Lake Logan Magic

Lake LoganIt has become my favorite weekend of the year. Hands down. I love Lake Logan weekend.

When Melissa and I were getting into triathlon in 2009, we started looking for interesting races around North Carolina. Long enamored with the foothills of Asheville and points west, I stumbled upon Lake Logan International Triathlon, just outside of Canton, N.C. We first did the race in August of 2009, spending Friday night in nearby Waynesville, then Saturday night after the race in Asheville. I fell immediately and irretrievably in love with that weekend and in particular, Lake Logan.

We’ve done it five years running now and it has never failed to leave me deeply satisfied. Annually held on the first Saturday of August, Logan comes at a time of year that finds my soul in need of nourishment – deeply diminished by the grinding heat and humidity of a long summer and the bleak morass that is the sports world between the end of the Tour de France and the start of College Football season. Logan is a welcome retreat from steamy Raleigh into the high hills west of Asheville. As we make that annual drive up the mountain on I-40, my blood pressure drops in corresponding degrees with each west bound mile marker. Logan is medicinal – I daresay even spiritual. It is my late summer North Star and I am reminded each year of the simple, luxuriant pleasure of needing a long sleeve t-shirt against the cool morning air.

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According to the site digitalheritage.org, Lake Logan sprang up in 1932 when the powers that be at Champion Mill, located in nearby Canton, decided to dam the West Fork of the Pigeon River, resulting in an 87 acre lake that flooded the former logging community of Sunburst. Named for Logan Thompson, the son of Peter J. Thompson who founded Champion, Lake Logan soon became home to various meeting, sleeping and dining facilities constructed from logs of deconstructed cabins in nearby counties and served as a retreat for Champion Mill executives well into the 1990s. Many of the buildings survive today and were purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina in 2000 after Champion sold its holdings. The Diocese operates a retreat at Logan and in 2006 sponsored the first Lake Logan Multi-Sports Festival, which has grown to include international and sprint triathlons, an aqua-thon (swim/run) and aqua-bike (swim/bike).

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The swim portion of the triathlon is one of the very few wetsuit-legal swims (possibly the only one) in the summertime triathlon circuit throughout the Carolinas, which indicates that the water temperature is below the acceptable wetsuit cutoff temperature of 78 degrees. Usually it is considerably cooler and this year it was a bone-chilling 67 degrees. The last hundred yards or so of the swim goes under the Lake Logan Road bridge and directly into the chilly mountain stream which feeds the lake, resulting in a lung-seizing five to ten degree drop in temperature. In August though, you appreciate that kind of thing.

The swim itself is enchantingly beautiful, setting off just after dawn, the narrow lake bookended by hills covered in hemlock and fir and topped by a cloud cover almost low enough to touch, hanging grey and cottony like soiled gauze over the water. The .9 mile course runs in a long rectangle and as you advance in that strange watery silence unique to lake swims, the hills to your right and left rise up in your periphery. I feel totally at ease, peaceful and warm in the thought that there is no place on Earth I would rather be on the first Saturday in August than in this very place.

The bike course is 24 miles of mostly rolling hills through Southern Haywood County, bookended by steep climbs out of T1 and coming back, just before T2. It is Southern Appalachian farm country, generously dotted with picturesque and diminutive farms, ancient barns and the occasional work mule, brooding and contemplative in its pen. Mostly flat to downhill on the first nine miles, you don’t so much ride the bike course as float through it, enjoying the novelty of the cool air and the rustic countryside. You can almost hear banjo music in the air. Not in the moronic, clichéd sense of snickering Deliverance references, but deep in your soul, as if the hills are calling to you in bent, five string notes. And to me, it sounds a lot like home.

The last 15 miles of the bike are mostly up hill. The heady reverie a little less pronounced, the determined exertion a little more. Your average speed steadily declines as the hills exert dominion over any unspoken plans you may have harbored for a 22 mph average. The last climb is truly taxing. But Lake Logan is visible to the right, through the chlorophyll-choked cover of summer trees. You know you are closing in on the run and this carries you upward.

The run is a 10k. Three miles mostly uphill from the base of T2 along Lake Logan Road to Sunburst campsite just within the borders of Pisgah National Forest (the campsite takes its name from that long-forgotten logging community). This is followed at the turn by the much-anticipated pleasure of three miles mostly down hill back to the finish. The run is always an especially happy time as you pass friends either going or coming and contemplate the completed swim and bike in between high fives and shouts of encouragement.

The finish is always sun-splashed. The low cloud cover of early morning has burned away as friends gather to cheer each other and chat about the race. What went right, what went wrong, how cold the water was, etc. The temperature is late summer perfection – warm but not hot. We make our way to the food tent and eat sandwiches, chatting some more. We are pleasantly tired after 31 miles of swimming, biking and running and as we sit there amongst friends in the perfect post-race warmth, it is, how can I put this… exceedingly nice.

Later, Melissa and I always check in at the Hotel Indigo in downtown Asheville – an easy walk to all that downtown has to offer, which is much. After lunch and a nap, we’ll meet friends again for well-earned margaritas and dinner at our favorite Asheville establishment, Salsa’s. We’ll dine in the narrow alleyway outside and soak in the perfect mountain air. Saturday night after dinner can go late and on occasion ends early, but is always fun.

Sunday, we’ll sleep in and have breakfast at Early Girl Eatery or Over Easy. Afterwards we’ll walk over to Mast General Store and my favorite bookstore, Malaprops. Here I take almost as much pleasure eavesdropping on the aging hippies gathered earnestly to discuss new age mumbo jumbo as I do the truly wonderful selection of books.

We linger, not wanting to leave. We order coffee, we stroll. We take in Asheville and all of its charms. And then, reluctantly, we get in the car and head down 40 East. And on the drive home, we talk about our weekend and Logan weekends of years past. The four-hour drive breezes by.

It is Monday after Logan as I write this and we have already planned next year’s trip.

I told Melissa that when I move onto that great transition area in the sky, I want my ashes spread over Lake Logan. I can’t think of a better place to be – forever. I’m hoping though that we’ll have a lot more Logan weekends between now and then.

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.

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

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.

Lance, we hardly knew ye

There was a time when I defended Lance Armstrong vociferously. I was not blind – I knew that he was likely guilty of some form of doping. But I was also well-versed in the story of Lance’s triumph over cancer and gritty comeback to cycling prominence. I admired his “f-you” attitude regarding disease and anyone who stood between him and the podium. I took inspiration from his work ethic, his fiery attitude and his magnificent exploits in the Alps the Pyrenees and on his victory laps along the sun-dappled avenues of Paris.

I also found the US Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into Armstrong to be more witch hunt than anything resembling actual jurisprudence and was uncomfortable, to say the least, with USADA head man Travis Tygart’s questionable motives, tactics and evident lack of any jurisdiction to even conduct such an investigation.

Then there were Lance’s vehement denials, his passing of over 500 drug tests, administered at times and places of the governing body’s choosing. In my mind, he was probably guilty of at least blood doping, if not synthetic doping, but I also could not understand exactly why putting your own blood back into your body would even be against the rules. Yet there was never any doubt in my mind that even if he actually doped, he still worked harder, rode faster and kicked more ass than any other doper out there.

Armstrong reigned in a period of ubiquitous doping, and had he not found a way around the rules, he likely would never have been competitive. The Tour de France, you will recall, is a 2,000 mile road race that takes place over the course of three weeks and is sometimes won or lost by a margin of mere seconds. It was a “dope or go home” culture that pervaded the cycling world and Lance found a way to make it work for him. A testament to the pervasive levels of doping in the sport is that the International Cycling Union – cycling’s governing body – chose not to award Lance’s seven vacated Tour de France titles (1999 – 2005) to any other cyclist because there was hardly another competitive cyclist available who had not been guilty of doping during those years.

In the end, much like Barry Bonds in Major League Baseball, Lance Armstrong will be the poster child of the “doping era” in professional cycling. God, I hate to mention Lance Armstrong in the same breath as Barry Bonds – it’s nauseates me.

When he quit his fight against the USADA back in August, I was still a Lance defender, right up until Tygart finally (and quite belatedly) released his evidence in October. And damning evidence it was. Though it was mostly testimonial evidence and, as far as I know, included no positive test results, some of the names of those testifying lent tremendous credibility to the USADA report. You can discount the likes of Floyd Landis, but when Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie talk, people listen. Accordingly, within the span of several days, Lance was abruptly and unceremoniously dumped by his myriad sponsors and cast aside by the cycling community. He was proven to be, ironically, a cancer upon the sport.

Why Oprah, why now?

Thus followed several months of silence from the Armstrong camp. As Autumn bled into the Christmas season and 2013 rolled around, Armstrong was mostly forgotten, replaced in the media and in our Attention Deficit Disorder-stricken minds by the latest bowl results or for the political-minded, by the ever-raging gun-control and fiscal debates – or perhaps for the truly stupid among us, by the Golden Globe awards.

And then it came – the announcement that Lance would appear on Oprah this Thursday to bare his soul. This was a surprise to me. I fully anticipated (and hoped for) a long period of silence from Armstrong during which he would reconnect with his family and begin to rebuild his life in a positive way. I figured it would be at least a year. But three months? Oprah?

If he must do it now – and his megalomania, I have no doubt, dictates that it must be so – wouldn’t he be better served to go on a real talk show – Jim Rome, lets say – where he can take real, hard questions? Instead, he is opting to appear on Oprah, where she will toss him softballs, give him a platform to shed a few tears, whereupon she’ll proclaim him healed and forgiven. I think it’s lame. And desperate. C’mon, Lance!

The American public is a forgiving one. We love a redemption story. But if you make fools of us, you’re screwed. Just ask Barry Bonds.

I’ll watch the Oprah interview on Thursday, mostly out of morbid curiosity. And if Oprah grills him, I’ll be both surprised and thankful. But I still have to wonder – does this man not have advisors? Does he not have publicists whom he pays to cultivate his public image? What are they thinking?

Fifty shades of grey – the troublesome case of Lance Armstrong

Let me state for the record – I was wrong. Well, sort of.

Two months ago, following the announcement that USADA would place harsh sanctions upon Lance Armstrong, including a lifetime ban from the sport of Cycling and stripping of his seven Tour de France titles, I wrote a rather blistering blog regarding USADA’s front man Travis Tygart and what I considered to be his witch hunt against Armstrong. Quite melodramatically, I titled the piece “USADA – Proof that we no longer reside in a democracy?” – but that is an accurate summation of what I felt at the time.

When I wrote that blog, I was disgusted by the way USADA prosecuted their case – their lack jurisprudence, their sole reliance on the testimony of shady characters, most of whom were admitted dopers themselves who likely harbored personal distaste for Armstrong. I questioned how an organization whose sole reason for existence on this earth is to monitor and regulate the compliance of Olympic athletes could spend such an overwhelmingly large amount of their time and resources investigating a retired cyclist – during an Olympic year, no less. I took issue with the very tone of Tygart’s press releases – their language spoke not so much of a determined legal obligation to shed light as it did bitter personal vendetta. I questioned USADA’s authority and jurisdiction to strip anyone of Tour de France titles. I admired Armstrong greatly and saw the entire episode as a miscarriage of justice.

Little happened to change my opinion in the seven weeks or so following USADA’s announcement of sanctions. They promised to produce a mountain of evidence to support their claims. As the days and weeks passed, I watched smugly as USADA missed their initial deadline to produce said evidence. I felt a growing confidence that in the end, Tygart would reluctantly and quietly close his case and retreat, much as US Federal Prosecutor Jeff Novitsky had earlier in the year.

That all changed late last week.

People need villains just as much as they need heroes

With USADA’s release of 1,000 pages of damning evidence against Armstrong, the former champ’s fall from grace has been harsh and swift – an unmitigated disaster for him, and a big disappointment for those of us who supported him. Just two days ago he was dumped by sponsors Nike, Trek and Anheuser-Busch, among others, costing him an estimated 30 million dollars annually in endorsement money. On the same day, Armstrong rightly stepped down as chairman of his highly successful cancer-fighting charity, Livestrong, in order to spare that organization some of the fallout from his troubles. He has been widely – and justifiably – criticized in newspapers and television and on radio sports talk shows across the country. He has gone from hero to villain, and it struck me this week that people need the one just as much as they need the other.

Say it ain’t so, Lance…

Lance Armstrong is one of the most polarizing sports figures of our time – perhaps of all time, and it will be interesting to see how his legacy continues to unfold going forward. To be certain, his brand has been devastated. His days of earning endorsement money is likely behind him for good – you just don’t pay someone to endorse your company who has approval and trust ratings lower than the United States Congress. But he is only 41 years old. He still remains active in Livestrong and he has an opportunity to slowly rebuild his image. We are a forgiving people in this country, but we only forgive those who humble themselves and admit wrongdoing. So far, Lance has admitted nothing and has even doubled down on the blame game. This doesn’t bode well.

Shades of grey

There are so many facets to Armstrong’s story. He is a cancer survivor who stared death in the face, then went on to inspire millions with his thrilling exploits in the world of cycling – winning arguably the world’s toughest sporting event a record seven consecutive times. He is also a serial liar, misleading the world for over a decade, raking in tens of millions of dollars in endorsement money – ill-gotten gains, as it turns out – in the process. He is the founder of Livestrong – an organization which has raised millions upon millions for cancer research and has provided much needed support for those grappling with that awful disease. He is also an out of control megalomaniac who has employed scorched-earth tactics against those who dared cross him and, it seems apparent now, even bullied reluctant teammates into complying with his systematic and pervasive doping program.

He is equal parts Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A hero, (though greatly tarnished now), and a villain. Fifty shades of grey – though most of those shades seem a little darker now than they did a few weeks ago.

If Lance were smart, or if he were able to overcome his ego long enough to listen to good advice, he might issue a statement explaining himself. He owes that to his supporters – because they are not simply fans, they are donors. Better yet, he should hold a press conference in which he finally comes clean. He should sit there and answer every last question from media and fans alike. And then he should go away for a long time – spend time with his family, figure out where things went wrong, get that ego under control and focus on quietly rebuilding his image in the coming years. Focus those considerable energies on the lighter shades of grey.

Still a fan

I am still a Lance fan. To be certain, I am bitterly disappointed, and I will never again trust a thing that comes out of the man’s mouth. He is a liar and a jerk and an off-putting, pompous ass. But then again, athletes at the top of their sports have a long and well-documented history of being off-putting, pompous asses (see Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods for starters).

I cannot ignore the overwhelming testimonial evidence in USADA’s report – especially the statements from those I respect, such as George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer. But I will always have fond memories of Armstrong’s amazing seven-year run in France, and the fact remains that even if he cheated to achieve those titles, he still pedaled faster, longer and harder than all of the other cheaters. I will always support and admire his Livestrong organization. What he has done for those battling cancer through that charity transcends anything he ever did on the bike – it makes him more important than any Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Despite everything he has gotten wrong – which is a lot – he has inspired millions of people to fight their disease. That achievement is separate from his current troubles and can never be tarnished.

I am still a Lance fan. A smarter one now to be sure, but still a fan, nonetheless. Life is complicated. One’s life is not written in bumper sticker slogans but rather in long, often complex paragraphs and pages and chapters. Here’s hoping for better times and happier chapters going forward.

USADA – Proof that we no longer reside in a Democracy?

I woke up this morning to the news I had hoped I would never hear – Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong had given up his fight against the USADA and, like jackals in the night, the agency moved in swiftly for the kill – stripping Armstrong of all seven of his Tour titles. Forget that the agency has no jurisdiction to strip Tour de France titles. Forget that they violated their own statute of limitations of eight years in bringing charges going back as far as 1996. Forget due process and the burden of proof and anything remotely resembling fairness. Forget it all. We no longer live in a Democracy.

Just this past February, US Federal prosecutors, led by Jeff Novitsky – the man who brought down Barry Bonds and Roger Clemmons – closed their investigation, which had been brought before a grand jury. After a lengthy subpoena process during which former teammates and international cycling officials were interviewed, blood and urine samples examined and all evidence thoroughly scoured, Novitsky threw in the towel. The evidence he had would not hold water in a court of law. Lance had been vindicated, it seemed.

If only Federal prosecutors were not subject to standards of proof – if only they did not have to deal with a pesky jury – if only they could cast aside due process and adjudicate on a whim. If only another organization not tethered to standards of fairness and law could take up this case…

Enter Travis Tygart and the goons of the United States Anti-Doping Agency

Created in 1999 (ironically, the same year as Armstrong’s first Tour victory) at the recommendation of the U.S. Olympic Committee to address and regulate the anti-doping campaign of the USOC – the mission of this quasi-governmental agency is to manage the anti-doping programs for Olympic, Pan-American and Paralympic sport in the United States. The USADA is not a government entity and as such is not subject to the aforementioned Constitutional standards of proof and due process. Yet, it receives a majority of its funding by tax-payer dollars through the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The non-profit status of the USADA also allows them to prosecute athletes with a lower burden of proof than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that the Department of Justice would have had to adhere to. Uncomfortable yet? It gets worse.

An article by Tim Dockery on the website xtri.com provides a chilling account of the inner-workings of the USADA’s tribunal process. The basics are as follows:

• Travis Tygart and his USADA staff serve the accused wrong-doer (in this instance, Lance Armstrong), with a letter accusing him of violating Anti-doping rules. As evidence of this charge, only prior drug tests (that Armstrong passed) and anonymous witnesses are cited.
• Armstrong then had ten days to provide a written response to a review board hand-picked by Tygart. He was not given the opportunity to personally appear in front of this review board, nor was he provided the names of the “witnesses” who accused him.
• This hand-picked “review board” reviews the evidence and decides whether the case should go to a full arbitration hearing, which in similar fashion to the review board, is a kangaroo court made up of Tygart-approved “yes men” who make a ruling.
• Unsurprisingly, cases that are prosecuted by the USADA are successful over 95% of the time.
• At this point, Tygart and the USADA board recommend sanctions, which include lifetime bans, stripping of titles and the like.
• No appeals process, no opportunity to cross-examine witnesses (who, in Armstrong’s case were all proven dopers offered immunity for their testimony), and apparently no thought or consideration as to the fact that the USADA has no jurisdiction to even conduct such an investigation, much less administer sanctions.

Dockery rightly points out in his article that in 2012 – a year when we sent our Olympians into competition in London – the USADA spent a vast majority of its time and resources not assuring the compliance of those Olympians (which, it should be reiterated, is the mission of the organization and the sole reason for its existence), but rather going after a 40 year old retired cyclist with unsubstantiated allegations of wrong-doing going back some 17 years.

Some men do great things in this world. Some men are achievers, strivers and world-changers. Other men exist, it seems, solely to tear great men down – haunted by their own shortcomings and the frustrations of otherwise insignificant lives. Decide for yourself who is the former and who is the latter in this case.

The USADA has made a mockery of justice. Their corrupt abuse of power is flagrant and shocking. I would expect this in North Korea, or Iran or the former Soviet Union, where tyrants and personal vendettas and secretive, one-sided hearings leave innocents subject to the abuse of the State. That this happened here leaves me wondering; do we even live in a Democracy anymore? If Lance Armstrong can be stripped of seven Tour titles without one iota of physical evidence, what’s next? Who’s next?

Still the champ…

In the meantime, Lance will move on. He will continue to raise millions for cancer victims through his wildly successful Livestrong organization. He will continue to live a good life and maybe one day the USADA will be discredited and his trophies will be returned – because he will always be the winner of seven Tours de France – nothing can change that. Until then, at least he no longer has to wallow in the mud with Tygart and his minions.

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.