Don’t Expect Benevolence When Traveling

Benevolence: 1. disposition to do good 2. a. an act of kindness b. a generous gift.  

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

I’ve recently completed planning an upcoming trip to Spain. I’ve inevitably said it before. I love Spain. Specifically, I love Barcelona and Catalonia. One day, I plan to own property and spend as much time as possible under the Catalan sun. I could drone on and on about it, but I’ll spare you. This post, rather, is a story of lessons learned in the pull-no-punches world of travel.

March 2 or February 3?

It all started with the date. My birthday is March 3. My better half and I tend to travel on or around my birthday. This past year, we opted for other locations rather than our beloved Spain. It has left a hole in our hearts that we aim to fill post haste. So this year, we’re headed back. As a huge football (soccer) fan, and having chosen FC Barcelona in 1978 as my club of clubs, we prioritize games at Camp Nou. We’ve been many times. We’re accustomed to searching the schedule and selecting games. We know, for instance, that European dates are written as Day-Month as opposed to Month-Day. Or are they? Earlier this year we looked on the website and saw the schedule that Valencia will be in town to face our blaugrana on 2/3. Perfect! I haven’t seen Valencia play in person and its a day before my birthday. Except that it isn’t. When we recently logged in to buy tickets, we came to realize that the website had transposed the dates for us American folk and Valencia will in fact be playing not on 2-Mar, but on 3-Feb. Of course, the game has now moved to 2-Feb because of other midweek fixtures, which will highlight my next point. But not so fast. Instead of playing a home game on 2-Mar, the current rendering of my childhood heroes will be on the road playing their bitter rivals Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu on 3-Mar. So if I want to see the game – and of course I do – we now have to travel to Madrid, which we weren’t planning to do.

Moving Targets

Having realized our folly, my wife and I shared a laugh. It really didn’t matter. We weren’t changing the dates of our travel just to see FCB play a home game. And, come on. If we can make the budget work, we’ll get to see another El Clasico, this time in the Bernabeu, which we have never visited. On top of that, we LOVE traveling by train in Europe. We often figure out how to visit another city simply to enjoy the train for a few hours. So, we checked our budgets and figured out how to get the tickets for the big game. Tickets now procured for the big game on 3-Mar (happy birthday to me!), it was time to get train tickets. I dutifully logged into Rail Europe and bought tickets at a great price. I was more than two months out, so tickets are quite manageable. I opted to not double the cost of the tickets with insurance because, come on, how could the date of El Clasico change? I then logged into Airbnb to find us a spot near the stadium for the night. It was a night game and we knew we would want to sleep in Madrid instead of chancing a busy night train back to Barcelona. I found an incredible little place at a great rate within a few blocks of the stadium. I am lucking out! It was available, which Airbnb tells me is a bit rare for game weekends and it auto-books as soon as I hit the go button – no negotiations. That is about the point where it all started to fall apart.

To my utter dismay, we got an alert from the ticket agency. Due to a midweek match in the Champions League, the date of El Clasico was moving from 3-Mar to 2-Mar. For any American readers who don’t appreciate European sports, this is like moving the NFC playoff game from a Sunday to a Saturday. Simply unheard of. Yes, yes, the European club schedules all have the asterisked liner note *subject to change*, but seriously? Who changes El Clasico? LaLiga, that’s who. With one stroke of the pen, my Airbnb reservation and my fast-on-the-draw train tickets were rendered useless. Surely not. There is plenty of time, and I know my way around the negotiation table. I’ll make short work of this. It is a simple change of the date for reservations that are more than a month away. Just a few more conversations to take care of. Minimal complications for an experienced traveler.

Not so fast Mr. Negotiator

First up, the train tickets. I logged into the website to figure out the contact point. Often European travel companies such as the rail system have a US number so you can call and talk to an actual person. But I see they’ve added Live Chat as an option. Perfect. I’ll state my case, strike a fine balance between self-deprecation and skillful logic, and voila, we’ll have new tickets issued, perhaps for a minimal change fee. If I’m on my game, I could even negotiate my way out of those pesky fees. After all, who changes the date of El Clasico? As things would have it, I apparently was not on my game. Not only did I fail to get my reservation moved by a day for a change fee, I had no success whatsoever. I asked what they would do with the now useless tickets we had purchased. Did they need me to at least confirm that they would not be used so someone else could buy them? No, my delightful little chat agent told me, “Simply, don’t show up. We don’t track how many tickets go unfulfilled.” My inner Process Engineer was balking at the waste in this process. But all for nought. My indignation and roughly $150 were able to purchase a new set of tickets at a time when we’d be able to actually see the game. Ok, unlucky at cards, lucky with the bed. I’m certain I’ll do better with Airbnb.

Airbnb is different. It isn’t some cold hotel employee who could care less about your silly needs. Airbnb is run by people – real people like you and me – who will appreciate the scrambling caused by the date change of El Clasico. And besides, this is Spain, where they run the Teleferico for an extra 90 minutes after closing because people are standing in line. I’m sure my Airbnb hosts will have a good laugh with me and we’ll get this all sorted out. Simple date change and we’re good to go. After several back-and-forth messages, here’s the deal that I was offered: “Good morning Troy, March 2 is available but it’s needed booking 2 days or more and it’s more expensive for the match and weekend day so we understand if you don’t want to book.” So instead of simply moving the reservation by one day at the same price, I now needed to book at least two days and pay a higher price per day than the one day I had previously reserved. In this case, I did not take the bait. The Airbnb host and I mutually agreed to cancel the reservation (for a minimal fee, of course) and I did business elsewhere.

The universe does not care about your silly travels

I have to admit that I was feeling a bit daunted by this round of failed negotiations. I’ve been extra busy at work and simply committing the time to make the adjustments was a fairly big effort. Figuring out new days and times, where to be and when, how to coordinate with other plans during the trip were all complications before the matter of money hit the table. A few weeks ago, I observed in Why We Travel that we travel so the uniqueness of the new experiences will pull us out of our routines and to challenge us to think differently about the world around us. I think this is part of that very same message. I’m not special. The world doesn’t owe me anything. If anything, I should thank my lucky stars that I’m privileged to have these complications. My attachment to the way things should be is just unskilled thinking. In the end, it will all work out. So far it has cost more time and money than we wanted, but we’re still going to have a great time. And the uniqueness of this new experience has pulled me out of my routine and challenged me to think differently about the world around me.

Wishing you great travels filled with less folly than mine.

Cheers!

Why We Travel

Our family just returned home from a family weekend trip to the town of Frankenmuth, Michigan. Frankenmuth – as the name suggests – is a bit like a small town was scooped out of the Bavarian part of Germany and transplanted in Central Michigan. My wife and I stopped by Frankenmuth on our way to Traverse City in the summer and we concluded that this would be a fun place to bring the kids for our Christmas trip. I don’t think I’m spoiling the blog post here to tell you, dear reader, that we parents miscalculated the kids’ embrace of this little trip. Put simply, we missed the mark.

Scooped out of Bavaria

I started drafting this post in the hotel room the morning of our departure. As I sat down to write, three of our four kids were staring creepily into their personal device screens with headphones in. The older two kids were sharing a sofa, which means they were within 2 feet of one another, and yet they were in their own little worlds. As I watched them geeking out, I sat for a moment pondering the failure of this trip.

We reserved a suite in a hotel with a water park, replete with kids’ adventure areas, multiple water slides, a lazy river, and an old fashioned indoor pool and hot tub combo. Right next door was Bronner’s Christmas World, which is an out-and-out extravaganza of Christmas consumerism. If nothing else, it is worth a walk through to see the nearly countless ornament combinations in terms of color scheme and thematic character. The town of Frankenmuth is well-decorated year-round, and although it could be accused by more cynical travelers of being a bit of a tourist trap, it has a quaint charm that draws people in.

Before we think more deeply about this failure of ours, let’s first talk about the magnitude. Our daughter didn’t bring a swim suit. The two youngest boys brought swim suits, but each was at least one size too small. No one brought sandals or any form of cover up. In essence, this trip wasn’t really on their minds. All of the kids turned us down when we offered a walk down town in the well-lit evening to see the Christmas decorations and to pop in and out of the nearly 20 fun and unique shops on the main street. Instead, they opted to keep their noses in their individual devices in the hotel room. The three boys spent an hour in the water park. Our daughter went out with me the morning before we left to pick up breakfast for the family. But other than that, it was a pretty dismal showing.

Where did we go wrong? The last several years, we have had fun trips to some great destinations that they’ve really enjoyed. Have we lost them? Has the internet cyborg finally mind-melded with our children to the point of no return? I resisted the temptation to get angry and tell them off. “Your mom and I planned this trip for you and now you’re going to enjoy it!” But that’s self-serving. Yes, their devices can be like black holes, but we’ve overcome this digital inertia before.

In short, we missed the mark because my wife and I were drawn in to the quaintness of this town and we projected our 40-something perspective onto the kids. “Oh they’ll love it,” we told ourselves this summer. “We can take them shopping and get them tickets to the water park and they’ll have a blast.” The truth is that our kids mostly don’t like shopping and they rarely go for swimming these days. This caused me to start thinking about why we travel in the first place. Now wiser from a failed journey, I think I have it.

We travel so the uniqueness of the new experiences will pull us out of our routines and to challenge us to think differently about the world around us. Frankenmuth didn’t do that for our kids. Don’t get me wrong, Frankenmuth is a lovely town. But given our kids’ historical travels and experiences, there was nothing new enough for them to overcome the tractor beams of WiFi. Are they spoiled? Debatably, yes. Could we, rather, should we have predicted the outcome? Absolutely. Next year, we may not travel with the kids. We might be coming to the end of a cycle with them where our interests are just too different to pull together. However, if we decide to travel, the uniqueness of the new experiences must be enough to pull them out of their routines. Because if not, it isn’t worth the time and energy.

Going Home

“Going home and spending time with your family and your real friends keeps you grounded.” – Jennifer Ellison

This weekend, my wife and I went “home” to the greater Portsmouth, Ohio area. She and I were both born and (as for me, mostly) raised there. Her parents are still there. Mine moved on when I was 14, but I still have plenty of roots. We were without kids this weekend and owed her Mom some “we” time, so made the 2+ hour drive from our house to my wife’s childhood home. I think I can speak for my wife to say that going home for both of us this weekend was bittersweet.

Life in Portsmouth is completely different from our life in Columbus, Ohio. Portsmouth is the epitome of small-town middle America with a population of less than 30,000. Columbus is a major metropolitan city where the population approaches 2 million. In Columbus, we have something going on every night of the week; dinner with friends, kids’ sporting activities, organized after-work events, and so on. In Portsmouth, there might be one event per week in addition to Wednesday evening church service. When we go “home,” we experience the life of our childhood. The life that we couldn’t wait to escape. The slower, sleepy life that would drive us nuts from boredom on the long-term, but that we honestly relish in bits and pieces on these brief weekend treks down memory lane.

This weekend, I went hiking  for four hours with my cousin’s husband. From start to finish, neither of us could get cell service among our three mobile phones. Not that we wanted it, I’m just offering a sense of how remote things are in the greater Portsmouth area. My wife and I also attended a car show, which is where people from all around the local Tri-State area (Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia) drive their always polished, often restored, sometimes cobbled together hotrods and put them on display for eager gawkers and some serious bragging rights. The night usually wraps up when the hotrods begin to file out onto the main road and leave a good bit of rubber behind in a plume of blue-grey smoke. It is like a scene out of the movie American Graffiti. We spent a good bit of time with family sharing food and catching up on stories and events. My wife and I also squeezed in a 3 mile training run in the downtown area and on the campus of my first alma mater, Shawnee State University. During our travels around the county, I drove past every house I lived in until I moved away from the area. All of this brings me back to the bittersweet point.

A part of me – a very small part indeed – misses that life. Sure, we couldn’t live in the house we live in now. Our kids wouldn’t have had the opportunities that they’ve had in the Columbus area. No, we couldn’t travel like we do. Yes, I find myself getting cranky at the painfully slow drivers while I’m down there. On and on. But. BUT, a small part of me misses that simpler, small town life. A part of me misses the time when the big event of the day was putting two bare feet into the water and casting a fishing pole. That same part of me misses the house I grew up in, the friends with whom I learned about life, and the roads on which I learned to drive. Judging by my wife’s eagerness to show me the artifacts of her past, I think she share’s the sentiment.

I’m sure this is just the nostalgia of the trip taking hold. If you moved us back to Portsmouth today, my wife and I would go stir crazy in 3 days – or less. I think the important thing here is to revisit memory lane with vulnerability every now and again. With vulnerability, I mean to be open to the trip, to slow down and walk the paths of the memory, to revisit events and consider their impact on you. We can so easily get caught up in planning the next big trip or office politics or whatever. But there’s nothing like a trip to your childhood home to ground you in the terra firma of who you are and what in life is important. It offers a whole new perspective to the impending work week.

The house featured in this post is the current state of my parent’s home when I was brought home from the hospital more than 43 years ago. I remember it as a quaint red brick and red siding house in good repair surrounded by a chain link fence to keep me and our small dog in the yard. But that was a long time ago. Times change.

Ulysses: The Lotus Eaters

In Book IX of Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are blown off course by a terrible storm and arrive at the land of the lotus eaters. In need of supplies, the men disembark and interact with the locals. The people do them no harm, but offer them their local food, which is derived from the lotus flower. The powerful narcotic makes the men sleepy and lackadaisical about heading home. Ultimately, Odysseus ushers his men back onto the boat and they are put back on their journey. This book is about lazy intoxication.

In Ulysses, The Lotus Eaters episode is “action packed” in the midst of the mundane. Bloom has left his house a good bit early for Dignam’s funeral and walks to the post office. From the post office, he walks into a church service and from there he walks to Sweny’s pharmacy to order Molly’s lotion. Recall from Calypso that Bloom, who is willing to bring his wife breakfast in bed, is painfully aware of her impending affair with Blazes Boylan. Aside from his sexual objectification of the neighbor lady in the butcher shop, he seems like a practical, stand up man. The reader is drawn to pity him. We all have the occasional stray thought and it wasn’t as if he was actively pursuing the neighbor lady. In The Lotus Eaters, we catch another side of Bloom. We learn through his trip to the post office that he is carrying on at least a written flirtation with another woman under a pseudonym. His pseudonym, Henry Flower, would indicate that his actions are premeditated. Our hero is in fact a flawed man.

Outside the post office, while Bloom is trying to focus on the letter from his naughty pen pal Martha Clifford, Bloom’s acquaintance McCoy stops for a chat. The stream of consciousness dialogue can be difficult here because Bloom is carrying on his thoughts while McCoy is talking and then Bloom spots a sexy upper class woman across the street. We’re exposed to the inner and outer man simultaneously. The dialogue of McCoy, Bloom’s annoyance of McCoy, Bloom’s wandering thoughts, and Bloom’s desire to see more of the woman across the street are all intermingled.

During the dialogue, McCoy asks Bloom about his wife, Molly, and the discussion turns to singing engagements. McCoy’s wife has gotten a gig and he’s eager to share the news. We again see multiple sides of Bloom here. Internally he scoffs at the comparison between McCoy’s wife and Molly, as he views Molly as the superior. With regards to the sponsorship and organization of Molly’s singing engagement, we also read the first asking of the question, “Who’s getting it up?” With an obvious sexual overtone to the question, Bloom can never bring himself to give the straight answer, which is Blazes Boylan. He gives McCoy a complex round-about answer because he cannot bring himself to verbalize the connection between Boylan and his wife.

After reading the naughty letter from Martha, Bloom goes into a church during mass. Through is inner dialogue as he observes the service, we get his thoughts on the Catholic machinery. He thinks about the whole process with complete detachment and analyzes its effectiveness on the masses.

From the church, Bloom heads over to Sweny’s pharmacy. He realizes that he has left the recipe to Molly’s lotion along with his house key in his other trousers. The chemist is able to pull the recipe from the records. The lotion will be ready for pick up later, so Bloom takes a bar of lemon soap on credit and moves to leave the pharmacy. He then runs into Bantam Lyons who asks to see Bloom’s newspaper to get a tip on the day’s horse race. In another effort to be left alone, Bloom offers his newspaper to Lyons while internally casting judgement on him and the others who seem to be caught up in a recent gambling frenzy. Lyons mistakes Bloom’s statement that he was going to throw the paper away as a tip on a racehorse and rushes off. Bloom is then left to his thoughts and he drifts to thinking about a bath and a massage.

Themes

The connection between Ulysses and The Odyssey in this episode didn’t quite hit me over the head at first. The lotus eaters are satisfied in their lazy stupor, not striving for anything. While this period for Bloom is essentially killing time between the morning and Dignam’s funeral, I was attempting to find the at-rest inertia of the Dublin locals to connect to the Greek lotus eaters. It didn’t seem to be there. McCoy has ambitions, as does his wife. Lyons is in a rush to bet on the horses. Only after considering the themes did I get it. The lotus eater here is Bloom. He doesn’t want to be at home in the face of Molly’s affair and he doesn’t have any particular place to be. He’s free to wander about. As he observes the world around him and his thoughts wander, we are keyed into some of the themes.

  • Intoxicants: Bloom thinks of the Far East as a lazy intoxicating place. He observes the stupefied horses drawing the tram. He considers the calming narcotic effect of smoking a cigar. At the chemist, Bloom thinks about alchemy and sedatives.
  • Marital Infidelity: Molly is forever on Bloom’s mind even though he has left home for the day and essentially knows that Molly will have an affair. Bloom sexualizes an upper class woman across the street and hopes to catch a glimpse of her legs. We also learn that Bloom is carrying on a secret correspondence with another woman who knows he is married. She asks, “Are you not happy in your home?” and “Tell me, what perfume does your wife wear?”
  • False Cordiality: In both cases of Bloom’s interaction with people he knows, he is cordial but – because we’re treated to his thoughts – we see that he is being false. He tries to avoid McCoy but is accosted. During the conversation, Bloom only marginally focuses on what McCoy is saying. His interest is piqued when McCoy tries to compare his wife to Molly, at which Bloom internally scoffs. At Sweny’s, Bloom considers the shortest way possible to get rid of Lyons. Ironically, Lyons takes Bloom’s castoff comment as a tip on the horse race, which we’ll revisit later.
  • Criticism of Catholicism: There is scarcely any other way to interpret Bloom’s objective evaluation of than catholic mass than as critical. By this point in Joyce’s life, he has had a full crisis of faith. Given his treatment of the mass in this lotus eating episode, I would be remiss if I didn’t connect back to Karl Marx’s assertion that “[religion] is the opium of the people.” It is never stated, but that’s not Joyce. He shows the reader rather than telling them.

As I close, I am sitting in marvel at the literary giant that is James Joyce. In giving us the flawed hero with a flawed wife who lives in a flawed community, and whose adventure spans 24 hours of an everyday middle class life in early 1900’s Dublin, Joyce essentially stopped the clocks and examined life at a depth rarely glimpsed elsewhere. If nothing else, Ulysses is intensely human.

Ulysses: Calypso

Happy Bloomsday! Today is June 16, which is the day James Joyce’s Ulysses is celebrated around the world. In the last couple of years, I have taken to reading Ulysses and done my level best to wrap up the reading on June 16. This year I decided to blog about each episode along the way, which, as I have learned, dramatically slows the process. However, I’m also finding that I’m getting more out of the reading this time around, so I’m happy with the process. With that said, it is time for another installment.

Calypso

“In the act of going, he stayed.” In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus is ensnared by Calypso on an island during his travels. The nature of the ensnarement isn’t all bad. Although Calypso is ego-centric and selfishly wants to keep Odysseus as her own, she is a beautiful goddess-nymph  and she generally treats Odysseus well. Their relationship is carnal. But after some time – Homer’s timeline has it at 7 years – Odysseus misses his wife Penelope and wants to make his way home. It takes an appeal to the gods and Hermès finally frees him at the behest of Zeus himself.

The Cast

Now in the fourth episode of Ulysses, we finally meet our hero, Leopold Bloom. Much like the earlier parts of the book, we’re treated to a continuum of thoughts and actions, although we are limited to reading the thoughts of Bloom and Stephen. We meet Bloom’s wife, Molly, and we learn that they have a daughter, Milly. We also learn that they had a son named Rudy who died in infancy.

Relatively speaking, there is a ton of action in this episode. We have rewound to start the day at 8 AM – this time with Bloom. He goes to the butcher to pick up a pork kidney and observes the Dublin of 1904 around him. He comes home and cooks breakfast, which is a bit of a gender role reversal for this timeframe. Bloom picks up the mail dropped from the mail slot, which includes a letter for him from Milly, a card for Molly from Milly, and a letter for Molly from the antagonist, Blazes Boylan. The Blooms have a conversation about reincarnation and several polite exchanges. Leopold then eats his own breakfast and heads to the outhouse to finish off his morning ritual. There are also several interactions with the family cat throughout.

Themes

There are themes aplenty in the Calypso episode. Like Calypso, the episode has sexual references throughout. Also like the goddess, who would have been a champion for women’s equal rights, we get the strong indication that Molly will soon stray from the marriage with Boylan and that Leopold is aware. Bloom gives a lot of thought about staying and going. 

Sexual overtones: Bloom notices his wife’s feminine form and features as he interacts with her. Bloom also takes notice of the “vigorous hips” on the next-door girl in front of him at the butcher’s shop and wishes the butcher would hurry so he could walk behind her towards home. It’s “Pleasant to see first thing in the morning.” His thoughts drift off to this woman having an affair with a constable. When he misses out on walking behind the lady, his thoughts drift to his wife, Molly and pleasant evenings of the past. Back home, he thinks of being near Molly’s “ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.” The reference to the word “yes” here also will have overt sexual tones once we get to the final episode and get the chance to spend some time with Molly’s thoughts.” Additionally in this episode, Bloom recognizes that his daughter Milly, who has turned 15 yesterday is coming of age. As he considers his wife’s interest in Blazes Boylan and his daughter’s interest in Bannon, he concedes that it is impossible to prevent in either case.

Staying and Going: For me, the most important sentence of the whole episode is, “In the act of going, he stayed.” This is Calypso in a nutshell – both in Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses. This sentence comes after he notices the opened letter from Boylan tucked under Molly’s pillow. He has seen the flirtation between the two. He knows they’ll be working together and he knows his wife is interested in him. However, there are faraway thoughts throughout the episode as well. Bloom thinks of Molly’s father in the Middle East and in Gibraltar. He considers investing in the tracts of land offered in Turkey to be a farmer. Bloom considers the plight of the Jewish people (Bloom is a Jew), and also considers traveling for several weeks to Mullingar, which is where the daughter Milly is staying. But at the same time, Bloom is wavering back and forth about also staying. Notably, when he goes to the outhouse he thinks about the back garden and how the soil is bad. He has a distinct thought to “Reclaim the whole place.” I believe this is poignant. Joyce is showing us rather than telling us that our hero is conflicted about what to do. Should he stay or go? Or both? Like Odysseus, maybe he will go and then come back to “reclaim his rightful place.”

Other prominent themes in the episode include business, jews, and death. The prominent public event in the story involves going to the funeral of Patrick Dignam, who died suddenly in recent days. The episode ends with the words “Poor Dignam!” as Blooms thoughts shift on a dime to close.

In Contrast

When contrasted with the other 8 AM and simultaneous episode, Telemachus, in which Stephen Daedalus is the focal point, we see several stark differences. Bloom is older and more practical about his thoughts, while Stephen is more ego-centric or fanciful. Stephen is off contemplating the stars while Bloom is calculating return on investment. Bloom is considering “staying and going” in the face of his wife’s imminent stray from the marital bedroom while Stephen is holding a grudge over his friend’s comment that his mother was “beastly dead.” These contrasts demonstrate the mastery that Joyce had over the human psyche. By showing us a difference in maturity in human thoughts while interweaving so many other themes, Ulysses is perhaps the richest case of demonstrated human understanding in the literary world.

Photo credit: Odysseus und Kalypso by Arnold Böcklin (1883), by The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=147930

 

Wild Horses Save The Beach

If I’m honest, I don’t love the beach. There, I’ve said it. Yes, yes, it is beautiful. But I’m more of a go-out-and-explore than a toes-in-the-sand-with-a-beer-in-my-hand kind of person. So it was with some trepidation that I set aside a week to go to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I am quite clear on how silly that sounds. My lovely mother lined it up so that my sister and her family and I and my family could come together with her for a week at one of the most popular beach destinations in the Eastern United States, and I’m feeling trepidation? I’d probably make a good extra in an Adam Sandler movie.

We’re now in the second half of beach week. We’ve gone to the pool, we’ve caught some rays, we’ve gone to the beach, we did battle with some large waves and decent riptide, and we (I) got a small crustacean stuck in our swim suit. With a couple of days to go, I was thinking that was it – rinse and repeat – although hopefully I could avoid another sand crab incident. But then my wife and better half decided to pull on a thread that has been dangling in front of us. All of our rooms include this seemingly obligatory picture of horses on the beach. Someone mentioned something about wild horses at dinner the other night, but we didn’t think it was a real thing. I mean, this is the modern, arguably overdeveloped Eastern sea board of the US, and it’s the beach. Horses? Pulling out her trusty mobile device, she quickly learned that there is in fact a not-quite-indigenous population of wild horses roaming free on a 7,500 acre stretch of American beach.

Spanish War Horses

In the year 1492, there was this Italian guy who left from Spain to find a short route to the East Indies. He kind of muffed it. But, he did run across this new place that had some prospects. You’ve probably heard that story. So fast forward a bit and pretty soon the Spanish are sending boats to the American coast pretty routinely. The Outer Banks, it turns out, are particularly difficult to navigate. A naturally occurring string of barrier islands that span 200 miles, there are shoals and riptides and all kinds of fun little things for boats to stumble upon. No one knows for sure, but it is assumed that either the horses were tossed off a grounded ship to lighten the load or they somehow survived a wreck. Either way, a group of Spanish war horses (their DNA has been verified) made it to shore in the Outer Banks and have been hanging out in the wild for about 500 years.

Now, I’m an American and I love America, warts and all. But one of the things we Americans are not good at is leaving well enough alone. So forgive me when I declared shenanigans at the idea of a rogue colony of Spanish War Horses living on the beach in North Carolina. I think it would have been much more likely that settlers discovered the horses, tamed them, and their story was swallowed up by history. What I didn’t realize is that the Outer Banks are a relatively new build-out. As late as 1985, there were no paved roads in the Corolla Beach area. So at this point, the horses have been here a good bit longer than the people.

Hop In My Hummer

My skepticism in check, I’m now fully on board. I’ve got to see this. My wife unholstered her trusty smartphone to figure out that Wild Horse Adventure Tours was the best gig in town. We were able to pick our tour time, complete the transaction, and sign the waivers all from the phone. Fantastic! But wait, it gets better. The company has outfitted original Hummers with 12 bucket seats for passengers in an open air environment. The evening was cool for North Carolina and again, the tour company was on point with blankets for all the passengers. We met our Tour Guide, Pippy, whose enthusiasm for the area and the horses was infectious. So we sat in comfort and made the 20 minute trek out to Currituck National Wildlife Refuge.

Wild Horses

The tour was fantastic. It included a good bit of the natural and human history of the area as well as the horses. Pippy masterfully guided the Hummer back into the dunes. The first thing that struck me about the area was the number of gigantic beach houses interspersed among the dunes. I want to be clear here. There are no roads. To get to these mostly two-story homes built on at least one story of stilts to avoid the floods, people have to have 4X4 vehicles to navigate the dunes and trapped water in the area. Also, I don’t quite understand how they’re building in a wildlife refuge, but this is much more like the America I know. If you’ve got a cool million to throw at a beach house in a probable flood plain that has no roads and requires a rugged vehicle to reach it, we’ll find you a permit to build. But I digress. We were back in the dunes about five minutes before finding our first harem of horses. The herd is made up of about 100 horses, but these split off into harems as the males are quite territorial. A harem is comprised of at least one stallion and one mare, but – to quote Pippy, “The stallion will take on as many mares as he can handle, usually 3-5.” The horses are beautiful, and I’m sure they are wild. However, they’re certainly not easily spooked. As we drove around the only navigable parts of the dunes, we frequently came quite near the horses as we passed by slowly. We were even treated to a good look at the herd’s only colt of the season, as he was eating grass next to an outdoor air conditioning unit in the backyard of one of the mega-houses. In all cases, the horses went on about their business grazing and doing what horses do as we and other tour companies patrolled the area.While we did not see horses running and frolicking in the waves as the pictures in our condo would suggest, it was still an excellent experience. We learned a little history, saw a good bit of the dunes between the Atlantic and the Currituck Sound, got fairly up close and personal with some wild Spanish War Horses, and got to do all of it in the comfort of a well-navigated Hummer. If this is life at the beach, I am revising my future beach-going trepidation.

Here are a few more photos I took on our travels

Looking back on 42

42. That is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. At least according to Deep Thought, the supercomputer in Douglas Adams’ seminal work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is. Those who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide… will already be snickering with this reminder. Those who have not, should. Having recently completed my 42nd trip around the sun on this tiny blue planet, I’ve decided to have a look back on my Ultimate Year.

  • It was my first full year without my Dad. He died in 2016, and looking back, his death has had a huge impact on me. Most notably, the circumstances of his death had a profound influence on my mindfulness practice.
  • A year of seniors. My son is now a senior in college, my daughter a senior in high school. My, how time flies.
  • I ran my first marathon. And my second, and my third, and my fourth. I can be obsessive.
  • My first full year of eating a plant-based diet. Inspired by Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, I’ve got better health numbers now than I did in most of my 20’s and all of my 30’s.
  • It was a good year for my career too. I want to keep my career separate from this blog, but it was a good year following a promotion to a leadership position. I have a fantastic team full of amazing individuals. I wouldn’t trade a single one.
  • My mindfulness practice tipped – in a good way. I read several insightful books this past year, but two of the best were The Power of Now by Eckart Tolle and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Gaining insights and simply fumbling my way through it, I have taken control of my emotions and want for almost nothing. I would by no means call myself enlightened, but it is a fascinating state of being.
  • I supportted my wife as she pursues her passion: a Master’s of Psychology from Harvard University.
  • I fell in love with trail running. Previously, I had only pounded the pavement. In my 42nd year, I ran several trail races locally and, perhaps most life-altering, I got the chance to run the petit balcon in the French Alps near Chamonix. This is where I took the lead picture of this post.
  • I was able to go whale watching. Surprisingly, this was the highlight of our trip to the Massachusetts beach house in Marshfield. I expected to like seeing whales. I didn’t expect to be mystified.
  • We finally took the trip to Montserrat. After years of traveling to Barcelona and always thinking about it, we finally took the day trip to Montserrat. The monastery houses the Black Madonna and my Mom was speechless. The views from the mountain are stunning.

As I wrap up this short post, I find myself in a state of complete gratitude. My wife and I both hail from small towns (I’m not even sure “town” is the right word for these places) in the Appalachian Ohio Valley, home of economic backwaters and the opioid crisis. Sometimes we look at each other and just shake our heads in awe of what the Universe has provided. The views at 42 were pretty grand.

The view from the Marshfield, MA beach house:

Whale Watching on Cape Cod

James and me (right) in Chamonix before heading up into the Alps

My homemade veggie paella

Looking down from Montserrat