This Open Road

A season walking southbound on the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail 2015: Southbound

 “I was wondering if you’d been to the Mountain, to look at the valley below?

Did you see all the roads tangled down in the valley?

Did you know which way to go?

The mountain stream runs pure and clear, and I wish to my soul I could always be here.

But there’s a reason to live way down in the valley that only the Mountain knows. “

– Noel Paul Stookey

* * *

I’ve been preparing for this moment, in my mind at least, since I last left Maine. I’m about to begin a southbound hike on the Appalachian Trail.

I’ve been organizing, packing and making lists for weeks. For months. This routine is familiar to me. But instead of preparing to live in Japan for several months, this time I’m getting ready for another hike on the AT. Soon, I’ll be in Baxter State Park, at the base of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. 5.2 miles up the Hunt Trail, at the top of Katahdin is the simple wooden sign designating the northern terminus of the AT. I know this sign. I’ve been there three different times: at the end of my northbound 1998 thru-hike; five years later with friends for a “trailversary” hike; and in 2011, at the end of my two-part section hike.

This week, I plan to once again touch that weathered, simple, beautiful sign, only this time it will be the beginning of a different kind of trek. This time I will be walking south.

* * *

I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of going southbound. Northbound is the more popular direction to walk. Most hikers start in March or April and “walk with spring,” usually finishing on Mt. Katahdin in the fall. Baxter State Park closes in mid-October, so thru-hikers need to time their summit accordingly. Southbound hikers can start as early as mid-May (when the trails in BSP open), although black flies and high-water fords can be challenging. I will be starting the third week in July. There is no time limit for finishing at Springer Mountain, the southern end of the trail. This year the length of the trail is 2,189 miles.

My schedule has more to do with my teaching commitments. I just finished a 10-week, e-learning tutoring program for Westgate, and I’m also taking a break from tutoring for the Russian company I’ve been working with. I plan to hike for two weeks in order to get through the most remote part of Maine. After that, I’ll resume tutoring online on a weekly basis when I’m in town to resupply.

I was so fortunate to spend the last few months with my parents at their house. I taught online, spent time with my grandma and explored permanent work options. As I fine-tuned my online routine, I realized that with creative planning, everything I was doing at home I could do while hiking, and in a place that is incredibly meaningful to me. I’m attempting to do it all: backpack the AT, continue to work online and prepare for a full-time job.

My pictures will now be posted on Instagram, instead of embedded in the blog posts. (See the widget on the right side of the page).

I will be journaling as I hike, and will update the blog when I’m in town. I’m so excited to begin this southbound walk and to share it with you! Let’s hike!

Spring Musings

It’s been two months since I returned from working in Japan, even longer since I’ve written my last post and I’m more than ready to be blogging again!

I’ve continued to teach online for an international company and have really enjoyed the rapport with my students. In order to teach more and to reach a wider audience, I recently launched my own online English tutoring site: Open Roads English. This was a time-consuming project and I’m pleased with the results. As learning English – and specifically online learning – grows in popularity around the world, having an internet platform makes teaching possible from “virtually” everywhere. This is exciting to me and my challenge now is to learn how to market my online services better. (Feel free to send the link to anyone you think would be interested!)

I’ve been working on all of this from Basecamp (my parents’ house). The Camp Managers (my parents) have been very welcoming and are supportive of my online pursuits and are curious about other ideas I talk about trying. I’m constantly making new plans, then letting the idea perk or fade away on the winds of “reality”, which tend to be the sad sack of many exciting thoughts. Some of my latest plans: Getting an RV and teaching online from the road. Or perhaps there’s another thru-hike to be done and a book to be written. Or a walk/run/hike across America. I’ve analyzed, tested and, to greater and lesser degrees, semi-started all of these ideas. But as of this post, I’m still at Basecamp, which, by the way, is a fine place to conduct research.

There’s great energy in this unconventional life I’ve created for myself. Once I’m moving, I know I’m doing the right thing. It’s the transition stage that’s the bear. But the creative process is like that, isn’t it? Restlessness and angst form the crucible for creativity. It’s a time of deep thought, extravagant and impractical ideas. It’s the playground for audacious thinking and experimenting; for trying on the latest adventure to see how it fits.

But that pause can also be a place of self-doubt. Too much time allows the “what ifs” and the “that’s nuts” to creep in. Must keep moving. Set dates. Do something.

And pay attention – a holy kind of attention.

Because mediocrity and complacency are sneaky, and are willing to slide right in and make things just a little too comfortable for action. Ah-ha! Back, you, Mediocrity and Complacency! (They are also easily frightened.)

Teaching, hiking, running, skiing, walking, traveling, writing – these are the common modes of progress in my life. Being in motion is what generates the ideas. It’s the adrenaline. One example: Last week I decided to walk from Longmont to Katahdin in Maine (which may or may not be 2,290 miles). I dressed for the first leg of the walk, strapped on my CamelBak, packed it with snacks, my phone, wallet and started to walk east. I walked for three hours. As I walked, I imagined how I could continue, a few days at a time. What friends and family would be willing to shuttle me back and forth, out across the Colorado plains (I still had to be at Basecamp or somewhere with internet access to teach online).

By the end of my walk, reality (the sad sack) had overtaken my adrenaline-induced state and I understood the impracticability of this plan. For that day. It’s still possible. According to USA Crossers, 252 people have run/walked across the US. It’s possible and it’s in my sites.

Where the plains meet the mountains in Boulder County.

The flatland of Boulder County.

 

My goals range from the short-term to the long-term, but the intertwining themes have remained constant: they have to be independent, growth-oriented and engaging.

Amid all the planning and contemplating, I’m always thinking about the trail. THE trail. The Appalachian Trail. The AT. I simply love it. It constantly calls and I constantly look for ways to answer. I always miss that rugged path, the trail culture, and the as-yet-unknown kindred spirits that are also called to that winding, rocky, unforgiving route. I know the trail will always be there, but that doesn’t help me now, which is when I want to be there.

It also doesn’t help that now is peak time for Springer Fever. That relentless pull that past hikers feel to be at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The trek northward to Katahdin and Baxter Peak begins in the spring at Springer Mountain, Georgia. It’s a crowded, nutty episode in March and April, and it’s hard to ignore. I’ve managed to resist the call to the southern end, but I keep thinking about the northern peak…Katahdin, where southbounders begin.

Fortunately, I have a temporary remedy for the Fever. I live near the foothills of Colorado, and my access to the mountains, trails and the peaceful western woods is a mere 20-minute drive from Basecamp. My running and hiking have increased, and I’m replacing and repairing my backpacking gear. Just in case.

Here’s a look at some of the places I’ve hiked and skied in the last few weeks…

Boulder

In the foothills of Boulder, Colorado. The Flatirons in the background.

Heil Valley, between Boulder and Lyons.

Heil Valley, between Boulder and Lyons.

Trail in Heil Valley.

Heil Valley.

The old stone house. Heil Valley.

The old stone house. Heil Valley.

Spring snow is common in Colorado.

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 Essential footwear.

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Near Estes Park.

Cross-country skiing near Estes Park, Colorado.

A bluebird sky.

A bluebird sky.

Lumpy Ridge. Estes Park, Colorado.

Lumpy Ridge, Estes Park.

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A Hike, Food and Friends

The goodbyes have begun. I’ve had a busy final two weeks and it’s all quite bittersweet. I’m ready to go home, but I’m already missing this city, my friends and my life here. My suitcase was picked up today and taken to Narita. I’ll go to the airport tomorrow and will fly back to the U.S. I’ve spent some great time with friends, mostly involving a fun hike and excellent Japanese food. The friendships in this international teaching field are ephemeral. We’re all used to forming bonds, such as they are, knowing they will be gently undone, yet with the potential to last, depending on the effort put into maintaining the connections, or the possibility of working together in future months or years.

My friend Tim, with whom I worked two years ago, still lives in Japan and teaches at a university in Tokyo. Every term he organizes a hike and it’s always a great time. Recently he led a winter hike to Sengenrei. We saw a waterfall, hiked in snow, ate lunch on top of the mountain and finished the day with shabu-shabu in an izakaya in Tachikawa.

RC, Ikue, Machiko, Tim, Hiroko, Laura. The beginning.

RC, Ikue, Machiko, Tim, Hiroko, Laura. The beginning.

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Intrepid wanderers.

Intrepid wanderers.

So far, so good.

So far, so good.

We made it to the top, which was cold and windy.

We made it to the top, which was cold and windy.

It says, "You have arrived fearless trekkers. This is your reward." Actually, I have no idea what it says.

It says, “You have arrived, awesome trekkers.” Actually, I have no idea what it says.

Tim, contemplating our descent.

Tim, our fearless leader, fueling up and contemplating our descent.

We walked through a bamboo and cypress forest.

We walked through a bamboo and cypress forest.

We passed an old cemetery on the way down.

We passed an old cemetery on the way down.

We celebrated our day at an izakaya. Laura, Tim and I were the only foreigners there.

We celebrated our day at an izakaya. Laura, Tim and I were the only foreigners there.

Shabu-shabu. So good-so good.

Shabu-shabu. So good-so good.

Shabu-shabu is a traditional Japanese dish in which vegetables and meat are cooked in a pot at the table. It was so good and filling after a day of hiking.

Happy hikers.

Happy hikers.

Tachikawa.

Tachikawa.

 

We had such a great time that we decided to do an “encore” dinner the next week. Machiko organized our event at Okonomiyaki Honjin in Shinjuku. Okonomiyaki is another traditional Japanese dish that is also prepared at the table. We sat on the floor around low tables that had a grill in the middle. We ordered a variety of ingredients that were brought to us in bowls. We mixed the contents then spread it on the grill like a pancake. Then it was topped with different sauces and spices and cut into pieces. It was so good!

Masayuki couldn't go on the hike, but joined us for the encore dinner. Laura waits patiently, sort of.

Masayuki couldn’t go on the hike, but joined us for the encore dinner. Laura waits patiently, sort of.

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Ikue, mixing up the okonomiyaki.

Ikue, mixing up the okonomiyaki.

Machiko, cooking like a pro!

Machiko, cooking like a pro.

Doing some kind of mind-meld. Tim pretends nothing weird is happening.

Doing some kind of okonomiyaki mind-meld. Tim is trying to pretend nothing weird is happening. (Photo:Machiko)

 

About to flip my first okonomiyaki.

Flipping my first okonomiyaki. (Photo: Machiko)

Mushrooms.

Mushrooms.

Machiko, Hiroko, Ikue. Three classy ladies.

Machiko, Hiroko, Ikue. Three classy ladies.

 

Our encore dinner turned into a bit of a going away event for me, which completely surprised me! Ikue, Machiko and Hiroko honored me with some very special gifts. They gave me chop sticks and holders, coasters with famous Japanese art, and a furoshiki – a cloth that is used to wrap bento lunch boxes. It was all so wonderful. I was especially touched by the booklet that Ikue made, which showed the various ways to tie the furoshiki. It was very thoughtful and special. I loved being with these friends and appreciated the gifts so much!

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After dinner, we went to Golden Gai, a famous area in Shinjuku with over 200 small pubs and eateries within six tiny alleyways. We went to the Albatross, an old house that has been converted into one of the many pubs in the district. It was a fun way to end our night with good friends. It is a tiny place with three floors. We were on the top floor, which was reserved for bigger groups like ours.

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Machiko and Ikue.

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Golden Gai.

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Motivation to learn Japanese!

Last night in Shinjuku.

After a most excellent evening, we said our final goodbyes at the station. This was the first time I almost missed the last train home! But I made it with a minute to spare. :)

Goodbye to my good friends!

Goodbye to my good friends!

 

City Sights

The title of my last post was misleading. It was just a farewell to Tokyo for 2014. I’m still here until January 30. I’m making the most of my remaining time, enjoying favorite places and seeing some new ones. I’m very satisfied with the life I’ve had in Japan and feel ready to proceed on with the next phase of my journey. (Yes, I’m working on some ideas!) The Westgate office staff had a week and a half of holidays and, with weekends included, it added up to almost two weeks of vacation. I didn’t travel anywhere because living in Tokyo keeps me busy and content.

I spent my free time running, reading, meeting friends for dinner and outings, seeing the illuminations and just wandering around. I made visits to the Tokyo International Forum, the National Diet Building (location of Japan’s parliament), iconic shops in Tokyo Station, and the (newest) tallest building in the city, Toranomon Hills.

Inside the Tokyo International Forum with Renu.

Inside the Tokyo International Forum with Renu.

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The Forum at night. Designed by architect, Rafael Viñoly.

Daytime in the forum.

Daytime at the Forum.

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Near Kita-Senju Station. I go through here every day and often do some errands here.

Kita-Senju Station. I go through here on my train every day.

Waiting on a train.

Shinjuku Station.

The National Diet Building.

The National Diet Building.

Back side of the National Diet.

Back side of the National Diet.

Statue of Kusunoki Masashige, a 14th century samurai. Near the Imperial Palace.

Statue of Kusunoki Masashige, a 14th-century samurai. Near the Imperial Palace.

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Japan is rich in history, politics and… Hello Kitty.

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Inside the depths of Tokyo Station is a mini-mall with specialty shops dedicated to favorite Japanese characters, as well as other beloved icons, such as Snoopy and the Moomins. There’s also a KitKat shop that sells mini-bars in 15 different flavors.

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Of course there's Poke mon!

Of course there’s Pokémon!

 

A few more pictures from Yokohama…

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Many cities in Japan have signature manhole covers. Take a look at this link for some more.

 

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Motomachi in Yokohama.

 

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Japanese boys figuring out an old-fashioned Coke machine.

 

Back in Tokyo…

At Toranomon Hills.

At Toranomon Hills. The tallest building in Tokyo, 838 feet.

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Icons of Tokyo: an office building, Tokyo Tower and a shrine.

Icons of Tokyo: an office building, Tokyo Tower and a shrine.

 

I have less than two weeks to go in this grand city. I have not done everything, but I’ve seen and done a lot. I’ve always felt very content living in here. Sometimes I feel a bit of “Japan fatigue”, still not always “getting it”, never fully understanding what is going on around me, and trying to keep up with the perfectionistic standards that everyone adheres to. At the same time, Japan is quite accommodating. Someone always seems to be nearby to offer directions or help with interpreting. When I think about what I’ll miss, it will be scenes from this and other posts. I’ll remember the frenetic bustle of the city and the various districts. I’ll remember the way the wind whips around the buildings near Tokyo Station, and the lights of posh Ginza. I’ll remember the way the energy changes in just the few blocks from the Westgate office to the sensory-assaulting anime district of Akihabara. I’ll miss the calm walk around the Imperial Palace and the Marunouchi district, just across the road. I’ll miss seeing Mt. Fuji and Tokyo Skytree as I run along the river or take the train to work. The memories are countless, beginning with the first time I walked through Narita International Airport in the spring of 2012. What an adventure this has been.

I still have another post or two before this chapter is over. Stay tuned!

A Farewell to Tokyo and 2014

I began this year in Japan and I’ll end this year in Japan.

After leaving Tokyo in January of 2014, I was in Colorado for a couple of weeks, then moved to Laramie, Wyoming, where I lived and worked online for a few months. Then I backpacked the Colorado Trail from Denver to Salida before returning to my parents’ house to regroup to return to Japan for my fifth term. Is this normal? For me it is.

My life in Tokyo has been great and I’ve been very content this year. I revisited favorite places, made new friends, and enjoyed all that Tokyo has to offer. Here are a few highlight of the last few weeks.

Happy New Year!

Tokyo National Museum.

Tokyo National Museum.

A visit to the Tokyo Government Buildings. My last visit was two years ago.

Tokyo Government Buildings. My last visit was two years ago.

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A walk through Ueno Park with Renu and Laura…

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Shadowwalk.

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Renu, Laura and Tokyo Skytree.

Piano bar. Tokyo night life with Laura, Kirsty and Renu.

Piano bar. Tokyo night life with Laura, Kirsty and Renu.

 

Okonomiyaki with Laura. The beginning.

Okonomiyaki with Laura in Kanda. The beginning.

Midway.

Midway.

Won and done. Full.

Won and done. And full.

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At the N3331 Cafe.

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The cafe is in between two train tracks.

 

Laura and I took two tours on the Tokyo Skybus: one to Odaiba and another around Tokyo to view the illuminations. Unfortunately, these pics were lost in the new-camera stage. But this was the bus we took.

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Tokyo Tower.

 

A visit to Yokohama…

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A day out with Kate.

Yokohama skyline.

Yokohama skyline.

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The last pic of 2014. Yokohama.

See you soon, 2015!

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