In Search of the Pure Life (Part 2)

Playa Hermosa to San Gerardo de Rivas

The reggae-themed cafe at the Playa Hermosa Cabinas wasn't open when I rolled out of bed, nor had anybody paddled out for an early-morning surf session. I was alone in my awakened state. I gobbled down a couple of the Nutri-Grain bars I packed for such an occasion and quietly tiptoed past the collection of Bob Marley t-shirts and album covers to my trusty Tucson out front. According to Ben #2, I would soon be negotiating the country's worst road and I wanted to get an early start.

I flicked the morning dew off the windshield and pointed the Hyundai south towards Quepos. I was alone with my thoughts on the highway and headed towards the gateway to Cerro Chirripo National Park. In the days leading up to my trip I became engrossed with the prospect of summiting Central America's second tallest mountain. Cerro Chirripo, rising 12,530 feet above the level of the sea, is the nation's tallest peak and I desperately wanted to plant my feet atop it and peer out across this beautiful land and cross my eyes to see the Atlantic and Pacific oceans simultaneously. And although I knew the backcountry permits were hard to come by -- and this was Easter week after all -- I was optimistic. I was down the previous night, but it was a new day and full of hope. Highway 34 curved away from the coast and several distant mountains came into view. I pulled the car to the side of the road and peered at the verdant giants rising from the lowland farms. With any luck, come tomorrow, I would be humping my belongings ever upwards into their midst.

The road from Quepos to Dominical certainly lived up to the latter Ben's billing as the worst road in the country. Despite being just forty kilometers in length, it takes over ninety minutes to navigate. The potholes are so plentiful and so deep (one was filled in with spare tires) that vehicles roll along like leaves on a braided river, helplessly piloting their way through diverging routes and hoping to not run aground. The road also has numeous one-lane bridges that can best be described as train trestles with sheet metal laid across the railroad ties. And just when you get the hang of the bumpity-bump of the road and the vertigo-inducing bridges, you're forced to drive through a river. Despite being the final days of the Dry Season, the river was still about sixty feet wide and a good two feet deep in spots. A seemingly American couple in a rented Mitsubishi SUV followed my line for much of the drive, but they balked at the river crossing. It wasn't until I powered up the far bank and flashed them a thumb's up sign that they began to gingerly dip their front wheels into the water. I couldn't help but remember Kristin's reaction the first time we drove through a river on our previous trip to Costa Rica, "You are so lucky this surfboard is between us and you can't see my face right now!" I wished she was there for that ride to Dominical -- her reactions would have been priceless.

I was making good time so before turning my back to the coast and heading into the mountains, I continued south along Highway 34 (it's in very good condition past Dominical) for a few miles toward Marino Ballena National Park. The coastline in this southern portion of the country is an example of unspoiled magnificince with an abundance of places to pull over and have an exquisite section of coastline all to yourself for the day. It's one of the secrets that must be kept... too late. After several miles of undisturbed natural splendor with endless miles of surfing opportunies, I crested a small hill and a large condomimium complex came into view -- Prices From the Low $200's! The secret was already out. I would pass two more such monstrosities before reversing my direction to continue on my way.

From Highway 34, I turned north onto Route 22 and climbed the tortuously twisty and well-worn road to the city of San Isidro. From there, it's just another 40 minutes on a pretty rugged gravel road to the small vilage of San Gerardo de Rivas, where the headquarters for Cerro Chirripo National Park is located. I missed the office on my first pass and accidentally drove through town to the trailhead. "Have fun turning around!" a hiker bellowed. I ended up having to back down an impossibly steep, off-camber road and nearly flipped my car trying to make a K-turn. By the time I found the office, the rain was coming down like a monsoon and my nerves were frayed. I couldn't help but recall the stories I heard about people waiting for several days in San Gerardo for a permit to come through. I sprinted into the office and, as luck should have it, not only did I score a permit for the next day, but there was still room at the lodge just below the summit. It was all coming together.

To call San Gerardo de Rivas a small town would be to overstate its size by a large degree. The village has but one gravel road and maybe as many as four or five dozen homes lined up alongside the Rio Chirripo that splashes out of the mountains and through the valley. Many of the structures have been converted into cabinas and hotels for backpackers awaiting a crack at climbing Chirripo, but there are also numerous banana and papaya groves, as well as an obligatory church, bar, school, and soccer field. Several small general stores with attached family-owned restaurants round out the town, but all but one of them were closed on account of Holy Thursday. Having not eaten all day and already spent far too long in the car -- the last two hours in torrential rain -- I was thankful for any place that offered me a place to sit down and have a warm meal. After eating, the generous Tico family that owned the restaurant graciously allowed me the use of their cellphone (there was only one land-phone in town, and it was in the market that was closed) to call Kristin and let her know of my plans. She would be arriving a day early, which meant I had to make the 8-hour drive to Liberia to pick her up by noon on Sunday. I'd worry about it later, it was time to find a place to stay the night.

Many of the places renting rooms in San Gerardo were either closed, filled, or simply appeared a tad on the unwelcoming side. As I plodded along the road through town, getting further from the trailhead by the minute, I spotted the Hotel Rio Chirripo and pulled in. The property was well landscaped and the hacienda-style buildings were beautifully modern and traditional at once. The main hotel structure consisted of a large open-air gathering room dominated by an enormous fireplace and inverted funnel-shaped wooden roof. Adjacent this sitting area was a wonderfully modern (yet traditional looking) kitchen and a very cozy dining area, complete with an unenclosed view into the lush river valley. In the kitchen was the hotel's innkeeper family who reside on the premises, busily making dinner. Jose spoke impressively good English and within minutes of speaking to him and eyeing the wonderful woodwork, I knew I had stumbled on the place that the Bens had recommended. He introduced me to his wife, daughters, and baby boy Alejandro. At $45 a night, the Hotel Rio Chirripo wasn't cheap but it simply felt right.

Remarkably, I was the only one staying at the hotel and after a brief tour of the property (including the trail leading to the immaculate swimming pool and jacuzi), Jose showed me to my room. The rooms are a short walk outside from the main gathering area and each include their own hot-water shower (my first this week) and a balcony with a memorable view of the valley. In addition to being a place to spend the night, the Hotel Rio Chirripo is also a yoga retreat and Jose and his sons were busy building a separate yoga studio away from the dining area. Not only that, but I was told to make myself at home and to help myself to the kitchen. Jose kept the fire stoked for me while I spent the night reading fireside and sipping a bevy of different hot teas they had. But it would not be a late night; Jose agreed to drive me the 3 kilometers to the trailhead at 5:30 in the morning. I slept wonderfully.

Climbing Chirripo

The sun was just beginning to light the cloud-free sky as I rolled out of bed. As anxious as I've been in a long time, I quickly strapped on my hiking boots, shouldered my pack (camera on the ready) and stepped outside. Jose was standing a short distance from my room, waiting to lead me to the eating area. In yet another showing of unsurpassed kindness, his wife woke before five o'clock to make sure I had a hearty breakfast for my hike. There, on the table in the dining area, was a single place setting, several plates of fresh-cut fruit, a carafe of coffee, another of orange juice, and a third of papaya juice. Before I could even express my thanks, a plate of eggs, toast, and gallo pinto was placed before me. Sometimes muchas gracias just doesn't seem adequate.

The signpost at the trailhead read "El Termometro" and serves to inform all would-be climbers that they are standing at an elevation of 4,987 feet. It is here where you take stock of the situation and measure your preparation. It was six o'clock in the morning and I was 14.5 kilometers and over 6,000 feet of elevation gain from the dormitory-style lodge I would be bedding down at for the night. Everyone I spoke with said it takes nearly eight hours to reach the lodge. For fear of being caught in an afternoon storm above treeline, I had to get moving.

The trail to the summit of Cerro Chirripo affords no opportunity to ease into the hike. The path rises up at an unrelenting angle and climbs without reprieve for much of the first six kilometers. The hiker's one salvation is that the elevation helps to control the morning temperature; when I began my hike the temperature was a comfortable 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, this says nothing of the suffocating humidity and despite these relatively low temperatures I had to forego using my main camera due to the shower of sweat I was bathing it in every time I touched it. Fortunately, I had a less expensive compact camera with me as backup.

The trail on the lower half of the mountain is quite wide and well shaded by the massive rainforest trees that grow at this latitude. With each step I gained elevation, dripped sweat, and enjoyed my solitude. It didn't take long before the scurrying about of the geckos and iguanas around me seemed as commonplace as the ubiquitous gray squirrel in the woods of North America. That's not to say all of the wildlife faded into the background. At no point did the songs (and sometimes shrieks) of the vibrant birds outstay their welcome or become something not worth cherishing. Similarly, spotting an ocelot in the wild, just feet off the trail, was certainly a moment to remember.

I kept a good pace throughout much of the hike, despite the steep terrain, and passed two couples who had set out before me. Each kilometer marker on Cerro Chirripo is marked with a signpost stating the elevation, distance from the trailhead, and is also given a name. I stood and stared in mild disbelief at the sign marking the completion of the fifth kilometer. It was called "Los Robles" (The Oaks) and reported an elevation of 7,851 feet. Had I really climbed nearly 3,000 feet in a mere 3.1 miles? I toggled through the functions of my altimeter watch and, sure enough, the sign done speak the truth. My legs weren't nearly as surprised to hear this news as my mind was.

The next four kilometers of the trail climb at a much gentler gradient, but offer their own unique troubles. This middle section of the climb is much muddier than the rest and also prone to collect standing water. And where there is standing water, mosquitoes are soon to follow. The malaria medicine had been upsetting my stomach for much of the week, but I couldn't help but be glad I was taking it as I swatted haplessly at the swarm of disease carriers buzzing in front of my face. But as annoying as the bugs were, nothing tops Mr. Ex-Officio. Located at approximately 7.5 kilometers from the trailhead is a large two-story shelter near Llano Bonito (Beautiful Plain). Here, there is a Park Service ranger checking permits, a picnic table, two outhouses (bring your own TP), and in the case of my visit, a very annoying Nicaraguan couple.

There was a large group of spanish-speaking hikers descending the mountain and although I kept my communications to a friendly buenos diaz and a smile, these two felt the need to, essentially, tell me I was doing everything wrong. Everybody I had seen on the trail up to that point was hiking in jeans shorts, high top sneakers, cotton t-shirts, and carrying a small knapsack while toting a 20oz bottle of water or Powerade in their hand. Except Mr. Ex-Officio. Outfitted with glacier glasses, wide-brim hat, shiny Salomon boots, and impossibly clean and unwrinkled Ex-Officio pants and shirt (tucked in), he was a sight to behold. And as I started back on my way, he seemingly jumped straight out of the REI catalog from whence he came, down onto the trail, and chased after me. Within moments he was tugging on my pack's sternum belt and jostling my shoulder straps and, in not so many words, telling me I didn't know how to wear my backpack. Meanwhile, his equally well-outfitted misses was yelling from the distance that I was carrying too much. Over and over, "You're carrying too much!" and then she'd laugh.

It was surreal. Who were these people, and why were they in my face? It took a few seconds to register what was exactly going on, but just as my anger started to build -- Where do these people get off telling me how to wear my pack and how much to bring, I'll hike circles around them! -- I smiled, told them everything was as I liked it, and walked away. It took a half mile or so before I unclenched my fists and relaxed my jaw, but I wasn't going to let their rudeness ruin my hike. Maybe I was carrying a larger pack than everyone else? Maybe I didn't want to get to the shelter and rent some bug-infested sleeping bag, so I brought my own? Maybe I had a camera and several lenses in my pack? Maybe I was toting a 750-page novel to ward off boredom at night? And so what if I was carrying all of these things and a change of clothes and a first-aid kit? I'll still whoop their ass up and down this mountain! Exhale, Doug... take a deep breath and forget about them. Done.

Ever onward I climbed out of the mud and the shade of the rainforest and onto the paramo. The effects of the elevation started to very subtly make themselves known at 8,000 feet, but it wasn't until I was at 10,000 feet and on the paramo that I really started to get winded. Fortunately, the landscape shifts so dramatically and the lure of the lodge just a handful of kilometers away combines to draw you forward. Ten kilometers into the hike, the trail breaks from the forest and spills onto a wholly different ecosystem. The paramo is a grassland landscape above treeline and below what, in the Andes at least, would be the snowline higher up. There is no snowline in Costa Rica, just the remnants of glaciers long ago. Much of the paramo on Cerro Chirripo burned in a forest fire not long ago and although the grasses have reclaimed the land the few stunted trees that do exist in this harsh environment stand stripped of their bark and of their color.

The sun was shining bright on the paramo when I emerged from the greenery of the lower section of trail, but it wasn't long before the clouds rolled in. The trail was once again getting quite steep and I was approaching 11,000 feet and feeling it in my lungs. I would stride forward for no more than fifty yards at a time before pausing to rest momentarily on a rock or to snap a photo. But like the geckos that were taking cover from my camera flash under the bleached ruins of a tree long dead, I too had to get to the lodge and take cover from the impending storm. I downed the last two cran-razz Cliff Bloks in my pocket, washed them down with some water, and pushed on for the final 1.5 kilometers, past sections of trail named "Los Arrepentidos" (The Repentants) and "El Ultimo Paso" (The Last Step). And before long, the teal-covered roof of the Los Crestones Lodge at 11,132 feet came into view.

The first drop of rain to fall splashed against my cheek at high noon, just as I reached the entrance to the lodge. I hiked steadily, but at a comfortable pace with plenty of pauses to photograph my journey along the way and made the 9-mile, 6,145 foot climb in an even 6 hours. And not a moment too soon -- by the time I was shown to my room the sky had opened and the rain began to pour onto the thirsty terrain. I would worry about the final push to the summit later. The Dry Season was officially over, but not for me. I briefly rinsed off via the frigid cistern-fed shower and climbed into my sleeping bag. I deserved this siesta.

In Search of the Pure Life (Part 1)

"In a couple years we're going to own this whole f'ing country!" I wasn't in Costa Rica for more than an hour and I already wanted to punch someone. The loudmouth sitting next to me at the hotel bar was from the United States -- no surprise there -- and in no uncertain terms he made it clear to everyone within shouting distance that yes indeed, Americans were buying up much of the available land in Costa Rica. He made his statement at an impolite volume and with impolite words, but it was his enthusiasm that raised my ire. He was in real estate and saw dollar signs where I saw nature; he saw quote-unquote progress where I saw adventures lost; and he saw retirement communities where I saw unkept secrets. I needed a drink.

The Costa Rican people, affectionately referred to as Ticos, have a slogan: It's "pura vida" and it basically means to live a pure life. When prodded to elaborate, the Ticos will refer to the opportunities to experience the natural beauty and vibrant energy of their country. They point to the lush rainforests, the thunderous surf, and the mystical volcanoes that made their country one of the world's first premier eco-destinations. It's been just three years since my last trip to Costa Rica and already I'm fearing that I'm not going to recognize the place. To many savvy travelers, Costa Rica already has the unfortunate reputation of being spoiled by development and has long ago been saddled with a been-there-done-that status. Did I miss my window? This was what I was here to find out.

It was Easter week, not only a prime travel time for American families but also for Costa Rican families as well, and I was in for a challenge. All of my inquiries into accommodations in the days leading up to my trip showed few vacancies and overwhelming demand. In fact, not only does much of the country take the week off, but the Ticos take Holy Week so seriously that the government prohibits the sale of alcohol for a 36-hour period straddling Holy Thursday and Good Friday. I was here at the worst possible time and I had no reservations. Just me, my backpack, and the Hyundai Tucson I rented at the airport in Liberia. I had a mental list of places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do and the vibe I was already getting was that doing so was going to be near-impossible. But I wasn't worried. I had a tent with me and if worse came to worse, I could always sleep in the truck.

I downed my second bottle of Imperial, settled my tab, and strolled over to what passed for the hotel casino. There were a dozen or so slot machines, and a Roulette table in which the game's trademark wheel and lone silver ball was replaced with a large bingo-style basket and dozens of red and black balls. The place was empty save for a couple of locals playing Blackjack so I took a seat in front of a television and tried to decipher the scroll on the bottom of ESPN Deportes. I soon noticed a vacant Three-Card Poker table to my left with an impossibly low table minimum of 1,000 colones (roughly two dollars) so I sauntered over. Before long I was the only one gambling and lucked into a couple of good hands which won me about 60,000 colones ($120). It had been a long flight, I was ready for some sleep, and I certainly didn't want to lose any money so I cashed out in under an hour. Before heading upstairs, I threw the dealer a few thousand colones and was treated to an ovation from a number of attractive Costa Rican women in light-blue polo shirts and skin-tight polyester pants. Not the nicest uniform in the world, but they certainly wore it well. I would repeat this sentiment in my mind countless times during my trip -- there's little wonder why Costa Rica's original tourist attraction was its legalized sex-for-hire industry (it still exists today but is primarily confined to the capital, San Jose). Time for sleep.

Liberia to Playa Hermosa

Come morning, I woke hours earlier than I do back in Washington, gobbled down what would be my first of many servings of gallo pinto (black beans and rice) and hit the road. The dry season was in its waning throes but you couldn't tell it from the bright azure sky, searing heat, and dusty brown fields of this cattle-raising region of Costa Rica. I followed the Pan-American Highway southeast out of Liberia in the direction of San Jose and exited near Puntarenas, my first time off the Nicoya Peninsula and out of Guanacaste. I would head south along the coast from here.

Driving in Costa Rica has a reputation that precedes itself. There are few paved roads in the country outside of the main highway that angles through the country from the Caribbean coast in the southeast to the Nicaraguan border in the northwest, and even they are in notoriously bad shape. The country is famous for its car-swallowing potholes, miles of washboard roads, one-lane dilapidated bridges, and the forced river crossings due to the collapse of older bridges. But as bad as the road conditions are, its the Tico driving habits that will really keep you on your toes. They think nothing of crossing the centerline to pass while climbing a hill, rounding a turn, or when driving in fog and rain. It's really quite astounding how aggressive these otherwise laid back people become when behind the wheel. As I explained to my friends during the second week of my trip, speed limits, road lines, and other basic driving laws are essentially optional here. Rely on your instincts and enjoy the ride.

My route took me south along Highway 34 across a bridge over the Rio Tarcoles where dozens of tourists had gotten out of their cars to photograph the many crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbank below. This was one of the many roadside attractions that used to be a hotspot for petty thieves, but the Costa Ricans can be pretty clever at times. As I returned to my car after snapping my own obligatory crocodile photos a man in an orange vest with the word "security" emblazoned on it approached. He wanted a tip for watching over my car while I was gone. Rather than breaking into the car and stealing my belongings, they were now accepting gratuity for not breaking in. I couldn't help but smile at the ingenuity of such a proposition and happily tossed him 200 colones (forty cents), to which he smiled and expressed his gratitude.

My first destination, Carrara Biological Reserve, was only a few miles up the road. Carrara is one of the world's major nesting grounds for scarlet macaws and has a number of hiking trails in two separate areas. The English-speaking attendant at the ranger station suggested first hiking the dirt road that roughly parallels the sinuous Rio Tarcoles before retreating to the denser rainforest trails when the sun is higher in the sky. I wasn't a quarter mile into my hike before I spotted a small gathering of white-face monkeys in the trees to my right. Further up the road I noticed a seldom-used trail leading off into the forest. It wasn't on the map, but I was curious so I followed it. It wasn't easy striking the balance between craning my neck in hopes of spotting a scarlet macaw overhead while simultaneously making sure I didn't tread on a snake or lizard underfoot. The trail twisted and turned and forked several times but my inner compass was in fine working order and after a half-hour of tiptoeing through the brush I reemerged further up the dirt road right alongside a couple that had passed me earlier. The woman couldn't contain her bewilderment. "Where did you come from?" she asked, mouth slightly agape. I explained that I was just curious as to where the trail went and thought it would give me a better chance at seeing some wildlife (it didn't), but couldn't help but smile to myself. Act like you know what you're doing and have been there before: so far so good.

My hike in Carrara netted me several good photos of white-face monkeys (they were everywhere), along with plenty of encounters with iguanas of all shapes and colors, numerous birds (including a few scarlet macaws that soared overhead), and a large coati that crossed the dirt road in front of me. Mostly, though, this was just a side-trip and a chance to stretch my legs after several hours in the car.

As I continued south along the coast I noticed several hand-painted signs advertising a nearby waterfall hike. I confirmed on my National Geographic Adventure Map that the Rio Turrabaritos did indeed take a nice plunge down the fall line in the mountains to my east so when the sign with the arrow directing me to the left came, I was ready to turn. I was finally giving the Tucson a chance to prove itself off-road. The gravel and cobble road bucked and jostled my car as I climbed over two-thousand feet into the mountains, but I soon came to a small shack near a trailhead. The trail to the waterfalls was about two miles long and was on private property. For the equivalent of ten dollars American, I was handed a hand-drawn map and given a brief rundown of the wildlife unique to this area. I was shown a photo of a green and black dart frog, a species unique to Costa Rica, and told to keep an eye out for them. My cynicism kicked in and I immediately doubted to myself that I would ever see them during my hike.

I wasn't a hundred yards down the trail before spotting my first green and black dart frog. They're very small and have a green and black tiger-esque striped pattern on them. They're beautiful, but unfortunately very afraid of humans and quite speedy -- as a result I have no really good photos of them, despite having seen dozens of them hopping around.

The first few waterfalls marked on the map were bone dry, but they were just tributaries and dry season or not, the main river had to be flowing. Halfway to the spur trail leading to the viewpoint the sky opened and I was in the midst of a tropical downpour. I stopped hiking, found a spot between the trees, and soaked it all in. I was alone in the rainforest, getting drenched by an afternoon shower, and my senses were alive. The smells of the forest, the sounds of the birds and the rain, and the warmth of the water washing over my head and body combined for a euphoric feeling, but also one that seemed wholly private. It was a welcoming just for me, an introduction to solo exploration. It was baptism by nature and I felt completely alive and utterly sure of my belonging in this place.

I re-shouldered my daypack and continued up the trail, slipping and sliding in the slick clay. The rain was still falling (and rumbles of distant thunder echoed through the canyon) when I reached the upper viewpoint of the waterfall. The falls were truly worth the hike. They were a lengthy ribbon of white turbulence sliding down the face of the mountains, easily 600 feet in height, and probably closer to 1,000. The rain began to let up as I slipped and slided back to the lower trail and after a few narrow rock-shimmies and a small rope ladder, I reached the trail's terminus. The lighting conditions were harsh, so I settled for some photos of myself in front of the falls with my camera set on timer mode. I'll never hike again without my six-inch tripod.

The hike back up out of the valley was exhausting. The rain stopped and the humidity and temperature rose nearly as steeply as the trail. Outfitted in my new Merrel hiking sandles and sans-socks, I was rapidly accumulating an impressive collection of blisters on each foot from the mud and water. But I was still in good spirits (despite one mud-induced faceplant) and I did the entire hike without encountering anyone until the final half mile of the return trip. Once at the car, I made a deal with myself to not stop anymore until I reached Playa Hermosa. I had already driven several hours and hiked for nearly twice that long. I was exhausted and needed to rest.

I arrived in Playa Hermosa at three o'clock in the afternoon and found the surf cabinas that I reserved a room at (I lied when I said I had no reservations, I did have one for Wednesday night). The Playa Hermosa Cabinas is a popular stay for surfers as the four-to-a-room cabinas are cheap to rent and the property sits on the beach, just feet from one of Costa Rica's better breaks. The surf was big, sloppy, and treacherously windblown when I arrived and the selection of boards for rent (I didn't bring my own) was depressing to say the least. I knew there would be plenty of time for surfing later in the week and definitely next week when my friends arrived, so I showered up and took a nap.

I woke over an hour later to the unmistakable sound of waves crashing. I sprang to my feet and ran outside to find that the wind had shifted offshore, the storm-chop had been smoothed into a silvery sheen of polished glass, and the chest-high waves were breaking in perfect A-frame shape with astonishing consistency... right in front of my room. The only problem was that the board rental place had already closed for the night and there was probably only about an hour or so of daylight left. At the time I worried that I may have missed out on the best surf conditions of the two weeks I'd be down there (I didn't) and was starting to get a bit bummed out. I watched others enjoy the waves from atop a rock on the beach till dusk and then went about getting dressed. My buzz had been sufficiently killed and I was starting to feel a bit lonely.

Playa Hermosa is a true surf town and like all good surf towns, there is the obligatory bar/restaurant/discotheque (their spelling) that everyone congregates to on a nightly basis. In Playa Hermosa, this spot is called The Backyard. It's there over a plate full of mahi-mahi burritos and a bottle of Imperial where I met Ben from Brazil. He was in Costa Rica visiting a friend and his friend had to ditch him for the evening to take his girlfriend out on a date. Ben, a native Brit, was instantly likeable and, like me, happy to have someone to talk to who spoke fluent English. He was working in Brazil -- another realtor type -- but had traveled quite extensively throughout Central America. At six-foot eight inches tall with a Casper-like complexion, he stuck out in a crowd as much as anyone ever could. Hearing he lived in Rio de Janeiro and upon seeing his height and obvious fitness, I couldn't help but ask if he played professional beach volleyball. He didn't, but it turned out (or so he says) that he was England's #2 ranked tennis player when he was younger. He had a lot of interesting tennis stories and some not-so-nice words for the way in which the UK fosters young talent: they don't. My favorite tale was that of him beating tennis-phenom Tim Henman when they were both college-aged and how, in the process, my bar-buddy Ben cursed out Henman's mom who was arguing calls from the bleachers.

Eventually, the night wore on, my collection of empty Imperial bottles grew larger, and I made my way over to the dancefloor. It was ladies night at The Backyard and the place was hopping. There I met another fellow named Ben (a California transplant who now lives with his parents in Quepos, CR at the hotel they built) and a couple of women with as pasty a complexion as Ben #1. One was from Australia, the other from England. The Aussie was visiting the Brit who was living in Costa Rica while learning Spanish, but that's all I could tell you about them. The four of us talked about surfing, but we mostly just drank our beers and people-watched. I told Ben #2 my plans for the upcoming days and he warned me about the roads and recommended a particular place to stay that he and his father stayed at once. Oddly enough, it was the same place that Ben #1 recommended too, a small yoga-retreat hotel near the trailhead for Cerro Chirripo in San Gerardo de Rivas. Climbing Chirripo, my main goal for the week, was already starting to sound like a pipe-dream so I didn't give their suggestion much thought.

Come midnight the bar was legally forced to cut off alcohol sales in honor of Holy Thursday, but that didn't stop them from selling truckloads of beer, vodka, and tequila in the minutes leading up the deadline. The laws don't curtail drinking; they simply force people to stock up. I fought through the crowd to settle my bill and walked slowly down the road back to my cabina. I missed Kristin. Not so much in a lonely, depressed kind of way, but more that it just wasn't as much fun to be there without her. So I called her collect and we talked for far too long and although she would be arriving on Monday afternoon with my friends, it seemed an eternity. Could she come down early? After all, it would be nice to have a day to go hiking just the two of us. I felt better having talked to her (again, for far too long) and went to my room, spirits lifted. I reminded myself that I was here this week to gain confidence so that she and I would travel better in the future. That it was okay for her not to be there experiencing these things alongside me this time, because there is still a lifetime of experiences to have together later.

Tomorrow would be a long day in the car, so I unfolded my map and studied the route to Cerro Chirripo until I had it memorized. Sleep came uneasily, but eventually it came nonetheless...

Prologue: Some Words About Travel

"Travel takes practice. If I'm to gain experience and get more comfortable at visiting places away from the tourist zones, then I have to take every chance I have to do it. This is one of them."

I was explaining to my paranoid mother why I was departing a week early alone and I thought the old travel takes practice line would work the trick. It did, I think. She was excited for Kristin and I to be returning to Costa Rica for a friend's wedding, and the idea of sharing a villa and surfing for a week with my high school friends and their significant others at a resort sounded wonderful to her. And it was something I had been looking forward to, but the truth of the matter was that ever since my eyes first scanned the words "all-inclusive" in the email describing where we would be staying, those two words have been like a parasite in my brain, slowly gnawing away at my desire to go and injecting small doses of toxin into my nervous system, poisoning my mood. My ideals and prejudices about resorts was going to ruin the trip for me before I even went. I knew what it was going to be like and I hated the fact that I wasn't going to travel; I was merely going on a vacation. And having not actively worked for the past 8 weeks, I didn't need a vacation.

Travel is different things to different people. Some don't want to leave the sanitized safety of a resort where they can lounge poolside and sip exotic drinks out of hourglass-shaped plastic glasses all day. They want to be pampered and made to feel special. They want their dollars to do all of the talking and, for many of them, attending one or two events posted on the daily Activity Board qualifies as adventure (if it was up to me, knowledge of the Macarena and Electric Slide would have been confiscated at the border alongside insect-infested plants and Mad Cow contaminated shoes). These people have fun, enjoy themselves, and return to work refreshed. They were on vacation; they didn't travel.

Others venture outside the boundaries of their resort or hotel to dine at a nearby restaurant (with English menus of course) or visit a made-for-tourists attraction a short shuttle ride away. They sign up for day-trips through their hotel's designated Excursion coordinator and they strike up small talk with other hotel guests who they unavoidably encounter along the way. They buy a souvenir from a roadside stand and consider their interaction a "cultural" experience and they return with their trophy and tell stories of how they were swarmed by barefoot children with tussled hair and bad teeth begging for money. These people travel in their own minds, but they're still missing out on what their destination really has to offer. They're on vacation, but their fidgety. They're not travelers, but they're not sloths either. There's hope for them.

I could tell you that, to me, travel is about meeting people far off the beaten path and conversing with folks who haven't been tainted by tourism. It's about eating where the locals eat when they're trying to sneak in a quick lunch before heading back to work. It's being accepted as if you belong there. It's not drawing attention to yourself. It's making an attempt at the local language. It's about not seeing your fellow countrymen and loving it. It's about giving more than just your money while you're there. I could tell you it means all of these things to me and more but there's a better way to explain it:

Go into Barnes & Noble and approach the "Travel Essays" section of the store (note it's not called "Vacation Essays") and pick up any of the books on display. Read the description. None of them are about lounging poolside at resorts, or booze cruises, or dance contests. They're about travel. About meeting people and about having experiences that are unique. They often involve an ounce of danger, a healthy heaping of the unknown, and most often a couple spoonfuls of misfortune. But they are tales that people want to read about. There's a reason why television sitcoms use vacation slideshows as a punchline (and often a form of torture) -- because vacations are boring to all but go on them. And once you've been on one, you've been on them all. In contrast, a true travel slideshow draws large crowds of attendees. Don't believe me: just attend the next one at your local R.E.I. store.

This of course isn't to say that adventure equals travel or that travel must be dangerous. I think the true key component is interacting with the people where they least expect to see you. Upon returning from our honeymoon eight years ago (a cruise to Cozumel and Key West), I lamented that we didn't have the time to escape the tourist zone while in Mexico. I wanted to visit small towns and really see the daily culture of Mexicans who weren't impacted by the parade-route that the cruising industry had created between the piers and nearest attractions. My father, who had been on a similar cruise once before, laughed and suggested that the folks selling their trinkets to the tourists on the buses was a cultural experience. "That is their culture" he said. I shook my head then as I shake it today.

Suggesting that visitors to a foreign land who don't leave the tourist zone actually experience the culture of the region (let a lone the country) is like saying a European visitor to Disney World gains a cultural understanding of life in America through his interaction with a souvenir retailer at Epcot Center. Visiting tourist zones in other countries is just like visiting them in the United States: they don't reflect the true day-to-day culture of that region's people. When you meet a local person in a tourist zone, they are working. Your money is the only reason they are there. Their culture doesn't place them there anymore than American culture is the reason why your hostess in Las Vegas smiles at you when you request a table for two. She's there to make ends meet. Just like the artisans at the roadside markets in Central America and the guy in the Goofy outfit at Disney World and the overweight desk-jockey in your company's IT department. At work, everyone wears a face, regardless of nationality. At work, people reflect the guidelines of their place of employment. Potheads clean up, bigots pretend to be cordial, zealots pray in whispered tones, retailers pretend to like tourists, etc., etc. Meet these people after hours on their front porch and you'll see a different person. You'll see the real them. And that is one of the goals of travel.

So now you have a better understanding of my thoughts on travel. I should point out that it's not simply ideals that I pulled from a book I read or from a show I watched on the Travel Channel, but rather through self-discovery. I've done the poolside-sloth routine and I've "explored" alongside other tourists in motorcoaches equipped with bi-lingual guides, and basically each time I've gone someplace, I've gotten a little closer to achieving what I consider travel, but I always came up short in my pursuits. It was always a fear of the unknown that got in the way.

So this brings me to Costa Rica. My friend was getting married at a resort about 80 minutes up the coast from Tamarindo, the beach town made famous by the movie "Endless Summer" and I knew ahead of time that we would be spending the week doing much of the same things that Kristin and I had done three years earlier. We would surf the same breaks and even go on the same "Adventure Trip" at the same park. It would undoubtedly be more fun this time around with such a great group of friends, but I was disappointed I wouldn't have the opportunity to see new things. Not only that, I know Tamarindo and many other beach towns on the Guanacaste province have undergone tremendous growth (condos, condos, condos everywhere you look) since our last visit and this would further sour my experience, but that's for another time. It would be a fun week, but it was just a vacation. What I wanted was a chance to practice being a traveler. A real traveler.

Next year is our 10 year wedding anniversary, and travel is on the menu. Destinations like Chile, Morocco, Peru, South Africa, and others keep rising to the surface. And with that in mind, I decided to depart a week early, get away from the beach towns and far away from the tourists and have a week of adventure and time spent being a traveler. I need the practice and the confidence. The articles to come will tell my story of the week I had as a solo foreign traveler, and also of the week I spent having a wonderful vacation with friends. I wouldn't necessarily trade one for the other, but I certainly learned more about Costa Rica, their friendly and trustworthy people, and myself as a traveler during the first week.

I hope you enjoy reading the upcoming articles as much as I will enjoy writing about them. And should this prologue-turned-rant give you pause and help you to consider your own travel/vacation practices, then let me know. Like I said early on in this essay, travel is different things to different people. And neither of them are inherently wrong. But if you want a story to tell that's unique, then you better start practicing.

Home Again

Two flights, 7.5 hours of air time, and a nearly 4-hour layover in Houston later, we're home. I've only begun to put a dent in the seemingly bottomless digital pile of email I've accumulated during the two weeks I've been gone and I have a rented camera lens to return, dogs to pick up from boarding, and a mountain bike with (hopefully) a newly fixed brake lever to retrieve.

I took hundreds of photos during my time in Costa Rica; many with my Canon Digital Rebel, a ton of snapshots with my Canon A520 point-and-shot, and also quite a few with the Canon 20D that Kristin's boss loaned to me (Kristin brought it with her for the second half of the trip, as he's trying to sell it... hopefully to me). It would have been great if I had the 20D right from the start, as I can only imagine its enhanced exposure sensors and evaluators would have made the very challenging lighting situation atop Cerro Chirripo a bit less, well, challenging.

Nevertheless, I'm going to ease me way back into normal life and will very likely begin writing an essay about my trip later tonight. I'll probably just post a brief photo-column tonight or tomorrow and withhold the main prose until I've had time to reflect on the trip and polish it up a bit. It shouldn't take too long, as I've been taking notes.

Another Costa Rican Update

It's Thursday now and we've been here at the Villas Sol resort for a couple days for Dan's wedding. Yesterday was The Day and the wedding was very nice. Both Dan and Carrie looked great and we all had a great time.

The day started out on a high note as Dan, Remy, Lou, James, and myself chartered a boat for the day and headed up the coast to surf Witch's Rock and Ollie's Point, two of the most famous surf breaks in the world. Witch's Rock was an awesome sight to see in person and we had the main peak in front of it all to ourselves--there were only a couple other people in the water at a different peak. The waves were good, peeling both left and right with amazing shape and consistency, and were stomach to chest high.

After about 90 minutes there, we headed north to Ollie's Point, not too far south of the Nicaraguan Border. There we caught the incoming tide and had one of the world's premier point breaks to ourselves. Do you believe that? I still don't! The waves were a solid chest high with occasional larger sets and we all caught dozens of the most perfect right-hand waves one can imagine. And thanks to the remoteness of the location (virtually impossible to drive there without hiking for hours) we were the only people in the water.

We've surfed the past three days straight and are relaxing and recuperating today. Despite repeated applications of sunscreen we are all pretty burnt, as we are very close to the equator and it's about 98 degrees every day. In the shade. Tomorrow is an adventure day at Rincon de la Vieja National Park with canopy tours and horseback rides and Saturday I'm driving Kristin, James, and Heather to Arenal National Park to see the volcano while the other folks in our villa go sportfishing. We'll surf Playa Grande or Playa Langosta again on Sunday before returning home.

Time to head to the pool. Have a good week.

Checking In

Greetings from Tamarindo!!!

It's Sunday afternoon, the temp is roughly 99 degrees (in the shade) and I have my lovely wife by my side! All is well. Pura Vida!

I drove nearly 1,000 miles along Costa Rica's best (not so good) and worst (beyond your imagination) roads. I hiked alongside white-face monkeys and under the flight of scarlet macaws. I spent two days climbing Costa Rica's tallest mountain, Mount Chirripo and managed to summit it at 4:30 am on Saturday morning. I stood at 12,600 foot a full 30 minutes before sunrise and watched the sun rise over the Atlantic. The full moon lit the way and I made much of the final 5 kilometers in the dead of night without artificial lighting. It was an experience I won't soon forget.

Anyway, I'm now in Tamarindo awaiting the arrival of my friends. We have a wedding to attend on Wednesday and a lot of surfing to do in the meantime.

The photos and reports I'll post in the coming weeks won't disappoint.

Fuera de Contacto

My backpack is packed with my tent, sleeping bag, boots, and clothes. I picked up the wide-angle lens I'm renting from Glazer's Camera for the trip (16-35mm f2.8), I have my malaria meds, and I have my fantasy baseball roster set for the week. It's go time. I've decided to forego electronics and won't be bringing the PSP, DS, or even an mp3 player. But instead, I'll just be bringing the 750 page Dark Tower V book to read on the plane, which I've already written too much about last week.

On the off-chance I find myself with a couple minutes at an Internet cafe, I'll post an update, but more than likely it will be a good two weeks before this blog gets updated. Oh, and just in case anyone from BBTC is reading this, I dropped my bike off to get the busted brake lever fixed while I'm gone so the Tiger Mountain Epic ride I'm leading on the 30th is still on!

Pura Vida!

Gettin' Down & Dirty at Reiter Pit

Notice: This article doesn't contain any descriptions of nudity nor does it contain references to sex, copulation, ejaculation, self-gratification, or any other -ations you can think of. This notice is for the benefit of Kristin's sisters who, up until last week still believed their older sister was a virgin. I'm sorry to be the one to break it to you two, but I had no idea you read my blog.

Not unlike my dogs, it wasn't long ago that I was showing signs of slowing down too (see post below). Thanks to a lot of biking and running of late, that's no longer the case, but nevertheless, I know I'm 30 years old and, well, being able to recall attending my mother's thirtieth birthday party doesn't exactly make me feel young. And knowing that my little sister is entering her mid-20's and getting a place with her boyfriend doesn't help either. Fortunately there is a cure to feeling old: playing in the mud.

Yesterday's mountain bike ride was, in many ways, unlike any ride I have ever been on. Five of us headed into the mountains northeast of Seattle to a place known as Reiter Pit. It's a veritable Mecca for ATV and moto-cross riders in this part of Washington. It's not a place mountain bikers ever go; well, except for the guy who lead our ride yesterday. He rides there quite a bit, and it's probably why he's so good.

Here's a couple pics of the roads that led to the actual singletrack. This is the easy stuff.

4x4 Photo #1

4x4 Photo #2

To be honest, to even call what we rode Saturday trails would be a gross exaggeration. When off-road motorcycles cut trails into the damp Pacific Northwest forests, they essentially rip it to shreds. Their tires cut extremely deep trenches into the ground, tree branches and logs and rocks get scatter haphazardly to and fro, and basically the bio-litter on the forest floor ends up becoming even gnarlier, slippier, and more mangled than it was originally. At one point, I stood straddling one of the moto-trenches and it was so deep that my feet were actually above my top-tube!

There were precious few moments in the ride when you could go five feet without using total concentration to carefully pilot your bike up and over the root balls and rocks and around the hub-deep mud bowls and rivers that we were following. Much of the riding was flat, but vastly more technical than any of the typical mountain biking trails I've ridden. Even the stuff that most experienced riders consider to be technical was nothing like this. It was all-natural, extreme cross-country trail riding. There were five of us riding in relatively close formation at times and nobody ever seemed to pick the same line. Normally, we try to closely follow the trail so as to not further any erosion or damage any vegetation. At Reiter Pit, the "trail" is like a braided river of destruction nearly 15 feet wide in places and you're all but required to add to the destruction if you're to not bury your entire bike in mud.

One of the trails we hit did drop several hundred feet in elevation and, like much of the rest of the trails, had large root nests and step-down root-drops every several feet. Combined with loose rocks and plenty of slick, wet clay, it proved to be a very technical descent. I was going really well for the first half of the descent until I under-estimated the steepness of particularly large root-drop, tried to roll it, and endoed. I flipped the bike forward, somersaulted onto my shoulder (collar bone fortunately not re-broken) and stood up to see that I basically tried to roll a 3-4 foot root drop smack into another root. Although I did bruise my hand, my bike suffered worse damage. I badly bent the front brake lever and also lost the pin that holds it in place. Now faced with the latter half of the descent and only a rear brake, I had to be careful.

I wasn't as careful as I should have been and I endoed again further down the trail. Another root drop smack into a root ball. This time I landed on the bike (no somersault) and put a nice slice into my inner thigh. No blood, but damn does it burn (it matches the scar I have from a surfing injury years ago).

I was still having a great time. You couldn't fault someone for gettting frustrated riding these trails, and the increasing rain showers that came throughout the 3 hours we were out there certainly didn't help to make the experience any easier. But for some reason, I was really enjoying myself. Aside from the two endos, I was actually riding really well. I handled the tech climbs nearly as well as our ride leader, Preston, and for the most part, was able to keep on his and Ken's tail for much of the ride. I was apprehensive concerning whether or not I was ready to ride this aggressive of a trail with such faster and more skilled riders, but at least judging by this weekend, I am. One of the riders even commented that he was shocked I tackled that descent on an NRS (cross-country bike instead of a burlier all-mountain type of bike with bigger suspension). Of course, neither I nor my bike came away unscathed, but it's all part of the experience.

And there's nothing better than walking into a restaurant after a long, cold ride, with a fresh coat of mud on your face. And it's even better when you know it came from trying to keep up with two guys more than 10 years your senior.

Thirty is the new twenty. It feels great to be young again.

A Dog's Life

Kristin and I are facing the sad realization that our beloved dogs are aging. They're not old per se but our male dog, Kimo, is about ready to turn 8 and after lengthy hikes and runs he's definitely showing some mild aches and pains. He limps around, he sits down favoring his left hip, and it takes a day or so before he's anxious to go for a walk again. Our female, one year younger than her "big brother" (oddly enough, she's actually his aunt according to our understanding of the family tree) isn't gimping around just yet, but she's starting to slow down a little.

The issue of my dogs' mortality is one that I try never to think of, as I can't and don't want to think of a day without them. And, if all goes well, I shouldn't have to for quite some time, but that doesn't mean I'm ready to let them start getting old either. We called our friend whose also a vet and she recommended some glucosamine-chondroitin tablets for Kimo. She said it's pretty common for dogs his age and size to start getting a little arthritic and that this could help. Just like it's known to help humans.

The catch was that the stuff costs $140 for roughly 3 months worth. We have some catastrophic health insurance for our dogs to help off-set the costs of surgery or cancer treatment on down the road, but nearly $50 a month for doggie-vitamins is kind of steep -- try about Annapurna steep.

Fortunately, Kristin's running partner has been going through the same thing with her dog and recommended one of those special brands of kibble that is fortified with tons of the glucosamine and the chondroitin. She says it worked wonders for her dog and costs about $35 for 35 lbs of food. Expensive for dog food, but not much more than we pay already. So we go to the pet store and we find the bag and we're trying to pay, but this woman suddenly starts chasing after me.



Me, not really being anybody's "sir" ignores her assuming she can't possibly be talking to me. But she doesn't give up her pursuit and finally tracks me down somewhere between the guinea pig cages and gourmet dog snack buffet tables. She's the sales rep for that particular brand of dog food. And she has coupons so I listen. I tell her about my dogs and mention that they're both Siberian Huskies.

"I'm so glad you told me that. You need to get this variety over here. It's the senior formula for large breed dogs and it has way more of the glucosamine than that one. The one you have is for average dogs."

My dogs are totally average size -- they each weigh about 50 pounds. "Does it have the chondroitin too?" I ask, ignoring the fact that I have no idea what chondroitin is.

She leans in close. She's got a secret.

"It has a tons of both glucosamine and chondroitin and (she leans in and lowers her voice) you're gonna get 43% less poop."

My first thought was what a great title for a blog post that would make (I didn't use it because it would have made the actual telling of the story pointless and even more boring than it already is) but my second thought was more practical.

What will I do with all of those newspaper baggies if I don't have as much poop to pick up?

What's That?

You've seen the commercials a thousand times. Somebody is sitting on a white park bench, the orange "ING" logo is to their left, and someone else walks by and asks, "what's that?" The person sitting starts telling them about ING's various financial services, but the inquiry is actually referring to some surreal event taking place behind the bench.

I'm a big fan of ING's online "Orange Direct" savings account. Each month we have some money transferred over to it and we use it as rainy-day/travel account. There are no fees and we can get at our money within 24 to 48 hours if need-be. I just received an email from them letting me know that they've once again upped the interest rate (APY), this time to 4.00%.

Is that good? Let's take a look at what our brick & mortar bank, Bank of America, is currently offering.

BoA Money Market Account - 0.75% APY with a balance over $100,000. It's only 0.40% if you have < $2,500 in the account and then they charge you a $10 per month service charge which, by the way, is far greater than the interest you'll earn.

BoA Fixed-Term CDs - Give them a set amount of money and wait for the term to expire in order to regain access to it without suffering a penalty. Want to know how much you'd have to give them and for how long in order to earn the 4.00% APY that ING gives you on a normal FREE savings account? You'd have to give Bank of America a minimum of $50,000 for at least two years in order to be eligible for a 3.80% APY.

I remember not too many years ago there was this big concern over how the Internet was going to destroy brick & mortar retailers and how the sky was going to fall and so on and so forth. Well, as far as banks are concerned, I say good riddance. Just as I rarely use my land line anymore (I have it for DSL), I look forward to the day when all banking can be done not only online, but with a bank that only exists online. Great service and 10x the interest? Sign me up.

Oh, wait, I already am.

Satellite Art

Came across this site while browsing the Costa Rica surf sites. They have beautiful high-gloss 24x36 inch posters from various satellite images. Locations range from popular surf destinations to the evolution of Mount St. Helens to Iraq. There's some awesome stuff there and the prices seem pretty reasonable.

Definitely worth browsing, at the very least. Click here.

Give This Man a Hand!

Too stupid for words.

Man Severs Hand With Paperweight

NFL 2006 Schedules Released

The official regular season schedule for next year's NFL season have been released today and, despite having been in the Super Bowl last year, the Seahawks don't seem to have it too bad.

Sep 10 @Detroit 1:00pm
Sep 17 Arizona 4:05pm
Sep 24 N.Y. Giants 4:15pm
Oct 1 @Chicago 8:15pm
Week 5 BYE
Oct 15 @St. Louis 1:00pm
Oct 22 Minnesota 4:15pm
Oct 29 @Kansas City 1:00pm
Nov 6 Oakland 8:30pm
Nov 12 St. Louis 4:15pm
Nov 19 @San Francisco 4:05pm
Nov 27 Green Bay 8:30pm
Dec 3 @Denver 4:15pm
Dec 10 @Arizona 4:05pm
Dec 14 San Francisco 8:00pm
Dec 24 San Diego 4:15pm
Dec 31 @Tampa Bay 1:00pm

The thing that really jumps out to me, aside from a tough game at Chicago on my birthday, is that the Seahawks will be playing a Thursday night game in December at home just four days after travelling to Arizona. Teams always complain about the Thanksgiving Day games because of the limited time to prepare. Good thing that game is just against those sorry-ass 49ers from San Francisco. Sucks to be them getting fed to the wolves like that on a nationally-televised game.

I wish the bye week was a little later in the season (say week 7 or 8 would have been perfect) but if they can go 3-1 through the first month, they have a great shot at finishing the season 12-4 or better. Games on the road at Kansas City and Denver will be tough and the old AFC West rivalries will likely be resurrected if only for a week or two. That game on New Year's Eve could have huge ramifications in the playoff picture, as could that game in week 3 against the Giants. I can't wait!

The Dark Tower

It's always fun for me to hear my sister talk about how anxiously she's awaiting another installment of the Harry Potter series. Children not yet old enough to drive a car have been graced with six volumes (14 pounds by's measurements) of fiction and several accompanying feature-length films in the past eight years alone. While it's great to see such unbridled enthusiasm towards reading and such a high demand for a book in the digital age, fans of Harry Potter get no sympathy from me when it comes to having to play the waiting game.

I started reading Stephen King back during my sophomore year of high school, while serving a couple days of in-school suspension for skipping detention. My first read was "The Dead Zone" and then I soon after read "The Shining", "Misery", "The Tommyknockers" and many more. But none of them captured my imagination like "The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger". King published the first volume of this eventual seven-part series in 1982, followed it up with "The Dark Tower II: Drawing of the Three" in 1987 and the third installment, "The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands" in 1991. I discovered the series in 1990 and finished the second volume just as the third one was hitting the store shelves. I read them in rapid succession, and when the third book contained several glossy paintings, I was thrilled to see the artist had depicted Roland and the various settings of the story just as I had in mind's eye.

And then the waiting game started.

King didn't get around to publishing the fourth installment "Wizards and Glass" until 1997, at which time I was graduating college, getting married, and beginning graduate school. It had been so long since I put down "The Waste Lands" that I simply never expected to hear the rest of the story. And I decided that I wouldn't bother continuing until I saw definite proof that the story would eventually be concluded. I didn't want to reinvest my time and imagination only to be disappointed. Unfortunately, when King was struck and nearly killed by a van while out walking one day we almost never did get to learn the conclusion to Roland's story. King has discussed fans of the series writing him from their deathbed (and at least one frpm Death Row) and pleading with him to reveal the ending to them so they can die without wondering. These people had been waiting for 20 years and there were still more questions than answers. Yet King didn't know the ending, as it hadn't yet been written (you can read more about his methods of writing in his quite enjoyable nonfiction book "On Writing") and it's only reasonable to think that countless fans of the series died without seeing it end.

Luckily, King made a great recovery and, I believe, realized that "The Dark Tower" series was indeed a major part of his life's work and that it had to be finished. The doctors had given him a second chance. He immediately (or so it seems) set to work on concluding the epic. His first task was to revise the initial volume, as he felt that it wasn't as polished as he would have liked. This revised edition was published in 2003 and, sure enough, by 2004, volumes V, VI, and VII had all been published and the story concluded.

For those counting, that's 22 years from start to finish. Forgive those of us who have trouble sympathising with the Potter fans who feel cheated if they don't get a new novel on an annual basis.

With news of the saga haveing been completed in 2003, I immediately went and purchased a matching set of the first four volumes (five through seven hadn't yet been published). I re-read the first three straight through as quickly as I had ever read in my life and the story and the characters and wonderful memories of the world King created came rushing back and captured my imagination just as it had done some 13 years earlier. The fourth installment proved to be worth the wait.

And when books five through seven finally came out, I never bought them on account of a constant search for the version that matched my existing set. Stupid excuse, I know, but I can be pretty anal about things like that. Fortunately, my sister -- the Potter fan -- decided that I had waited long enough and that it was time to finally finish what I started. She gave me books five and six for Christmas this past winter.

By my rough estimation, I'll be spending about 35 hours on an airplane between now and the middle of June, not including layovers and inevitable delays. I just cracked the binding of the 750-page "Dark Tower V: Wolves of Calla" last night and will lug this beast of a novel with me on my travels. It might add some unnecessary weight to my backpack -- which I'll certainly regret should I get the opportunity to climb Mount Chirripo as I hope -- but now that I'm back in the grip of the story, I wouldn't trade it for all of the Nintendo DS or Playstion Portables in the world.

How To Be Alone

Kristin knows I like Jonathan Franzen's writing so when she saw a collection of his essays in the bookstore, she immediately bought it for me for Christmas not realizing that the title, "How to Be Alone" might seem a little suggestive of bad times ahead. I tore away the wrapping paper and saw the title of the book and immediately said, "What are you trying to tell me with this? You want a divorce or something?" She and my brother both laughed but it wasn't until I saw Franzen's name on the bottom and realized what the book was, that I joined in. I know a guy who recently got dumped by email on Valentine's Day. That's really bad. Getting a book titled "How to be Alone" served up on Christmas with a side of divorce papers would have been monumentally devastating.

Of course, we're very happily married and my concern over the title was really just an act. But enough about that, let's talk about the book.

Franzen gained a lot of popularity in 2001 with the release of his critically-acclaimed book "The Corrections". It was a really enjoyable read about an utterly dysfunctional family and their very separate lives and how they had to make the trip back to their midwestern home to spend one final Christmas together with their parents. The book was one of the year's best sellers and gained recommendation from Oprah's book club. That is, until Franzen fought the idea of Oprah's recognizable sticker gracing the cover of his book. Chaos and hate mail ensued. Naturally, those who love dirt and controversy will be pleased to see him address this time in his life with the essay Meet Me in St. Louis, which is included in this collection.

The collection's title and many of the essays within it center around Franzen's concern over the state of literature and, more or less, reading as a whole. And while some of the essays deal with such things as prisons-for-profit, the horrendous Chicago postal service, the myth of the loss of privacy, and his father's brain autopsy, the overlying theme is one in which Franzen debates the fiction writer's role as social critic. And does that role exist anymore, and if so, does anybody care. The majority of the essays in the collection are from the mid to late 1990's and as we all are aware, the world has become a different place since then. Reading Franzen's descriptions about his life in New York feels particularly dated. Nevertheless, most of the essays are pretty enjoyable, and will undoubtedly teach you something new on at least one or two different topics. Those who don't desire a heady discussion about literature and its place in society may want to stear clear.

Here's a few excerpts I thought were particularly interesting.

I can't stomach any kind of notion that serious fiction is good for us, because I don't believe that everything that's wrong with the world has a cure, and even if I did, what business would I, who feels like the sick one, have in offering it? It's hard to consider literature a medicine, in any case, when reading it serves mainly to deepen your depressing estrangement from the mainstream; sooner or later the therapeutically minded reader will end up fingering reading itself as the sickness. -- From "Why Bother?"

Our Privacy panic isn't merely exaggerated. It's founded on a fallacy...

In the suburbs end exurbs where the typical American lives today, tiny nuclear families inhabit enormous houses, in which each person has his or her own bedroom and, some times, bathroom. Compared even with suburbs in the sixties and seventies, when I was growing up, the contemporary condominium development and gated community offers a striking degree of anonymity. It's no longer the rule that you know your neighbors. Communities increasingly tend to be virtual, the participants either faceless or firmly in control of the face they present. Transportation is largely private: the latest SUVs are the size of living rooms and come with onboard telephones, CD players, and TV screens; behind the tinted windows of one of these high-riding I-see-you-but-you-can't-see-me mobile PrivacyGuard units, a person can be wearing pajamas or a licorice bikini, for all anybody knows or cares. Maybe the government intrudes on the family a little more than it did a hundred years ago, but these intrusions don't begin to make up for the small-town snooping they've replaced. -- From "Imperial Bedroom"

Once upon a time, characters inhabited charged fields of status and geography. Now, increasingly, the world is binary. You either have or you don't have. You're functional or you're dysfunctional, you're wired or you're tired. Unhappy families, perhaps even more than happy ones, are all identically patched in to CNN, The Lion King, and America Online. It's more than a matter of cultural references; it's the very texture of their lives. And if a novel depends on the realization of complex characters against a background of a larger society, how do you write on when the background is indistinguishable from the foreground? -- From "The Reader in Exile"

The press covers crime because crime sells -- because the white audience loves to hear about it. Then the intensive, decontextualized, and highly salable coverage of crime becomes evidence of a Crime Epidemic; the Audience gets "sick and tired" of hearing about a thing that every marketer knows it actually never gets sick or tired of hearing about, and it empowers its elected representatives to Get Tough. Thus the crimial is demonized. The distance between Us and Him grows and grows, thereby ensuring that here in the country that invented the Western and the crime drama and the News At Eleven, in the country that celebrated the James brothers and Bonnie and Clyde, we will always be able to hear what we most don't want to hear, which is what we most want to hear. -- From "Control Units"

Just as every lover at some level believes that he or she makes love as it's made nowhere else on the planet, so every artist clings for dear life to the illusion that the art he or she produces is vital, necessary, and unique.

Aesthetic elitism, sexual snobbery: these are not the reprehensible attitudes that our culture makes them out to be. They're the efforts of the individual to secure a small space of privacy within the prevailing din. All people should be elitists -- and keep it to themselves. -- From "Books in Bed"

Fitness Check #2

A new month brings a chance to see if all of this working out is getting me anywhere. I feel like it is, and the scale says it is. But there's only one way to find out. Last month's results in parentheses.

5k Run = 20:30 (21:37)
As soon as I started, I knew I was going to make a pretty decent improvement over my March time. I felt lighter on my feet and, believe it or not, I could tell from my shadow that I was starting to look more like a runner than I did last month. I ran a very balanced run and, also unlike last month, didn't need to completely empty the tank to hold a 7-minute pace. I actually felt pretty comfortable throughout the run. I pushed myself, but not nearly as much as last time. Averaged 6:36 per mile for the 5k run.

Pushups = 31 (20)
I knew I would improve here, as I've been doing some light lifting once or twice a week. Also, as I just said, I didn't come nearly as close to emptying the tank during the 5k this time around. I got back from the run, stretched for 3 to 4 minutes and then did one set of pushups until exhaustion. This time I hit 31 and am relatively pleased.

Jumprope = 175 (143)
Didn't know what to expect here as I've only been doing the jumprope thing about once a week, but it went pretty well. Roughly 4 minutes after completing the pushups I went into the garage, set the two-minute timer and began. My calves were screaming by the end of the two minutes, but I did improve and that's all I really cared to see.

Time to break it all down. Last month was my initial foray into this fitness testing thing and on my self-devised scoring system (lower score is better) I scored a 1249.

Run = 1 point per second = 1230 pts
Pushups = deduct 1 second per pushup = 1230 - 31 = 1199
Jumprope = deduct 1 second per 5 jumps = 1199 - 35 = 1164

So, I dropped my score by 85 points. That's great. But more importantly I weighed 191.6 pounds after the test on March 2nd, and today I weighed in at 186.6. So I got faster and lost 5 pounds. Very cool. I celebrated this minor accomplishment by heading back out two hours after the test for my weekly Tuesday night mountain bike ride. Got in 10 fun miles and came back covered in mud. I also had the unpleasant experience of slamming my crotch into the bike stem. It's okay; Kristin and I didn't plan on having kids anyway.

Degree for Men: It's Gettin' Hot in Here...

As I slipped into bed last night and put my arm around Kristin, she immediately sat upright and exclaimed that I smelled as if I had been with another woman. Her tone was light and not condemning, which was fortunate. "You smell kind of fru-fru," she tells me.

I hadn't been with another woman, but I did switch deoderants to Degree for Men and apparently the Cool Rush scent the marketers came up with wasn't quite as manly as they had expected. Or perhaps this was exactly the rush they were referring to -- the one gotten from trying to defend yourself against such costly accusations. I took a whiff from my underarm and Kristin was right, I did smell kind of fru-fru. What the hell!?

"Honey, I would have cheated on you today, but it was Opening Day of baseball season and I was busy watching nearly 12 hours of ballgames. And, besides, if I was with another woman today, do you think I would have had time to sweep and mop the floors and dust the furniture and make sausage lasagne for dinner?"

She knew that would have been impossible and we were both laughing now. But I was still smarting from being told I smell like a woman. Payback time.

"Oh, wait, there was that quickie I had in aisle 3 of the grocery store. Did you know ricotta cheese can make for a decent lubricant in a pinch?"

That got me an elbow to the ribs. She then quickly slid to the far end of the bed and mumbled something about zapping me with a paralysis gun so I couldn't follow her. This then led to various bumblings of the word paralysis and other similar-sounding words, which somehow led to me trying to recite the Pythagorean Theorem. For some reason, she then asked if I knew the Quadratic Equation.

"No, I made a decision to forget it the moment it was first shown to me, kind of like my Spanish lessons." Good thing I'll be going to a Latin American country next week.

Hot, sweaty, dork-sex immediately ensued.

Live Bald Eagle Nest Cam

Heard about this on the news tonight. A guy up in British Columbia climbed a tree and put a webcam in it pointing at a bad eagle nest. The image quality is pretty outstanding (when it's not nighttime, obviously) and it's running live 24/7.

Very cool link.

Fort Ebey Ride & Camp

The weather was calling for off an on showers throughout the weekend, but the truck was packed with the camping gear, and we had a serious case of spring fever so we headed out to Whidbey Island anyway. While on the ferry Kristin and I discussed various "Plan B" options in case nobody else showed up. It wasn't necessary. Besides, who would possibly back out for fear of getting rained on? Well, not that I want to mention any names, but let’s just say that one of the Mighty Thrilla Warriors decided to not come on account of the rain, but that recent Boot Camp grad, Joanna Freese, showed up smiling. That’s right, a total newbie came ready to ride rain or shine, but one of those oh-so-tough single-speeders we’re always hearing about had to stay home. I think he had a blanket to knit or something. I kid, but I only wish I was joking. LOL!

Anyway, the rain didn’t let up but it never actually fell that hard either. I was joined by Joanna, Lee, and Randy for a 10 mile tour of my favorite trails at Fort Ebey State Park. Lee was obviously in the mood for some picture taking, as he had his digital SLR strapped to his chest. And with Joanna still pretty new to this whole wacky sport, the ride became a pretty social and casual affair. I led the way, giving trail descriptions and encouragement when needed, and everyone finished the ride with huge smiles. The ride took on a wind-sprint feel for me, as I would go hard between trail intersections and then sit and wait for everyone to catch up. I didn't mind though, as it was great to show some first-timers around this great trail system. Lee got to take some great shots along the Bluff Trail and near a wonderful grove of Madrona trees on the High Traverse trail, Joanna got to work on her skills (and her bike pushing – Ebey is hillier than it gets credit for), and Randy and I got to toss back a couple cold ones and toast his birthday after the ride! Not sure how old he is, but he mentioned how he celebrated his 50th one year by riding the RAMROD course. Either way, I only hope I'm as active as he is when I'm that age.

We started at the Gun Battery (Fort Ebey sits on the bluff above the Strait of Juan de Fuca and used to house huge 6" guns during WWII that could fire a armor-piercing shell 15 miles into the Pacific Ocean) and rode the following: Hokey-Ka-Dodo, Kettles Trail, Bluff Trail, P.N.T., Kyle’s Kettles, Raider Creek, Shepherd’s Crook, Braveheart, Hootin, Campground Trail, Main Line, The Tunnel, Chutes, Ladder, High Traverse, Escape, and back on Kettles one more time. We also carefully cruised through the pitch-blackness of the historic gun battery. We were out for nearly 3 hours but covered only 10 miles and about 1100 feet of elevation. I told you this was a pretty social ride.

The rain stopped just as we ended our ride and within minutes the sky was blue. It was time to test out our new tent! Kristin and I and our dogs enjoyed a relaxing spring-forward evening sitting around the campfire and reading, and sharing a couple beers and some good eats. We grilled up some fish with a bunch of veggies (Mr. Floyd has inspired me to move beyond Ramen when camping) and had a great, dry, star-filled night. Woke up in the morning around 7:30, cooked up some breakfast burritos (no more instant oatmeal for this camper!), and headed out onto the trails.

Sunset along the Bluff Trail.

This one's for Eric. Not gourmet, but it sure beats ramen.

Kristin took some shots of me on Hokey-Ka-Dodo (by far my favorite trail at Ebey) and then continued to hike with the dogs. I went and explored the Kettles Park area and rode virtually every trail on the map. Lots of fun singletrack over in that section that I hadn’t seen before. Confusion, Madrona Hill, and Roy Evans were especially fun, as was Whipper Snapper. I finished the day with another blast down the Bluff Trail and a trip down Water Tower Trail to Hootin, where I ran into Kristin and the dogs making their way back to camp.

Me getting some air on the Hokey-Ka-Dodo Trail.

The trails were all wonderfully signed (don’t remember that from last summer) and the only blowdowns we saw were on Grandpa Tree and Ladder. Saturday was a little mucky from all the rain in the morning and Bluff Trail’s switchbacks were incredibly slick. Also, climbing Braveheart, while always a challenge, was downright impossible due to the mud. By Sunday morning, however, the trails were all very nice and dry and totally free of standing water. I ended up putting in just another 1:25 on the trails in the morning, hitting another 10 miles of trail, and 1190 feet of elevation gain.

Kristin, Kimo, and Annana near the beautiful madrona trees on the High Traverse trail.

Fort Ebey has definitely become my favorite spot to ride alone. The map is great, the trails are fun and hilly with a few minor bits of tech to keep it interesting, and you don’t have nearly the wildlife concerns as some of the more remote spots. I’ll be heading back throughout the summer. Look for my posted rides on and come join me.

Chevy Ad Campaign Blows Up In Their Face

Thanks to Jennifer Lesher for forwarding this along. Chevy, maker of the gi-normous Tahoe cruiseliner, er, I mean passenger vehicle has created an ad campaign where visitors to their website can create their own Tahoe commercials. Chevy provides various images, music, effects, and you supply the text overlays.

How long do you think it would take in this day of global warming before people started attacking their vehicles 12 mpg rating? Not long.

Autoblog has picked out a half-dozen or so of the better anti-SUV ads that visitors had made. You can view them through this site (they're the numbered links near the bottom). And they're pretty good.

And just so there's no confusion here, I'm not attacking all SUV's here or saying that everyone should be driving a hybrid. For those who watch South Park, I'll put it in terms you can understand. Yes we do own a hybrid, but we don't bend over to savor our own farts. If you didn't see last week's South Park episode, then just ignore those last comments. Anyway, we also have a small SUV and always have and probably always will. But it gets twice the mileage of that Tahoe and gets used infrequently.

But that's beside the point. The point is that Chevy is actually allowing anti-Chevy ads on their own website. Check them out before they disappear forever.