My Week in the High Sierras – August 2018

img_4916My wife married a guy with a hiking problem.  This problem is one of my life’s great joys.  Not the same kind of prideful joy that my kids give me or the kind of loving joy I feel when I’m around Cindy either.  It is a joy of being free from worry and the fullness of being centered without the commonness of today’s distractions.  You see, hiking follows a daily rhythm that by definition drives you to do little more than a single thing, hike.  You cannot be more centered than waking up to do nothing more than to hike.  If you choose not to hike, then you aren’t doing that very thing.  

A hiking day is simple.  Worry-free.  Thought-filled.  While your head might cycle through many, many thoughts in a day, and yes, there’s the occasional worry about that which you largely can’t control, most thoughts come free from stress or negativity.  Life’s basics, eating, drinking, breathing, staying cool, staying warm, staying protected from the sun and resting come into complete focus while life’s extras fall almost completely away.  Your cell phone mostly doesn’t work, news largely does not exist and weather, while a factor, is pretty predictable in the Sierras.  Cold at night, warm and sunny during the day on most summer days and dry.  Dryness that seems unnatural to a right coaster like me.   The biggest daily worries come in the form of the basics:  Can I stay healthy?  Will I find water?  Will all of my gear remain reliable?  Where am I and where am I going (literally and sometimes figuratively). In short, I like this rhythm.  A lot.  What better way for me to share why then through another 5,000 words or so on the absolutely mundane?  To bribe you through it, I’ll pepper in a few pictures along the way.  Enjoy. 😉

PREPARING TO HIKE:  GETTING UP AND OUT OF CAMP

A hiking day is fairly repetitive.  I like this.  No.  I LOVE this.  When I get off of the trail I yearn for such repetitiveness.  Most days I wake with the sun between 5:45-6am.  When I hike out west this feels late and indulgent as my internal clock largely wants to already be awake. Once up, I dress in reverse layers.  This means I put on what I want to hike in first and then layer up over that as most mornings from 6:30-8 are in the high 30s, low 40s at 10,000 feet.  Then I remove any extra clothes from my sleeping bag and stuff the sleeping bag into its stuff sack.  Doing this warms me up from the chill that sets in for those first few minutes when you are out of the bag.  Then I repack clothes into their respective stuff sacks.  Camp clothes in one stuff sack and extra hiking clothes into another.  Next I pull on my Dirty Girl gaiters, something I frequently forget to do before putting on my shoes which requires a loud I’m-an-idiot groan and then the removal of your recently laced up shoes since these gaiters won’t slide over shoes.  Then unzip the tent, lace up each shoe just right (tied tight as the laces allow is the way I like my hiking shoes) and finally step out of the tent.  All of that takes 8-10 minutes most mornings, maybe more if meditation is part of the scene – it wasn’t for me on this hike.

Once out of the tent I found myself hustling off to the bathroom.  Again, my internal clock wondering why I didn’t take care of this 2-3 hours earlier.  Dig hole, do business, fill hole and walk back to camp as if you were just out for a morning stroll but knowing you aren’t kidding anyone.  Back to packing up.  From this point, camp is all about one step after another to eventually get started hiking.  Remove all items from the tent.  Take down tent, roll up tent, collapse tent poles, gather stakes.  If we are eating a hot breakfast, Tom boils water.  Sometimes I filter water during this time, sometimes after breakfast.  Pack packing depends on breakfast.  The bear bin goes into the pack second which typically requires pack packing to pause until breakfast is done and teeth are brushed so the bear bin can be closed back and stowed.  In my pack, the bear bin only goes into the pack vertically.  It simply won’t fit horizontally.  Then clothes sacks are crammed into each side of the bear bin for balance, followed by the sleeping bag and then random items that don’t have a great home.  Cinch the top of the pack only to invariably realize you left something out.  Uncinch, add in aforementioned item that was left out and recinch.  Snacks, maps, phone go in the top pouch.  Water filter, extra layers, sleeping pad in the outside mesh area.  Then tent poles and water bottles.  Almost there. 

During this time of pack packing, there are days where push-ups occur (6-8 sets of 20 reps with a minute of rest between) for no reason other than Tom started doing this many hikes back and we tend to keep doing it.  This may or may not cause you to pull a pectoral muscle and possibly contemplate if this is what a heart attack feels like, right Tom?  All while doing this the sun comes up more and more, the layers continue to come off as you warm up and you can generally pack, put sunscreen on and be ready to walk immediately after the last rep.  From this point we make camp look like we didn’t stay there, grab our hiking poles, hats and sunglasses, take one last peak at the map or the Guthooks app (online hiking map that leverages GPS for location) and hike on.  There is sometime an unsaid negotiation on who hikes out first – this is a bigger deal on the AT than out west where the first hiker out tends to clear the spider webs spun overnight.  Elapsed time:  45-60 minutes from the time you emerge from the tent.  Hiking before 8am feels right.  After 8am feels late.

HIKING: THE JOURNEY, NOT THE DESTINATION

img_8640This is the easy part.  Left, right, left, right, left…  One foot in front of the other.  A normal hiking day of roughly 12-14 miles will get you about 22-25,000 steps.  Add in another 3,000 or so steps in each camp (morning and night) and you easily find 30,000 steps a day.  These steps come in all shapes and sizes.  Out west, they are typically dusty steps.  Sometime rocky.  Rarely level.  Rarely shaded and even less frequently wet.  Out east, the steps are damp, sometimes rocky mostly shaded and also rarely level.  Most trails frequent or follow water.  Water is life.  Truly rejuvenating to your physical body but also to your mental body.  Listening to water while walking is deeply calming even while at times quite loud.  There’s something mysterious about water near trails.  Where is it coming from?  Where is it going?  Mostly, it is inviting.  On the hottest days, it is hard not to think about being in it.  On the coldest days, getting in it is a life-arresting thought.  As you walk your mind changes.  Early in a hiking day or shortly after a rest break your mind is fresh, walking is effortless and your destination is nowhere near the front of your mind.  Late into a hiking day or several hours without a break your senses desperately put together images of your destination.  A flat shaded rock or sometimes even a building in the woods.  A great place to rest or an even more inviting place to camp.  As you hike further and further seeing this spot your mind starts to compromise on what would make an acceptable camp or break.  These times can be the toughest of the hiking day as stopping at a great place, with great access to water and a breathtaking view is always the goal.  After a full day of hiking, not attaining the goal can make for a tougher evening.  But, when the goal is met…those are the camp spots I most remember.  Each week of hiking has at least 3-4 of these spots.  The spots are never the same.  Often hard to describe or compare.  But always leave an indelible mark on your hiking memory.  I have dozens and dozens of these spots amongst the stuff in my memories. 

img_8635The hiking day is a time for thoughts and a time for no thoughts.  Tom and me make agendas each time we start out on our hike.  There are times in the day where agenda topics are just perfect for hiking and there are times of the day when they would never fit.  These times are rarely spoken or negotiated.  Speaking on the trail is nuanced.  If you are the primary speaker than positioning yourself behind who you are speaking to is best.  If there’s intended to be a dialog then sometimes these are best for camp or a break.  Tom and me often, again without speaking about it, leave topics to tougher spots on the trail.  Big climbs, technical ascents or descents or long flat stretches work well for agenda topics.  Mostly, the topics are best addressed when we are hiking near each other.  Early mornings are best left for thoughts.  So are late afternoons.  The time where you are walking alone with your thoughts are some of the best parts of hiking.  As I get older, I find myself praying or spending time in gratitude.  Each hike I typically bring a few thoughts that I need more time with.  This past hike, my Mom and oldest son Will filled these spots.  Mom’s memory isn’t as good as it once was and that worries me.  Thinking how to be a better son to her as she ages took up more of my thoughts. My oldest is less than three years from leaving home for the next phase of his life.  Finding meaningful time with him gets harder and harder.  Seeing more and more of me in him is also hard.  Sharing a few words with him on how proud he makes me is the hardest of all at times.   These thoughts filled my head.  Are there solutions to thoughts like these?  Not really.  I wish I could say that these thoughts chart a different course for me but I’m not sure that’s fully true.  Can small changes come from being aware of these thoughts?  I hope so.  I do feel grateful to spend time with these thoughts because they are so fleeting and pushed around by so many other of my life’s daily distractions when I’m not hiking.  Hiking is about an offering of time and focus.  This is the most rewarding part of my journeys.  Never the destination.  In fact, the destination achieved comes with much sadness.  The end of the journey.  The end of the quiet.  The end of less over more.  The return to so much in an odd way can feel like less.  Finally, the hiking comes with some truly incredible thoughts.  Hiking brought me marriage.  The undeniable thought that I want to be around Cindy always.  Hiking brought me courage and confidence.  The thought that I can do anything I give my time and focus.  Hiking reminds me of all of the good things I can miss while focusing on so many little things.  Friendships.  The power of doing nothing.  Seeing nature.  Being uncomfortable.  Seeing discomfort bring new comforts.  Living simply.  Oh yeah, and hundreds of pictures of landscapes that never look as good in the picture as they do when I’m there.   

CAMP:  SETTING UP “HOME” EACH DAY

img_8653An ideal arrival at camp in my opinion is 4pm.  This comes with some caveats.  First, at least 12 miles must have been hiked.  I rarely feel good stopping before 12 miles. Earlier is ok if you crushed it to get there or if the weather says so or if the day before of after calls for extraordinary mileage.  Last caveat?  Camp must be a good spot. Typically this means an inspiring view but it can also mean access to water.  There’s a sweet spot when it comes to altitude as well.  Especially out west.  Below 9,000 feet and your are likely to be warm and the bug count is higher.  Above 11,000 feet and you might be getting into the tent early to stay warm.  Lastly, the spot should be suitable for the size of your hiking party and should avoid being in a spot not designated for camping unless you are desperate.  Once camp is selected the next decision is where to put the tents.  This can truly only be determined by laying down in the spot prior to putting your tent down.  Eyeballing a flat spot will almost guarantee your feet are higher than your head (not great) or your are shimmying back to the uphill side of your tent all night.  Once determined the pack is unpacked, the tent ground cloth, a plastic sheet for me, goes down, then the tent gets staked, then poles and depending on altitude and weather outlook, the fly to cover the tent.  A tent fly equals both warmth and protection from weather.  Whenever possible, it should be left off.  This said, there’s nothing worse than scrambling in the middle of the night to pull it to your tent.  On this past hike, I slept without my tent fly exactly one night out of six – a night at 8,500 feet of altitude without a cloud in the sky.  The star-filled view is hard to describe at 3am in the darkness and desolation of the Sierras.  One note, tent fly or no tent fly, I find my mid-forties self seeing these stars at least once a night where in hikes in the past this was almost never the case. img_8648

After the tent, the the sleeping bag is unpacked and left to air in the tent with any items that won’t be used at camp.  It should be noted that outside of dirty clothes that have been dried, a first aid kit and maybe the empty pack itself, very little falls into the category of items that don’t get used at camp.  After shelter, the next priority is typically either “clean” camp clothes or water filtration.  I like to sit in my sweat-soaked hiking clothes as long as possible to speed the drying process which typically means water filtration happens.  On days at higher elevations where it is colder, I typically just layer camp clothes right over my hiking clothes as every layer tends to be needed.  As I have aged, my passion for changing out of my hiking clothes has waned.  I almost always get out of the hiking shorts, but the shirts I typically wear as the base layer.  Judge away – I can take it.  This past trip water filtration mean pulling out the Sweetwater filter and pumping between 90 and 150 times a bottle to fill up the 64 ounces each that we carry.  We’ll drink between 64 and 96 ounces in a typical night (often 128 to 160 ounces during the day).  Of all the camp chores, water filtration is easily my least favorite.  Tom and me have a slightly unspoken rule that he cooks (i.e. boil the water) and I filter (i.e. pump the water).  Sawyer gravity filters on our next trip might shake up these separation of duties a bit…  #NoMorePumping 

After camp prep, the next job is nutrition.  Freeze dried meals are our go to main course.  Think 700 salt-filled calories in a bag.  We supplement with aged gouda cheese, some form of crackers, maybe a bar of some kind, trail mix and dark chocolate-covered almonds. This eating happens over 90 minutes while sitting on our sleeping pads against a rock of some kind and map-gazing, view-watching and journal-writing.  These last hours of light go by fast and when gone your goal is to extend warmth against the ever-dropping temperatures long enough to see a good view of stars before calling it a night around 8:30pm and crawling into the tent.  Once in the tent I might take a few minutes to read, get a little homesick with pictures from my iPhone and general rustling to set the tent up just right before dozing.  A good sleep consists of 4-6 hours of sound uninterrupted sleep and then the tossing and turning begins.  This means about every 30-45 minutes you have to turn over to avoid soreness setting in.  While this isn’t deep sleep, it tends to get the job done.  A night’s rest on the trail is incredibly restorative.  You can get done hiking with little left in the tank, feel slight soreness set in as you cool down and settle into camp and amazingly after 10-11 hours of laying down in the tent you wake up with a great bit of energy and little residual soreness.  I should heed this lesson more at home where I tend to get 4-5 hours less sleep each night than I do on the trail.

So that’s the routine.  Yes, quite routine.  Hiking days are all different and always have their own set of challenges, highlights and lowlights.  Highlights are typically a super peaceful resting spot, or an agenda topic where time (and miles) fly by or the achievement of a tough stretch of hiking (typically ascending or descending) or something dealing with cold water.  It’s possible that great memories hiking can be made in the interactions you have with other hikers.  Like the time Tom and me met Elizabeth Gilbert’s (author of “Eat, Pray, Love”) father in Vermont on the A.T. or some guy in the sierras who hiked the A.T., the P.C.T. and the Continental Divide Trail, some of them multiple times. 

MY MOST RECENT TRIP – NORTH LAKE LOOP BISHOP, CA HIGH SIERRAS

This August (2018), Tom and me called an audible from the trip near the Oregon border to revisit a loop trail we hiked in 2005, thirteen years ago.  Arguably, the best Sierras section we have yet to hike.  The concern over smoke north of Tahoe helped us call this audible.  This year’s forest fires in California have been some of the worst on record.  Note that I’m avoiding all political or climate change commentary on this point.  We hike the 60 mile loop from North Lake to South Lake, spending time on the John Muir Trail (this guy spent his life hiking the Sierras and mapping out the best for a trail named after him) and Pacific Crest Trail.  The section is filled with amazing glacial lakes, forest-filled canyons, large running streams (filled with water after a heavy snow season) and multiple high passes nearing the 12,000 mark.  Once we completed this section we tacked on another 20-25 miles (?) of side trails taking us over very lightly used trail and connecting us to where we started with very little road walking.  One of my cherished friendships is with Tom with who I have been fortunate to hike most of my A.T. miles and all of the P.C.T. miles.  He’s a great friend who defines hiking compatibility.  I often wonder whether I would have the courage or desire to hike if I didn’t have a friend like Tom to hike with.  I hope I never have to find out the answer to this question.  At the same time I hope I can provide my kids with the experience that my Dad had the courage to provide me and my brother with when we were younger.  Hope needs to be action or they may not fully experience the joy I have felt from my days outdoors putting one foot in front of the other on a trail.

Click here to see the photo album from this trip.

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Antigua, Guatemala – The Final Day

My last full day in Guatemala can be summarized as such:  morning ritual, smog and traffic, bureaucrat sit-down, mentoring from “Guatemala’s Zuckerburg”, hardest lunch order ever, more smog and traffic, bed and breakfast owner visit and wind down at the Spence’s. I’ll go into more detail with pictures or you can skip to the bottom for the trip summary. 

Morning involved the normal light exercise (walking, yep I’m old) and stretching (only because the Whole Life Challenge compels me to do so. It doesn’t hurt when the rising sun mutes the fire and lava spitting from an active volcano in the distance. I did notice that most of the Guatemalan house builders or caretakers start showing up for work around 5:30am. For many this is their first of two jobs they will work today. After my walk, a cup of very good Antiguan coffee and an over-salted egg, rice and bean breakfast that I made for the house, I showered and prepped for the workday. 

At 9am sharp our driver arrived to bring us into Guatemala City.  A black car no less. A black mid-2000 Toyota Corolla with 260,000 miles. Guatemalan “Uber”. Our driver was awesome. He spoke great English and new the city and our multi-destination itinerary like  the back of his hand. After 90 minutes, about 40kms, endless chicken buses and more smog than I think I’ve encountered in a city (the record previously owned by Mumbai) we arrived at the American Chamber of Commerce or AmCham if you’re hip. Our host provided us with more high quality coffe and then told us a) we should join her club so we could get good benefits, b) they can provide lots of information and assistance with setting up a U.S.-based business in Guatemala and c) a chance for networking opportunities. Felt about like we expected it would. A resource if we need it nonetheless. 

From there we drove 5-10 minutes to what looked like a mall. After visiting the right address in the wrong building we entered the most high tech office environment I think I have ever seen. Every 20-something in the world wants to work in this office. I would have taken pictures of this but candidly I didn’t think it would look very cool but man, I wish I had!  Our meeting was with what felt like the ‘Guatemalan Zuckerburg.’  He told a fantastic story on how he worked his butt off to make nearly $10M as a 22 year old. I was worried we were in the wrong room…a room with a heartless capitalist.  He shared how he parlayed that $10 million into many companies over the next 10-15 years.  Still worried. Then he started the screenshow where he shared how all of this helped define his true goal and purpose: raise up Guatemala to a tech leading country competing with the US, India, China, etc.  He shared an interesting fact that makes me think he will get there in this ambition: the top 20 wealthiest families support this goal and furthermore back it financially because it has little to no competing interests with areas that could impact their respective wealth generators.  In fact, it probably ensures the growth of the wealth of the aforementioned families and their industries.  To ensure this buy-in he has spent considerable time meeting with these families to build support. Impressive. Even more fun is the fact that a single conversation with Philip from EcoFiltro on Tuesday led to this conversation. Candidly, Torrent being 164th on the Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company list helped open this door. Business is a funny thing. Nonetheless, this is a contact we will want to stay in touch with as our mission directly supports his greater goal. 

Afterwards we spent an hour interviewing a few tech candidates and then what seemed like an hour ordering lunch where English was clearly not going an option. I considered pulling the Google Translate app out it got so bad. Must. Learn. Spanish. 

Our last stop of the day was back in Antigua. We were meeting with the cousin of a colleague. Candidly, I’m not sure we knew why we were meeting with this person, nor did she. She owned a bed and breakfast in Antigua (which was also her home) and shared lots of fun stories. We toured her B&B which was rustic, grabbed some fruit from her internal courtyard (most homes have an open air courtyard in the interior) and left wondering if one day we will look back on that visit as the connection that made everything else come together. 

Our trip wrapped up with a nice dinner at the Spence residence, some reminiscing, repacking and then bed for a 3:45 alarm and 4am departure for Guatemala City. I’m grateful for the hospitality the Spence’s provided. While I’m sure it is not easy to live abroad, they surely have a great opportunity ahead of them. One I’m excited to play a small role in helping shape. 

Guatemala has been a fantastic trip. I’m lucky to work with great people who care about each other and humans in general.  I hope to get back down there often with both my family and other co-workers. While I can’t put my fingers on exactly what will come of this yet, I sense something bigger than me.  Something that I hope will result in raising others up, raising me up and raising our company up. What do I mean by ‘raising up?’  I mean helping give others an opportunity to emerge from the cycle of poverty. I mean helping my co-workers seek what I have wanted for 22 years of employment:  deeper purpose tied to my work. I am grateful and hopeful we can tie this story together where business profits can tangibly help raise communities up to higher educational levels and life quality. 

A tortilla maker – she seems to have a long day ahead of her. 

The courtyard, patio and pool area of our B&B owner meeting. 

Antigua Days 3 & 4 – Amazing People and Diversity


Processing what this experience has meant to me won’t happen in the short term. I’m confident that I will need time to think through what this means for Torrent as a company and me as a person. I’m learning more about my personality style too. I wear out during the day. Quiet time during the day to think and focus is important to me. Movement is important to me. Interaction is important but must be balanced with fun, not just all work. Fourteen to fifteen hours a day with the team here has reminded me of these traits that go dormant when I travel less or solo. For the most part I’m able to influence and tailor to these needs which in recent years has made group travel far more enjoyable. 

Common themes are beginning to emerge in Antigua after several days of meeting a very diverse set of people. These people come from all kinds of backgrounds and heritages but most importantly provide a hugely diverse set of thoughts and ideas. For a new growing company this might be the most important ingredient to achieving loosely defined outcomes. So far we have met with CEOs of large companies, founders of small businesses, teachers, university administrators, interviewees and digital nomads. Some of the themes:

  • Guatemalans need jobs, not handouts
  • The pool of educated resources reduces with age. 
  • It is not uncommon for Guatemalan university students to obtain full-time employment during school
  • Full-time employment can commonly distract students from completing university
  • Companies hiring talent attract schools – too few jobs available for even the small number of graduates
  • Many students return to their schools to teach and push the mission of education to more Guatemalans
  • It is important to find ways to encourage Guatemalans to bring earnings and the fruits of their work back to their towns. 
  • Kindness and work ethic seems to be national traits. 
  • We have not met with a single ex-Pat from the U.S. operating with anything but true and noble intentions
  • There is a strong theme of not being an arrogant westerner know-it-all when working down here. 

 Over the last two days these encounters have amazed me:

  • Ecofiltro – maybe the coolest business ever. Ceramic water filtration. We toured the factory. Incredible. Clay, sawdust, ceramic pots where the water seeps through. This process cleans the impurities from the water. Game changer for places where water quality is an issue (looking at you, Flint, Michigan USA). Meeting with their founder and CEO Philip was inspiring. 
  • La Azotea Coffee Farm – this coffee museum, farm and Green school for K-9 run by an influential ex-Motorola (Boynton Beach, Fl plant) man named Ricardo. He has a mixed-use community vision built around the concept of green space and recreational offerings. He sees a B&B, commercial property leasing, educational facility and recreation/entertainment model for the local community. He was very interested in Torrent taking on workspace and helping raise up the community with good jobs operating from his space. With 2 fiber lines into his property it could be highly attractive. We don’t even have fiber into our building in Charlotte!
  • Guatemala Conexiones – a group led by Dave Macdonald who travels to Guatemala for months at a time to provide educational support to a school in the hills above Antigua. We met with 6-7 of their students who were graduates and they were nothing short of incredible. All are now giving back to their school and community by teaching Spanish, English and other subjects. The lives they will impact and the lift they will give to the region is hard to describe. 

Other observations:

  • TaCool is a super tasty fast-food taco place. Could give Chipotle a run for their money in the states. 
  • Best I can tell, the average speed in Guatemala is roughly 22 mph. We haven’t eclipsed 40 mph this entire trip. 
  • Clean air really matters. Wood stoves and awful vehicle exhausts are big contributors to the poor air quality down here. 
  • There is money in motorcycles/mopeds. Apparently they have exploded in Guatemala in the past five years. 
  • Chicken bus – a school bus that has been elaborately decorated and is privately operated to transport people. Theft can be high on these. 
  • They have Costco down here.
  • Lots of these too (they will be Tortillas) 
  • Chispa (“spark”) – this is similar to the chutzpah. 
  • This was apparently a celebrity…in TaCool…with a Dutch group of tourists…

My writing is less than Skimm’d like but that’s mostly due to the busy schedule. The trip has been outstanding.   A few more pics for you.  A quick pic of my new business idol (sorry Daniel 😬).

An odd person to quote in a work environment…the venerable Don Draper. Hmmmm.

Au Revoir Paris

Au Revoir Paris

After 15 days away from our home sweet home we are finally back. Only 4,000 miles, 2 flights , 8 passport checks, 10 movies watched collectively and several questions about why we have to board by zones (read:  there seems to be a passive displeasure amongst the kids that we don’t seem to have very good luck with zones) we are finally settled back home in Fort Mill.  This home seems to reside in a much, much warmer and more humid climate, seems to be devoid of much edible food and might or might not have received a letter about unruly lawn upkeep.  No matter, as it was deeply missed and has more than one bathroom. It is good to be back. 

I feel a strong need to sum the trip up but have found it profoundly difficult to do so.  I’m going to keep it simple and focused on the positives. We walked. A lot. We rode metros daily. Will is awesome at navigating subway lines.  We saw thousands of pigeons and counted most of them. Charlie was enamored by them. We saw all of the sights in Paris we wanted to see, even if we bagged the 11pm tickets for going up in the Eiffel Tower. The kids understand the feelings that cities can evoke.  While they liked Paris, they LOVED Belgium. I love them for seeing the distinction. Stewart loved dining at the cafes, shopping at H&M (please don’t tell her it didn’t originate in Paris) and seeking out gelato. She has a spirit for travel that I hope never goes away. Charlie has the legs and “I’m not tired” attitude to thru-hike any trail. I hope he will take me with him. And Cindy…her patience with our daily itinerary and my march about Paris in the rain to see the Tour de France whiz by a few quick times is almost what I love about her most.  Truth is, it is her ability to make experiences for our kids happen and her day-in, day-out friendship and that smile that says “relax, this is all what makes a good life” are the things I love about her the most.  

This trip was one my family will never forget. I will always be grateful for the opportunity we were given here and the shared experience that I so deeply value with my family.  Best case, this is one of many great travel opportunities to come for us as a family.  Worst case, we have hopefully provided our kids with a set of great memories and given them a spark to go out and explore this great and fascinating world.

Some last observations from our day of travel:

  • A Paris cab will charge you for wait time, even if he arrives for pick-up earlier than the scheduled time. 
  • Tip: apparently if you give your boarding passes to a 6 year old to hand to the boarding agent you can board with any zone you please. Nice work Charlie. 
  • Dear Philadelphia Airport TSA Team:  please go visit the Heathrow Airport Team to understand how to secure an airport AND help travelers make connections. Novel concept.  On the bright side, we made it in spite of your efforts.  Pointing those fans on the customers in line also wouldn’t hurt. 
  • Dear American Airlines:  ice cream for all on the flight back is a really nice touch that seemed to excite more than just me and my three kids. 
  • Dear Charles de Gaule Airport: maybe a touch less emphasis on super high-end shopping and a touch more emphasis on drinking fountains and general hydration.
  • Stewart and Will, although at times a bit like an elderly married couple, travel EXTREMELY well together. 
  • We are already experiencing baguette withdrawal.  The kids don’t understand why their hot dogs are served on these weird soft buns. 
  • And last, my boy takes his in-flight movie watching comfort VERY seriously.   
Penultimate Or The Ultimate?

Penultimate Or The Ultimate?

I’ve been watching the Tour de France religiously each July since my Dad introduced me to it around age 10. I would watch the Saturday/Sunday coverage of the week and immediately following would hop onto my bike and tear off around the block with the voices of the British commentators echoing in my head. Anyone who has visited my home in the month of July or worse, vacationed with us during July has seen the addiction, uh, I mean passion with which I follow this event firsthand. While coming to a foreign, historic, art-filled, cultural city like Paris with my full family is as once in a lifetime as it gets, seeing The Tour on our penultimate day in Paris on one of The Tour’s most prestigious stages was the ultimate. 

Yes, cycling has some flaws, many of which have played out in ways even the best marketer wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. But in spite of the flaws, I can’t get past what makes the sport so great. Immense strategy. Team over the individual – 6-8 riders on every team of 9 are riding for one leader and will sacrifice their standings, rank and fame to ensure the success of this pre-defined leader. The magnitude of racing over 21 days, 2000+ miles and unimaginable elevation change, never mind weather, crashes and a filled schedule from wake until sleep. There’s the color and pagentry of Grand Tour cycling. Today for the first time we witnessed the sponsors parade which arrived in Paris roughly 90 minutes ahead of the riders and lasted for at least 45 minutes. Modified cars wrapped in LCD screens, performers harnessed into or even above these cars, music blaring and sometimes even freebies being tossed. It was truly a circus. Borderline ridiculous but they clearly knew their audience and were clearly thrilled to have made it through the final day of twenty one straight parades around France. Only a few of these riders are wealthy from cycling. Most won’t ever get rich from cycling. They dedicate themselves to a sport for the sport. Most have been riding competitively since their early teens and few names will ever be memorialized like Hinault, Merckx, Lemond, Indurain or Froome. It takes passion to do this. Plain and simple. That’s why I love it. That’s why seeing the biggest race in this sport on the final day of this year’s race was so cool to me. Bucket list item checked. I hope one day to get back and see it again. 

It needs to be noted about how great and patient my family was with me yesterday. I had done some research on where to view but was constantly worried about not finding a good spot. They put up with the jumpiness from me that ensued. Moreover, they wandered around in a steady rain for about two hours as we awaited the riders’ arrival in Paris. A cold rain with a steady breeze. Then they put up with me as I watched every lap of the race. I’m grateful for their toughness and support of me when staying in a warm, dry museum or apartment would have been much easier. 

Here how our day played out in pictures. 

   My Storm Troopers. I’m grateful. 

Charlie’s only shoulder ride the entire trip. Aka, best seat in the house. 

    The Flame Rouge. 

 Norwegian priorities are never in doubt. Beer first, view second. 
   One pic from the parade. Nutso marketing gone bad or great jobs for kids just out of college??

 Caption: “I’ve ridden in this rodeo before.” Great idea. 
 This time we play “Where’s Stewart?”  Little did she know she’s illegally standing in the flowers. But a view from a hill beats one from below it. 

 And we wait for the riders to reach Paris. 
 The Peleton heading up the Champs Élysées (CE). We had a great spot with mostly shorter folks in front of us. 🙂  

 Following tradition, Froome’s Yellow Jersey team leads the first lap in Paris. 

   The Peleton coming back down the CE. Sagan in the green jersey to the right. 

 We saw a 5 second flat fix and go right in front of us!
   The breakaway on lap 6. Never more than 30 seconds ahead, they were eventually caught. 

 The traditional French Air Force flyover. 
  
Who knew they made special pizza knives? I also have some cool video and super slo-mo shots that I’ll try to post later. 

For now Paris, Au Revoir. 

Humbled

Humbled

Over 9,000 heroes memorialized for their valor has a way of socking it to you gut. Seeing video footage of what they actually went through in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 and for the months afterwards will bring you to tears. It was not until after stepping out of the Cimetiere American de Normandie (American Cemetery of Normandy) and seeing the perfectly manicured grounds alongside the rugged coastline do you fully understand the magnitude of their sacrifice. It is a moment I will never forget. It is a place I feel privileged to have visited. It is a thankfulness to their sacrifice and service that my words and actions will never be able to communicate. 

In less than 24 hours time that we had in the area, we only touched on a small part of what the area had to offer. If you have less than a day here like we did, then I highly recommend the following three sights. 

  • The American Cemetery – above Omaha Beach it sits in the middle of the landing sights with Sword, Juno and Gold beaches to the east near Caen and Utah to the west just past Mont St-Michel. Bayeax provides a nice central location with many tours (bike, minivan and private guide) based here.  The grounds and museum here rival what you see in Arlington, VA at the Arlington National Cemetery. 
  • Musee Memorial d’Omaha Beach (Omaha Beach Museum) – described by some as a museum of rusted junk in someone’s garage I’d say my expectations were low and easily exceeded. The movie at the end is worth waiting to watch. The war trinkets they have collected were excellent and interesting. This museum deserves 90 minutes minimum and could easily take 3 hours. 
  • Pointe du Hoc (U.S. Ranger Memorial) – this memorial had a modest museum and brief movie but the power was found on the cliffs above the ocean. Seeing what the Rangers scaled was unbelievable. Seeing dozens of bombing craters 20+ feet deep from the air strikes preceding the invasion makes it hard to understand how the Germans were still holding ground here at the time of the D-day invasion.  The coolest part of the exhibit was walking through the bunkers and imagining the scene that took place 71 years ago. 

The kids seemed to really enjoy the time here and I think over the years the kids will appreciate it more as they learn about this important period in history. Several times during the day Cindy and spend time talking about both of our granddads who spent time in the war. My grandfather on my Dad’s side was in the infantry in the days following D-day (Dad – I’ll need to learn much more about what you know about his time over there – this time I promise I’ll listen). Cindy’s Grandpa spent time in the Phillipines during WWII and had many humorous and colorful stories about his time during the war. When Cindy asked to see his uniform he emphatically stated  (paraphrasing) “I burned that damn thing the very minute I could.  It smelled like all the smells I want to forget.”

While I would advocate spending 2-3 days in the area, if you want a good taste of D-Day you can absolutely get it with 24 hours in Normandy and a zippy car like our Clio.  Below you will find our day in pictures. 

  

Moving. The last museum stop before exiting to the cemetery.  
    
    
   
The photos above are the best I have from the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. 

   
   
Omaha beach, the Museum at Omaha Beach and a break for lunch with D-Day craft beer advertised next to Cindy. 

 

Cindy outside of the Pont du Hoc Museum.   

Will in a bomb crater at least 20 feet deep. 

  
 One of the intact German bunkers. 4-6 foot walls reinforced with heavy steel rebar.  
  
The kids running amongst the craters.   
 
Pont Du Hoc. Unreal. 

 
The cliffs the Rangers scaled. The first wave sent in to dismantle the large turret guns. On the first wave, 6 of 15 men survived.   

The Ranger memorial. 

    
 
A view from the primary bunker on the point. Eerie (except for cute Stewart). 

   
View from a gun hole. 

 
Stewart’s turn. 

A brief but amazing tour of Omaha Beach. Without a doubt a worthwhile stop for anyone visiting France!

Road Trip!

Road Trip!

We are nearing another weekend which means it is time for another out of Paris tour. This time by car!  Let me set the stage leading up to our brief day trip to the Normandy area.  Cindy was off to work early on Friday and me and the kids spent the morning relaxing. Yes, this statement is written with some inner guilt and turmoil given Cindy’s off slaving away in corporate France. Prior to lunch the kids and me visited our favorite Bulouger for sandwiches and a few pastries. It is our favorite place because they always throw in a few free sweet treats – this time it was 6 extra kruller-like donut holes with a fancy French name (croquilles maybe?).  Then we walked to a nearby park and ate while watching ducks, ducklings and koi fish battle for turf and territory. Who am I kidding, we mainly watched Charlie count and chase pigeons.  Once finished with lunch we crossed the street to another park to spend time at the playground and up our pigeon count.  This is where Stewart learned she doesn’t walk as good on her face as she does her feet. Her description while half crying and half laughing: “a spinny thing spit me off and I face-planted.”  Will, evoking his best Inpression of his Grandpa said, “but you should see the other guy.”
  
Then we embark on a comedy of traveling errors that we luckily haven’t yet encountered on this trip. 

Error 1:  We purchase about 45 Euros worth of train tickets to the Orly airport when they should have cost roughly 18 Euros. No comment (and also no refund). Why were we going to the Orly airport you ask?

Error 2:  we rented a car from an airport at the advice of the famed Rick Steves. This guy is usually flawless, but turns out I fear driving in the city of Paris far less than I fear wasting money and time getting to the airport car rental. I get it Mr. Steves, you were only trying to save us the hassle of city driving. Commendable, but lesson learned. 

Error 3: taking the local RER (stops at all 9 stops and un-air conditioned) vs the express (1-2 stops and air conditioned).  Minor but made the cost of the ticket feel that much more painful. 

Error 4: not realign the RER to Orly Airport required a 5-6 mile bus connection on the world’s most crowded piggy-back bus.  Here we are standing, and sweating.  For those of you who know my Brother-in-law Jeff, please let him know his doppelgänger was on the bus with us. 


Error 5:  Realizing the first four errors could have been avoided had we only known how close to Cindy’s work the Hertz location was where we returned the car. 1-2 metro stops away. Live and learn, right?

Our vehicle:  A 5-door, 5-speed Reneault Clio diesel. Lean and mean. We drove 350 miles and had at least 1/3 tank of gas left. Other than having a 0-60 speed that rivaled my bicycle, it was a perfectly effective vehicle. Here’s a picture of Will standing next to it. Interestingly, cars seemed to stay out of our way.   

 Kidding, here’s the actual car. 

  
If you have read my prior posts about France you may have picked up on my ongoing struggle with how to classify, uh ok, generalize, the French into a simple easy description. They are a people like none other. Paradoxical. Well, seeing their driving behaviors has left me more conflicted than ever. For my American audience, please pay close attention to the next several sentences. The French drive WONDERFULLY. The roadways are in great condition (likely because we paid 25 Euro in tolls one way for the privilege). The speed limits are typically either 50km, 70km, 90km, 110km or 130km (simple and the car’s nav reminds you when you are exceeding it). Very few people exceed the speed limit. If they are speeding they invariably had Great Britain or German license plates. Everyone drives in the right lanes and only uses the left lanes to pass. If faster traffic is coming from behind people actually move over to let it pass.  Equally amazing is trucks were not allowed in the left lane and were kept to speeds that were slower than car traffic. On uphill stretches, nearly all uphill stretches, the trucks were provided an extra right hand lane. We drove with magical flow for the entire trip. 

One more amazing thing. We drove through several tunnels that were miles long that routed through traffic UNDER cities. Imagine if we took all of the daily traffic passing by Uptown Charlotte and routed them underground while everyone going into Charlotte stayed above ground?  While you are imagining this, imagine trains filled with passengers speeding by the car traffic. I imagine our habits would change. I imagine that I’ll have to keep imagining. 

Last few points about our trip. The roads and towns in and around Normandy are amazing. Quaint, rural, scenic and filled with cyclists, farm equipment and history. If I’m fortunate enough to make it back to France I vow to spend much more time exploring these roads. Here are a few more pictures leading up to our time in Normandy. Normandy deserves a separate post so I’ve tried to divide the topics of traveling by car and the sights of Normandy. 

 
The location of Stewart’s face plant. Caution lad, that spring thing spins fast!  
 Cindy driving on the outskirts of Paris. Lots. Of. Concentration. 

 
Hey, where’s the third row in this thing?  Welcome back to the 80s kids.  Now get those heads back down into your devices. 
 Apparently my photography of the interestingness of this French McDonalds was lost on this man.  Seriously, you order from Kiosks here?  With no lines? AND they deliver the food to your table?  The French must be appalled at our American McDonalds experience.  The food was eerily the same quality (no comments on the level of quality).

  
This turquoise-trunked car is made mostly of plastic and is a collector’s item in France.  The name of it escapes me. 

The French road sign deer are much faster than our American road sign deer. 

  I could use more education on exactly what these road signs mean. I knew enough to make sure I was on the right road that corresponded with the red sign.   
 I could drive on roads like these all day. Speed limits were around 30mph so you might literally drive on these roads all day. 
   
Cool church serving a town of less than 100 people. So. Cool. 

  Another fine road, this one used as much by farm equipment and bikes as by cars. 

Next post:  Normandy.