Category Archives: Travel

Living Vicariously: A Summer Journey through Letters

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I biked across the country this past summer.

No, I didn’t actually bike across the country this summer. But it felt like I was there. A friend of mine, a close pen-pal, was the one doing the biking. Every once in a while I would receive updates from a letter describing the places my friend had biked to and her thoughts on the adventure. If I was on the biking journey this summer, it was only vicariously, through her letters.

It wasn’t necessary to receive these letters in order to learn updates about my friend’s biking adventure. After all, she openly posted photos and statuses about her journey regularly through the democratic medium of Facebook. I followed along closely the progress of her and her partner’s trek. Add in electronic communication through email and text messaging, and I had all the modes of contact I could possibly need to stay in touch right at my fingertips. Why then go through the archaic effort of writing letters, especially when I’d be mailing them to a moving target?

In defense of the waning art of letter-writing, there is something incredibly personal and amicable about receiving a hand-written letter. There is something transcendent about it that quick and easy electronic communication can never replicate. A letter is a physical token, something tangible that puts weight in your hand. Even though far apart, the letter is something that both friends have touched and felt and handled; it’s an object that you both have shared in, that bonds you together. The scrawled handwriting on the pages is unique—artistic forms that can never be duplicated, stemming from the very hand of your friend themselves. Though the physical letter has little extrinsic value in itself, the intrinsic value it delivers is priceless.

Each letter received is a gift. Though you can anticipate a letter’s coming, you can never know exactly when it will arrive. Daily you may check the mail, waiting for the surprise delivered by the postman which brings with it a kind of fraternal pleasure. This hand-written letter, addressed exclusively to you, is a conversation between you and your friend alone. Unlike social media posts which have an extensive audience and beg for viewership, the personal letter has become subversive in our culture. It pronounces that some correspondences are meant to be kept private; some conversations are not meant to be laid out open for the wide world to see. And there is something incredibly special about a friend choosing words to write just to you, personally. Even though the content of my letters is nothing incriminating, nothing risqué, it nevertheless feels like they must be kept private to save the mysterious allure of the written conversation. The bulk of my mail correspondences are of absolutely no interest to the general public. But I like that. I like having people write to me and include in their curation of all the possible topics to write about, those things that they thought would interest me. It is their selection—for me.

I have a handful of pen-pals with whom I keep a semi-regular correspondence. Not all of them bike across the country. In fact, most of the time they are doing quite unimpressive stuff—the ins-and-outs of daily life: discussions of work duties, of visiting friends and of making food, of trifling hopes and dreams, of random thoughts. Though their correspondences may not regularly tell of events on the impressive scale of a cross-country bicycle journey, the content they write is nonetheless the fodder of an impressive life-journey lived by every one of my friends. No matter how quotidian the content of the letters may be, I still live vicariously through those words. My friends may benefit from hearing about my own journey which has taken me to many different places and through many different jobs (and I get a lot of feedback that people wish they were doing the things I’m doing). Still, the reverse is also true: my friends who are more settled, though they may not travel as much as me, are nevertheless leading lives that are incredibly interesting to me. They write about things that I too would love to be doing, if only I had the benefit of a stable household: beer-brewing, wine-making, gardening, home improvement projects, community formation. There are many different lives to lead, but not enough time to live them all. My friends are out living some of those lives, and I am out living others. With each letter I receive from my friends, I feel a bit more like I’m there alongside them sharing in the experience of all those different lifestyles, lifestyles that I too wish I could participate in.

Because I travel around as a transient, I don’t get to see a lot of my closest friends in person. Sending and receiving letters through the mail is one small way that we can physically interact via a shared object, something more physically expressive than mere words alone. And since my postal address changes every few months, those who put forth the effort into tracking me down and sending me a piece of mail are truly great friends. The thought and time put forth into writing each letter, despite the inconveniences, makes me value them all the more greatly.

So this summer, I got to experience a cross-country bicycle trip. I was there for the high hopes and growing pains at the start on the Olympic Peninsula. I felt the anguish and the subsequent relief after climbing up and over those grueling snow-covered mountain passes in the northern Rockies. I met good-hearted and welcoming families in our nation’s plains states. I was there through the forests and lakes and mosquitos of the Midwest. I felt the pressure of the trip through the monotonous crossing of flat Ontario, and then knew the relief at seeing mountains once again in the Adirondacks. Eventually, I got to experience the joy of reaching Maine and seeing the bicycle trip to completion. And I did all this without ever leaving Massachusetts.

You see, I value my friendships and still seek to deepen them even when we are apart. Perhaps I may never get to bike across the United States, or perhaps I never will live permanently in a place of my own. That’s OK. Through my friends, and our letter-writing experiences, I feel like a part of me has been along for the experience of it all.

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Martha’s Vineyard by Bicycle

A short distance off the coast of mainland Massachusetts lies a vineyard. It’s not just any vineyard, however—this vineyard is Martha’s Vineyard. And though the name doesn’t imply it, Martha’s Vineyard is an island. The peculiar name, as custom has it, dates from 1602 when English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold first sighted the island. Seeing wild grapevines dotting the island, he bestowed upon it the moniker ‘vineyard’; wanting to confer an honor to his family members as well, he also gave it the name ‘Martha’ after either his daughter or his mother-in-law. The Wampanoag peoples, however, the original inhabitants of the island, referred to the land as Noepe, meaning “land amid the streams”. And while it has never had many vineyards (and perhaps not many Marthas either) the island still has an abundance of offerings for the curious traveler. Though Martha’s Vineyard is most famous as an island retreat for the rich and famous (most notably the Kennedy clan), the Vineyard, as it is colloquially called, is neither a remote nor an inaccessible place. In fact, the proximity and ease of transport to Martha’s Vineyard makes this high-status resort island an open destination to even the common tourist.

From mainland Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard is blatantly obvious in all but the foggiest weather. Just over three miles offshore from the nearest ferry port in Woods Hole, the ferry ride to the Vineyard clocks in at a rapid 45 minutes. Ferries come and go on a sub-hourly basis in the summers, and for just a few dollars you can secure your passage to the island. For a few dollars extra, you can even bring your own bicycle and take with you the finest mode of transportation for exploring the gems that Martha’s Vineyard has to offer. As I have visited the Vineyard three times by bicycle over the course of the past summer, I’d say I’m fairly familiar with the island. But at 88 square miles, the Vineyard will continue to surprise any frequent visitor.

Your trip to Martha’s Vineyard will most likely start in the port village of Vineyard Haven, as it occupies the most protected and accessible deep anchorage on the Vineyard. Vineyard Haven offers an excellent jumping off point for exploring the rest of the island. As the ferry is docking in the harbor, you will find yourself transported amidst a milieu of sailboats. Well known ships, like the Black Dog’s Shenandoah and Alabama tall ships make their anchorages here. Though Vineyard Haven is one of the three major population centers on the island, it is by far the smallest. Main Street is populated with bric-a-brac shops and fine eateries, but the commercial district of the town does not extend far from the harbor. Starting in Vineyard Haven provides a digestible foretaste of what’s to come on your next two city stops on the Vineyard.

 

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The protected harbor at Vineyard Haven, a safe anchorage for sailboats

 

It’s time now to hop on your bike and head east along the bridged road that separates Vineyard Haven Harbor from Lagoon Pond. After a few miles of pedaling you will start to see massive Victorian houses appear; you are reaching the outskirts of Oak Bluffs, the Vineyard’s largest town. Oak Bluffs is distinct among Vineyard towns with its unique built environment and its lively culture as well. Formerly known as Cottage City, biking into Oak Bluffs is like riding into a storybook. The ornate ‘Gingerbread Houses’ are cladded with cookie-cutter ornamentation all painted in vibrant pastel shades. These grand old houses line an expansive ocean-side park laden with fountains, flowers, and park benches. Ocean Park, as it is known, is always comfortably busy with families strolling about and children flying kites. It gives off the whimsical aroma of an all-American town.

 

 

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The prototypical All-American Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs

 

Before the Cottage City was built, groups of Methodists would flock to the Oak grove on the bluff to hold annual summer revival meetings in the early 1800’s. At first their camp colony consisted of a series of tents surrounding a larger meeting tent on the top of the hill. As the years went by, the Methodists gradually upgraded from simple tents to more and more elaborate buildings. Eventually, a large open-air tabernacle replaced the original meeting tent, and a village of Victorian cottages replaced the tents. The Gingerbread cottages then became a tourist attraction in their own right.

Methodists weren’t the only people attracted to Oak Bluffs. The island town has a long history of a community of color. The first blacks in Oak Bluffs were brought to America as slaves. By the 1700’s, freed blacks began moving to the town to seek work in the local fishing industry. The growing African-American population of the town then attracted black business owners to set up shop, adding to the growing community. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, middle and upper-class African-American families sought out Oak Bluffs as a vacation destination. Unfortunately they didn’t have much other choice in their holiday destinations, as discriminatory laws in all other towns on the Vineyard prevented blacks from renting hotel rooms. Oak Bluffs was the only town that welcomed the presence of black vacationers, and to this day Oak Bluffs remains a destination for prominent families of African-American descent.

Beyond the sheer visual stimuli that is the gingerbread cottages of Oak Bluffs, the main commercial streets are always bustling with tourist traffic. Oak Bluffs was the only town on Martha’s Vineyard consciously planned for tourism, and the businesses on the main drags show it. Walking the streets of Oak Bluffs, one will encounter an unfathomable smattering of ice cream stores, candy shops, souvenir shops, and even a flashy arcade full of jazzy amusements and a carousel. In sharp contrast to the more tactfully hidden tourist nature of the other Vineyard towns, Oak Bluffs pretends to be nothing less than a destination for the masses.

 

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A row of Oak Bluff’s whimsical ‘Gingerbread’ houses

 

After getting overstimulated in in Oak Bluffs, it is time to stretch the bicycling legs again and take the scenic bike route six miles southeast into the Vineyard’s other most populous town, Edgartown. The trail to Edgartown rides smack between the open ocean and Sengekontacket Pond. This stretch of sand and water is perhaps the most scenic ride on all the Vineyard. Along the path you will cross the American Legion Memorial Bridge, made famous from the movie set of Jaws. Take a quick breather and re-create the shark attack scene. It is also a popular pastime at the bridge to jump into the water. Just when you thought it was safe…

 

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A pending shark attack scene from Jaws, with the famed bridge in the background

 

Continuing on into Edgartown, you will see more familiar Jaws scenery. The fictional town center of Amity Island was filmed here. The brick sidewalks and wooden buildings provide an olden-day feel to the town. Edgartown has a much more relaxed ambiance than Oak Bluffs. Its maze of streets are lined with shops and eateries which cater to the more refined traveler. Also in Edgartown, you can catch one of the world’s shortest car ferries. At a distance of 527 feet, the ‘Chappy Ferry’ to Chappaquiddick Island is nothing short of endearing. Endearing too is the island itself, lightly trafficked and abounding with beaches, forests, and the Mytoi Japanese Gardens. Continuing south out of Edgartown is another way to escape the bustle of the large towns; some of the Vineyard’s most popular beaches, South Beach and Katama Beach, lie just a short cycle south.

 

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The classic look and feel of downtown Edgartown

 

After completing the trifecta of the major Martha’s Vineyard towns, it is time to get your bicycling legs in gear and make the long trek to the far western side of the island where the landscape becomes increasingly rural. Out of Edgartown, follow the bike path west. Soon enough, after passing through the outskirts of the town and a few boutique farms as well, you will reach the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest, a sizable patch of pitch pines and other scrubby trees that occupies the heart of the Vineyard. The bike path is far enough off the road and is adequately shaded by the trees so that it starts to feel rather isolated. After a good stretch of smooth riding, the bike path ends. To continue further west, it is time to venture onto the roads. Not to worry, though. Western Martha’s Vineyard takes on quite a different character than the populous tourist towns in the east, and not much vehicle traffic abounds on this side of the otherwise congested island.

To continue west at the end of the paved bike path, take your pick of either North, Middle, or South Roads. As you could probably infer from their names, these roads refer to their geographical location on the island. Once in the west, the hills on the Vineyard begin to get more pronounced. The forest, too, encroaches on the road; the continuous tree canopy is punctuated only by the occasional pastoral meadow. Old stone walls line the road and heirloom cattle graze in the pastures. After riding for a number of miles, you’ll eventually reach the small isolated village of Chilmark, whose claim to fame was a once-thriving deaf community with its own system of signing even before the advent of American Sign Language.

 

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The pastoral landscape along Middle Road on the west side of the Vineyard

 

The village of Chilmark is a one-horse town, occupying little more than a road intersection with a few boutique shops and community buildings. Take a quick break on your bicycle to look around, but then head north again towards the ocean. A few miles later you’ll reach the quaint fishing village of Menemsha, an aged relic from the days when fishing was still a mainstay of the Vineyard. Take a stroll along the docks and watch the fishing boats offload their catch. Small weathered clapboard shacks line the Menemsha basin and fishermen peddle their wares to off-the-beaten-path tourists. It was this village that served as the home of the salty shark hunter Quint from Jaws. As a special bonus for cyclists only, Menemsha offers the special treat of a bike-only ferry to traverse the stones-throw distance across the entrance of Memensha Pond. After seeing enough fish in the village, take the bike ferry and enjoy the short water transit.

 

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Menemsha, a quite charming active fishing village on the fringe of the island

 

On the other side of the bike ferry, you’ll find yourself in a land of sand and hills directly lining the ocean. Pause for a moment and think about the eastern end of the Vineyard just fifteen miles back—this has become a vastly different world. Rather than opulent vacation compounds, the houses here are beaten and weathered, laying spattered in the woods like an organic outgrowth of trees. It is here where you will enter into the Wampanoag Aquinnah lands, lands that are still held by the original peoples of the Vineyard. Also, at this point you should notice that you are biking uphill; this means that the spectacular Gay Head Cliffs are quickly approaching.

Once you spot the Gay Head Lighthouse in the distance you will know that you are near the end of the island. At its westernmost point, known as Gay Head, Martha’s Vineyard abruptly drops into the ocean at the Gay Head Cliffs. These cliffs are made up of clay, a dissimilar material to the glacially deposited till that composes the rest of the Vineyard. As a geological phenomenon, layers and layers of the Gay Head clay—former seafloor sediment—were pushed upwards by the weight of the glacial moraine formed during the last ice age. Over time, the ocean has been reclaiming this above-water material and has formed the cliffs via erosion. Wampanoag legend holds that the god Moshup, a benevolent provider, lives in the cliffs. The red stains on the cliffs are from the blood of the whales that Moshup eats, and the black is the soot from the fires that Moshup cooks over. The Wampanoag peoples hold these cliffs and their mud sacred, and as a visitor it is easy to see why. This secluded end of the island is a special place, worthy of admiration. From the overlook of the cliffs, it is an easy enough walk down to Moshup Beach, where one can stroll along the sandy beaches under the towering cliffs. After such a whirlwind tour of the Vineyard, there really is no better ending.

 

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The Gay Head Lighthouse standing tall over the colorful cliffs

 

Nantucket, the Faraway Land

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Rounding Brant Point at the shallow entrance to Nantucket Harbor

 

Thirty miles off the Northeastern seaboard of America lies a distant land, one that is removed to both time and mainstream American culture. On a clear day you can squint your eyes and barely make out the remote island over the horizon. The Wampanoag people, the ones who first inhabited these lands, named it ‘natockete’—the Faraway Land. Today, the island of Nantucket is easily accessible yet remains isolated by distance and culture; it remains the proverbial faraway land.

To get to Nantucket requires intention; no one ends up there on accident. The ferry ride from the mainland itself promotes the isolation, requiring over two hours to traverse the expansive Nantucket Sound. This distance and isolation has produced the distinct identity of the Nantucketer; native Nantucketers, when they seldom do go to the mainland, feel so removed from it that they refer to it as ‘going to America’. The island’s 48 square miles makes it insignificant in area, but the island makes up for its lack of size with its depth of character. Charming and quaint with its cobblestoned streets and rows of simple clapboard shanties, the Nantucket of today appears as an island forgotten in time. Yet, underneath this unassuming appearance lies a cosmopolitan society fueled by a multi-billion dollar tourism and real estate industry. Retreatants from all across the globe call this island a home, either permanently or seasonally. Yet, the island has resisted the global corporate commercialization seen on the mainland. There are no fast food restaurants here, and no superstores. The businesses and development on the island are unique and independent as the island and her inhabitants themselves.

 

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Nantucket town, with it’s modest buildings sheltered by street trees. The most dominant feature of the skyline is the Quaker Meetinghouse. Nantucket’s many wharves stretch into the harbor.

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Main Street Nantucket: rustic and cobblestoned, yet modern and full of traffic.

 

In terms of natural resources, Nantucket itself has little to offer. The island is a relic of the last ice age, merely a pile of sand in the ocean dumped by a glacier some 20,000 years ago and continually sculpted away by the sea. Incessantly battered by the ocean, the natural environment of the island remains fragile and the blanket of ocean fog that often shrouds Nantucket has earned her the nickname ‘Grey Lady of the Sea’. Nevertheless, the cryptic island still supported much life, including a complex human culture. For thousands of years, the Wampanoag people lived sustainably on the island in small groups called sachems. Five to six thousand years ago, rising tides from glacial meltwater cut off Nantucket from Cape Cod for good, creating the isolation needed for the distinct cultural identity of the original Nantucketers to develop.

European settlers to the Massachusetts Colony, off-put by the island’s isolation and lack of resources, initially passed over the Grey Lady. Eventually, however, the island’s isolation proved an allure as well, and the earliest English settlers came in 1641 to seek a reprieve from economic and social oppression on the mainland. Those early settlers tried subsistence farming and grazing like they had known in their home country, but agriculture and livestock grazing proved unsustainable and dramatically changed Nantucket forever. The native vegetation was stripped from the landscape, and the already poor soil was lost. Looking to maintain their fragile existence, these early Nantucketers turned to the sea for their salvation.

 

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A rooftop view of Nantucket town’s skyline

 

And the sea, though violent as it may be to the island itself, provided generously for the settlers of Nantucket. The coastal waters of the Atlantic were rich in fish resources, in turn supporting an abundance of whales. The ongoing industrial revolution created an insatiable demand for whale oil products, and Nantucket capitalized on its nautical location. Nantucket’s proximity to the sea, instead of the isolation due to it, provided an advantage as Nantucket reinvented itself as a whaling port. With the seas as the roads and the primary mode of transportation being sailing vessel in those days, even isolated settlements on the mainland were effectively islands at that time; being a physical island was not much more of a barrier. Though poor in natural resources, Nantucket could easily ship in whatever supplies they needed from the mainland—lumber, food, labor—all financed by the profits of the whale industry. By the mid-1700’s, Nantucket was a booming city with a population surpassing 8,000, as well as being the nationwide leader in whaling. Though awash in wealth from the whaling industry, the Quaker values of the Nantucket settlers shunned displays of opulence and prosperity. Instead, Nantucketers lived simply and constructed economical dwellings for themselves in a society subservient to both God and the whales. Astute businessmen, earnings from whaling were re-invested directly into the industry.

 

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Waterfront Property: modest houses built upon Old North Wharf in Nantucket Harbor

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The Old Mill: built in 1746 as a way to grind corn meal for provisioning ships

 

Eventually, Nantucket’s isolation began to lead to the demise of the island community. The success and monopoly of whaling for Nantucketers meant that whaling was the only industry in town. Serving as a whaler was a rite of passage for the islanders, and an insular culture around whaling practices developed. Nantucket whalers were distrustful of technological advances and nautical knowledge from others off the island, even as the traditional whaling industry as they knew began to decline. The overhunting of whales in Nantucket’s backyard, the Atlantic, led to the development of the Pacific whale fishery. To accommodate for longer voyages, the whaleships grew larger and more technologically advanced, and the shallow sandbar at the entrance of Nantucket Harbor eventually prevented these larger boats from docking in the Harbor. As a symbolic tragedy of the demise of Nantucket whaling, in 1820 the Nantucket whaleship Essex was sunk in the Pacific by a sperm whale—the gruesome tragedy that would inspire the novel Moby Dick. By the mid-1800’s, the whaling industry in Nantucket was in its death throes. Nantucketers stubbornly continued whaling with diminishing returns while the deeper mainland harbor in New Bedford, Massachusetts, with access to rail transportation became deeply profitable. Nantucket’s status as an island had once again become a liability. The last whaleship sailed out of Nantucket in 1845. Then, in 1846, a fire on Nantucket destroyed 40 acres of the town. A great depression fell over the island.  With little economic opportunity left, the people of Nantucket began a mass exodus. The island’s population plummeted to under a third of its whaling peak.

 

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The red house was owned by whaling captain George Pollard, the captain of the ill-fated Essex voyage. Though they occupied the highest rank on the island, captains nevertheless built simple dwellings for themselves.

 

Nantucket Island would spend the next many decades unadorned and steeping in its isolation. Not until the turn of the 20th century did it see signs of revival as an island. In the roaring decades of the early 1900’s, artists and actors from the mainland began to turn to Nantucket for summer retreats. Lured by its quaint charm and rustic beauty, celebrities and wealthy businessmen alike sought refuge on the island. By the 1950’s Nantucket had become a popular enough retreat that developers saw the economic potential of a resort community. However, fearing the loss of the town’s character, great efforts were made to preserve the historic architecture and rustic charm of the island that had attracted vacationers there in the first place. Nantucketers, ever resistant of trends on the mainland, fought for the preservation of their island’s history and culture, resisting the post-WWII re-development and commercialization that was ongoing on the mainland and neighboring rival Martha’s Vineyard as well. Their efforts preserved the downtown core of Nantucket town and its outskirts, making it today the best-preserved pre-civil war era town in America.

Nantucket town today remains a maze of narrow streets densely populated with simple clapboard houses and sheltered by street trees. Main Street—the main commercial drag—is wide and cobblestoned, lined by old brick buildings, and leads straight down to Straight Wharf—one of the town’s many links to the sea. The sea is still the lifeblood of this island community, only today the harbor is frequented more by pleasure craft than by whaleboats. Outside of Nantucket town, the island is rural and rustic. Scraggly forests, instead of cookie-cutter suburbs, fill the isolated interior. On the fringes of the island, quaint shanty villages like ‘Sconset give off the forgotten seaside town aura. Today, more than 10,000 people call Nantucket home year-round, a number surpassing even the zenith of the whaling-era population. Though the island’s residents swell to over 50,000 in the brief summer months, the pace of life feels relaxed nonetheless.

 

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On the easternmost edge of Nantucket Island is the Sankaty Head Lighthouse. The waves continually erode away the island, forcing the relocation of the lighthouse in 1997.

 

I recently spent four days on Nantucket Island, exploring the island’s corners by bike. On a small island, there is nothing quite like exploration by bicycle, taking the slow route to the island’s fringes. Being on Nantucket, something inexpressible grips you. It’s a place you’ve been that’s like no other. Something on the island beckons you, drawing you in. Is it the salty air, the foggy mornings? Is it the predominance of the ocean, with the waves and the surf? Is it that the pace of life seems slower here? Unlike its rival island Martha’s Vineyard, there is not much human entertainment found on the island. Yet, in my time ashore, I found the days to be packed full of sights and sounds. The ocean beaches, the stars at night, they are the things that filled the time in all their gloriousness. Those four days seemed to stretch into an eternity yet flew by all too quickly.

Many people visit Nantucket each year, from all corners of the globe. The island—its mystique and aura—seems to leave an irreversible impression. Something about time spent on the island seems of a different caliber. For some, decades may pass between visits, yet Nantucket remains as a place near the surface of memory. The island always beckons you back. When you return, the enchantment of the island overpowers you once again. Nantucket whispers “forget about the mainland. Relax. Enjoy yourself. Linger for a spell, if only for this short while.”

 

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The former Surf Lifesaving Station in Surfside. No longer used for saving lives, the station has been converted into a youth hostel.

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The southernmost settlement on Nantucket, the small burg of Surfside, often covered in the misty morning ocean fog that shrouds the Grey Lady

Making the Memories You Will Love to Look Back Upon

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Recently I took a trip down memory lane with a fellow co-conspirator of one of my most memorable spring break trips ever, a canoeing/backpacking trip to the wilds of Mississippi. It was a trip to be remembered not only because of the adventure but also because of so many things that frankly went haywire:

One of our cars breaking down on the first night in the country town of Effingham, Illinois; sleeping in our cars in the parking lot of the repair shop that first night waiting for the shop to open in the morning; taking a pilgrimage to the second-largest cross in America beside the freeway while waiting for said car to get repaired; running into a traffic jam at a police checkpoint on the highway late at night in muggy Mississippi—and having the power braking go out in the car during that episode; awaking our first morning in Mississippi to gunfire from local turkey hunters wandering through camp; canoeing down a river traversing from bank to bank the whole time because no one in the group actually knew how to canoe; nearly stepping on rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the trail—multiple times; having a deer run through camp at night and scare the living bejesus out of us; having one of our friends get bit by a water snake while we were bathing in the creek; visiting Alabama’s Dauphin Island on the last day of our trip and finding out there were no campgrounds to stay at—so instead after much searching, eventually knocking on a random parsonage door at night to ask if we could sleep in a parking lot (and instead getting invited to sleep in the church’s retreat center!); a fateful morning of napping on Dauphin Island’s beach, leading to second-degree sunburn and sun poisoning before driving through the night back to Michigan; stopping at a place called Hart’s Fried Chicken and ordering the greasiest things on the menu before the drive; washing all of our clothes at a friend’s house before the dorms re-opened, and then finding out that the dryer was broken; some friends finding ticks engorged in uncomfortable places after arriving back from the trip; it could go on…

Some might say that on this trip a lot of things went wrong. Personally I’m not apt to call these events wrong as such—more so, the events of the trip just went much differently from our idealized expectations of an uneventful vacation. Reflecting on the premises of the trip reveals that running into some snafus seemed likely. We were, after all, only a group of ten friends—sophomores in college—without any significant experience canoeing or traveling in the backcountry (and perhaps our resumes were lacking for road trip experience as well). But despite all the happenings and dangerous circumstances encountered, we all survived to tell the tale. We can look back fondly and humorously at the entire experience because no permanent harm was done (perhaps with the exception of guaranteeing ourselves skin cancer).

This trip to Mississippi stands out from other trips I’ve taken particularly because of the number of things that went unexpected. Looking back, the whole trip could have been written as a comedy sketch. How many goofy things could possibly happen in this episode of college wilderness spring break? On trips I would take in the future, I would apply the lessons I learned from past mistakes. I would gradually get more comfortable in the outdoors, make better trip preparations, and foresee adverse situations before they would arise. Things got a lot easier with more experience. But I also found they got less memorable.

The following spring break was also a canoeing trip with friends, this time on Florida’s Suwanee River. The entire trip went off without a hitch. No car trouble, no inadequate provisioning, no half-baked plans. It really was a trip you could wrap up neatly and put down in the books. But I felt a little shortchanged from it. I felt like I got off that trip a little too easy. Somehow, I felt like I had been gipped. Thinking about the Suwanee trip years later, many fine details of the experience are largely forgotten, and few stories about it have been re-told. The trip itself does not possess much salience in my mind either.

I think this example of these two spring break trips illustrates a trend I’ve noticed in my life. As someone who learns quickly from past experience, I don’t possess anywhere near the level of greenness or naïveté I had in my early college days. I’m now able to get through life easier without committing so many of the egregious errors or faux pas of my younger years. As I get better at navigating the messy world of life, I’ve noticed one unintended consequence: I’ve been making these distinct memories of unexpected circumstances with far less frequency.

I’m aware of this trend, and part of myself is frightened that I’ll stop making memories quite as spectacular as my Mississippi spring break. I’m concerned that life will become mundane and routine, and the vivid experiences of life will slip into the hum-drum milieu of quotidian tedium. I’m afraid that I’ll no longer be making the memories which I’d love to look back upon. Psychological research details how our lives mellow out as we age. I was a mellow personality to begin with, and I’ve already seen myself soften out more as I’ve gotten older. As I mature further and gain more life experience, am I going to find it increasingly difficult to make specific memories? Am I going to run out of things to try that are absurdly outside of my range of expertise—or will I even lose the motivation to try such things?

I wonder if this fear is one of the reasons why I’m wary of settling down, why I keep flirting with transiency and playing hard-to-get with consistency. That instead of doing one thing in one place for a long time, I keep wandering from place to place and from job to job seeking out new places and experiences. I’m no longer absurdly incompetent in a lot of areas as I once was. Years later, I have become very proficient in outdoor travel. I’ve even worked as a canoe guide. If I were to take it again now, a trip like my Mississippi spring break would likely present little challenge to me.

Instead, I find myself seeking out new areas in which I will continually challenge my limits, branching out into more and more disciplines. Once I felt comfortable with my level of mastery at the things that interested me most, I had to start seeking positions further afield where I could step yet again outside of my comfort zone. True, part of my motivation for doing this is the desire to develop new skills in other disciplines. But I am also motivated by the challenge of doing things that I’m not familiar with and the memorable experiences that ensue.

And this process of doing things outside of my comfort zone, I’ve found, is a key element in adding to the memory-making process. It’s something I can control that augments the production of memories. Truly, my working holiday in Australia was partly motivated by this, especially by a desire to break from the monotony of going to grad school day after day and living a stable life in the same house for two years in a row. The scope of my Australian journey was a stretch for me, and how it comically unraveled produced many great stories and memories about how naïve and unprepared I actually was. But—I learned so much from that experience that if I were to do it again, it would be far easier for me—and also much less memorable.

I still find myself drawn to employment positions that are slightly out of my comfort zone and realm of experience as well. In fact, it seems to be a job requirement for me. Substitute teaching in public schools has been a great example of this. I was incredibly nervous before I started subbing, and I still often feel out of my element in the classroom. But I have accumulated a treasure-trove of memories and stories from the experience (although my most vivid memories are of just how awful children can act). Though far from a professional, even after just a few weeks of subbing I’m beginning to feel more comfortable leading a classroom. I wonder if that’s a sign it’s time to try something new?

Am I drawn to the memories? Am I addicted to them? Am I drawn to novelty and repelled by familiarity because I covet the memories that novelty so often provides? Am I scared that based on the trends I’ve seen so far, that I’ll eventually run out of things to do in order to make new memories? Is my incestuous desire for vivid memories stifling my development?

I want to keep making new memories, though, and memories that will stick around with distinction. The question may be how to go about this. How can I still make new memories and lead a more stable and consistent life? Somehow I need to find a way of continuing to make mistakes worth learning from. As long as I survive those mistakes, I’ll be able to look back on those memories fondly.

The Land of the Free (Museums)

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I’ve recently spent a week in our nation’s capital, Washington D.C., touring the important sites and institutions that run the country. In terms of educational vacation destinations, Washington D.C. is ideal because most of its signature attractions are free of charge. While I visited America’s capital city, I also learned a lot of interesting and obscure facts about our country:

 

*The nation’s premier museum institution, the Smithsonian, is an oddity in itself. The founding benefactor, James Smithson, was a British chemist and mineralogist who never once set foot in the United States. In his will, Smithson wrote a stipulation that if his only nephew should die childless, Smithson’s entire fortune should be gifted to the United States government as “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson’s nephew died a boy in 1835 and the fledgling United States government shipped Smithson’s fortune in gold coins from overseas to begin the Smithsonian Institution.

 

*Looking for a unique gift this Christmas? The largest book in the Library of Congress is Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom, written by Michael Hawley. It is a 5 foot by 7 foot photographic exposition of the country. (Library of Congress)

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The Massive Photo Book ‘Bhutan’

 

*The 1980’s saw a tremendous explosion in the diversity of Poinsettia colors. Horticulturalists used radiation to induce genetic mutations and cause colors other than the standard red and white to be produced. (National Botanical Garden)

 

*As president Abraham Lincoln said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Lincoln was true to his adage by being the only US president to ever hold a patent. Lincoln’s invention, patent number 6469, was an inflatable apparatus under the hull of ferry boats that was intended to buoy boats over shallow channels. Unfortunately, Lincoln did not quite invent the future as his creation proved impractical and was never manufactured. (Smithsonian Museum of American History)

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Abraham Lincoln is memorialized for things other than his inventions

 

*Though typically thought of as an instrument of white Appalachia, the banjo owes its origins to African Americans. African slaves who were brought to America in the 1700’s fashioned a stringed banjo-like instrument out of a hollow gourd similar to an instrument in their homelands. Their instrument later evolved into the banjo form we recognize today as it became popular in white minstrel shows and in American folk music. (Smithsonian National African American History Museum)

 

*When the Senate Wing of the United States Capitol was completed in 1859, Senate vacated its old chamber. Filling the vacancy for seven years afterwards was a pop-up farmers market complete with livestock in the old senate chamber. Back in the late 1800’s, building security was not as tight as it is now, but some still consider the capitol to be full of swine. (United States Capitol)

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The old Senate Chamber, where the one-time market took place, is now a statue hall.

 

*The hot air balloon’s early history is tied intimately with military use. Hot air balloons were used for spying efforts in the French Revolution and by the Union in the American Civil war. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)

 

*Could you have an antique form of American currency lying in your wallet? For the greater part of the 20th century, the United States government produced three types of bills which circulated as legal tender paper money. The currencies—Federal Reserve Notes (current), United States Notes (until 1996), and Silver Certificates (until 1968)—were of visually similar design but had different legal implications. Today, all bills produced are Federal Reserve Notes, but that doesn’t mean the older types don’t show up now and then. As I now know, the odd blue-tinted dollar I kept in my wallet during high school was actually a silver certificate, which would has been redeemable for one dollar worth of silver…until I unintentionally spent it. (United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing)

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It’s not a Dollar Bill…it’s a Silver Certificate!

 

*Wood is a renewable building material that is gaining interest for large scale building projects. The city of Springfield, Oregon, is planning on building a 4-story, 350-car parking garage completely out of wood. (National Building Museum)

 

*Though the Washington Monument is made up of 555 feet of stone, the very top of the obelisk is a small capstone of aluminum. When the monument was completed in 1884, aluminum was more costly than silver or gold due to the price of electricity needed to produce it. (Washington Monument)

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Washington’s Monument reflecting on the lagoon

1,234.63 Miles Later

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Stopping in Chicago along the way

 

My bicycle hobbled over the pavement for the final stretch, rims wobbling, bearings creaking at every turn. One thousand miles of loaded travel puts a great deal of wear on a bicycle. Tires bald, brakes worn down, dozens of new scratches in the bright yellow paint. I rode with baited breath my final day, hoping that my emergency tube patch job would hold after blowing my last spare on a particularly aggressive Indiana pothole the night before. Braking for the last time on my parent’s uphill driveway, I came to my final stop. 19 days. 1,234.63 miles.

It was a rather uneventful end for such a long trip. Arriving at my destination felt no more different than returning from a short evening ride. The cheering spectators, the paparazzi that I’d expected were absent. I had thought that my trip would deserve an epic fanfare, a grandiose welcome after such a long physical exertion. What I got instead was a simple welcome home from my parents. Soon enough thoughts of riding drifted away from my mind as I integrated myself into my parent’s nightly television routine. Coming back from three weeks of biking felt little different that coming back from a day at the office

I ended up cutting my trip short by a day. Camping in Indiana on what would be my final night, I made the decision to push through and make it all the way to my destination instead. To myself I had already proven my capability to endure the journey; all I needed to do was complete the trip. Instead of leisure and sightseeing on my final day, I just put my head down and rode. Peddle after peddle, mile after mile kept adding up until I amassed 113 in one day. With goal in site, no time to relax—just time to ride.

The most intense feeling I had on my final push was one of relief. Biking north out of Michigan City, I caught glance of the giant blue “Welcome to Pure Michigan” road sign. After so long away, finally back in my home state. A lump grew in my throat and my eyes teared up as I crossed the state border.

 

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Overcome by sentiment at reaching the state line

 

Later on, coming into the outskirts of Holland, that same emotional relief came over me; ‘I recognize this place now’, I thought to myself, ‘I know where I am. From here it’s only 4 miles, 3 miles, 2 miles…’ To the onlookers curious at why the overburdened cyclist was sobbing, there is only one simple response:

I had made it

What difference does it make now that such an arduous trek is behind me? Already the memories of the toil are fading. The afterglow was short-lived. A few hours after arrival I found myself showered, rested, and unpacked from the journey. No time to bask in remembrance, and only a few people to recount the adventure for. Instead I had pressing work to prepare for my upcoming job.

But already I feel nostalgia for the journey. The lactic acid has since drained from my legs and I’ve forgotten how sore I felt on the expedition. Rosy retrospection smiles kindly upon the difficulties, and I find myself yearning for more. A journey of one thousand miles, and I had chosen to stop in the middle of America when more road lay yet before me.

After such a long journey, after such a feeling of relief when I finally made my destination and could rest, I realized one thing:

I could have still kept biking on.

 

View from the Saddle

Fast enough to get places, but slow enough to see them–that’s what I enjoy so much about travel by bicycle. The saddle may not be comfortable, but the views provide the reward. Traveling over 800 miles in 11 days has heightened my geographical senses. Slowly peddling a great distance, one gets to play landscape detective: what’s changing and why?

 

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Guerrilla camping in the majestic white pine forests of northern Wisconsin

 

The northern hardwood forests began to become infiltrated by beech and maple, warmer clime species from more fertile soils found further south. Farm country spontaneously erupted from the sylvan wilderness. Along the lakeshore, farmland eventually gave way to industrial cities.

The landscape shifts imperceptibly, but gradually, determinants of the physical and cultural environment. Any given day I could find myself peddling down a rural country road or meandering on a dirt track through a mature forest.

 

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Traveling through a forested corridor along the Eagle River Trail in northern Wisconsin

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Following the route of the railroad on one of Wisconsin’s many rail-to-trail paths, the Glacial Drumlin State Trail linking Milwaukee to Madison

 

The weather changes also, with it bringing different moods to the landscape. Bright sunny days can make the terrain warm and inviting; cool, cloudy days present a somber melancholy air. Staying alert to the changing light environment rewards the onlooker with a multiplicity of panoramas, an ever-evolving sensory scene.

 

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A diversity of clouds fill the sky above Green Bay

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The rainbow after the storm: rural Wisconsin after a thunder shower passes

 

The culture shifts along with the landscape it inhabits. Forest land gives way to farm country. Tourist towns and sleepy hamlets lie tucked under the lakeside bluffs on the Door County Peninsula. Large industrial cities occupy important harbors on the Michigan lakeshore. Out in the hinterlands, a lone water tower on the horizon signals an approaching town.

 

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Riding the Mariners Trail into industrial Manitowoc, Wisconsin

 

Along the way I pass through areas of local history and interest. Where did the inhabitants of Oostburg come from? Why is there a village of Wales in the Wisconsin countryside? Roadside markers provide insight on the history of each small settlement. By car, it’s an inconvenience to stop and learn; by bike, it’s a welcome break from pedaling. Roadside harvest stalls showcase the seasonal agriculture and nourish the famished biker. A destination of interest, no matter how modest, is worth stopping along the way.

 

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The spiral staircase leading up the Cana Island Lighthouse in Door County

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View from the top: Potawatomi State Park’s 75-foot tall observation tower

 

Beautiful nature abounds if you go out and seek it. Along the tracks and trails, nature displays her splendor. These places call out, beckon you to come close and linger.

 

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Dolomitic Limestone formations at Cave Point County Park, Door County

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Stopping for a swim break along a sandy Lake Michigan beach–Point Park State Forest

 

The long journey is never about reaching the destination; it is about the process of discovery along the way.

 

The (Bicycle) Journey of 1,000 Miles

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Ready to go at the starting point

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“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of riding a bike” John F. Kennedy

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Confucius may have wisely remarked that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, but since the bicycle wasn’t invented until 2,000 years after his time, he never got to say that the bicycle journey of one thousand miles begins with a single pedal. Also dealing with one-thousand mile journeys, another hero of mine, John Muir, began his period of long wanderings as a 20-something with a 1,000 mile walk from Indiana to the Gulf Coast. So it only seemed fitting that I should embark on a thousand-mile journey myself—1,000 miles of adventure and exploration via the bicycle.

I could write on and on about how my upcoming bike ride is a promotion of bikeable communities and alternative forms of transportation. I could posit this venture as a political statement about our oil-dependent and vehicle-oriented transportation system. I could say I’m doing this ride for all the health benefits of biking. I could even pass this journey off as a slower-paced trip along the backroads of rural America, where I can see my own country in a new light and get to meet authentic everyday Americans.

But really, I’m going on this journey because I really like to ride my bicycle. Well, and that I don’t have a car—or enough money to justify a plane ticket for that matter. And somehow I need to get back to my hometown from my summer camp job in rural northern Wisconsin.

The idea of biking back home after camp had always been at the back of my mind, even before arriving at my summer job. That’s the reason why I made sure to ship my bike to Wisconsin and only arranged for a one-way ticket to camp. Having nothing lined up after camp (well, initially, that is!), I found myself in the predicament where I had ample time to travel, no hurry to be anywhere, little money for gas, and a great desire to really travel. What better to fit my circumstances than a bike trip.

I have frequently entertained the idea of a long trek by bicycle, but have never yet risen to the occasion. Sure, I am the veteran of a handful of overnight bike camping trips, and in the summer of 2011 I completed a three day/two night bike ride of 200 miles in New England. But the really long journeys have remained little more than fantasy for me. I have select group of friends who I routinely discuss long bicycle adventures with—be they cycles across America or a bicycle trek of Europe. Will a successful regional gig be a testing of the pavement for something greater down the line…?

On this journey I will be traveling with my constant companion, noble steed, and packhorse, my (still unnamed) bicycle. Me and my bright yellow bike have been together since 2010, and she’s a 1990’s model Cannondale that I bought second-hand. She’s not a fancy bike or an expensive bike, but she’s a sturdy bike who can carry a load and take a beating. Weighing in at 36 pounds with accessories, she’s an-aluminum frame touring bike with all the features. Fitted out with my load of camping supplies, clothes, rations, entertainment, and other odds and ends I wanted to bring, the total weight of my outfit rises to 78 pounds. I could have packed much lighter, but then again extra weight on a bicycle isn’t noticed too much.

 

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Gearing up for the trip with everything I’m bringing with me

 

On average I’ll be riding between 50 and 60 miles per day. From start to finish I’ll take 20 days, with a few layover days scattered throughout for rest and recreation. Although I haven’t done as much training for my ride as I hoped, I feel more than ready. Long-distance biking is a challenge of endurance, not strength. So much of endurance is the mental resolve to continue.

If the point of the journey was just to get myself back home, I could do it in under 500 miles (although that would necessitate a ferry across Lake Michigan). But I’m taking a meandering route, stopping by some special places and enhancing the trip by visiting friends, which increases my projected distance to over 1,100 miles. I’ll try and post regular updates as I go along, but here is a general overview of my itinerary:

 

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September 3: Leave North Star Camp and start my bicycle journey

September 8-9: Biking tour of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula

September 10: Day in Green Bay

September 12: Arrive in Milwaukee

September 14: Arrive in Madison

September 16-17: Cheese Days Festival in Monroe, Wisconsin

September 18: Skydiving outside of Chicago

September 19: Arrive in Chicago

September 20: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

September 22: Arrive at parent’s house in Michigan

(September 24: fly to New York to start next adventure as crew on the Sloop Clearwater)

The Graduate

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About this time last year I graduated from the University of Idaho with a masters degree. Being mentally and emotionally drained from formal study, I was ready to leave the cloistered realm of academia and explore the greater world on my own terms. So excited was I to get a jump start on my informal education that I left exam week early and skipped my commencement ceremony in favor of a kayak trip on the Columbia River.

Now that it’s graduation season again, perhaps I should be granted another diploma. Conceivably it could be from the University of Wanderlust. It wasn’t an accredited university. It had no designated faculty, and there were no required courses or class assignments. Tuition was also pretty inexpensive (although room and board could be costly at times). Although there were tests along the way, the entire grading system was based on pass/fail.

Yes, now that I’ve officially ended my coursework of travels, I’d say it’s like I’m a freshly-minted grad once again. My degree from the University of Wanderlust ended up being a year-long program (or else I guess I just graduated early), and I was happy to build my own curriculum too. First I spent a semester in the American West, road-tripping on a survey course of National Parks and cultural highlights. Then, I spent my second semester in Australia, taking classes in fruit-picking and van culture. From this I’ve earned a diploma full of different life experiences at an expedited rate.

And what’s more, my diploma from the University of Wanderlust focused on personal change as much as it did about learning factual knowledge. Though I enjoyed learning a great deal about many of the spectacular places in the United States as well as learning about the way of life in a foreign land, what I had set out to gain through my latest degree was deeper—a more thorough understanding of my own personal growth and moral development. My masters degree at the University of Idaho, though it challenged my intellect, lacked much of the personal growth I yearn for in education. What I needed to compensate for this lack was a challenge to develop my character and to gain a different perspective on the world.

Unlike a typical college education, though, my self-designed degree focused more on the realm of the practical rather than the theoretical. Throughout my travels, challenges were applied and consequences were real. Every event was viewed with the mindset of an opportunity to learn. Daily life became my homework assignments and the people I met along the way were became my professors.

As a recent grad of the University of Wanderlust, I feel fresh and ready to pursue a career path. Admittedly, I still do feel a little bit of the aimlessness and uncertainty of recent grad Benjamin Braddock from Mike Nichols’s film The Graduate. But on the whole, my diploma of travel in the real world has provided the necessary transition from the culture of the academic world to the culture of the working world.

Many of my lessons learned from the University of Wanderlust still need formalizing into words. But how does one succinctly sum up a year of travels? Fortunately for me (or maybe not!) I never assigned myself a term paper.

Leaving (Many) Stones Unturned

This is my first blog post back in the United States. Yes, that means my Australian adventure has ended. What I initially intended to be a year or more of work and holiday in Australia concluded after spending a comparatively short 187 days in the country.

In an earlier blog post, I summarized an outline of the itinerary I had conceived for Australia. It was an ambitious plan for sure—my goal was to drive around the whole country and experience all the best that Australia had to offer. Seeing how this trip would be my only working holiday visa in Australia (and in all probability my only visit Down Under), I wanted to make the most of it. With the naïve idea that I’d be able to see everything worth seeing in Australia, I calculated a very thorough travel schedule so that I wouldn’t have to bother coming back to the country. After all, it was a long 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney just to get to Australia. Below is a map of what I originally envisioned for my year+ Down Under:

 

Australia Route

 

Needless to say, things didn’t work out very much as planned. Good, equitable work was difficult to find; shady fruit picking contractors swindled me out of a good chunk of my meager earnings; and my campervan experienced breakdown after breakdown. The accumulation of adverse experiences in Australia eventually led me to abandon the working holiday dream altogether. Though fate didn’t seem to be on my side, I don’t regret the journey at all and felt like I learned many invaluable lessons that I couldn’t have learned otherwise. Practically, though, as a major consequence of the essential unpredictability of eking out an existence in a foreign land, my idealized Australian itinerary changed drastically. Here is a summary map of where I actually traveled:

 

Australia Route Actual Finished

 

Probably the most noticeable difference between my idealized itinerary and my actual itinerary is the extent of the travels. Though I put over 15,000km on my campervan, I still only covered a fraction of the Australian continent. Major destinations like Queensland’s tropical north and the Outback’s red center were never reached. Travels to Western Australia and the Northern Territory were scrapped from the plan entirely.

Though I am disappointed at not being able to see such remarkable places, I’m not distraught over the lost opportunity. In conversations about my Australian trip, people often remarked that my journey was a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’. And, while making my plans for Australia, I took that sentiment to heart. I preconceivingly figured that I would never travel to Australia again—that this particular Australian trip would be my only chance to see places of world heritage value like the Great Barrier Reef or the Outback. Thus, I wanted to make sure I uncovered every stone Australia had to offer, so I could forever check the continent off my bucket list.

Abrasive reality—and sheer practicality—saw through my meager attempt to see everything in Australia. It is an impossibility to overturn every stone and leave nothing new to see in a country. Even if someone were to visit every square meter of a place, they would still have more to discover in the nooks and crannies. Such a person would still need to see the same things again, but from a different angle. Such a person would still need to spend more time in the country just to understand how the incessant elements of time and change affect a place. Fully seeing everything a country has to offer as a visitor is an absurd notion indeed.

As it so happened, I left many stones unturned in Australia. Though I wish I could have stayed longer and traveled more, I’m happy to say that I still have many reasons to go back to Australia in the future. Though I have no definite plans to revisit, I can see scenarios of returning soon to my much favored Hobart town for graduate school, or of returning only after many decades have passed as a grey-haired tourist. It’s also quite possible that I may never return to Australia again. But one things for sure: I never want to think of my stay in Australia as only a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity.