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Road Chronicles

This is where we tell stories from our travels.

Cross-Country Hyper Lapse

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This is a cross-country hyper lapse from DC to LA. Unfortunately, I screwed up and didn’t start the sequence until we got to Hagerstown…I had bigger things on my mind, like how to drive a 26′ truck while towing a SUV through the congested streets of DC and then onto the Beltway.
Sorry about the dirty windshield in the beginning…it does get cleaned. Promise.

Some of the cross-country highlights:

0:47 Truck breakdown #1- We got off the highway just past Wheeling, West Virginia in Ohio. When I pressed the gas the truck moved only inches as the engine revved and revved. I was able to pull into a closed gas station lot just in time for smoke to start billowing from the hood. Imagining that all of my earthly possessions were about to go up in flame Ben and I tore the vehicle apart looking for a fire extinguisher. There was no fire extinguisher. Of course. But, by the time we figured it out the smoke had subsided.
Still, we were broken down in the middle of nowhere. Yet a vehicle pulled up behind us. Would they help? No, they just honked and shouted because we were “in the way.”  After letting the engine cool I decided to try and make it to a hotel a little down the road. Blowing the engine was a better prospect than being cannibalized by Appalachian Buckeye meth zombies.
0:48 Raccoon!!- I left the camera running through the night (only time on the trip) and spied a raccoon have the best night of his life in a dumpster.
1:18 Wright Patterson Air Base- What’s a road trip without the random stops, especially when you need to periodically cool the engine. I had been talking with someone about the air and space collection at the base just a few weeks prior, so it was basically divine intervention that led us to stop here. Having spent a lot of time at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum on the National Mall and the Udvar-Hazy center at Dulles I can say this definitively: this is the greatest air and space museum in America. If only we had more time.
1:30 Indy 500- We stopped at the Brickyard and all you get to see is a sign that says “SPEEDWAY MONOGRAMMING”. Sorry, I’ll give more thought to my framing the next time I’m driving a 26′ truck while towing an SUV. Also, as Ben and I ran back out of the track a lady stopped her car on a very busy road to ask if we were playing Pokemon Go! That’s when I knew we were all doomed.
1:37 White Castle- What better place to have a long strategic phone call about the place where you want to live…yes, that’s right, up to this point in the trip our destination was unknown. We had packed everything up hoping that we would have an address before getting to California. More on that in another blog post!
1:39 Finally!~ Someone has the sense to clean the windshield.
1:50 The Arch- If you hit pause at exactly the right moment you can almost make out an object on the left side of the frame that has the basic proportions of the Arch in St. Louis.
2:14 Kansas is flat- That’s why I blog, to answer the tough questions.
2:44 Sunset over the Rockies- This is my favorite part of the video and my favorite part of the trip. We weren’t planning on hitting the front range of the Rockies at sunset. In fact, we were a bit behind schedule on the day. But, what a beautiful stretch of driving right there.
2:53 Truck breakdown #2- Have you ever driven up a steep mountain pass at 12 mph in a 26′ truck while towing a SUV??
L-I-V-I-N.
While driving 12 mph you have plenty of time to think about things, and do math. So I worked out the formula (after taking an online college course in calculus) and estimated that at the speed we were traveling we would arrive in California just before the end of Emperor Trump XVI’s reign. Wanting to at least catch a minute of my unborn daughter’s childhood I opted to call U-Haul’s roadside assistance. Ben and I waited for about an hour for the mechanic to show up. He was like, “I don’t have the part you need so we’ll get you guys set up in a hotel until tomorrow.” And I was like, “Um…I ain’t got time for that.” And he was like, “Let me check one more thing.” And then we were fixed. Magically. It was a sensor.
3:05 Crossing Loveland Pass- Yeah, so the drama on the side of the highway meant that we missed the deadline on a planned closure of the Eisenhower Tunnel. And that meant no interstate highway access across the continental divide. So drive up and over Loveland Pass it was, in the middle of the night…while driving a 26′ truck and towing a SUV. I stopped to pee on the continental divide, so as you read this some of my pee is making its way to the Pacific Ocean and some is trickling on down to the Atlantic. Science. And Reaganomics.
3:17 Rockies in daytime- A bonus of all the truck drama is that we were set far enough back in time that we could drive down the western slope of the Rockies in daylight. It’s a fantastic stretch.
3:25 New soundsystem- The A/C in the truck didn’t really work so we had to drive with the windows down. The radio in the truck didn’t work, unless you’re a humpback whale…then you’d probably enjoy whatever was coming out of the speakers. So we had to rely on the Jambox, which tried its hardest to pump out some sound. But by this point in the trip we needed an upgrade…enter the Sony. (It’s OK Jambox, we still love you!) Also notice this is when the bass drops. Synergy.
3:35 Utah desert- I love this little bit of the hyper lapse because you can see the distant mountain ranges grow as we driving along a road that’s straight as an arrow. Also every time we stop there seems to be some brilliant rock feature just hanging out in the background.
3:56 Arizona/Virgin River Canyon- If you blink you’ll miss it. Along the entire route we spend less time in Arizona than any other state, even West Virginia. But, mile for mile it’s among the most gorgeous ribbons of road as I-15 passes through the Virgin River Canyon. And then we emerge into the Nevada desert at dusk.
4:03 Vegas Strip- You can’t not drive down the Strip near the end of a cross-country road trip…ESPECIALLY if you’re making a movie out of it. Nothing like crawling through the neon jungle in a 26′ truck while towing a SUV. Las Vegas is spanish for “good decisions.”
4:11 Moonlight over the Mojave- A jarring juxtaposition at the end of this whole thing from the lights of Vegas to the emptiness of the desert. The nearly full moon dances around as we head south on the 15 toward the final destination (no, not death!).
Other random observations: My brother Ben likes to pace in front of the truck every time it’s stopped. Bugs really love windshields. Who needs Google Maps when you have an atlas?

And the video:

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Save Foamhenge!

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Just up Route 11 from one of the great tourist traps of Virginia(Natural Bridge) tucked away off a dirt road is another one of the great tourist traps of Virginia: Foamhenge.

Time is running out on this re-creation of a relic that has withstood the test of time. It has to move by August to make room for the new Natural Bridge State Park. 

Foamhenge is a replica of the World Heritage Site Stonehenge…except it’s not a world heritage site, and it’s not made of stone, and it’s surrounded by mountains. Really, it’s not at all like Stonehenge. Lauren and I are suckers for the roadside attraction, and this is one called out to us like a bunch of rocks arranged for ritualistic human sacrifice calls out to Neolithic priests looking to impress some red witches.

So if you want Foamhenge in your backyard, guess what…it’s yours. The owner is willing give away the foam blocks, provided you pay for shipping and repairs. That, my friends, is a deal. I’d take it, but something tells me we don’t have room in our tiny Capitol Hill backyard. Also, I’m not entirely convinced that the foam blocks match the historically protected architecture of our neighborhood. If you’re a big fan of the Summer solstice, this is your chance. You can bring Foamhenge home, line everything up, install it, and then wait for the solstice to tap a keg at dawn and dance around a pile of burning coaches in the nude.

Foamhenge has only been around since 2004 as an April Fools’ Day prank, which begs the question: maybe the original Stonehenge was also an April Fools’ prank. The whole thing was probably concocted by some Neolithic drunks who had just crawled out of cave with a plan to mess with archeologists five millennia down the road. Just think, in the year 7500 AD some future civilization could be dissecting your front yard trying to determine what the hell these pieces of foam are supposed to mean. It’s the gift that just keeps on giving.

So, please. Save Foamhenge. And if you do, call me. I’ll fill you in on the secret summer solstice rituals that you’ll have to perform.

It is actually a bit peaceful.
It is actually a bit peaceful.
This, ladies and gentlemen, could be in YOUR backyard!! (or front, if that's how you roll)
This, ladies and gentlemen, could be in YOUR backyard!! (or front, if that’s how you roll)
Weathered for effect.
Weathered for effect.
It looks just like the real thing.
It looks just like the real thing.
There are mountains here.
There are mountains here.
Unlike Stonehenge, Foamhenge requires walking uphill.
Unlike Stonehenge, Foamhenge requires walking uphill.
This is also likely the description a certain presidential candidate probably envisions being engraved onto a certain piece of theoretical infrastructure along our southern border.
This is also likely the description a certain presidential candidate probably envisions being engraved onto a certain piece of theoretical infrastructure along our southern border.
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Fall Into the Gap(year)

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Editor’s Note: Malia Obama announced that she’ll be attending Harvard, but before that she’ll be taking a gap year…so we wrote her a letter telling her why that decision is awesome!
Hey Malia,
Hope all is well at the White House, I can’t believe you only have a few more months living there. I mean it seems like just yesterday that you guys moved in, amirite! Anyways, congrats on this incredibly important decision. You’ve decided to take a gap year. (I mean good job on the Harvard thing too…but the gap year thing is a bigger deal, IMHO). You’re opening a door that America desperately needs opened. For whatever reason, we lag behind the rest of the developed world in the gap year department. Elsewhere it’s a right of passage, an opportunity to learn more about the world, and yourself, than any college degree can teach you.
But here…well, in America it’s often seen as a scarlet letter. In the background, a chorus of whispers wonder what must be wrong with the kid that doesn’t go straight to college from high school. I find it hilarious, the parents who pressure their kids out of a gap year for fear that they’ll lose focus. The gap year IS ABOUT FOCUS (Sorry for yelling.) Sure, that focus may tell a kid that college isn’t their path. Guess what? That’s OK. Typically though, the gap year encourages a commitment to education. A study from the American Gap Year Association (yes, it’s real and I’ve hyperlinked to prove it!) shows 90 percent of students who take a gap year end up in college once that year is finished. That same data show that 60 percent come to realize career ambitions and college majors during the gap year. But hey, if those parents want their kids to get immediately locked into a rat race that will only end with their death 60 years later while still under the specter of student loans…to each their own!
The way we treat 18-year-olds in this country is kinda sad. If you can’t answer the question: “where are you going to college?” as a senior with, at least, a short list of options you’ll be greeted with the raised eyebrow and pursed-lipped nod of judgment. We’re programmed to believe that taking time off is tantamount to failure. And this is part of why have a malformed perception of the world. If there’s ever a time for Americans to debark from our safe shores to experience the adventure and discovery abroad…now is that time. Although getting back in may be tough after President Trump builds a huge wall all the way around America.
I took a gap year. And while I didn’t travel abroad, I used the time to refocus my energies without the pressure of grades and due dates. It’s the one time that you can completely focus on yourself. It’s a great time to find something you want to do better and then strive for progress with laser focus. It’s a perfect time to find a new passion. For me, I built a passion for reading (lame, I know). Freed from the constraints of a syllabus, reading became enjoyable again and in the process of rebuilding that love I also discovered a love for politics and history, two interests that blossomed into a career.
Screw your social life. Seriously. Friends are important, but you’ll only hang on to one or two from your first 18 years of life. It’s the next five years that you’ll really build the friendships that last a lifetime. College and travel tend to be the crucible under which lasting friendship is forged. And the better you know yourself, the better quality friendships you’ll form. So, who cares if your best friend Sally is going on and on about her new roommate and what sorority she’ll rush. Don’t worry, all of that will be there for you after the gap year. And Sally will be there too, but you won’t ever see her because she’ll be totally in love with Bobby (who is definitely not that into her…)
Volunteer. You’re going to discover you have more time than you know what to do with…use it. Only when dedicating your life to someone else’s cause can you really start to focus on your purpose. Volunteer at home, and volunteer abroad. Find ways to come into contact with people well beyond your natural circles. Listen. Everyone has a story, and as you volunteer you’re putting yourself into someone else’s story. The gap year is about perspective, and this is a critical element to gaining that perspective.
If I could come up with a gap year formula it would look something like this: 40% work. 20% Volunteer. 10% Nothing. 40% travel. I know that doesn’t add up. The nice thing is the volunteering can fit into both the work and travel.
Let’s start with the work part of your gap year. Work like you’ve never worked before. Work more than one job and try to occupy every waking hour. Work until your back is sore and your feet are blistered. Work until you curse waking up…because then you’ll learn the most valuable lesson of all. A strong work ethic is priceless, but if you don’t want to get locked into this pointless grind then you’ll be pushed that much harder to succeed in college. Also you’re not in high school anymore, which means you stand a decent chance of gaining added responsibility at work. In at least one of those jobs try to find something that fits into your long-term career ambition, just to get a taste of what it is you think you want to do. After four or five months of working your face off you should have a nice pile of cash to travel the world with.
Now comes the real test. Travel. It’s an opportunity to test your mettle. You’ll be put in uncomfortable situations in unique environments. You’ll learn that improvisation is an invaluable skill. And if you’re not the improvisational type, you will be by the end of your adventure. You’ll discover the power of self-reliance. Balance your travel. Start easy, especially if you’ve never traveled alone before (yes, you should do this on your own). Western Europe is ideal. But, build in more progressively challenging travel to countries that span the spectrum of industrialization. And then spend your last week somewhere easy and tropical. You’ll be desperately homesick by that point, but you’ll need a little vacation from your travels before you come home to decompress and relax.
Somewhere in the middle of your travels plan a few weeks for volunteering. It’ll be somewhere difficult, and you’ll confront some harsh realities…and that’s the point. Don’t kid yourself, the volunteering is as much for you as it is for the group you’re working with. Do your research before you leave, but also be flexible. You may find something that really sings to you while you’re on the ground in some far away place.
Finally, save that last ten percent for “nothing.” You’ll need the decompression. Be lazy. Sleep until noon. Play video games until your eyes bleed. Work it all out of your system and process the 12 amazing months of your gap year before launching into your college career.
Take stock of the lessons that will inevitably be taught to you along the journey. You’ll learn that America is not the center of the universe (well, at least not until President Trump becomes Galactic Emperor Trump). You’ll see that people live under a thousand different forms of governance…and most of them are happy. All of them will find cause for complaint, but they’ll also have cause to celebrate. You’ll discover how lucky you are to have the choice of a gap year. You’ll learn about failure and stress and anxiety. You’ll learn about overcoming obstacles and fears and your own stupidity. You’ll learn your limits, and then you’ll expand those boundaries.
Again, this is about perspective. The gap year, if used properly is a window into what America does right and what it can do better…and you will be armed with the perspective to make your country and the world just a slightly better place. If you want to talk about this more, feel free to call! We live just a few blocks away, we can grab coffee. You can bring your dad, or your mom. Or both. And the dogs, bring the dogs.
Sincerely,
Kris and Lauren
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Back in Time Lapse…Blizzard 2016

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It took me longer than I wanted to get this posted and, pardon the pun, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. I ventured out into the wilds of this weekend’s blizzard with the aim of getting some interesting pics/vids. I mostly failed. I towed along a few cameras and managed to trek a combined 24 miles in the snow….basically, so that in a few years I can tell my kids: “you know, in my day we had to hike 24 miles in waist deep snow up hill in 40 mph winds if we wanted to get good pictures…”
And if you’re nice (nice means sharing!) I’ll post those pics and another video tomorrow;)
Anyway, during all the slogging through the conditions (which I loved, by the way) I left my GoPro at home to record the storm one minute at a time. I’ve done this for other snowstorms, but this time I rigged it to the outside of my window. This meant a little engineering. No GoPro battery has the staying power to last through this entire storm, so I had to figure out a way to keep the camera connected to power while also keeping it dry. The solution was simple: saran wrap and a rubber band.
The GoPro was encased in the skeleton shell, and once I had it positioned I wrapped the rear of the casing in plastic wrap and hooked up the USB power cord through the plastic and then added another layer of wrapping. I also pointed the camera slightly down to hopefully avoid streaking from snowmelt. Success. No water seepage at all, even as two inches of snow/hour were drilled at the camera at 40 mph! All said and done this sequence captures about 40 hours, I sped it up by another 25 percent in post-production.
What to watch for:
1. The tireless efforts of our building’s maintenance crew. The fact that you can see pavement at the end of this video is a testament to how hard they worked.
2. The the two stone benches along the main walkway leading out of the building. You always need a point of reference for snow time lapses, and this angle is a bit difficult for that, but those stone benches are a good start.
3. The fencing around the courtyard…another great point of reference to watch the snow pile up.
4. The trees show the strength of the wind, and you can see thick waves of snow as the heavy bands of the storm passed through the blizzard.
5. There are a few times when the sequence seems to jump, it’s actually the GoPro automatically adjusting to the building flood lamps being turned on and off.
6. The clouds…at about 1:00. This is the hidden gem, because there’s a small sliver of the sky at the top of the frame and you’ll be able to watch the skies clear out after the storm.
Enjoy!
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2015…One Second at a Time.

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***if you just want to see the video, scroll down. If you want some backstory, read. Reminder: reading is good for you, and one of your resolutions was probably to read some more.***

2015 is officially done and dusted, but let me pause for a second to take another look back.

I’m a reporter, but for the first quarter of 2015 I spent most of my time anchoring. In the spring I was promoted and ended up reporting full-time with a front row seat to the biggest events in DC (and Baltimore) for the year.

I had a plan to put together a hyper-lapse of all the photos on my iPhone 6. The idea was an offshoot of a New Year’s resolution for 2015, which was to post one photo to Instagram every day. It seems so silly and trite, but the payoff was something I didn’t anticipate. I became more observant, looking for that interesting tidbit to post daily. It made me more mindful and it made me a better reporter. It’s a habit I plan on carrying into 2016.

I thought it’d be neat to throw all the photos into a hyper-lapse to cap off the year. But, in the process of being more observant I also started taking more photos with my iPhone…a lot more, as in almost 8,000 photos in 2015. I was not to be deterred by numbers, but my Adobe Premiere timeline was. After a half-hour load time with each photo occupying one frame at 16 frames per second (a little slow for hyper-lapse) the video was 16 minutes long. I wouldn’t sit through 16 minutes, much less expect you to.

In the process of filing the media on my phone I separated the videos from the still photos. There were only about 350, but even stringing those together would be too long. Unless, I take only one second from every video. Done.

Here are the rules:

  1. EVERY video has to be included.
  2. No more than one clip from each video.
  3. Only videos housed on my iPhone (there are a couple of videos shot with my GoPro, but they were transferred over to the phone for Twitter/Facebook purposes.)
  4. Only nat sound. (Originally I planned a music bed, but the sound tells the story as much as the video.)
  5. The videos have to be arranged in the same order they were imported from the iPhone, which is basically chronological.
  6. No dicks. Mainly.

Here are the highlights:

  1. Lots of snow to start the year, and lots of me driving in the snow.
  2. More than a few airplane wings.
  3. Some harrowing moments covering the unrest in Baltimore.
  4. Flying in a fighter jet.
  5. Many Metro trains (I covered transportation exclusively until about April, then kept the Metro on my new beat.)
  6. Amazingly well-timed moments of silence. It seems that every time life gets loud I retreat to the woods.
  7. Bears. (see #6)
  8. A lot of riding bikes across the state of Iowa: RAGBRAI.
  9. Poignant moments on the steps of the Supreme Court and then inside the Metropolitan A.M.E. during a week marking the emotional apex of 2015.
  10. Concerts, jumping in balls and blowing stuff up on the Fourth. ‘Merica!
  11. #RunningWithHart.
  12. Video experimentation at the Montgomery County Fair.
  13. I cover a lot of protesting. But here you’ll see the juxtaposition of shouting activists cut to emotionless bureaucrats more than a few times…just a matter of happenstance.
  14. Pope Francis!
  15. Dancing at an Indian wedding.
  16. Metro train doors working…and then not working.
  17. More running, this time at the Marine Corps Marathon as I covered the race from the lead vehicle.
  18. Lighting candles outside the French embassy after the Paris attacks.
  19. My late-year hyper-lapse binge.
  20. England and Scotland!

Even with all of that, I still manage to miss a bunch of great stuff from 2015…but this is a pretty good compilation nonetheless.

But I’m a firm believer in the mantra of our greatest president from the Granite State…otherwise known as the Bartlet Doctrine: What’s Next?

Here’s to an even better 2016.

 

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Scottish Ninja Kicks

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I can’t breathe out of my nose, and it feels like I swallowed a spoonful of gravel at some point in my sleep. I haven’t been sick in years, and now I’m sick.

Figures.

IMG_0757As the sun rises late the outline of a castle appears outside my window…A CASTLE. Moreover, the sky is brilliantly clear. It’s as if the gods were rewarding us for the previous day’s painstaking journey. I don’t care if I’m not feeling well, I’m pressing through.

By the time I’m ready everyone’s waiting. And we decide to kick off the day by popping one of the bottles of prosecco we brought to drink on the train. It’s just enough to keep my sore throat at bay.

Even with nary a cloud in the sky Edinburgh is a damp place. It feels mildewed in the way of a deep mystic cave, or a dank basement in an old house. The castle looms over the town as an ancient reminder that, once upon a time, all one needed was elevation and stone to rule a land. We make our way up a series of steps to the esplanade in front of the castle. It commands a 360 degree view of the region. I found it reminiscent of Quebec City, a town with a distinct “upstairs” and “downstairs” surrounded by an intruding body of water. The Firth of Forth in Edinburgh’s case vs. the St. Lawrence in Quebec City’s case.

IMG_0842The castle is appropriately ancient, a chapel on the grounds dates back to the 12th century. There are more stories here than an entire state back home. A cold, raw wind whips up the hillside as we walk around the castle grounds. We work our way inside to see the Scottish crown jewels, including the Stone of Destiny.

How awesome is it to have something called the Stone of Destiny?

It’s a rectangular piece of rock about the size of a microwave. Behind the glass it looks as if it’s been through a millennia of drama. The stone carries with it the symbolism of Scottish independence and resistance. It was taken by the English in the 13th century and embedded in the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey until about 20 years ago. That’s when it was finally returned to Scotland as part of a recognition of a growing Scottish tide. Now it sits behind glass.

IMG_0875Royalty is an odd thing to me, and something I never had much interest in. I saw it as a tabloid phenomenon, incestuous and ancient. I think American history is sometimes so easy to study that the complexities of foreign systems become overwhelming, and in the process we let the surface level arguments excuse us from studying episodes like royal succession. That being said, I’ve turned a corner on this recently. I’ve started studying the English civil wars, which has ignited an interest in the characters that played a role during, and leading up to, that era. Point being, that as you walk in to see the Scottish Honors, you’re also walking through the history of Scotland, and through key moments in the civil wars. It was a crystallizing moment to bring some of my studies into tangible reality. Travel. I’d love to get into it, but I’ve already digressed enough.

IMG_0804Back outside the crisp air hits. Standing atop a castle we map out the day. I want to climb to the top of Arthur’s Seat, Jon and I look at that compared to some of the other landmarks. It looks far away, and high, but doable. Even at 10 a.m. the sun hangs low enough in the sky that it seems it’ll disappear at any moment. We’re still awe-struck at the crystal clear skies.

Our gameplan is to head down the Royal Mile, sneak into some shops, grab lunch and then climb the mountain, cold be damned. And one great way to damn a cold is with some good Scotch whiskey. After a lap up and down the mile we stop for lunch at a place called the Jolly Judge. It’s Sunday so they open late, which means we just stand outside on the steps looking as sad and cold as possible until they open the doors. It works, and we have the bar to ourselves for all of 15 minutes.

IMG_0919I’m not sure which is warmer, the Scotch whiskey or the fireplace. There’s no need for competition, it’s all pleasant. The bartenders are young guys, but full of whiskey knowledge. Somehow the conversation circles to our plan to climb Arthur’s Seat, I mention off-hand that I’m in no shape to climb a mountain.

“A mountain?!? That’s no mountain…that’s just a little hill.”

There’s no comeback. I want to tell them every mountain I ever climbed, but I know that’ll only make things worse. And so I acknowledge my lack of manliness, shoot the rest of the whiskey and walk out the door determined to climb a mountain, that’s not really a mountain.

It really isn’t that big of a climb, it looks much bigger from a distance. The initial path is paved, but as you step up the pavement becomes a well-worn path. For today, though, it’s a creek. All of the rain that’s fallen over the last few days continues to run off the mountain (that’s not really a mountain). Ten minutes in and Lauren is livid. She wasn’t prepared to IMG_0991hike/wade up a mountain (that’s not really a mountain) and so we determine to split off for the remainder of the day. Jon and I continue up, as Emily and Lauren head back into town.

The hike isn’t especially difficult, and as such it is crowded. Especially on an off-chance day of sunshine. Speaking of the sun, its low station in the sky casts a constant golden glow on the landscape. There’s something called the “golden hour” in photography, in Scotland in the winter the golden hour lasts all day. So, for every step I take, I snap another photo. As we push past the switchbacks and up to the first false summit the wind is pushing back with enough force that hang-gliding using only my coat seems a realistic possibility.

IMG_1073This sub-summit is covered in a bed of stubble-length grass. It’s the image of Scotland that I’ve always conjured up, the moment when stereotype meets reality. We press on up a rocky crag too narrow for most Americans, and then we’re at the top. The wind speed picks up by a factor of ten. Jon and I don’t say a word, we split up and immediately start taking pictures.

To the east is the sea, to the south is another range of mountains pushing back against the low-hanging sun, to the west is a castle atop a mountain and the rest of Edinburgh. This is a magical, surreal location. In places like Sedona, Arizona they talk about vortices of energy atop rocky formations. There is a feeling like that here, but instead of a spiritual portal this is a door to an ancient world when iron and bronze were first forged and blocks IMG_1035of sandstone determined kingdoms. Arthur’s Seat itself is a geologic remnant of another epoch, an extinct, plugged volcano. In another age Scotland was soaked not in rain, but in molten earth.

Everything we dealt with the day before…the trains, the buses, the cabs, the hassle…I’d do it all again in a heartbeat for this precise moment. This is one of those rare moments that combine place with circumstance to create perfection.

We take our time at the top, and we take our time heading back down using the low winter sun as a backdrop for the hero shot.

IMG_1023Back down the mountain we walk through the campus of the University of Edinburgh on our way to meet up with Lauren and Emily. Edinburgh is strangely layered upon itself, streets crisscross streets at different levels. This makes it confusing when you’re trying to find something on GPS. The dot shows us at the bar where we’re supposed to meet up, but there’s no bar here. A few minutes of investigation reveal that there’s a street below us.

That street is predictably dark and damp. It’s lined by hostels and backpacker joints and, logically, an Aussie bar. We’re not going there. The bar we’re heading to feels subterranean. It’s Sunday, so soccer (football) is on every television. It feels late in the evening, but it’s barely 4 p.m. Meeting Emily and Lauren we’re sure that they’re going to be envious of the adventure that took us atop IMG_0935Arthur’s Seat. But, alas, they are not. You see, it seems that as we went high, they went low.

When they went back into town they stopped inside a church that had been converted into a market of sorts. While shopping they started talking to one of the employees, who was apparently the son of the guy who runs the place. The kid took our wives on a tour beneath Edinburgh, deep into the guts of the city and 500 years into the past. This city, like most, has progressively built upon itself, burying history in the process so that a few centuries later a pair of American women can stumble upon this anachronistic landscape. I’ll let Lauren tell the full story…I’ve already butchered it enough.

After a drink we make the call to head toward the Christmas markets along the Princess Street Gardens. The markets are terraced into the landscape along three levels bottoming out with a festival of rides. I don’t ride rides at county fairs, and I don’t ride rides at Christmas markets. It’s one of my guiding rules never to be violated.

IMG_0924Nevertheless, my cold is back (or rather the whiskey’s worn off) and with a vengeance. I do my best to press on as we weave along the hundreds of booths hawking many of the same wares that you’ll see at just about every market. Not to diminish the phenomenon, it’s quite the holiday spectacle…and Lauren is in heaven.

We walk up to another market in St. Andrew’s Square. It’s, thankfully, far less crowded. At the center of the market is a bar encircled by a moat of frozen ice. It’s an ice-skating rink race track that you have to walk over using elevated stairways. This’ll be another idea I’ll be stealing.

After a bit more shopping and some delicious hot chocolate we’re back on the Royal Mile for dinner. The plan was a place called the Devil’s Advocate. The name comes from the street it’s on: Advocates Close. Think of a close the same way you’d think about an alley, except narrower, older and with stairs and archways. The restaurant looks amazing, but I can’t say anything about the taste…they’re booked out for the evening.

Plan B. We ended up at another restaurant that filled our bellies, but not especially memorably. So it goes. After dinner we ended up back at the Bow Bar where I fell into the trap of drinking beers with locals.

It was quite accidental, a compliment about the beer I ordered turned into a conversation about beer  and that became a conversation about the “troubles in Northern Ireland” and that turned into a conversation about food and that turned into a conversation about Washington, D.C. and that turned into a phone conversation with their friend who lives in Arlington, Virginia and that turned into a conversation about American politics and that turned into last call.

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Back in Timelapse…Gifting

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 Christmas morning in our household is nothing short of chaos. It’s been that way as long as I can remember. The chaos comes with the numbers. At my grandparent’s house in St. Louis we’d cram 30 people into a single-level ranch-style three bedroom house for the days leading up to the gifting on Christmas morning. And then a flurry of wrapping paper being tossed into low orbit met with a chorus of oohs and ahhs and cheers and thank you’s would occupy the living room for more than two hours.

My dad’s family is big.

Our family isn’t quite so big, but it is still larger than the average American family. Add up my parents, my two brothers and their partners along with my sister and Lauren…and things get crowded in a hurry. But, that’s what makes the day so fun.

So in this adventure in time lapse, I give you the chaos of Christmas morning at my parent’s house in North Carolina.

Some of the highlights here: I like to watch as people get wearable gifts. You’ll see my brother in the foreground change his shirt twice as he’s gifted a t-shirt and then a hockey jersey. 

Also watch out for Lauren to start the festivities as the gift elf. She got bored with it pretty quickly, I took over…and let’s just say the rest of the gift exchange took on a more authoritarian bent. 

Just to give you an idea of how long this stretched, I set the GoPro to take photos every 5 seconds. The “clean-up” is actually cut off because the SD card filled. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

 

 

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Desmond: Through Hell and High Water

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**reading this post may cause anxiety and pangs of panic. It is not recommended for people with heart problems or those who enjoy meticulous planning. Also this post is long, so it’s also not recommended for people who don’t read good.**
I’m going to fess up to something here: typically while traveling I spend a lot of time watching the local news. I enjoy to compare and contrast how coverage is different, while maybe picking up a few tricks along the way. It’s also a good way to be in tune with the local culture.
I’ve consumed zero news since landing in the U.K. and that is about to be a tragic mistake that will lead to one of the most epic travel days in the history of me.
ACT I: TILL THE LANDSLIDE BROUGHT ME DOWN.
As the sun paints the low morning clouds pink we rumble along the street with our suitcases towards the London Bridge tube stop. We have an early train to catch to Edinburgh. This is the part of the trip I’m most excited for. I’ve been to the U.K. a couple times, but I’ve never been able to make it up to Scotland.
This is that chance.
And to make for an even better trip Jon and Em are joining us for the weekend. Quickly and easily enough we’re at Kings Cross. It’s a Saturday, mind you, so I’m in a bit of shock at the ease of the trip. If this were Metro in D.C., on an early Saturday morning, it’d be an epic journey in its own right. But here we catch our transfers without waiting more than four minutes. Basically, it’s like rush hour service back home.
IMG_2102This is my first time back through Kings Cross since the renovation, and I gotta say it looks terrific. In fact, much of the tube system has been significantly updated since my last time here.
The main waiting area is spacious and modern with mammoth information boards. It even comes complete with the new platform 9 1/2 for the Harry Potter fans. Our train isn’t leaving from here, we just have to pick up the tickets before walking a few blocks to London Euston. Kings Cross it is not.
We’re taking the Virgin Trains West Coast line, which makes this our point of departure. With just a few minutes to spare we hit up the grocery store for some snacks and sandwiches. This is when I remember that these people put mayonnaise on ever-y-thing. Mayonnaise is my kryptonite. And it is their country. But still, surely there exists a sandwich on the other side of the Atlantic sans mayo. Today is not my day to find said mythical sandwich.
On the train, and off we go to Edinburgh.
We have crisps, we have candy, we have cookies, we have sandwiches thoroughly lathered in mayo, we have positive attitudes and we have two bottles of prosecco to pop once we cross the frontier into Scotland.
Taking the train in Great Britain is a different beast from the U.S. They cover more of the country, they’re more often on time…and they tend to be more pleasant. The total trip is about four hours and some change. With that mindset we all were lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train. Probably about an hour and a half into the train ride and we’re all back awake and excited.
And the train stops. No big deal.
Train operator:
“I’m afraid we have some heavy winds and rain up ahead, so it looks as though we will be delayed our apologies.”
Delay…no big deal.
The train moves.
About 30 minutes later we stop again.
Train conductor:
“I’m afraid to report that there has been a landslide north of Preston and all trains have been told to stop. I don’t know how long this will take to clear, I will update.”
Landslide…kinda big deal. But, it’s 2015 surely you can just fix everything in a jif…right….right?!?
Train conductor:
“Due to the landslide north of Preston….I’m terribly sorry but we have to cancel this train after the next stop.”
Cancelled?!? WTF does that even mean? Based on the looks around the train car, no one knows.
15 more minutes pass. Now we’re in logistical recovery mode. Between the four of us we have a very special skill set for moments like this. So yeah, we have no idea what to do.
Train conductor:
“This train is cancelled at Preston. There will be coaches organized to Carlisle, and from there connections on up to Edinburgh and Glasgow. Look for our agents in red coats on the platforms.”
Okay, it seems like they have a plan. We gather our stuff and deboard the train onto the platform. Everyone else is looking around at everyone else. It’s like a herd of deer collectively standing in the middle of a 20-lane superhighway as an armada of tractor trailer trucks bear down.
And there are no red coats to shepard us away. Eventually the herd starts to gravitate towards the top of the platform where one guy in a red coat is shouting instructions. He’s surrounded by the herd and these deer seem to have developed a taste for human flesh.
Emily sneaks right into the middle of the gaggle. She seems to be nodding affirmatively, we can’t hear what’s being said. A few more nods and she snakes back through the herd.
“They have no idea what they’re doing.”
Enter random exciteable English lady from platform left.
“So, I just talked to my sister’s boyfriend’s aunt [she didn’t really say that part] and she said that this is a monster of a storm. She says they are closing the motorways because the winds are too high. And that roads and rail a flooded out. And she says that the news is telling everyone to stay home…it’s just that bad!”
Exit random excitable English lady.
We all just stare at each other hopelessly befuddled. Jon breaks the silence.
“So, we could just continue on with this travel day from hell, or we can turn around and go back to London. But, it’s your decision. You guys came all the way over here and we don’t want to stop you from making it up to Edinburgh.”
“Well, why don’t we figure out all of our options first, there’s gotta be a workaround.”
Lauren sneaks into another gaggle of people listening to one of the reps in a red jacket. She listens for a bit and comes back.
“Okay. That guy says they are putting everyone on buses and then sending them past the landslide to get on a train.”
We stand around and debate for a minute.
Enter random excitable English lady.
“I just got off the phone with my uncles best friend’s dog walker [she didn’t really say that part] and he says that everything is shut down. I don’t think I’m even going to make it up there. I know it’s not what you want to do, but I don’t see you making anywhere to the north. I think I’m just going to stay with a friend in Blackpool. This is just dreadful…they are calling this Storm Desmond. It’s so silly, this is the fourth storm of the winter and they said all of them would be the end of the world and they ended up being nothing and nobody took this one seriously. Everything’s flooded, the motorways are at a stop and the trains don’t work anywhere…Welcome to Great Britain!”
Exit random excitable English lady.
Lauren and Emily go in search for updated information from one of the red coats. I see a guy who looks like he’s in charge. Jon watches the luggage as we all go in search of information.
A train pulls up with a destination listing as Newcastle.
“If I get on that train, is there are way from me to get from Newcastle to Edinburgh by rail?”
“Not by rail. All trains are shut down for the rest of the day. You may be able to make it by bus. But the rail service probably won’t resume until Monday (it’s Saturday).”
“Thanks.”
That’s some new information.
Lauren and Emily come back after talking with different red coats. We all have different information, which is pretty much how this afternoon is going. Conflicting information in a situation like this is as good as no information. But, I talked to the big boss. And he seemed pretty certain that this was the end of the road.
With BoyzIIMen stuck in my head, the unthinkable spills from my lips.
“I think we should turn around and go back to London.”
Sadness.
Silence.
Emily and Jon break the silence.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, this is your vacation. Don’t make a decision because you think it’ll be easy on us.”
Enter random excitable English lady.
“I just got off the phone with my gardener’s stock-broker’s husband’s college roommate [she didn’t really say that part] and I’m getting on that train to Newcastle and he’ll pick me up from there. I’m giving up. But, I did hear that the trains are running from Carlisle to Scotland. Good luck!”
Exit random excitable English lady.
Hope.
Silence.
“Let’s try. I mean at the very least let’s get to Carlisle and see what our options are there. And if it’s impossible we can turn back then. We have to try.”
Having talked myself in a full circle the type-A’s take over.
“If that’s what we’re doing, we have to go now because another train is pulling up and all of those people are going to be lining up for the same buses we are,” Lauren says.
Jon leads the way as we rush across the platform, through a tunnel and back onto another platform with a line about 300-yards long. And that’s only the interior portion of the line. Outside it wraps back up the building. Oh, and it’s raining. It’s not a sprinkle. It’s a steady, cold rain. And it’s windy. It’s not a breeze. It’s an umbrella-destroying hurricane-force wind.
IMG_2120The line is so long that we actually start outside at the very end of the platform…in the elements. There are hundreds of people in line in front of us. Lauren starts counting, and doing the math.
“I’m pretty good at gauging group sizes…it’s what I do. They’ll need at least seven coaches, and that’s just for the people on the platform.”
This is the logistical equivalent of the 2015 version of the Philadelphia Phillies (for my non-American friends…that’s bad, really bad). Still though, people are in line and, for the most part, keeping an even-keeled, if not positive, attitude.
The English…amirite?!
The attitude is rubbing off a bit. We’re on a mission, and the only thing we can do is have fun with the mission.
90-minutes later and we’re outside. This is no longer fun. We still have no idea what’s happening. News filters down the line.
“There’s a bus going directly to Edinburgh.”
“There’s a bus going to Glasgow and a rail connection from there.”
“The rail is fixed at Carlisle.”
“Everyone’s getting a magic Harry Potter broom to fly to Edinburgh.”
The rain is coming from all directions. The wind almost carries me away under my umbrella.
IMG_2124This was a poor choice…
90-minutes later, five empty coaches queue up and a red coat comes walking down the line.
“All of these coaches are going to Carlisle. And from there we will have coaches to take you to your destination.”
“What about Edinburgh?”
“Yes, from Carlisle we may have rail service back up to Edinburgh.”
This is a great choice!
It’s a bit of chaos as the herd pushes toward the coaches. Throughout our time in line Jon and I were drawing every possible comparison to The Day After Tomorrow. Was it possible that we were just living the movie? Is Desmond one of the three massive storms churning in the northern hemisphere? Was the ocean conveyor belt broken? Were we about to instantly freeze to death?!
At the moment though, it’s feeling a bit more World War Z-ish. I suppose you can pick your disaster movie poison.
As we board load our luggage on the coach the driver tells Jon and I that we also have to load our backpacks underneath.
“That’s not happening. All my money is in this bag.”
I’m not sure if Jon was lying, but I went with it.
“Yeah, this is where I keep my important stuff.”
“Well take your valuables with you, but the bags go underneath or you don’t get a seat on this coach.”
We acquiesce and get on the coach. Everybody else has their backpacks. Every. Single. Person. I sit down, trying to balance my camera and iPad and iPhone. Jon looks across the aisle, juggling with the same problem.
“I guess we just caught him at the wrong time.”
But at least we’re on the coach. It’s dry and relatively warm. But, in this state of relative comfort I realize something. I really have to pee. I mean for real.
“I wonder if I have enough time to run into the station to pee?”
Lauren looks at me like I’m a madman.
“You are NOT getting off this bus! We just spent three hours waiting in line, why didn’t you go then?”
“I don’t know…”
I feel like a five-year-old.
“There’s a bathroom on the bus, just go once we start on the road.”
With everyone and everything loaded we start driving. Fifty people exhale in relief as we turn out of the rail station. The driver gets on the PA system, speaking with a thick Scottish accent.
“My name is Grant. And I’ll be your driver today. First, make sure you wear your seatbelt. We have reports of high winds and vehicles being blown over.”
Seatbelt, click.
“It should take us about three hours to get to Carlisle. Please stay in your seat. Also, because of the weather the toilet is not to be used.”
WHAT?!?
There is no way I can make it three hours. This is going to be the end of me. I can already see the epitaph on my tombstone, “Here lies Kris, died for need of a piss!” I spend all my time focusing on an iPad game to distract myself from the intense personal discomfort. And I manage to do a good job of finding some peace, until about 45-minutes into the trip.
Have you ever fish-tailed in a motor coach at 55 mph? No? Well, you really should NEVER give it a try.
A gust of wind blowing across the motorway pushes the bus off to the side. Grant wrestles with the wheel like he’s trying to take down a rabid dog. He oversteers. The coach veers against the wind. I brace for impact. The coach swings back into the adjacent lane. A little bit of pee leaks out. The wind stops, and Grant retakes control. Everyone is awake.
Grant slows down for about five minutes before speeding up again and weaving through the traffic on the road. Another gust of wind. Another momentary brush with death. Another little bit of pee.
Grant slows down for about five minutes. He speeds up again. Changes lanes. Another gust of wind. Jon looks at me.
“This guy’s a dick.”
Nodding in agreement I contemplate a walk down the aisle, just peeing everywhere. I’m on edge for the next hour. Every gust conjures disastrous visions of the bus tipping over. But, we make it to Carlisle. Pulling into the station everyone is geared up to grab their luggage and rush to the next line. Before anyone can get off the bus a red coat hops on.
“Everyone please sit back down.”
A guy comes running up from the back of the bus.
“I need to use the toilet”
“Please, sit down!”
“I’m going to pee myself right here.”
“Please, sit! It will only be a moment.”
The guy sulks into his seat. He may, or may not, have been peeing. At least I’m not alone in this struggle.
“There is no rail service to Edinburgh, all rail service has been officially discontinued due to the weather. We will have coaches to take you onward. Once in the station you will be directed to the line for your destination.”
Everyone looks thoroughly confused. Enter the type-A’s.
“We need to get our bags ASAP and get in line. Kris, you go pee. We’ll get everything.”
I run to the bathroom. Full-on Carl Lewis 100-meter dash sprint to the bathroom. It’s the fastest I’ve ever run. And peeing is the greatest feeling in the world.
Relief.
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ACT II: IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT.
“Desmond is the worst name ever,” Jon says to me.
We’re near the front of a line that’s just as long as the one we waited in at Preston. This feels like the apocalypse. There’s an edge, as if everyone’s about to crack. Loosely strung caution tape flitters in the wind, herding us into lines with no real idea of destination.
The aging structure of steel and glass and iron and stone croaks and groans with each gust. The lighting gives the sense of a refugee camp. And we’re all, everyone in this front section of the line, staring through an open door at the end of a short tunnel IMG_2137waiting for a coach to pull up.
And coaches do pull up. But, they offload…and then disappear.
After watching this happen a few times Lauren and Jon make moves to take control of the situation. I, happily, go to buy treats at the only little travel kiosk in the station. As I walk back to the line with a bag of candy and chips/crisps I see Lauren at the front of another line at the customer service window sternly talking with a customer service agent in a voice I’m all too familiar with. It’s her “you will do exactly what I tell you to do, and you’ll do it right now” voice.
Suddenly…chaos.
I’m about ten feet from our spot in the line when a Virgin red coat starts shouting for everyone’s attention.
“We are canceling all service for the rest of the evening. There will be no trains. There will be no coaches. It’s too dangerous right now, we just had a report of a coach being blown over with injuries. Unfortunately, there are not enough hotel rooms available in Carlisle to house everyone. We are working on a plan to transport you to a place where there will be shelter…”
Everyone is standing, frozen. I pick up my pace, basically jogging to Emily.
“We have to go now, this is going to get ugly.”
There is screaming…bona fide shrieks. There are curse words and shouting. The line is dissolving into an angry mob. But no one is walking anywhere, yet. Emily and I walk briskly out of the front entrance to the station where Jon and Lauren are already shouting down the half-dozen parked cabs.
People start streaming out of the entrance with a new sense of purpose, the same purpose as us: find a ride by any means necessary. Lauren starts yelling for us to run to a cab.
“Load everything in, hurry. He’s going to take us to Edinburgh.”
Jon materializes out of thin air and starts negotiating with the cabbie as we load our suitcases.
“250 pounds…that’s our offer.”
The cabbie nods as we all hop in. Now a flood of people are streaming through the ranks of the cab queue. Our driver starts the engine and starts pulling away as someone knocks on the window. He says something that I can’t hear. The cabbie turns to Jon.
“I want 300.”
“No, we agreed to 250 that was the deal. You agreed to that.”
From the back seat Emily shuts the negotiation down.
“We have the cash right here, right now!”
Another cabbie walks up to the window, they have a conversation in another language. But, from what we work out he gets the nod that 250 is actually a good price for a ride to Edinburgh.
We pull out of the parking lot to the soundtrack of screaming and yelling. People are sobbing as they walk out of the station. It’s a complete collapse…and we’re escaping.
ACT III: PUDDLE HOPPING
As we hit the motorway Lauren shows us what she was so busy working on at the customer service window. It’s a signed document from the agent promising reimbursement for our means of travel to Edinburgh. It’s a receipt for an expensive cab ride, and reimbursement for the original train ticket.
Jon starts talking to the cab driver. We find out his name is Amman, he’s from Preston. His intent was to simply ferry people back and forth between Carlisle and Preston, which explains his initial reluctance to take us. Jon gives him 100 quid and promises the rest once we get to Edinburgh.
Even this four-door sedan is buffeted by the wind, although it’s nowhere as frightening as the motorcoach. My eyes start to get heavy and I pass into something I call “secret sleep”. I’ll write another post about secret sleep, it’d be too much of an aside at this point. Just know, I’m sleeping but I’m also awake.
I hear Jon and Amman discussing routing. The cabbie Amman had talked to back at the train station recommended a route through Glasgow, but there was a more direct route that Jon saw on his map. We weren’t really sure whether to trust this guy, and we thought the route through Glasgow was a runaround. But, here’s the thing: The route through Glasgow was all motorway, but the direct route was a windy two lane road…in the dark…in the middle of a massive, deluge of a storm.
So, yeah. We went our way…the wrong way.
I came back to full alert awake status thanks to a question about why it was raining instead of snowing. Only darkness appears outside the window. Amman is gripping the steering wheel with enough pressure to create diamonds. Water claims big portions of the road about every half mile. Each time Amman slows to a crawl, steers into the middle of the road and passes the puddle.
But, for every puddle that Amman sees in advance, there is one that surprises him. And his reaction is consistently wrong: slam on the brakes and turn the wheel toward the middle of the road. Each time we hydroplane just a little. And every once in a while there’s another car coming in the opposite direction, just to make things interesting.
We’re all on edge. And we’re in the middle of nowhere with a cab driver who knows we have money and we’re vulnerable. This is the second time on the day that I’m questioning the string of decisions that led to this moment. As we drive up and down the Scottish hills I’m counting down the miles to Edinburgh, looking for any lights in the distance to prove we’re almost there.
Driving up a steep hill I can barely make the outline of a taller mountain, the road is stringing along it’s side offering a reveal of a new horizon below. The lights of Edinburgh come into focus and, for the first time since being on that first train, I feel relieved.
Minutes later we’re unloading everything from the cab. We ended up paying Amman more than agreed, we kind of felt bad about what we had gotten him into…especially since we convinced him to take the back roads instead of the motorway thanks to our irrational fear of being taken advantage of.
Walking up to our Air BnB everything looks perfect. After about ten minutes of freshening up we hit the streets with empty bellies and a huge sense of accomplishment for having made it to Edinburgh, literally through hell and high water. The rain finally stopped, but the wind was still howling as we searched for a restaurant that was still open.
The Mussel and Steak Bar fit the bill. Stuffing our face with mussels and, er, steak while downing red wine by the bottle we all look across the table with same sense of exhausted amazement. Recounting the events of the day we all knew this trip had morphed from “fun” to “remarkable” to “mythical.” And this is what travel is all about…you know the whole cliche “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” thing. But, really it’s not the journey. It’s the determination behind that journey, knowing that there’s an experience you want to achieve, and then doing everything to see that come true. Moments like this aren’t about leisure, they’re about a real sense of growth and development…lessons that apply to life. And that is, after all, why we travel: exploration, discovery, growth and enlightenment.
And whisky.
Like the Scottish whiskies that the bartender at the Bow Bar is showcasing for Jon as he tries to make a perfect selection.
Here we sit, swigging whiskey and beer at a pub in Edinburgh that looks exactly as I’ve pictured a Scottish pub to look.
Just this is worth it.
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Donuts and Beigels

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The sign says “possibly DEFINITELY the best dougnuts in the world.”
Misspelling aside, that’s a bold statement to make. Especially to these American eyes. We did, after all, invent obesity thanks in large part to an endless supply of delicious donuts.
But, this is indeed a special donut. A big ball of fried dough oozing forth a vanilla cream that’s like eating a storm cloud, rich and thick…but also light and airy. I’m eating a storm cloud. (foreshadowing). Eating this thing is a gymnastic exercise in contorting your arm in all various positions to get every last bit of the cream before it’s claimed by Newtonian physics. I suppose you could use a knife and fork; but, that’s just un-American…even in England.
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With nary cloud in the sky the stream of the day is keeping us outdoors. The walk along Southbank is burnished into our subconscious, which is nice because that’s when you can relax a bit and pay attention to all the little things happening around you.
Lauren hasn’t been to the UK since high school, so the mission is to walk it out under beautiful blue skies and be tourists. Walking alongside Whitehall there is a small park with a series of war memorials. One of them is a simple oblisk with a soldier dedicated to the Korean War. It’s a sharp contrast to memorialize the same war on the National Mall. Again it’s fascinating to see how the collective memory works differently across international borders, perhaps it’s also a showcase of just how BIG we like to remember things in the States.
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Passing by Big Ben the crowds thicken. It is Friday, and a gorgeous one at that. We opt out of a walk through Westminster Abbey, I’ve been in there before and Lauren isn’t £20 interested. A long walk later puts us in front of Buckingham Palace where the crowds actually aren’t that bad. Sometimes it’s fun to return to a landmark, it’s another case where your attention works differently. The little details matter more, you’re less awestruck. For me, this is a good spot to play around with the camera and then watch people as they watch a palace presumably full of royal people. At least according to the flag.

The goal for the afternoon is to spend some time in the National Gallery, but that’s the only official item on the itinerary. And official is a loose term here. I was also debating with going into the Churchill War Rooms, which was the underground military brain during the Battle of Britain. The Gallery wins, in large part because I dragged Lauren through the British Museum for hours longer than she wanted to the day before. And I’m genuinely interested in the collection at the Gallery. Not to mention it, also, is free. Trafalgar Square is a fun place to photograph, the neoclassical design of the museum combined with the fountains in the plaza and the lions at the base of the Nelson monument create interesting scenes. The sun hangs low in the southern sky offering up some great light for a good part of the afternoon. Inside the works are nothing short of inspirational. I’ve written many times about the ability of art to transport you to another place, another frame of thought, if you let it. A few hours and a few IMG_2026Renoirs, Monets, Dagats and da Vincis later we were on our way back to Southbank. Another one of our friends is flying in, and a we have plans to meet a whole other set later in the evening.
Walking back along the river the Christmas markets are really picking up along with the post-work rush. As we walk along Southbank the milk tree is gone, replaced with…wait for it…a BEER tree. It’s a promotional stunt by Carlsberg, but all we have to do is wait in a short line and pour some beer from a tap IN THE TREE! Of course. So we pour a beer and sit and watch the river traffic along the Thames. It’s an English Christmas miracle.
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There are moments, if you’re paying attention, when you realize the depth and breadth of the scope of your life. It is through pure circumstance that I’m now at a place called Wheatsheaf adjacent to Borough Market sharing pints with seven Penn Staters. Five of them are good friends I’ve known for almost 15 years. A quirk of timing and opportunity brings us back together, and this is how life is great. Recreating the past, living in the present, pushing forward towards the future.
The pub scene of London is on full display here. We were lucky enough to score some inside territory, and a table, but the crowd is spilling into the street. That’s how the post-work pub party happens. It’s communal and maybe a tad bit excessive, but clearly traditional and, dare I say it, a bit more neighborly than the D.C. version of happy hour.
After a few pints we make some moves towards another part of town. The mission is salted beef bagels and, purportedly, the best pizza in London. In the process we lose one of our party to familial obligations, putting the kids to bed.
We choose the bus over the tube for this trip, and I’m more than happy with that. The double-decker buses are just as much tourist delight as they are public transit. The journey becomes the experience.
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Shoreditch is a model of gentrification. There are traces of a more traditional, and even turbulent past, but for the most part people here now have money and free time and a hunger to consume both.
We work up and put our name in at Homeslice. It’s actually a product of Covent Garden, but they’ve just opened this second location this week. The hope is that not too many people know about it yet.
Two hour wait.
So much for hopes and dreams. We put our names in, but with stomachs growling the new mission is IMG_2067salted beef beigels. We slice deeper into the neighborhood towards Brick Lane where the graffiti artist is a little more bold.
There are two competing places serving these sandwiches. Think Pats and Genos in Philly with smaller crowds. I’ve been forewarned that ordering is akin to an experience with the soup nazi. So yeah…just like Philly.
Within minutes we’re all on the sidewalk devouring these sandwiches from Brick Lane Beigel Bake. Some are pleased….others not so much. Me, well I’m in heaven. It’s a perfect balance of crunchy/chewy savory. Without even a word this thing is gone.
But, I can’t very well leave without trying the competitor. I walk two storefronts down to the Britain’s Best Beigel Shop. The sign says it’s the first and it has “best” in the name, so it has to be true.
“Kris, seriously…you don’t want to fill up on this before the pizza,” Em warns me.
IMG_2072Who’s filling up? This is the appetizer. And this is a mission, an experiment to determine the salted beef bagel champion.
The second is gone as quickly as the first. But, they lie: it is not “best”…it’s good…but not best.
With that eternally burning question satisfied we double back towards Homeslice, stopping at a pub called the Owl and the Pussycat to kill a little more time. This place is also packed to the brim, a situation made worse as we walk in the front door to the sound of shattering glass. It’s enough to prompt the bouncers to shuffle everyone inside. For about five minutes we’re playing the Jurassic Park drinking game. Oh, you don’t know the game??? It goes like this:
You’re in a crowded bar packed shoulder to shoulder such that extending your arm for a proper sip is an impossibility, thus the only way to bring rim of glass to lip is by pretending that your arms are little-T-Rex arms that you have to meet halfway. Jurassic Park. It’s a thing.
A beer or two later and it’s time for some pizza.
Here’s the deal, you know how I said there were seven Penn Staters…we now it’s actually eight on the evening. Another one of our friends from another era is in London with his wife house shopping ahead of a move to the city. Just another round of pure luck and he’s here with us for some pizza.
IMG_2081The pizza is delicious, not gonna lie. The chorizo and sweet corn is monstrously good. We plow through three of these pies with American efficiency. The stories along the way are as rich as the toppings (unfortunately those won’t be shared here).
The invisible string binding us all together is sometimes revealed when plucked just the right way. Tonight we’re playing that string like a harp.
Hugs, handshakes and waves later we’re back on a bus heading towards Southbank set for an early morning and a grand adventure (foreshadowing).
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Tea with Mummies

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Oh jetlag, sometimes you’re a sneaky little enemy.
I managed to make it until 1:30 in the morning before hitting bed. But waking up is next to impossible. My body wants to be in the deep REM mode typical for this time of day back home, but here it’s already mid morning. And all I want to do is sleep.
Coffee awaits.
Actually tea awaits…after the coffee.
Lauren has a reservation for a proper English tea. It’s not really my thing, but why not try out the experience.
Southbank is fairly easy access to much of what central London has to offer, and I love the need to cross over a bridge. There’s always a chance for a photo op.

A missed turn or two later and we are at Fortnum & Mason, a department store just bursting with four stories of Christmas.

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Down the stairs at Fortnum & Mason
The tea is served in the top level. It seems pretty fancy, then again I wouldn’t know otherwise. I’ve never done the high tea thing. At least the price tag says fancy. It’s all about the fine china here, and yet again Lauren and I are in a situation where we’re the youngest people in the place.
So tea is really lunch. At least that’s the impression I’m getting here. I mean, there is tea. But there’s also little finely cut finger sandwiches and scones and other delectable items about the size of my thumb. All of it is incredibly rich, some of it is tasty…and some of it I’d rather forget ever tasting.
It was a good experience. I’ll never do it again, but it’s worth trying…especially in London.
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The savory selection…which can get pretty interesting.
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It’s people having tea on a tea kettle staring back at you while you have tea. It’s all very meta.
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Just say no to teabags.
The British Museum has been something of a white whale for me. I’ve always wanted to check it out, but each time in London something would pop up. Not this time.
The natural place to start a journey through this immense collection is in the Enlightenment Room. It lays the foundation for why the museum exists in the first place, but it also serves as something of a monument to the Enlightenment (which also happens to be a historical infatuation of mine).
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Feeling enlightened.
The room is really a library, a collection of stuff. It’s organized to walk you through a dozen key points of the Enlightenment. Surrounded by books and artifacts and specimens you’ll get a new appreciation for the era.
The rest of the museum is a walk through time. Speaking of time, we didn’t have too much to play with before the museum closed. The map of the museum offers an “express highlight” tour that it says takes about 90 minutes.
I’m sure for most people that’s true, but with my ADD there’s no chance of making that timetable. Everything is interesting, even the things I wouldn’t think interesting.
There are entire civilizations and epochs to walk through, there’s no way this is happening in 90 minutes. It just took me an hour to get through the Babylonians and Assyrians and Persians.
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The long sleep.

We fast track to the Egyptian room. Surrounded by mummies and mummies and more mummies you get around to understanding that the British Museum barely has anything to do with the British. There’s also something really freaky about these mummies when you stop to think about it. Behind the glass in an atmosphere-controlled chamber, wrapped in linens, there are bodies…aged for three millennia. They died in the Egyptian desert and now here they are in damp London as millions of people gawk at them day in and day out.

Thankfully the mummies are not coming back to life today, and we make it to the Rosetta Stone unscathed. Here we are, staring at the stone that unlocked millions of mysteries of the ancient world. Just seeing this up close is worth the trip.
But alas, the English are serious about time, and at exactly 5:20 the museum staff politely escorted everyone out.

We are set to meet our friends at a Christmas market in Hyde Park (again this is the mission for Lauren). This means a healthy walk from the British Museum down Oxford Street. The sun sets early here, about 3:30, so we’re in full-on night mode. Light is a commodity in this part of the world. And to make up for a lack of natural light the English have gone full-out in decking the streets with every kind of Christmas light that exists.

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The London streets glow at night.

There are orbs and strings and stars and peacock-looking things. And suddenly it’s snowing! So magical…except, it shouldn’t be snowing. It’s like 45 degrees. High above one of the department stores snow guns are spewing out the artificial flakes. The crowd spills off of the sidewalk all along Oxford Street almost falling into traffic. A million carols and jingles drift in the air from competing storefronts, it’s holiday anarchy.

Clearly, the British take Christmas every bit as seriously as Americans…and Winter Wonderland is the final argument. Think of it this way: it’s like ten county fairs mated with the traditional German Christmas markets…that drinks like the English. It’s a spectacle. Ferris wheels and roller coasters and spinny-vomity machines illuminate the skyline. The pop-up theme park occupies a vast swath of Hyde Park. It feels a bit like the German part of Epcot, with a lot more whiskey.
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We sync up with Jon and Emily just as the rain starts falling in earnest. In our effort to find cover, we instead discover a gem of an experience. It’s a merry-go-round occupied by people drinking. AND there is a bar in the middle, so there’s no need to hop off this little carousel. But, hop off we do and continue on to another bit of cover. It’s a patio with a massive fire pit in the middle, a perfect spot to warm up and dry off, and game plan. I think we met our fill of Winter Wonderland relatively quickly, in large part because of a rain that was only picking up.
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An Uber later and we were eating an entire chicken speared into a plate of fries at a Southbank restaurant with cleverly named cocktails and pictures of naked women in the bathrooms.
Goodnight London.
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This chicken flew straight into the ground, sad story…
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You probably won’t find this menu item at Denny’s.
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Ah, yes…the traditional Christmas ferris wheel.
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That does not look like the North Pole.
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This fire pit could really be more fire and less pit.
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Just another staring contest lost by me.
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Bodies…everywhere.
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In case of emergency, do NOT break glass.

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Nothing like a little 13th century chess match…somebody should just call a draw on this one.
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So happy my high school latin class is finally paying off…
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The British Museum is fancy on the inside.
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English candy is not unhealthy. #facts
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This is how I learned spanish!

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The time machine.
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