Last Night

Above my head a rumpled, gray blanket of clouds.

Beneath my feet the crunch of gravel.

Bats flutter in the gaps between the trees, held aloft by papery-thin wings.

Dragonflies buzz by, dipping and diving around the bats.

The air is filled with the buzz of katydids hiding in the woods.

Lightning bugs flicker in the undergrowth, their heavy abdomens bob and weave between illuminations.

This is summer in the Carolinas.

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The Next Chapter

The Next Chapter

Some of you may have noticed I was silent online for a month or maybe two, or three. It was because I was preparing for a new chapter. One which is now underway. I’ll tell you about it in a moment, but first please allow me to reflect a bit.

Sometime in the last 6 months I found some writing that truly spoke to me. It was about the fact that each of us has a chance to write our own story. I believe many people don’t understand or acknowledge that they have the rights to their own story. Too many of us unknowingly outsource our story to fate, or victim-hood, or what everyone else expects us to do. But a few of us, fortunately, realize that we have the rights to author our own story.

Which got me to thinking about my story. For a few years now, I haven’t been totally happy with how it was going… I had some amazing adventures, sandwiched between deep chasms of sadness, as I’d embarked upon a chapter that took me far away from my family and home. Luckily for me, my home was still there for me and I also built up a powerful support network both inside of me and surrounding myself with living angels from all corners of the globe.

Alas, there came a time when I awoke to the reality that I still had the rights to write my own story and I began to ponder how I wanted that story to go. As often happens in life, it was easier to reflect on my experience and know what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to keep pulling up anchor and moving away from the people I love. I didn’t want to be constantly on an airplane and sleeping in yet another hotel room. I didn’t want to feel like I was disconnected from the people in my local community.

What I did want was to feel like I was part of something that matters, locally, in my own community. I wanted to sleep in my own bed, with my husband and our dog between us and the cat waking me up at 4:30 am right before my alarm. Fortunately, I found a career opportunity that allows me to put down roots right here in North Carolina and I am loving every minute of this new chapter which began last month.

I share this story with you because if you’ve been following this blog you’ve probably noticed my writing had fallen off pace. I can predict it might be that way for a while as I’ve now entered this new chapter and I’m focusing on living in the moment and processing a bit less. I’m currently engrossed in actively writing this new chapter with every passing moment of my life.

I will still occasionally wander to fascinating places that are blog-worthy but I’ll happily pass many more moments that may seem a bit more mundane – weeding in my garden, taking off on a bike ride or following my cat as he lazily strolls across the yard to visit the chickens. As a result, my activity on the blog will probably continue to be less frequent than in the past.

Now I want to share with you a wish I have for you. My only wish is that you also realize that every single day you also are writing your own story, if you know it or not. Every moment gives you a chance to keep the plot line going as it is or add in a variation or change directions completely. The choice is yours. You are the author of your life and I hope you write a beautiful story. Never forget that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I hope that you don’t let someone else’s definition of a beautiful life suddenly become yours and squash the unique story you have to bring to the world. Because the world needs your light, so, please, shine it with abandon and surround yourself with people who reflect your light into the world.

A Dozen Solo-Traveler Safety Tips

A Dozen Solo-Traveler Safety Tips

A couple of weeks ago I had a long layover at the Toronto airport and used the chance to catch up with a friend who’s planning a trip to Spain. She might explore Barcelona for a couple of days at the beginning of her trip. Her first inclination was to book a guided tour so she wouldn’t need to travel alone. I shared that traveling with a guide is one of my least favorite ways to travel because I enjoy being able to spend as little or as long as I like at each site. I also enjoy changing my plans mid-day and deciding to walk down a beautiful street or pause in a square a bit longer. She was concerned about doing this because she’d be a woman traveling alone. I explained to her my strategies for traveling alone that allow me to be safe and relaxed while exploring a new city. We both realized that many people might be interested in these strategies I’ve accrued along the way. I’m sharing these with you now and I’m also curious to know your own tips and tricks for solo travel. Get out there and explore!

1. Secure your belongings.

The most likely thing that can go wrong when you’re traveling is to be the victim of a pickpocket or a run-by thief. This is why I have an intentional way to carry my important items (identification, money, cell phone and digital camera) on my person. The first thing I do is leave my passport in the hotel safe and carry a copy (if needed) and some form of government ID – a drivers license is usually fine. I also leave about half of my money and a credit card in the hotel safe with my passport. Then I take the other half of my money and divide it in two – half of it goes in a money belt and half goes in a simple wallet in my pursue or camera bag (if that’s all I’m carrying). If I feel extra concerned, I might also throw a bill in my shoe. The reason for the two or three spots is that I can give away my pursue if needed without injury and I won’t be in such a bind.

Here’s a full inventory of what I’d have in my money belt – a credit card, a third of my cash and some form of ID. There are a few designs of money belts – some are like a slim Fanny pack which works nicely under a dress, skirt or shirt (use bathroom breaks to pull out more cash if needed). I also have a nice one that attaches to my belt and works well with jeans as long as they aren’t too tight-fitting. The money pouch slides into my jeans behind my front pocket and is secured by loops on the belt.

Once you have your cash, ID and credit cards split up in a few places you’ve got back up plans in case of the unfortunate situation that someone steals your bag or purse. Your life is more important than your wallet – be ready to give it away!

2. Ask for a paper map

When you check in to the hotel – ask for a paper map of the city or the district you’ll be exploring. I also like to ask the desk clerk for any unsafe areas of the city I should avoid – then I just X those out on the map. I also use this chance to get local recommendations on places to run, eat and special sites to see and mark them on the map. I originally liked paper maps because I could discreetly check it while traveling and not have my face in a phone and look like a tourist, but nowadays everyone lives on a phone in every corner of the world so I don’t think it’s a giveaway. Maybe a paper map is more of a giveaway?! But, I also like them because I often trace my route as I go with a colored marker and then add it to my scrapbook. It’s good for memories and for future recommendations to friends.

3. Slim down

I like to carry as little as possible when I’m traveling around in a new city: paper-map, small notebook, pen (I have a nice tactical pen that doubles as a weapon in a pinch), chapstick, small bottle of water, small umbrella or poncho, possibly a digital camera. Slimming down makes it easier to keep track of my stuff and I have capacity to bring home a souvenir or two.

4. Make a plan and route it on your map.

Challenge yourself to memorize the first three turns you’ll take. Surprisingly, this is a bit hard to do nowadays in the era of google maps. I also like to give myself some flexibility and go where the spirit moves. Another benefit of a paper map is that if you wind up in a place with poor or no cell signal, you won’t be lost! One thing about paper maps is it’s harder to estimate traveling times, so if I’m under time pressure which you almost always are on a weekend jaunt, I like to use google maps to route to the farthest point I’d like to walk in the city and then note how long that will take. This helps me build realistic walking routes.

5. Try to dress like a local.

This can be challenging if it’s a city you’ve never explored. When I went to Barcelona it was a nice summer day, so I wore a summer dress from Desigual and bought a linen shirt to throw over my shoulders as the sun grew stronger throughout the day. I left behind my big digital camera. Wore some comfortable but a bit fashionable Nike Free tennis shoes (Nikes are everywhere folks!). I think I looked a bit like a local? It made it easier to blend in and then you’re less likely to appear to be a tourist (aka target for petty theft).

6. Learn some local phrases and load Google Translate onto your phone.

No matter where I travel, I try to brush up on some local phrases in the native language. The areas to focus on are the ones in all the travel guides: ordering food, getting directions, greetings, asking for help. Usually, it’s enough. If it’s not enough, google translate is your friend. Just type in your phrase in your native language and it will generate the translation in the local language! I’ve used it to carry on conversations in Italy, Turkey and Brazil!

7. Be quiet, listen and be a chameleon

If you don’t want to stand out, try to be quiet. Americans, on a whole, are VERY LOUD tourists. So, if you want to be an obvious American, please, by all means, sit down at a cafe, speak loudly, ask for water with ice and complain about the SLOW service before you get lost in your iPhone… BUT, if you want to look like a local, sit down at the cafe, order in a normal volume voice, preferably in the local language and observe the people and mimic their behavior. I find it can be fun to do. If someone strikes up a conversation with you, by all means talk! But you might find it’s also fun to be quiet and observe and soak up the space and the scents and sounds.

8. Secure your belongings.

While sitting at a cafe table, I like to loop my bag strap around my leg so it can’t just be snatched away. Also, don’t leave your wallet or phone sitting on the table. It’s the best way to get them snatched by someone walking by. I prefer to not wear a backpack because belongings by your side or in front of you are easier to track especially in a crowded subway or bus. So, I prefer to carry a cloth or leather bag with a cross body strap. It gives lots of options for moving the bag to a secure place where I can keep an eye on it.

9. Keep your head up.

It’s important to always be aware of your surroundings if you want to avoid being a victim. Pay attention to the people around you, not in a hyper-vigilant way to the point you can’t relax, but you should be able to notice if a particular person keeps showing up in the same spots as you. And pay attention to your intuition, if a situation doesn’t feel right, walk away from it. There are many other places to visit! Also, when I check my map (the biggest giveaway you aren’t a local), I like to place myself against a wall or in a quiet place. This way I can see all around me and be a bit less obvious. The goal here is to not become a target of a thief.

10. Identify escape routes

This one is a reassuring element for me and some might say it’s going to far, but I always like to identify my escape routes when I go in a building. You never know when something might go down and it’s nice to know how to get away quick if needed. In a restaurant, sit at a table near the edge and in a chair where you have a view of the entire restaurant and a clear path to the doors. This way you’ll know if something is about to go down and can respond quickly. In the beginning this might feel strange or cause you to be fearful, but when it becomes a part of your routine it’s just a natural part of how you travel.

11. Learn how to look at people

Growing up I was always encouraged to look people in the eye, and for human connections this is a great habit: eye contact, firm handshake, smile. But, in the instance where you might be approaching an attacker, in fact looking them in the eye can embolden them. Think of the animal kingdom – looking an aggressive dog in the eye can empower and trigger an attack. Apply the same principal here – train yourself to briefly scan the face and then focus on the breastbone just below the head. In the instance you need to defend yourself, you’ll be better able to track the direction your attacker is going and you won’t be psychologically emboldening them. It’s also important you don’t hold eye contact for too long because depending on the culture, this can indicate interest and for a woman traveling alone could lead to an annoying tag-along that you then later need to shake.

12. Learn some self-defense

It can be as simple as a weekend course, or something you do on a regular basis. In my case, I trained in Krav Maga for about a year and a half while I lived alone in Germany and this made me much more confident to travel on my own. But it also made me much more away of situations to avoid. I can’t say for sure that this training prevented things from happening to me, but fortunately I never was a victim or threat or any sort of physical encounter. Krav Maga training taught me simple strategies to get out of a dangerous situation and also how to carry myself in a way that made me an unattractive target. I kept my head up, walked with a purpose and made sure I was never in a position where someone could grab me from behind (the very worst way to be caught). You might not want to invest so much time in training, but as women I believe we can all benefit from some situational awareness and self-defense training. It’s a small investment in yourself that can make you more self-confident and relaxed when you travel.

Well, there you have it, a dozen of my personal solo traveler safety strategies. I’m curious to hear your ideas. Please post them in the comments.

Nurtured by Nature

Nurtured by Nature

As winter slowly winds down and spring approaches I find myself enjoying more moments in nature. These moments give me peace and comfort in a way that few other things can. One recent Sunday evening as I laid in the fallen leaves, hands folded behind my head, gazing gently at the barren tree branches, eyes tracing the winding path of a crow in the fading blue sky above, it occurred to me that I am deeply nurtured by nature.

I found myself toying with the phrase and thinking about the eternal nature vs. nurture debate. Are humans the way we are because of our nature? Or are we shaped by the way we are nurtured? We once defined nature as our genes which were viewed as the full potential of a human being. The more we learn about genes, the more we find that the expression of genes isn’t simply a machine that runs in the body without any influence by the human. It turns out we can influence our final body chemistry which in turn influences our health and mental well-being by being thoughtful about our food, the environment we live in and seeking the benefits of exercise, stress reduction (although a bit of stress is good) and appropriate rest.

Or is a human being largely shaped by the way they are nurtured – their home environment and the people who influence their view of the world?

Either way could be left to feel a bit like we’re dealt of a hand of cards – perhaps leading to the proliferation of a victim society which appears common in society.

I am inclined to think that as with most things in life, the answer isn’t so simple as checking the box next to nature or nurture. I believe that what makes a human being is a combination of both their genetic make-up (nature) and the environment in which they are raised (nurture). Outside of these two options, I believe there is a critical element often left out of the conversation. The missing link is the element of choice.

Genes, and their expression in the body as hormones, can influence if a person has a mostly pessimistic or optimistic view of life. This tendency to view the world as mostly out to get us or help us often influences the way we respond to the curves life throws our way. Which then shapes our experience in life. Hence my view that nature and nurture can be very difficult to untangle.

Which leads me back to the beginning, my sudden realization that I am nurtured by nature. Nature was a huge part of my upbringing so for me it very well may be pleasantly mixed with nurture.

Yesterday, while resting between rounds of hauling loads of branches to our burn-pile, I watched an assassin bug roam about in his territory. I found myself wondering what he was thinking as I picked him on my finger to admire his antennae and sticky feet. I marveled at his ability to climb straight up the side of my old Coleman thermos. I watched him tentatively climb to the top and wave those same beautiful antennae looking for chemical traces on the air.

This morning, I enjoyed long slow lazy moments with my Tony cat curled up on my chest, purring his heart out.

This afternoon, as we blazed through the countryside on our Harley’s, I spotted a few guinea hens next to the road looking startled, perhaps by our bikes, but truthfully they usually look startled in my experience. Just moments before I spied a lady walking a white and brown spotted horse on the roadside.

During these small moments I notice that my heart rate slows, my mind is tuned in to the moment and I think I truly am being nurtured by nature. This nurturing is something I treasure and will hold on to with all my might. Because in these moments of peace and tranquility the biggest problems are solved. Probably not in the way you’d normally think of solving a problem, though. In these moments I often realize that the things I think are big problems, usually aren’t problems at all. Instead, they are simply opportunities to make a choice. Preferably a choice that is in tune with my nature and one that will nurture my body and soul.

Hangin’ Round

Hangin’ Round

As we neared the fire tower, I wondered if I could manage to hike one more giant step. I’d already eased myself up about a 1,000 in the relatively steep 1.2 mile ascent to the peak that, as the young energetic ranger had told me was “50 feet higher than Pilot Mountain”. How was it that I found myself struggling to make it those last 100 steps to a peak I didn’t even know existed before I entered the park visitor center. I attribute this to pride. Pride and a nasty habit of trying to finish as many trails as possible at a park.

We originally struck out to Hanging Rock State Park this morning to see the “Hanging Rock”. My husband had observed that I was hankering for adventure and Hanging Rock was both on our North Carolina bucket list and an easy 2 hour drive from home.

On our way to the park we passed Walnut Cove which has a lovely water tower and Dansbury – the streets bordered by lovely old brick buildings and a quaint white church.

Immediately outside of Dansbury we saw the sign for hanging rock and turned on to the park road. Our first stop was a reconnaissance mission to gather a trail map and route advice from the park ranger. I walked up to the counter, rested my hiking poles in front of me and asked for trail advice. The ranger took one look at me and said (I’m not kidding she really said this) “it looks like you’ve a serious hiker – our highest trail is Moore’s Loop – the one with the fire tower – that’s where you need to go. It’s 50 feet higher than pilot mountain.” A pleasant smile plastered on her face. I think I crushed a small bit of her soul by asking about touristy destinations like Hanging Rock – geez, it is the namesake of the park, after all – and waterfalls. I had disappointedly revealed that I was yet another bucket-lister. My hiker credibility a bit diminished in her eyes, she told me that yes, I could also see these things a short distance from the parking lot. Politely dismissed, I gathered my hiking poles and map decorated with yellow highlighter and wandered outside to find my companions for this adventure – my husband and our boxer, Desi.

Both now confused about how we should spend our time at the park, we took off on the Hanging Rock trail. Logic being that we certainly wanted to see the famous rock and other destinations may or may not happen. I was a bit disappointed to find the trail a wide and domesticated creature. In the beginning it was even paved in asphalt. And then the people – there were a lot of them. Pleasant enough and often with a friendly dog tugging at the end of the leash. But so many people, I can’t imagine what it’s like on a pleasant summer day.

We persisted, stepping a bit delicately in the recently melted snow and ice. Soon we came into a stand of hardwood trees and some vistas which afforded lovely views of the scenery below.

And after about 3/4 of a mile, we reached the beginning of the hanging rock formation. A nice lady snapped a photo of us under the rock.

A few hundred steps later, we walked out into Hanging Rock and took in the views. The air was still. The sky was blue. Most of the other hikers were polite and friendly. We paused for a snack and to enjoy the moment. I marveled at how my fear of heights is gone now. Thanks to the striding edge of Helvellyn!

On the way down we paused to do a bit Hanging Around ourselves. I simply couldn’t resist! Besides I have a goal to do 5 clean pull-ups this year so it was good training.

Now we reached a crucial decision point – would we take a leisurely turn, or satisfy the ambitions of the park ranger and tackle the fire tower peak? If you know me, you know what happened…

We looped around Wolf Rock and paused at the outcrop for lunch – Subway sandwiches we’d picked up on the way.

This section of trail was pleasantly narrow and we passed only a few people. One being a barefoot young lady with lilac-colored hair. We chatted with her about the surprisingly warm soil temp. A few moments down the path I reminisced about a friend who picked up a parasite through her feet once and happily kept my German-designed yak hiking boots strapped to my feet.

The path dipped down to a lake before we began the stairs of the giants climb to balancing rock and the fire tower. A gal with a Colorado ball-cap and a sunny disposition had suggested it was a good route as long as I had “good knees and was up for a strenuous climb”. Check that, I thought. We’ve climbed the fells of northern England and the Grand Canyon. This is kid stuff. Oh no, it was most definitely not.

A few hundred steps in I found myself remembering all those climbs to the top of church towers in Europe. Those climbs paled in comparison to this ascent. Also I began to ponder if it feels more difficult when you can actually see the top of when it’s obscured from view? Eventually, we made it to the top. As I sat down to quench my thirst and catch some air, we took in the views of Pilot Mountain.

A fellow Harley rider asked about our bikes and our Boxer. More Desi admirers arrived and I found myself thinking of our many mountain ascents and how they’re all unique.

The sun creeping westward, we finally made our descent down the long stretch of the loop. As promised by some hikers we met on the fire tower viewing deck, the terrain varied and the sunlight danced on the leaves as we carefully treaded through more black mucky trails and partially melted snow fields. We came across a pile of rocks that for all the world looked like a giant Jenga game to me.Eventually our path joined the fisherman’s path along the lake before ending our loop on the road. It was joyously flat as we admired views of the partially-frozen lake.

We all felt a bit like Desi, sleepy and satisfied with a day conquering mountains and ourselves. And if that ranger’s reading this, I hope she’s proud of what we accomplished!

2017 was a very big year

2017 was a very big year

As New Year’s Eve approaches I find myself reflecting on all that transpired in 2017. It was a very big year! I shared much of it with you, but I feel a need to once again reflect and sum it up. So, I did what every good American would do and pulled out a journal my sister gave me and wrote down my 2017 Adventure List. These are written in the order they appeared in my mind, which I do believe implies their significance in my memory.

“2017 Adventures”

1. Admired my first real Frida hung in the galleries of MALBA in Buenos Aires. What a fierce beauty she was! Extra special because I did not know it was on display in this museum and found it quite by accident. A most pleasant surprise.

2. Drank Belgian Biere in a cellar in Brügge with my expat sista Tilghman. Yes, it is some of the best beer in the world, although the Czech beer is slightly better. I can safely say this now that I have moved home from Germany! Ha ha.

3. Accidentally drove by Stonehenge on our way to London and stopped to snap a few photos from a nearby field road. Super-funny because we actually decided we wouldn’t have time to stop and crossed it off our list. Guess it was meant to be…

4. Visited the home church of my Thacher Ancestors – St. Barnabas in Queen Camel, Somerset County, England. A fulfilling and emotional journey retracing our roots to England. Which inspired the outline of a book I intend to write someday.

5. Enjoyed a few (ok maybe more than a few…) pints in the traditional British pub next to the family church with the Marston Magnus Drinking Club. More book material…

6. Watched the Tour de France and MET CAVENDISH!!!! And he signed my Tour baseball cap!!!

7. Learned to Stand Up Paddle (SUP) off the coast of Ilhabela in Brazil. The trick was first remembering how to dance.

8. Tip-toed through the tulips at Keukenhoff. I was too excited to only tiptoe and also occasionally jumped for joy. This place is spectacular!!!

9. Completed the “3 Countries in a Day Bike Tour” organized by fearless leader John – Germany, Netherlands and Belgium – 100 miles and unlimited laughs in a torrential rain storm with the Red Hat bike Gang. The commemorative jersey is in the mail, or so I’ve been told.

10. Survived the Dead Guys Bike Tour around Oxford, England guided by our dear friend Adam – most memorable – visiting the simple grave of J.R.R. Tolkien and the grave and home of Agatha Christie.

11. Attended the Garth Brooks World Tour in Nashville – Bonus: dancing in the Honky Tonks on Broadway with my love.

12. Lost my Tony cat. Found my Tony cat (whew, that was a close call).

13. Finally baked my first apple pie in a pan we received as a wedding gift 18 years ago. Thanks to the help of my clever nephew, it was delicious!

14. Enjoyed Tapas in the rain in La Rioja, Spain with my college racing team-mate Christina and her husband. We had not seen each other for about 12 years but it felt like it had only been yesterday. This is the good stuff!

15. Cheered on the fliers at the Planica Ski-Jumping event with a dear friend I’d met in California on a field tour years ago.

16. Hiked the Striding Edge on Helvellyn. Certainly my most memorable hiking adventure to date. Only the Grand Canyon comes close in terms of challenge and scenery.

17. Rode The Chunnel!

18. Drove on the wrong side of the road in England, safely, mind you, in a left-hand- drive German car, no less!

19. Morning jog through the Berlin Tiergarten for a sunrise view of the Brandenberg Tur.

20. Repatriated to America with only one broken glühwein mug in my shipment and was welcomed home by the most incredible surprise party with my family and friends! Reminded again that I am tremendously blessed!

Here’s to 2018! A time when I intend to spend as many precious moments as possible with the people I love near and far! Thanks for everyone who made 2017 amazing and will help make 2018 even better.

Make some room

Make some room

“Make some room”.

“MAKE some room”.

Barked my Sparta Class instructor as he restlessly roamed the circuit class floor.

We had just finished a solid hour of weight training exercises executed in pairs – 24 exercises total. My breath was labored. I was covered in sweet. A deep thirst filled my being. “What could possibly come next?” I thought, then I found out.

“50 Burpees” came the command.

Many groaned. I didn’t have the energy.

I wondered : “Can I do this?”. I had never done 50 burpees. 25, yes. 30, yes, but 50, never. Especially after giving everything I had to a circuit weight training class that was heavy on chest and back exercises. Could I make it to that impossible sounding number?

Before I had too much time to ponder, my partner hit the deck and I followed. I think this is one of the reasons for the partner: peer pressure.

Hands on the ground, I jumped my legs back into plank position. Sunk down into a solid push-up. Sprang my legs back in and jumped up. “One” rang out in my head.

The first 5 were solid, then it started to become a bit harder. I considered cutting out the push-up. Out of habit, it remained.

Suddenly I was at 25 – halfway there. I started my count over at 1 to spare my brain and spirit. Just 25 burpees now.

At 45, my partner was finished, and I was going slower. She then did the unthinkable and jumped in to finish my last 5 with me. I started to call the numbers out loud. My form was as good again as the first 5 and soon we were done.

I had completed 50 burpees. A feat in and of itself, but after an intense 1 hour workout, I was elated. I gulped down some cool water and thanked the instructor for showing me I could do something that I didn’t know was in me.

And that is why I train. I love finding the edge and pushing through it. Respecting what my body can do and knowing when it’s the right time to take it further.

It occurred to me that I do the same thing at work. I love finding an impossible challenge, grappling with how to solve it, adapting along the way and ultimately completing the goal. The outcome might look very different than I originally envisioned, but if it is fit for purpose, then it works.

As you start this week, make some room. Make room in your life for a new challenge. Look for an impossible goal and achieve it. As we close this year, finish strong! Go into next year with renewed confidence in your ability to push your limits and overcome. Then, nothing will be impossible.