, we were not too many years removed and you could still feel the presence of those great teams. The building was equal parts arena and shrine.

We would park on Assembly Street or Main just south of the Capital building and he would hold my hand in those early years as we walked through the tunnel under Assembly Street to the Coliseum. The aroma of fresh popcorn would greet us as we walked through the doors and handed our tickets to the familiar and welcoming doormen in their garnet blazers. We could hear the squeak of high top sneakers on the old tartan floor as we pushed through the turnstiles, and the familiar baritone of court side announcer Gene McKay rang in our ears as we found our seats before tipoff.

The pep band would fire up “Step to the Rear” and “Go Carolina” and the retired jerseys of Roche and English and Owens and Wallace hung proudly from the massive rafters above. We pondered the history of that building, the “House that Frank built”, and there was an electricity there – a soul – that I have never experienced in another arena. And on those special nights when all 12,401 seats were filled and the team played well and the crowd was especially rowdy, I was as happy as any boy has ever been.

Every so often after a game we’d cross over the Blossom Street Bridge into neighboring Cayce and I would peak down at the moon splashed Congaree River flowing purposely below us. We would pick up donuts at the Krispy Kreme on Knox Abbott Drive, back when it was still very much a regional brand, known mostly in the Carolinas. On the way home we would always listen to the incomparable Bob Fulton conduct his post game show on AM 560, and he would delve into the stats and interview Coach Bill Foster and provide commentary. I savored that time in the dark of his car as we made our way along Assembly and Bull Streets and I-277 back northeast towards home, not wanting it to end.

We watched George Rogers’ electrifying run to the Heisman in 1980 and Zam Frederick take the National Scoring Championship later that year in basketball. We watched baseball games at Sarge Frye Field and took pride in that powerhouse program some twenty-five years before Ray Tanner’s magical National Championship squads. We took in road football games in those pre-SEC years at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest and NC State – lingering rivalries from the ACC days. I was obsessed as only a young boy can be with sports and Dad indulged that obsession and shared in it as well.

Later, during the searching and sometimes reckless years of my early 20’s, he held me close through our long-established bond over Carolina sports. And even when we could think of nothing else to talk about we could talk about that. Even now it is a rarity when we don’t talk by phone after games to celebrate or commiserate.

He stood up for me at my first wedding and then provided much needed counsel and hard-earned wisdom during the difficult process when that union failed. He has been a travel companion and a sounding board and a steadfast advocate throughout.

It astounds me when I consider that his father died when he was a mere baby – three months old and living in Erwin, Tennessee. All of his “Dad skills” came through on the job training. He was a quick study and embraced that role with the fiery passion of one determined to provide a better life. He has certainly succeeded in that.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Love you, man.

Dad & me

Piercy, California, and Other West Coast Towns

We were both excited as we woke Monday morning for the post marathon portion of our trip. Feeling a surprising lack of soreness from the previous day’s race, we ate early and were on the road, northbound by 8am, leaving the misleadingly named Seaside Embassy Suites in our rear view mirror. (the hotel was not seaside, as it turned out, but if so inclined, you could stand on your tip-toes, crane your neck at an awkward 110 degree angle and catch in your peripheral just the tiniest sliver of blue from room 404).

After passing through the sprawl of San Jose, we drove into San Francisco, and though the GPS instructed us to head north over the Bay Bridge and through Oakland, you just can’t drive through San Francisco without paying a visit to the always-inspirational Golden Gate Bridge. Finished in 1937, adorned in art deco detailing and painted in unmistakable “international orange”, the Golden Gate is widely considered the most beautiful bridge in the world and is a jaw dropping engineering marvel. When I first saw it in person in 2001, I was awestruck by it, and I fell in love with San Francisco in large part because of it.

As we wound our way through San Francisco’s Presidio and approached the bridge, it was as awe-inspiring as ever. Driving across the span, with the City and Alcatraz and the deep-blue Bay to our right and the vast Pacific to our left, we inhaled the salty sea air (along with a good deal of exhaust from the heavy traffic) and soaked in the amazing view.

After crossing into Marin County, US Highway 101 and California Route 1 split and we followed Route 1, because neither of us had ever driven it north of San Francisco. A serpentine ribbon of blacktop, it was a two-lane rollercoaster of a road, winding its way into the Marin highlands and providing post card views of the gorgeous and expansive Pacific Ocean. It was noticeably cooler here than it was when we started back in Monterey, and we each pulled on a fleece, not wanting to roll up the windows.

Hungry and needing gas, we rolled into Point Reyes Station, about an hour and a half north of San Francisco. It felt as though we might be on the set of a Hollywood western with its narrow main street and low slung 19th century buildings.  We fueled up and stopped for lunch at Station House Café on the main drag through town. While Melissa got an outdoor table in their garden, I walked half a block to the Post Office to send off a post card to our friends in Plesiste, Czech Republic, as is our custom when we travel. Back at the restaurant, we ate huge sandwiches – her a Rueben and me a blue cheese burger with sweet potato fries – the food was excellent. It had warmed again after coming down from the highlands and we lingered at the table, enjoying the sun and a break from the car.

Redwood and Sasquatch Country – evidently, the home of my brave ancestors

It was a brilliant, cloudless day – low 70’s and comfortable. A perfect day for driving along the coast if ever there was one. Despite that, we left Route 1 after lunch and made our way inland to the faster moving Highway 101, wanting to make some time and arrive at our destination for the evening – Eureka – before dark. It was at this juncture, while studying a map in her role of navigator for the trip, that Melissa discovered that we would be driving through the town of Piercy, CA, just a few hours north. Piercy, California! I had never heard of it, but I was instantly jolted from my mild, lunch-induced torpor.

I had Melissa do a quick Google search of the history of Piercy as I entertained visions of this instantly mythic town and my intrepid settler-ancestors – brave, virtuous, ingenious and good-smelling men and women, no doubt, who looked westward through eyes of chipped granite and carved out their own slice of paradise in the wilds of Northern California. My spirit was stirred – my hopes soared. I would meet with the mayor – there would be photos taken and I would no-doubt, receive warm plaudits from distant relatives who would look vaguely like me. Ah, Piercy, California.

You might imagine my disappointment to find, via Wiki, that Piercy was an unincorporated “community” (not even a town!), which had been named in honor of Sam Piercy, who settled in the area around 1900. That’s it! That was the extent of what we could find on the history of Piercy – we could find no information whatsoever regarding this mysterious “Sam” character, although I’m still certain he was brave, virtuous, ingenious and good-smelling. Further research revealed that Piercy was home to “Confusion Hill” – a small roadside attraction – classic Americana – that included a “gravity house” where evidently, you could stand in various gravity-defying positions, such as on walls, etc. Melissa made great sport of the fact that the only discernable attraction in all of Piercy was Confusion Hill – “appropriate” and “aptly named” were comments she made more times than I felt particularly necessary.

As we drove north, the air cooled again and the trees thickened – both in number and in girth, as we entered Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The canopy created by these towering conifers – some taller than 300 ft – cast a shadowy darkness on the road and though it was 2pm with blue skies and bright sunlight overhead, I had to turn on my headlights. I could see why a Sasquatch would live here, and I half expected one to lumber out from behind a redwood at any moment. All along this road, narrow ribbons of dirt hiking paths meandered beguilingly off into the comely woods and I wished we had built an extra day into our trip for backpacking and camping.

The mythic home of Sam Piercy

The mythic home of Sam Piercy

Drawn by morbid curiosity, not to mention the need to pee, we actually stopped after several hours at the one and only, Confusion Hill, just outside of Piercy. It was nearly 5pm and the owner was tidying up, getting ready to close. We chatted with him for several minutes and he shared that the community of Piercy had actually ceased to exist a number of years ago when the post office burned to the ground. Their address was now Leggett, CA, which deepened my disappointment considerably. He did manage to find an old postcard with the original Piercy address though and I purchased it, along with a horribly over-priced “Confusion Hill” refrigerator magnet.

We finally arrived in Eureka around 6:15 pm and after checking into our room at the Carter House, we ambled back out to find dinner, happy to be out of the car and walking. We ate Lost Coast Brewery, downtown, about four blocks from the B&B. There, we enjoyed excellent clam chowder, fresh oysters and good beer. After, sated and exhausted from the day’s travels, we walked back to our room and after half-hearted attempts at reading our books, were both asleep after a page or two.

Next: VooDoo Donuts, here we come – Portland, OR

California

Big Sur Marathon was everything I imagined it would be. After years of sitting in my bucket list and delayed by our immersion into triathlon since 2009, Melissa and I finally decided that it was time to do a marathon together. And, wanting to incorporate a trip to Portland and Seattle and a drive up the Pacific Coastline, Big Sur was a natural fit.

And so we found ourselves in the eerie dark and quiet of a tour bus which picked us and other runners up at our hotel for the 26 mile ride from Monterey to the race start near the village of Big Sur. As the bus made its way ponderously up winding curves and steep inclines through the 4am darkness, we could only sense what lay beyond the barely visible guardrails just beyond our bus window. I knew, from a previous drive on Highway 1 of the cliffs and sheer drop-offs along this road and it occurred to me that we had placed a tremendous amount of trust in this silent bus driver whom we had never met. We settled in, sipped our coffee and tried to enjoy the ride.

Grateful after our safe delivery to the starting area, we stretched, made final bathroom visits despite long lines at the port-o-lets, and waited in the chilly pre-dawn air for our 6:30am start. When the gun went off, early morning light streamed through the surrounding trees and we were thankful to get started after standing around in shorts and t-shirts for nearly an hour in 50-degree temperatures.

Once started, the course was nothing short of spectacular. After running along for a comfortable and gently downhill-sloping five miles or so, the real Big Sur finally revealed itself with the first of many challenging hills. This climb was offset though by inspiration when the rocky coastline came into view for the first time, and as we rounded a bend there were audible “ooohs” and “oh my Gods” from the runners around us. At one point, between mile six and seven, we spotted a whale, maybe a quarter mile offshore, jumping and rolling playfully in the surf, showing off for us it seemed, as if it somehow knew that today was marathon day and it would have an appreciative audience.

By the halfway point at mile 13, we crossed the graceful and iconic Bixby Bridge, perched high in the air – some 280 feet above where Bixby Creek flows into the Pacific – and were treated to the theme from “Chariots of Fire”, played on a grand piano by a man in a tuxedo. We knew this was a regular feature of the Big Sur race, so were not surprised, but it was still a really cool feature and a nice reward after a steady, two-mile climb up the aptly named Hurricane Point – the longest climb on the race course and one of the windiest points of the marathon.

From Bixby, we were treated to a series of rolling hills for the second half of the race and though it was challenging, we were still in good shape physically and felt that unmistakable momentum you get from crossing the halfway point of a race. For most of the day Melissa and I ran silently, transfixed by the sheer beauty of the rugged Pacific Coast. We would offer up encouraging words on occasion, but were mostly lost in the moment, happy to be there, sometimes overwhelmed by the scenery surrounding us.

All that beauty though comes at a price, and Big Sur exacts its pound of flesh before surrendering the well-earned finisher’s medals. It was so windy that at some points along the course, port-o-lets were tied down with rope and railroad ties, which left me to ponder what messy and surprising wind-blown misfortunes had befallen runners in prior races before officials got wise to tie-down precautions. We alternately dreaded the slow struggle on the up hills, only to amble painfully with protesting joints on the down hills. The camber of the road was slanted, punishing ankles and knees and hips, so that even the overwhelming ocular pleasures of the Pacific began to lose their charms by late in the race. This was Big Sur. Totally deserving of the “bucket list” status I had bestowed upon it a number of years ago – the most rewarding and challenging marathon course I have done.

When we gratefully crossed the finish line at 4:38 – not fast, but we were ok with it – we basked in the welcome warmth and sunshine. After grabbing a beer at the Michelob tent, we sat luxuriantly in the finisher area, medals around our necks, sunning ourselves and soaking in the glow of a goal achieved.

A little later, our friends Andre, Joanie and Lori joined us in the finish area – Joanie and Lori having finished against all odds through knee and calf injuries respectively. We sat and listened to a band and chatted about the racecourse and enjoyed each other’s company – happy to be done and excited about the rest of the trip. We might have stayed there all night if it were not for the one beer per runner limit – a clear sign, I thought to myself, of West Coast progressivism run amuck.

Dinner

After catching a shuttle back to the hotel, Melissa and I showered and napped, waking at 4:30 pm absolutely famished. It was just the two of us for dinner and we made the short drive to Carmel, arriving like a couple of blue haired seniors with creaky knees as soon as the doors opened at 5:30 at La Biceclette – a wonderful little French bistro.

It was a perfect day outside – blue skies and lingering warmth from the 71 degree high and we took our seats inside only because there was no outside seating available. We started with a beet salad topped with locally made blue cheese and escargot simmered with pine nuts in a wonderful garlic sauce. It was amazing. For the main course, we shared possibly the best pizza I’ve ever tasted – a crispy flatbread with lamb sausage, mint, black olives and red onion – again, amazing. We drank cool, crisp white wine from an area vineyard and chatted excitedly about the next few days of our trip – we were exceedingly happy.

After, we made our way back to Monterey and had espresso at Café Luminere, which was attached to an indy theatre. We had not planned to see a movie, but it was only 7pm and we were on vacation, so we watched “Mud” with Matthew McConaughey, which actually turned out to be one of the better movies we have seen in a long time.

After the movie we walked painfully, with almost comic stiffness back to the rental car and returned to the hotel. It had been an incredible day – the marathon, a nap, a wonderful dinner and a great movie. And despite lingering concern over how our bodies might respond to the nine-hour drive to Eureka the next day, we were happy and excited in that way you can only be in the early stages of vacation.

Next: the drive north and Portland

A Good Night in Altamont

Asheville has eluded me for two and a half years. Ever since I moved to Raleigh and began working in various towns across North Carolina, and into Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, I have longed for an Asheville assignment. I have traveled extensively throughout the region for two and a half years and the travel has afforded me the chance to get acquainted with my newly-adopted home state. But Asheville has always escaped me. Until now.

I have visited briefly in the past and have always loved Asheville, this cool, western jewel of the Carolinas, surrounded by the ancient Blue Ridge. There is a magic and a mystery to this place that is unlike any other town that I have known, with the possible exception of Charleston, though the vibes of the two towns are as divergent as their landscapes.

I have been reading Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” – a Christmas gift from Melissa. It is a gem of a book from a contemporary of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, London, Steinbeck and Faulkner. Wolfe is perhaps the most under-appreciated of the great American writers of the early 20th Century – and he was a North Carolinian. “Angel” does not even appear on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Greatest American novels, yet Pat Conroy wrote of Wolfe:

“I realized that breathing and the written word were intimately connected to each other as I stepped into the bracing streams of Thomas Wolfe and could hear the waterfalls forming in the cliffs that lay invisible beyond me. I had not recognized that the beauty of our language shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, could bring me to my knees with pleasure – did not know that words could pour through me like honey through a burst hive or that gardens seeded in dark secrecy could bloom along the borders and porches of my half-ruined boyhood because a writer could touch me in all the broken places with his art.”

Wolfe has deepened my already abundant love for this place with his prose. He referred to Asheville in his fiction as “Altamont”. There is an Altamont Brewery here. An Altamont Theater and an various other businesses around town which have incorporated the Altamont name. Wolfe’s cultural influence looms large.

It was a dreary day; windy and cold to the bone, though spring is near, and the days have already lengthened promisingly. It is winter’s last stand. After I could do no more work I walked from the Hotel Indigo across a bustling, early evening Heyward Street, to The Captains Bookshelf – a rare and used bookstore just a block away. Asheville has two amazing locally-owned bookstores in the aforementioned “Captains”, and Malaprop’s – both within an easy glance from my window at the Indigo. At Captains, I wandered the shelves for nearly an hour, perusing timeworn titles and inhaling the faint aroma of old books. I selected a paperback copy of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro ~ and Other Stories”.

The lady at the register was out of central casting. Aging and bookish,  her dishwater grey hair was assembled in a loose bun held by a pencil, and she wore a threadbare cardigan two sizes too large, which accentuated her frailty. As she reached for the book with a palsied hand, she sighed as she read the title. I daresay she nearly shed a tear, and she said in a wistful tone that it was a wonderful, beautiful book. I told her that I loved Hemingway but I had not yet read this particular volume. She looked at me as if I were a typhoid carrier. This is a serious bookstore.

As I left the store the smell of rain was heavy in the air, and I lifted my collar against the brisk wind. I cut across a parking lot beside a fossil-like shell of an ancient two-story brick building that has been repurposed as a parking garage. I crossed back across Heyward Street, past Malaprop’s and turned left down the narrow and steeply sloping Walnut Street, which reminded me vaguely of the ally ways in old town Prague. Just as it began to rain, I tucked into Zambra, a tapas restaurant and one of my favorite stops in town.

I settled into a small hightop table in the back of the dimly lit bar area, near the kitchen. I ordered a Tempranillo and sat reading Hemingway by the faint, yellow light of a wall sconce above my table while the wine worked its magic. While a steady, cold rain poured outside, things were about as cozy as they could be in the in the darkened warmth of the bar.

After a while I ordered a crawfish étouffée with mushrooms and a brown sauce that made me nearly emotional. I followed that with a Spanish tortilla with spicy beef sausage and sweet potato, which was wonderful. Finally, another glass of wine and boudin croquettes with kimchee aioli. I was supremely happy and could have only been more pleased if Melissa had been there with me to share it.

Following dinner, I ambled back out into the softening rain, which had washed the streets and left a satisfying petrichor of damp asphalt and soil. I made the short walk back to the Indigo, sated and happy. I’m having a nightcap now in the room, and as I write this blog my gaze is drawn west, out my ninth story window toward Wolfe’s rain-veiled North Carolina mountains. Despite winter’s clinging damp and cool, I am thankful for old books and good wine and the aroma of rain in early March.

It is a good night in Altamont.

20 blustery, cold, hilly, horrible, wonderful miles

Earlier today Melissa and I completed our first 20 mile training run in preparation for Big Sur Marathon in April. We have three more to go. Ugh.

As much as I love Umstead State Park – and it is without debate one of the things that makes living in the Raleigh area so special – today it inspired angst, loathing, and at points late in the run, silent but sincere wishes to be smitten by a meteorite. Lucky damned Russians.

It all started innocently enough. Last week we completed an 18 miler at the American Tobacco Trail (ATT) in the Cary/Durham area. This is a “rails to trails” path – formerly a railroad track, which has been converted into running and biking trails. As such, it is wonderfully, seductively flat. We ran with our friends Martin, Andre and Joanie, and between the flat course and the conversation of friends, the run seemed to fly by. We finished feeling pretty good and began to feel a sense of confidence about our 20 miler for this weekend. ATT had lulled us into a false sense of security.

We had a good week of workouts leading up to today’s run and woke this morning feeling cautiously optimistic. It would be cold – in the 30’s – but sunny and beautiful at least. We ate well this morning, dressed warmly and made our way to the Old Reedy Creek parking area in the Southwest corner of Umstead. From there, we would follow the Reedy Creek Trail to Graylyn trail, then follow the unadvisedly hilly Turkey Creek loop to the Southeast park exit, where we would run alongside Reedy Creek Road, crossing Edwards Mill and over onto the N.C. Museum of Art complex. Here we would turn around and head back into the park, following the Reedy Creek trail all the way back to Old Reedy Creek entrance and our car. (I realized as I typed that paragraph that the planners of the park and the folks who named the roads around it must have been possessed by a zeal for Reedy Creek that bordered on the fanatical).

We started the run at around noon, and as with all long runs, the first miles went by nearly effortlessly. We quickly settled into a comfortable pace and chatted intermittently, but were mostly lost in our own thoughts. Yesterday’s snow, though mostly melted, left traces of white beyond the tree line which gave subtle texture and depth to what is ordinarily a canvas of brown sameness this time of year, and it made for a welcome diversion as we cast appreciative, sidelong glances while plunging along. (Any diversion is a welcome diversion during a 20 mile run).

Friend sightings and the hills of Albatross (er, Turkey) Creek

As we made our way toward the five-mile mark, still feeling good and enjoying the fleeting downhill portion of Turkey Creek, we ran into our friends Lori, Sandra and Lonnie. They were on mountain bikes and we stopped to chat for a few minutes – another welcome diversion. After parting ways, we each took a gel, which provided an instant boost in energy, and we took off again. Lori was our roommate during the Ironman France trip in Nice last summer and happy thoughts of that trip carried us along the next few miles.

One hill led to another – an endless corridor of gnarled, winter-dead trees and hills. This is Umstead. But the sun was high, it was a gorgeous day, and we still felt strong. On we went.

By around mile nine, we exited the park and headed toward the museum. We could feel the wind on our backs and though this pushed us along nicely, we knew there would be hell to pay once we made the turn. Mile ten passed by – halfway home – mile eleven, then twelve, then the much-anticipated turn to head back to the car.

Lunatic Wind

As soon as we made the turn we were greeted by a rude blast of wind that traveled up loose shirttails and down collars, causing us to have to literally lean into the wind to keep our forward progress. We had three miles to go until we were back in the relative comfort and protection of that corridor of trees. Just when we thought the wind had died down, we’d take another body blow of icy gusts. It was wearing on us and taking all joy out of the run. We didn’t talk much during this stretch, other than the occasional expletive deleted which rose and fell in direct correlation to the gusts of wind.

Finally, back in the park at mile 15 – only five miles to go! But the wind and the miles had taken their toll – especially on me. I could feel the distinct presence of “the wall”, as if it were stalking me like some brooding, stealthy predator in the shadows, and I knew from experience that it was bound to appear within the next couple of miles. When I couldn’t stomach a gel at mile 16, I knew I was in trouble.

And so we more or less shuffled along, keeping a sub ten minute pace – not great by competitive standards, but about what we wanted to do – and we started breaking the remaining run down by the mile. Four miles to go – three – two, etc. Getting through these long runs and, by extension, the races themselves, is all about blocking out how many miles you actually have to go and focusing instead on incremental goals – getting to the next mile or the next aid station – or sometimes when it gets bad, just getting to that pine tree 100 yards up the trail. You have to compartmentalize, all the while telling yourself little lies of omission.

Getting ugly

By mile 18, I was blowing up. Every muscle and tendon and ligament in my legs were screaming protests and threatening boycott. I was hurting, slightly queasy and had slowed my pace dramatically. Melissa was still plugging away admirably and, though hurting as well, was faring slightly better. She would run ahead 200 yards or so, then wait for me to drag my carcass even with her, then take off again. My shuffle by mile 19 resembled Tim Conway’s “old man” character on the old Carol Burnett show. It was sad. Melissa, to her immense credit, stayed positive, chipper and encouraging even through her own pain.

Finally, the blessed sight of our car at mile 20, which caused my eyes to smart with tears of gratitude. With stiff, frozen fingers I grappled with the key and managed to unlock the door. We collapsed inside, totally spent, and sat there for a good ten minutes, letting the car warm and collecting ourselves before the short drive home.

Three more of those 20 milers to go. Bad as it was though, I know by tomorrow the pain will be a distant memory and we’ll be focused again on the fun to be had on our trip to the West Coast in April. I guess some people actually take vacations without doing races. We haven’t quite figured that out yet. Who am I kidding – we probably never will. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

A Two-Wheeled Freedom Machine

It was 1982, but it might as well have been 1952. I was a ten year old boy in suburban Columbia, South Carolina, but being 1980’s suburbia as it was, it could have just as easily been Kansas City, or Sacramento, or Buffalo. Mine was the last American generation of feral kids. We ran free for hours on end with no adult supervision. When not sleeping or eating or in school, we were outside.

Even then, the nightly news carried ominous reports which would strip future generations of that time-honored tradition of carefree play. A series of grisly child murders had recently taken place in Atlanta. Adam Walsh, had been abducted and murdered the previous year in Florida. Etan Patz, a kid my age from New York, had disappeared a few years before, leading to the ubiquitous photos of missing children on milk cartons. Times were changing, but in the still idyllic world of my youth, we roamed free.

I wore Toughskins jeans with patches on the knees. My friends and I played basketball and football and baseball in backyards all over the neighborhood. We played the violently titled “kill the man with the football”, aka “smear the queer”. We were young, and unaware of what queer even meant, but we knew we had to run like hell when we got the ball. We played “war” – similar to hide and go seek but with a vague adolescent bloodlust – and we would alternately practice the arts of hunt and evasion – stalking and hiding, hiding and stalking. We would tote bb guns into the nearby woods, where we shot rusted Pabst Blue Ribbon cans discarded by furtively partying high school kids. But when we weren’t doing these things, we were riding our bikes.

My best friend back then was Lee Pitts. His dad and my dad had gone to the old Columbia High School together and had remained friends over the years, eventually purchasing homes in the same neighborhood. Our back yards were separated by a run of chain link fence, which one of us was always jumping to get to the other’s house. We lived in Briarwood – a solidly middle-class assemblage of ranch homes situated off of U.S. Highway 1, which runs from Maine to Florida, but in Columbia is called Two Notch Road. The name came from two notches on trees which marked the trail long ago. At least that was the story we always heard.

We knew practically everyone in the neighborhood with the notable exception of a furtive German lady who lived next door on Weybourne Way. Whenever a stray football or baseball would find its way into her yard, which admittedly happened frequently, she would scowl at us, uttering something guttural and indecipherable.  Her yappy, wire-haired Dachshund would run toward the errant ball in a barking frenzy. Sometimes we retrieved the ball and scampered back to safety before the surly beast arrived, sometimes we didn’t. We learned at an early age that discretion is the better part of valor.

When we couldn’t round up enough guys to get a football game going, or when the football was held captive by the German, Lee and I would set out on our bikes. On weekends, we would ride for hours, all over the neighborhood – up to Windsor Elementary (our school), over to E.L. Wright Middle School, where the “big kids” went. We would roar at devil-may-care speeds down the long hill of Highgate Road. We explored every inch of that neighborhood, which led us one day to an over-grown back corner of the development at the end of Highgate. There was a sad little trickle of water which ran into a culvert. It was nearly covered over with cattails and brambles, and had an interesting aroma. Actually, it quite stunk. We called it Sabotage Creek.

To the left bank of the creek was a thin strip of sandy trail, meandering beguilingly off into the scrub oaks and heat-stunted pines. We didn’t know where it went, but as soon as we saw it, we knew we had to find out.

A secret path to Sesqui

One mean set of wheels…

My bike was an early 80’s model Sears Free-Spirit – black frame with yellow trim and knobby tires – an all-purpose kid’s ride with the heart of a mountain bike, years before mountain bikes were widely known or commercially available. It was my go-anywhere bike, and there was an unmistakable sense of freedom when riding it. Exploring uncharted trails in the fresh air, free of parental supervision. It was heady stuff.

We followed that thin strip of sandy path for miles, not knowing exactly where it would end up, and with no real expectation in mind, other than simply exploring. At one point we stumbled upon an old family cemetery of a dozen or so humble stone markers with weathered engravings, some dating back well into the 1800’s. Even at the age of ten, I had inherited my father’s great love of history, and I was fascinated that people had once lived in this seemingly remote place. I wondered who they were and what their life was like, and the cemetery deepened the mystery and adventure of our exploration.

After more peddling, which seemed monumental in scope at the time, but was probably not more than a few miles, we eventually discovered the trail led to an obscure and little-used fire road, which led in turn to Sesqui-Centennial State Park. “Sesqui”, as it is called, is located just a few miles north of Briarwood off of Two Notch Road. It was built by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps and opened in 1936, its name marking the 150th anniversary of Columbia’s founding. We had been there many times, but were elated to discover that it could be reached through little-known trails under our own power. Admittedly, we were not Lewis and Clark, but we felt pretty good about our discovery, nonetheless.

I remember riding around Sesqui for a little while and then heading back home. As we pedaled back down the now-familiar trail, past the intriguing family cemetery, then Sabotage Creek and on toward home, I remember feeling tired, slightly sunburned and maybe a little saddle-weary. Beyond those things though, I remember the feeling of adventure – of knowing that my legs could carry me to places I never even knew existed. It was a feeling of freedom and though I had no way of knowing it then, I had begun a lifelong addiction.

Sometimes even now when I’m on my mountain bike, I think about that ten-year old kid and I’m thankful that he had the opportunity to play and explore and discover. I’m thankful for hidden paths and the mysteries of trees and forgotten history waiting to be rediscovered. And I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend in the trail.

Two Quick Beers – Our first Night in Czech Republic

Plesiste, Czech Republic – circa August, 2011 

One of the most anticipated aspects of our trip to Czech last August was going with our friend Martin to his family cottage in the tiny village of Plesiste. We had heard, of course, the stories about the village and the Friday evening ritual of “Two Quick Beers” – that time-honored tradition, when Martin joins his father and two friends from the village (Jeff and Duje) at an ancient pub in the next village, doing what people do at pubs across the world at week’s end – trading stories, renewing friendships and drinking beer. Hearing about it was one thing – experiencing it was something we will never forget.

We arrived in Prague early on a Friday morning, after flying all night from New York’s JFK. When Martin picked us up and drove us back to his apartment in the city we were exhausted, having been up for most of the last 24 hours. Wanting to adjust to the new time zone as quickly as possible though, we decided on a short nap just to take the edge off. Martin had big plans for our weekend, which included the trip to Plesiste, a quadrathlon (kayak, swim, bike, run) in his hometown of Sedlcany (Melissa and I would be part of a relay team), and some sightseeing on the way back to Prague on Sunday.

As we made the hour drive south toward Sedlcany, the modern, urban feel of Prague gradually gave way to a more rustic scene of rolling hills and little river towns and clusters of centuries old homes with red-tiled roofs. We noticed dozens of people on bicycles – not cycling for exercise, exactly, but to get from place to place – a means of transportation, and that seemed to us at once both quaint and progressive.

As the scenery became more rural by the mile, it seemed the temperature dropped in corresponding degrees. When we left Raleigh it was classic August weather – hot and humid. Perfect for growing tomatoes, but not so comfortable for people. So the temperature change was cathartic and soothing as we drove along, taking in the scenery.

We stopped in Sedlcany to meet our friends Tomas and Pavlina and pick up race packets for the next day’s quadrathlon. Martin and Tomas grew up in Sedlcany and kayaked together on various teams, Martin eventually rising to the Czech National Kayak team. We had met them in 2009 while in Cozumel, when Martin and Tomas and our friend Jess did the Ironman there (Melissa and I were spectators that year, then did the race a year later). Despite the language barrier we became fast friends, so it was wonderful to see them and their new addition, “Little” Tomas. We had a beer and a delicious lunch in town then picked up our race packets for the quadrathlon. We made plans to meet the next morning before the race, then said our goodbyes and made the 15-mile drive west to Plesiste.

Plesiste is a village of just eleven cottages and the paved road actually dead ends there. When you arrive in Plesiste, you have come both literally and figuratively to the end of the road. Evidence of inhabitants in this village dates back to the 1330’s, some 160 years before Columbus stumbled haphazardly upon the New World. It seems there was a fort here that was used by local bandits. The name Plesiste comes from the word “pelesit”, which roughly translated, means a den. In this case, Plesiste was where the bandits spent time between invasions, sleeping, plotting and I imagine, drinking copious amounts of alcohol.

Dvorak cottage – Plesiste, Czech Republic

Martin’s family has owned this property for generations and the cottage was built in the 1920’s. It is built of stone, covered with plaster, and like nearly all of the buildings there, has a red tile roof. The interior consists of two bedrooms, and a central kitchen. There is also a bed situated atop the hearth in the kitchen and in the wintertime this is the best place to be, because of the radiating heat from the wood-burning stove underneath. There is an ancient stone barn next to the cottage whose roof collapsed due to heavy snow years ago. It’s walls still stand, witness to a century of history.

One of my favorite features of the cottage was the outhouse. There was no working toilet at the time of our visit, giving the place a woodsy, Arcadian feel. I had heard stories of outhouses from my Mother’s childhood days and of course my Grandparents told many similar stories, but I had never experienced it myself. I was thrilled. It was just as I imagined an outhouse should be,

Relax, this was a re-enactment.

complete with a Czech newspaper, of which I could not read a word, but somehow enjoyed just holding, looking over the pictures and indecipherable text. I cannot quite explain my excitement at the outhouse other than the novelty of it and the connectedness to earlier times it represented. Martin assured me that my enthusiasm for it would be greatly tempered if experienced at night during a Czech winter, and I suppose I can see his point. (Since our visit, Martin told us a running toilet has been installed, which disappointed me greatly).

There was a peacefulness to this place, and it reminded me vaguely of certain sections of Western North Carolina – cool, hilly, rustic and clannish – a throwback to earlier times. I could feel my pulse slow as soon as we arrived.

There are only three permanent residents in the village – our soon to be friend, Jeff being one of them, and the cottages are somewhat spread out. Because of the hills, it is difficult to tell who is home and who is not. To address this, Martin’s dad took to raising a Czech flag atop a tall pole at the upper corner of the old barn. If the flag is up, the Dvoraks are home. And so Martin raised the red, white and blue of the Czech banner and we readied ourselves for the evening festivities.

A little later, around 6pm, Martin’s Dad arrived from Sedlcany, where he lives during the week. Duje walked over from his cottage, a hundred yards or so away. Finally, Jeff walked over from his home, also within a stones throw. All three of them wore matching striped shirts and comical-looking black eyeglass frames. They joked and laughed in that easy way of old friends, and we felt it a special treat to be a part of the whole scene. They had known each other forever and made it a point to never miss their Friday night Two Quick Beers sessions – not even in the dead of winter. “Two Quick Beers”, by the way, was named with tongue firmly planted in cheek, because it typically is a lengthy affair, which involves considerably more than two beers.

After introductions to Duje and Jeff, Martin suggested we make our way to the pub. We would be making the three-mile trek from Plesiste to a pub in the village Brzina by mountain bike through rolling fields and farmland. The route to the pub, Martin explained, was mostly down hill. Coming back later that night though, we would again be on mountain bikes, in the dark, going up hill and likely, quite besotted. It was going to be an interesting evening.

A 500 year-old pub and newfound friends 

It was around 7pm as we began the short mountain bike ride and the sun was starting its gradual descent, casting a hazy, orange hue along the horizon. Already, it was cooling considerably and we brought along sweatshirts for later that evening. Riding through the fields, we were the subject of suspicious and disapproving glances by a small herd of cows. We inhaled that invigorating aroma that you can only get in the country, late in the summer – the rich, vaguely sweet smell of loamy soil and damp grass and clean, pine-tinged air, with the faint aroma of wood smoke from a fire off in the distance. It was the scent of green – summer’s late season perfume and it was wonderful.

About halfway, we stopped at a bridge over a good-sized stream, which is also named Brzina. Here, we were introduced to one of their Friday night customs. Duje passed around an unrecognizable bottle, which turned out to be a Croatian liqueur (he is originally from Croatia), and we toasted each other while all taking shots. It tasted vaguely like Jegermeister and was warm going down. While Jeff and Martin’s father spoke to each other in Czech, Martin and Duje – the only bilingual ones of the group – translated, and Melissa & I just listened and enjoyed. As the warmth of the liqueur settled into our stomachs and the stream purled beguilingly below us, we exchanged knowing smiles – we could not think of anywhere in the world we would rather be.  After another mile or so of slow peddling through brush and single track, we made it to the village of Brzina.

The pub here is over 500 years old, which I found astounding. Even more incredible, the only major structural change in the building in half a millennia was an upgrade from the original thatched roof to the now standard red clay tile. Originally, the pub was a “coaching inn”, where people could exchange their horses for a fee. The bridge we had crossed earlier was, in the early days, the only place to ford the stream for miles in either direction, so fresh horses were in high demand. As stories go, members of the ruling class hid in the inn during the Swedish invasion of the 16th Century. In return for this safe harbor, the owners of the inn were excused from paying taxes – an arrangement I would imagine pub owners everywhere would gladly accept today.

There were only two other people there when we arrived, and after depositing our bikes in a nearby shed, we sat with them at a long table in the main room. They were regulars and known by everyone in our group, and after Martin made introductions, we sat there, listening to the banter. From time to time Martin would interpret a portion of the conversation, and we chatted with Duje as well, but mostly we just listened and took it all in. The lady who runs the pub – a grandmotherly type with a happy, warm smile and sparkling blue eyes – filled gigantic mugs for everyone with a magnificent locally brewed Czech pilsner. After we toasted again and conversation started back up, I just looked around the room and thought about the years and centuries of Friday nights just like this that people have spent in this tiny pub.

Two quick beers

A few minutes after pouring the beer, she brought out wonderful, warm rye bread and the most incredible cheese I have ever tasted. White and soft (like my rapidly expanding belly), the cheese resembled brie. It was marinated in olive oil and garlic and onions, and when combined with the warm rye and fresh beer, produced gastric bliss the likes of which I have rarely experienced. My mouth is watering as I type this paragraph.

After a while, we moved into a dining room area adjacent to the main bar, where we continued stuffing ourselves with gusto. About the time I thought I couldn’t take in another bite, the wife of one of the men we joined earlier brought a homemade apple strudel. Flaky, sweet and perfectly baked – wars have been fought over less desirable things. It was piping hot, fresh out of the oven and impossibly good. With deep, determined breaths, we managed to find some extra room and the gluttony continued. Just when we were ready to burst, the pub owner brought us another round of beers and shots of some Czech liqueur of dubious origins that caused me to loose feeling in my extremities for a short time.

I thought we would surely have to spend the night right there. There was no way we were going to attempt to mountain bike back to Plesiste. To do so would be to flirt with calamity. But deep down inside, I knew we were going to bike back, uphill in the dark while attempting to stifle violent gastric revolt. We were with Martin, after all, and fun is always accompanied by low level fear, nagging discomfort or a vague sense of dread – sometimes all three. He always takes you out of your comfort zone and although you curse him for it in the moment, it always results in laughs and good stories later on. This night would be no exception.    

Peddling by the light of a Bohemian moon 

Martin and Duje prepare for the ride back to Plesiste

Finally, when we could eat and drink no more, we paid our tab in Czech Korunas which, after conversion, ended up costing around $30 US – for all of us – a very inexpensive evening and we were happy that Czech had not adopted the Euro. We bid the pub owner goodbye, thanking her for her hospitality, then waddled slowly into the cool night. It had dropped a good twenty degrees or so since our arrival several hours before and we were glad to have the sweatshirts. We collected the bikes, donned our headlamps and started peddling into the inky darkness.

What was easy downhill peddling before now turned into an uphill slog through muddy, rutted single track. Martin and Duje were in front and I was doing my best to keep sight of them. Melissa was behind me, followed by Martin’s Dad. At one point there was a sudden rise in the trail and I lost momentum in the soft mud, falling over into the tall grass, resulting in a machine gun staccato of colorful phrases. I got back on the bike and with great effort, managed to turn the crank of the pedals and regain momentum. I could still see the jumpy beams of Martin and Duje’s headlamps up ahead, so just kept going as best as I could amid the ominous rumblings from my bloated stomach.

Things look different at night, and I recognized nothing about the trail. It was a little disconcerting as I realized that I would never, ever find my way back to Plesiste if left on my own and this provided adequate motivation to keep peddling.

After re-crossing the stream, things felt a little more familiar and soon after we came to a strenuous uphill section in a large, open field. Everyone’s heart was pounding from the effort, so we paused about half way up to rest and take in the spectacular full moon. There was a valley down below us and Duje explained that in this spot, your voice would carry forever, then ricochet off the valley walls back to you in a pronounced echo.  We each took turns, literally howling at the moon and listening to the valley’s retort. Standing there in the dark, howling at the moon – now this was fun.

After making it back to the village, we parted ways with Duje and Jeff and readied for bed. We had started our day in North Carolina some 36 hours earlier and found ourselves now in a tiny village, deep in the heart of old Bohemia. It was the first night of our trip – my first to Europe and Melissa’s second. And though we should have been well past exhausted, we just stared at each other with big, goofy grins on our faces, thinking about what we had just done. Before long, we faded off to sleep in the bed atop that kitchen hearth and slept like we had never slept before.

It was the start of an incredible ten days in Czech Republic.

 

Eating Our Way Through Paris – Part III

It was Saturday, the last day of June, and we decided to start off with a long walk down the Champs Elysees to the Louvre. As we walked, we were continually awestruck by the sheer volume of magnificent architecture. We were especially taken by the great, glass-domed Grand Palais, which was built for the Universal Exposition of 1900, and today houses a science museum. We considered stopping in for a look, but with only three full days in Paris we had to prioritize, so opted to keep moving toward the Louvre.

Between the Grand Palais and the large roundabout at Place Concorde, workers were setting up bleachers along the boulevard to accommodate the thousands of people who would descend upon the city to witness the finale of the Tour de France in three weeks. It was exciting to think about what that day would be like, and we longed to be a part of that. We had briefly considered catching a stage of the tour on our trip, but it started this year over 200 miles north of Paris in Liege, Belgium, making the logistics more difficult than we cared to tackle.

We crossed over to Rue de Rivoli and continued on toward the Louvre, taking in the shops along the way and passing the great ferris wheel, making a mental note to check it out later. When we finally reached the museum, we stood agog at the size and scope of it.

Of course, we expected this – we had read that it would take nine months of daily visits to see every piece in the museum. But until you see it, until you are faced with the utter enormity of the place, you just cannot truly appreciate it. We entered through the modern glass pyramid in the courtyard and rode an escalator down to the visitor’s entrance where we purchased tickets. We took a seat in the museum café where we sipped coffee (even museum lounge coffee is, predictably, excellent in Paris) and tried to formulate a plan of attack.

The museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, which was constructed in the 12th Century as a fortress under Phillip II. Over the years it was expanded and repurposed many times, finally opening as a museum in 1793. Under Napoleon’s reign, the museum’s collection increased greatly and it was renamed the “Musee Napoleon”, proving on a grand scale the extent of Napoleon’s unparalleled narcissism.

The museum’s collection continued to grow throughout the years, eventually culminating in the modern Louvre we know today. It is the most visited museum in the world, containing nearly 400,000 objects and 35,000 works of art from Egyptian antiquities to Greek and Roman statuary to, of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, the most famous painting in the world. For a guy more accustomed to traveling Norman Rockwell exhibits, it was overwhelming.

We spent about an hour looking around, which included a brief and pleasantly non-crowded viewing of the Mona Lisa. By the time we saw her, we interpreted her mysterious hint of a smile to mean that there was more to see in Paris, and it was much too nice a day to hang around indoors. We felt that she was telling us, in her oh-so-subtle way, that if she were us she’d go ride the ferris wheel. Who were we to argue?

Feeling a sudden bout of claustrophobia, we exited the museum, thankful to be back outdoors and walked the short distance over to the ferris wheel. Here where we were happy to find barely a line at all. We thoroughly enjoyed both the rest and the views as the big wheel went around three times over the next twenty minutes. By the time it came to a stop, we were famished, and made our way to the Bis Repitita, just off Rue de Rivoli. We took an outdoor table in the shade and both ordered quiche and 1664 Beer. We were starting to feel the miles in our legs and realized that we had not fully recovered from the Ironman, just six days before. So we took our sweet time, savoring each bite and discussing where we would go next.

We walked over to the Musee de Deportees, which is dedicated to the French victims of Nazi Germany. Over 160,000 residents of France, including over 70,000 Jews and 11,000 children were deported to Nazi camps, a vast majority of whom were efficiently and unceremoniously murdered by the German government.

The monument was situated on the banks of the Seine and we walked down an outdoor flight of stairs to the entrance. A guard stood sentry and, in a quiet voice, asked everyone who entered to be silent and respectful. There was heaviness in the air there and a palpable sadness. We felt a million miles away from the cheerful, bustling sidewalks just a few dozen feet away.

I had recently read a book about Auschwitz, and was reminded of the horrible atrocities as we read the names of the concentration camps in stone, ringing the monument’s upper walls. We lingered for a while, taking it all in and attempting to wrap our minds around the numbers involved. Before long, we walked back out into the sunshine, not quite understanding how something like that could happen. We walked in silence for quite a while, making our way across the Seine and over to Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame, the purported home to Jesus’ crown of thorns, and perhaps the finest example of French Gothic architecture in the world, was completed in 1345 after nearly two centuries of construction. Imagine a prominent building, say in Washington D.C., which had its cornerstone laid in 1832 – when Andrew Jackson was President. Now imagine this building being completed this year. Things like this tend to recalibrate the sense of age and history in the mind of an American.

There was a huge crowd lined up to get into the sanctuary – hundreds of people ringing the exterior of the building. As we walked to the rear of the great church, I was surprised by the poor condition of the many gargoyles, which formed water spouts along the roofline. Many of them had crumbled extensively, and some were completely unrecognizable. Some of this was due to the ravages of time and some was likely due to sporadic vandalism over the centuries, most notably during the French Revolution of the late 1700’s. A program of restoration was begun in 1991 and was originally intended to last only ten years, but is still ongoing today. I suspect it may go on for quite some time.

After Notre Dame, we decided to head back to the hotel. We stopped, as was our custom, on the way back for a beer at Café LeCarre on Avenue de Franklin Roosevelt, just off of Champs de Elysees. After two straight days of heavy walking, we were beat.

That night, we took at cab to a wonderful brasserie on the other side of the Arc, L’Auberge Dab. This was the best meal we had in Paris. After a 30 minute wait, during which we sipped a crisp white wine and inhaled the perfumed early evening air, we were seated by a window in the back of the restaurant. We started with bread and tapenade, then ordered steak carpaccio, which nearly brought me to tears. From there, Melissa ordered grilled tribat, a succulent white fish, and I had roasted lamb. We finished with crème brulee and espresso.

We didn’t leave the restaurant until almost 11:30pm. We had planned an after-dinner walk to a nearby hotel for live jazz, but were utterly exhausted by the time we finished coffee and dessert. We hailed a cab and once again, collapsed back at the hotel.

One last day in Paris

We started Sunday like every day in Paris, with breakfast at the hotel – always good and always free. We planned to check out some of Paris’ markets, which was a recommendation from Melissa’s sister, Jenny. We were looking forward to a little less walking today and a decidedly laid back itinerary.

On the way to the markets, we decided to check out the Musee d’Orsay – a former railroad station built circa 1900. It holds works from mostly French artists from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh and many more. We intended to see it the day before but arrived just before closing. When we arrived on Sunday there were hundreds of people in line and, eerily, a half dozen or so armed French soldiers with automatic rifles standing guard. Not wanting to stand in line, and a little put-off by the machine guns, we reluctantly bid adieu to Monet and Company and kept walking.

This was the coolest day in Paris by far – high in the mid 60’s – and as we read headlines of the brutal heat wave back home, we made a concerted effort to enjoy the comfortable cool while we could.

We found the open-air food market first, on the Blvd Raspal, and we were immediately taken in by the wonderful smells of baked goods and fish and beef and desserts and every imaginable kind of food. The market went on for several blocks and we were starving by the time we exited. We had lunch at Le Deux Magots, which I can assure you was much better than the name might suggest.

My favorite part about Paris was sitting at the cafes and brasseries, facing the sidewalk, sipping beer or coffee, people-watching. The thing about Paris and people-watching is that there is no pretense. There are no furtive, sidelong glances from inward facing tables. In Paris, the chairs and tables face out, toward the sidewalk, unabashedly, as if an audience watching street performers. And sometimes, while walking along, it feels as if you are on stage.

After, along Boulelvard Edgar Quinet, we walked through the Art market, which was also open-air, stretching for several blocks. Booth upon booth of antiques, paintings, sculpture and even hand made furniture – it was very cool and perfect for walking. Since it was Sunday, the crowds were light, which added to the experience.

Following that, we had coffee and dessert and Le Café de la Place and we sat down just as a jazz trio was setting up across the street under some trees. As we sipped our café au lait in the shade of a canopy, it was cool enough to remind us of fall. It was nearly 4pm on a perfect Sunday. We were pleasantly fatigued, and happy.

That night we lamely decided to order room service and watch a movie – Bridesmaids – in the hotel room, succumbing to our exhaustion. Criticize if you will, but it was awesome. We’d walked dozens of miles, eaten well, and seen much. This night, we drank and ate and laughed and luxuriated in the comfort of our hotel room. We felt not one bit of guilt about whatever Parisian delights we missed that night. We packed for our flight home the next day, and we drifted off to sleep, tired and happy.

The airport and then home

After a stress-inducing 70 Euro cab ride to the airport the next morning, we experienced the unparalleled cluster-fuck that is Charles De Gaul International Airport. It was monument to France and her many idiosyncrasies. Beautiful, yet functionally inept, it was total chaos.

Check-in at Delta was so bad that many people were running desperately late for their flights. Airline attendants gave their attention to those who yelled the loudest or who physically accosted them in the most compelling manner.

There was no order whatsoever. People were shoving each other. Some were crying. You got a sense of how very thin the veneer of social civility actually is. The whole scene brought to mind the footage of 1975 Saigon, as the last helicopters took off from atop the US Embassy. There was desperation in the air.

We arrived in what would have been plenty of time in Chicago or Atlanta – both considerably higher-volume airports – but made the flight by the skin of our teeth in Paris after struggling mightily through check-in and customs. But we did make it, and even had a few minutes to stop for sandwiches at a shop on the way to the gate. We were going home.

On the plane, we both thought and talked a lot about our trip. One of our greatest and most pleasant surprises was the warmth of the Parisian people. We experienced that in Nice as well, but Nice is a beach town, heavy with Italian influence, so that was not a complete surprise. But Paris – we didn’t know what to expect. You hear stories of their snippiness – of their rudeness, towards Americans in particular. This was not our experience of Paris.

Politeness and a simple “Bonjour” will take you a long way. Smile, be pleasant – be a decent human being – and Parisians will treat you well. They do tend to be somewhat reserved in nature, and that may be the root of their sullen reputation. But don’t mistake reserve for sullenness. They warm up if you treat them well – if you treat them the way your mother taught you to treat people.

We arrived home, tired but thrilled with the experiences and memories we’d created. We knew we would be richer for it, although our bank account does not currently reflect that.

I know these blogs are entirely self-indulgent. I appreciate those that read them, and empathize with those that do not. The world went on as usual during the eleven days that we were gone, and what we experienced is monumentally insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But it meant a lot to us, and as all travel tends to do, it changed us in ways that we might not even understand for years to come. As the title of Hemingway’s book would suggest, Paris – and all travel, really – is a moveable feast. You breathe it in and it enters your bloodstream and it becomes a part of you for the rest of your days.

I appreciate the opportunity to share just a bit of it with you.

Eating Our Way Through Paris – Part II

I love Ernest Hemingway. There is something about his simple, straight-forward style of writing and his larger than life personality that has always intrigued me – I know I am not alone in that regard. I started reading “A Moveable Feast” on the plane ride out to Nice. A collection of stories of his time in Paris in the 1920’s, it provides a glimpse into Hemingway’s earliest days as a professional writer.

This followed Hemingway’s formative years as a newspaperman at the Kansas City Star. His subsequent service as an ambulance driver in France during World War I, where he was injured and fell in love with a comely nurse, was the basis for arguably his greatest novel, “A Farewell to Arms”. By the 1920’s, he had left the world of newspaper journalism and dedicated himself to writing fiction full time. He was a member of the American literary ex-pat community in Paris, which included Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound.

As I sat on the plane reading the first chapter, “A Good Café’ on the Place St Michel”, I was immediately drawn in as he talked of walking in a cold rain to “…a pleasant café’, warm and clean and friendly…”, where he had a café’ au lait and later a rum St. James (and then another), and started to write. He caught the eye of a pretty girl, but was engrossed in his writing – lost in it – until he had worked many hours. After, he looked up and realized with disappointment that the girl had gone, but he was happy with his work, and tired. He ordered oysters “… with their strong taste of the sea…” and cold white wine.

I imagined him there in that good café’, working productively out of the cold and rain and I was drawn into that place. I could see it in my mind, and I could feel the cool humidity of the room and the dampness of his clothes. I could hear the barista’s clinking of cups and saucers in the background and could smell the light fragrance of the girl’s perfume and the roasted almond aroma of the coffee. Reading this, I knew we would have to take some time to wander the city, exploring the Latin Quarter particularly, in search of some of Hemingway’s old haunts. Which particular café’ he referred to in that chapter is lost to the dust bin of history, but he mentions other cafes and residences which would be easy enough to find.

Hemingway had me excited about Paris.

Friday

After breakfast at the hotel, which was excellent and free, we wandered out onto Avenue de Wagram – one of the main boulevards that spoke into the great roud-a-bout circling the Arc de Triumphe. We wanted to get a closer look at the Arc and figured we would start there since it was so close. We were a little confused when we did not see a crosswalk and were not about to attempt a crossing of the four lanes of furiously circling traffic. We turned left and crossed over several streets to the famous Avenue des Champs Elysees, where we found a staircase leading to an underground tunnel, which led in turn to the Arc.

We ascended out of the tunnel and found ourselves under the great arc itself. We were again in awe of the sheer size of the structure. Sixteen stories tall and 145 feet wide, it is much larger than I imagined it. The main arch is 98 feet tall and 48 feet wide, while the smaller, side arches are 61 feet high. Inscribed on its massive walls are the names of over 500 French generals and the names of the major French victories of the Napoleonic Wars. Underneath the Arc is a monument to the Unknown Soldiers of the World Wars, including an “eternal flame”. This flame inspired Jaqueline Kennedy to request a similar monument at JFK’s burial site at Arlington National Cemetery and that flame burns to this day.

We considered climbing to the top of the Arc, but the line deterred us. If there was one monument which we were determined to climb, it was the iconic Eiffel Tower, so we made that our next stop.

The Eiffel Tower is quite touristy, but it is absolutely a must do. Designed by Gustave Eiffel and erected for the 1889 World’s Fair, it possibly the most recognizable man-made structure in the world – certainly in France. Approximately 81 stories tall, it surpassed the Washington Monument as the tallest man-made structure in the world and held that title until 1930, with the construction of New York’s Chrysler building.

Most people were in awe of its scope at the time it was built, and it is still awe-inspiring today. There was a line 200 yards long to ride the elevator to the second-level observatory – a line which would take at least two hours – but there was no line whatsoever for those willing to walk.

Not wanting to kill a large part of our day standing in line, and feeling the need for a little exercise after four days of post-race sloth, we opted to take a vertical hike. After a quick security check where a guard had us unzip our backpacks after which he took a casual and non-probing glance inside (there was no groping – these folks would never make it in the TSA), we were on our way up to the first observation deck.

Walking up the Eiffel is not like ascending a typical building stairway for obvious reasons. You are out in the open, exposed to the elements, and very aware of your creeping elevation gain. Only the stair railing and the structural iron latticework separates you from the ground hundreds of feet below. For anyone with a fear of heights (Melissa), it is gut check time. It is 300 steps to the first observation deck. From there, you go another 300 steps to observation deck number two, which stands at 419 feet – some 41 stories off the ground.

You find yourself questioning Eiffel’s sanity and the engineering behind it all. It’s high up there, friends, and we were very happy to find that we did not have to take stairs to the third and highest elevation deck at the top of the structure. Though the original spiral staircase remains, the public must take an elevator car from level two to three. Ok by us.

Tourists to the core – sipping our 10 Euro champagne atop the Eifel Tower

At the top, we paid ten Euros apiece for two plastic flutes of champagne, removing any lingering doubt as to our status as gullible tourists. But hey, we were in Paris, at the top of the Eifel Tower. And we walked halfway there. What the hell, we had earned a champagne toast.

After a lap around the observation deck, which was truly beautiful and awe-inspiring, but also very crowded, we decided to head back down. Eiffel marked off our list, we were anxious to move onto the Hemingway tour.

Hemingway’s Paris

We made our way across the Seine, to Paris’ Left Bank and then walked along the lively Boulevard St. Germain, to Paris’ Latin Quarter. Here, we had lunch at Café Gustave at Rue de Montessuy. Mel had a wonderful quiche and salad, and I had a 1664 beer and a salmon club. It was 70 degrees and cloudy – very comfortable – and our legs welcomed the rest.

It was on this afternoon that we started a pleasing pattern which continued throughout our time in Paris. We walked and ate, then walked a little more, stopping to rest and eat and have a beer. Then we walked some more and had dessert and coffee, and then we walked again. We walked and we ate, we drank and we walked. This is what we did and how we spent our days. We ate as much as we wanted and never felt guilty. We drank before noon and luxuriated in that rare pleasure. We easily walked ten miles a day, but we fueled ourselves lavishly and without reservation.

After lunch we walked a little while longer and then decided to stop for dessert and coffee at what became our favorite restaurant in Paris – Café De Flores on St. Germain. It was an old hang out of Hemingway’s, and is a classic Paris institution. We sat outside and drank café au lait and shared a lemon tart which was just about the best thing I have ever eaten. We took our time and people watched and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Brasserie Lipp – another Hemingway hangout, was right across the street.

From there, we walked several miles to 74 Rue Cardinal-Lemoine – Hemingway’s first apartment in Paris. I imagined that it must have looked very similar in his day, and it was a cool experience to be there – to see what he saw.

Just around the corner was Café Delmar, where we stopped for a beer and more people watching. It was getting late in the day and our energy was sagging. The beer had a rejuvenating effect though and sitting there with the late afternoon sunlight on our faces, watching the world go by, was exactly what I had in mind. In fact, the thought of it was one of the things that motivated me throughout the Ironman. This was our reward.

A dinner of brains and tongue

After leaving Café’ Delmar, we made the long walk back toward our hotel. About halfway back, on the Rue St. Augereau – just a block off St. Germain – we decided to eat at Café Constant. Owned and run by Maison Constant, one of Paris’ up and coming young chefs. Some years ago, he decided to strike out on his own and opened this trendy, low key restaurant in the Eiffel Tower neighborhood.

There was a 30 minute wait when we showed up, so we shoe-horned ourselves in at the bar and ordered white wine while we waited. We were very hungry from the walking, and the gentleman next to us, dining alone and immersed in a book, was working on something that looked and smelled spectacular. I couldn’t quite make out what it was, so I asked the bartender. He pointed to something on the menu and I nodded, totally unenlightened. It looked so good though, that I decided whatever it was, I would order it.

We were seated by an open window which ran floor to ceiling, affording a comfortable evening breeze – a great pleasantry in that crowded room. We placed our orders – me the mystery dish, which the waiter translated as “Crispy Head” – two words that I had never heard uttered in unison, and Melissa ordered the roasted duck and mashed potatoes.

Within minutes, our dishes arrived and I realized, with a slap of bracing reality, just what I had ordered. The Crispy Head consisted of veal brain, which was a full brain and looked, well, like brain, and veal tongue, accompanied by a side of head cheese.

While Melissa happily dined on her duck and potatoes, I took exploratory nibbles on the veal brain. The taste was good but the texture was soft, like overcooked noodles. Had I not been in Paris, I wouldn’t have eaten it, but it was one of those days in life where you just go with it. The tongue was very good. The taste was about the same as the brain, but the texture was like a pork chop – a vast improvement. I couldn’t bring myself to eat the head cheese however. It was gelatinous, cooked fat from the skull cavity. Fighting a suddenly-vigorous gag reflex, I did by best not to look at it.

At least the potatoes were good!

To finish, we had coffee and profiterroles – a delicious pastry filled with ice cream and warm, chocolate fudge. This went a long way toward erasing my memory of head cheese, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

By the time we ambled fully sated and happy out of the restaurant, it was almost 10pm. A lingering summer daylight lit our way back to the hotel. We collapsed, exhausted but already looking forward to the next day.

Next: the Mona Lisa and a bunch of old naked Greek guys – our visit to the Louvre