Hiking Old Rag

The Middle Wandering Mecca


Juliana and I left in the middle of a stormy night, made a pit stop at old reliable Wawa for coffee and breakfast (dinner?) hoagies, and hit the long dark road. In a James Bay induced trance, we talked about everything – family, work, guys, the past, the future, wanderlust, a lot about November Project, and a little bit about getting up in the middle of the night, in the rain, and driving two hours just to see the sun rise on top of a mountain. We realized that we may just be on the same level of crazy.The ascent is steep and the rock scrambles are plenty but the view at the top gives you that in-the-clouds feeling (quite literally).


It was a Green Friday (thanks Nat Geo) well spent.

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Never Stop Exploring

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Of the millions of visitors to the Grand Canyon every year, 1% make the hike down to the bottom, where the Colorado River carves through the limestone rock. If I am going to be the 1% of anything, I’m glad it is this.

Our first selfie of the hike.
Our first selfie of the hike.

Because it means I spent hours hiking, jumping, tip-toeing down the trails of an ancient landmark, it means I saw this breathtaking, natural phenomenon from a hundred-thousand different angles, and most importantly, it means I spent many miles walking, talking, laughing, and making memories with my dad.

IMG_6562IMG_6559Bright Angel Trail is only slightly under 10 miles long, but between snack breaks, which are inevitable for the Meccas, holding on to the last few minutes of service (Dad, you need to stop working so hard) and a three-mile detour out to Plateau Point, it took us most of the daylight hours to reach the Colorado River. The extension out to the plateau comes about half-way down the trail, at Indian Gardens, and although our feet were starting to hurt and our packs were over-packed, it was a necessary diversion – I mean, where else was I going to get pictures running #inappropriatelyfast on dangerously unstable rocks and questionable terrain (see: cactus)?

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You know that feeling when you know you have absolutely no choice but to keep going? I get that feeling when I’m in the middle of my five-hour drive home and I’m fighting to stay awake, and I suddenly realize, wow, I have no choice but to keep driving. I could pull over and get coffee, take a nap, even do jumping jacks, jump in the snow – whatever – but halfway through my trip, I inevitably have no choice but to keep going, I have two and a half hours of driving left anyway I cut it. Anyway, my Dad and I started to get that feeling about ten miles into our journey down the canyon. DSC_0037For me, it wasn’t so much that the hike was hard, it was more about feeling aches in muscles I didn’t know existed, and breaking in my new hiking boots (again, in typical Mecca fashion), and also the way that the trail twists and turns, giving you the illusion that you are almost there time after time; you think you made it, you hear the rushing water, but there are always more steps to take.

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They knew I was coming.

Surprise, surprise: we made it. Nearing the end of the journey, we crossed the metal bridge that spans the Colorado River. The bridge was very steady, albeit swaying, but I couldn’t help wondering, with each step I took, if I fell, would I live? How about now? How about now? Even toward the end of the bridge there was no relief, only a big patch of cactus. Regardless, we made it across the bridge, another mile on foot, past the mule corral and Bright Angel Campground, to Phantom Ranch.

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Dad, are you nervous?

Phantom Ranch is the only lodging below the canyon rim, and consists of a handful of cabins, four dormitories, bathroom facilities, a canteen, and an eclectic group of hikers. Meals are hearty – beef stew, steak dinner, or vegetarian chili – and served family style, so when you go back to your bunk at the end of a long day, you are well-fed and you have a few fellow hikers to call your new friends. The people you pass the potatoes to, play a late night game of rummy with, and lay your head down next to at night come from all walks of life – a lone female traveler from New Mexico who hiked the whole way down the canyon in the dark, a group of college kids on January break, a “hiking” couple who left their less-outdoorsy spouses at home, a rowdy group of young guys from Michigan, and a father-son dynamic duo all stick in my mind. We may not have anything in common in our everyday lives, but in the moment, we have everything in common; we each took time – whether one night or one week – out of our routine to disconnect, to cleanse our minds of stress, worry, relentless responsibilities, and use our bodies to move down trails, up hills, across bridges, but always forward, to accomplish a physical goal, and to spend quality, quality time with the people around us.

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Work life is full of email notifications and project deadlines, one number off on a report, and countless hours in front of a screen, but life life is full of so much more – more interesting, loving, eclectic people I have yet to meet, more perspectives, more stories, more hearts, more memories.

We made it.
We made it.

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Hiking the Grand Canyon with my Dad may have only taken a few days out of our busy lives, but it reminded me to never stop exploring and more importantly, gave me the necessary dose of more I constantly crave, holding me over until my next adventure. Did someone say Canadian tobogganing?

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On Post-Grad Wanderlust

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Now that I am a “real” person, you know, one with a job and responsibilities, a paycheck and rent check, good mail (birthday cards from my grandma) and bad mail (everything else) I have this constant itch, question, longing, something. And I know I’m not the only one.

The itch is for adventure. It is the urge to be outside as soon as the light hits the horizon and the world glows red, or really the reason why I am probably already outside when the sun shines a spotlight on Mr. Lincoln as I run the steps of the memorial with the November Project.  It is the feeling I get when I visit a new city and I realize that this world, this country, this state, is different everywhere I go. It is the excitement that builds inside me when I see the summit of a mountain before me and the drive that gets me hiking, running, climbing, falling, until I reach the top. It is the all-day, every-day reminder that comes with working for a company like National Geographic, that there is always more to explore. Without that itch, I wouldn’t run in the rain, get lost on a trail, or see the sunrise over the National Monuments. That itch is a good thing.

The question, I am so very often told, comes with the territory of being twenty-four. It is the anxiety of being the only person in charge of my life. I choose who I want to be and with whom I want to spend my time, I choose where I want to go and what I want to explore next. Should I be saving money, or running the Nike Women’s Half Marathon in San Francisco? By the way, the Nike Women’s Half was also in DC the past two years, and I live in DC. But San Francisco… Should I spend my weekends making new friends, meeting more people, cleaning my apartment? But I’ve never been to New Hampshire, and who knows how long I will have a friend living in Keene.

Wait, why do I live in DC? Should I move to NH? There are so many mountains to climb. Or NYC, where most of my friends have settled, my parents are close-by? Boston is so cozy, with all the brick, and history, and people just so amped up on their city, and plus, my sister is there. Charleston is on the water, I’ve always loved the water. I hear Nashville is the place to be, and I wouldn’t mind stumbling upon a handsome country singer to call my own. But more realistically, should I be taking advantage of my dual-citizenship and living in Europe for a few years? This would be the time to do it… Oh, right, I live in DC because I have a great job, in a great city, with great friends, and plenty of new things all around me, waiting to be explored. The question makes me check myself, and we all need that every once in a while.

And then there is the longing. I long to do more, be more, see more, know more. All I can ever do to remedy the feeling is to keep doing more, being more, seeing more, and learning more, and it is exhausting. But then I guess longing is not a negative, albeit uneasy, thing to feel – anything that serves as motivation in this confusing time in life must be a positive.

I am on track, but because of this itch, question, longing, something, it never seems to feel that way. I spent a long time thinking I was the only one feeling this confusion, but little by little, one friend after another let me in on their little secret, that they too have got that itch, question, longing, that something in their heart and mind, and that no matter what their life looks like on the outside (or on instagram), that something still exists. What we all need to realize, though, is that itch for adventure, our questions about right and wrong, the feeling of longing for more, or that something, whatever it is, is the driving force moving us forward, it is the very reason we are on track, and it is what makes us “real” people at all.

$99 Trip to Paradise

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We were unsure about what $99 and a group of strangers could really get us, but there probably isn’t one thing that could have gone better. We signed up for a boat trip to Halong Bay at the front desk of our hostel, Central Backpacker’s Hostel ( by the way, awesome hostel- free beer during happy hour, sharpies to write on the wall, and people from around the world with one common goal- to have fun). The five of us were hooked right away with the trip, but then five became eight and eight became eighteen within an hour and we ended up with a 10% discount and the best group ever. Six Americans, some Londoners, a few Australians, New Zealanders, one Canadian, two Dutch girls, and a Swedish guy were thrown together and it clicked.

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

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Photo credit: Austin banks

There was no wifi on the traditional junk boat, but there was a lot of drinking, a decent amount of good food, a few poor attempts at squid fishing, and a whole lot of people looking to have fun, play games, and sing along to the music of a ukulele.

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We kayaked , swam, and explored limestone caves in the bay during the daytime and at night, the stars came out and so did a woman in a small boat to secretly sell cheap beer to us through our cabin windows.

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

The morning after our stay on the boat, we transferred to a smaller, rockier vessel. Maybe the foreshadowing of what would turn up later on, or maybe just some ordinarily large waves, but as our new Aussie friends would put it, Christiana and I were “spewing” overboard in no time. Okay, I guess not everything went perfectly. Given the choice to either continue boating to Monkey Island, or begin swimming, we quickly stripped down to our bikinis and jumped off the deck; it’s funny how seasickness can be cured by jumping into the sea.

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

Another boat trip accompanied by one more bout of seasickness brought us to a tiny beach resort on Cat Ba Island, closed in by rocks and dotted with wooden bungalows.

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

Another fun-filled day of kayaking , volleyball- well, I watched and took pictures while everyone else played- swimming, eating every variation of seafood, and sunbathing, turned in to another night of drinking and good conversation, backed by the sounds of waves and the Red Hot Chili Peppers coming through portable iPhone speakers. No cell service, no wifi, no connection to the world and it’s worries.

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Photo credit: Austin Banks

3 AM brought typhoon winds and rain, thunder that sounded as close as our front porch, one very scared younger sister, a loss of power, and uneasy half-sleep. The cove’s water drained enough to give us thoughts of a tsunami, but the locals showed no signs of distress. Morning came, breakfast was served, and the group of eighteen new-found friends loaded the boat. It seems that all good things do come to an end, but the memories (and photos) make it worthwhile.

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The Killing Fields

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It was fitting that the day was grey. The place is called the “Killing Fields” so I guess you go into it with a pretty good idea of what you are going to see. You travel the same roads out of Phom Penh that the thousands of victims traveled from S-21 Prison, where they were tortured and beaten because of crimes they didn’t commit, except you’re riding in an open-air tuk-tuk in broad daylight, not blindfolded in the back of a crowded truck during the night. You get out of the vehicle and listen on your headset for the story of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, and what went down at this remote and eery location only three and a half decades ago.

Here’s a clip from this website – http://worldgenocides.wikispaces.com/Summary+of+the+Cambodian+Genocide -to give some background:

The Cambodian genocide resulted from the years of 1975-1979, in which a great number of people lost their lives and it was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. The genocide was an attempt by Khmer Rouge army leader Pol Pot to form a Communist peasant farming society resulting in a great number of deaths by starvation, overwork and executions. Cambodia was once ruled by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Later the country was taken over and controlled by Pol Pot, his army of Khmer Rouge, and teenage peasant guerrillas forming the Democratic Kampuchea. Pol Pot seized control of Cambodia beginning in the capital city of Phnom Penh. His ideas were similar to Maozedong’s, a Chinese communist ruler in that Western culture, religion, foreign influences should be extinguished to form an extreme peasant communism. Foreigners would be expelled, embassies closed, foreign economic or medical assistance was refused, use of foreign languages banned, TV and newspapers were shut down, even money was forbidden, education halted, and thus Cambodia was sealed off from the rest of the world. Pol pot eliminated the old society which included the educated, the wealthy, Buddhist monks, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials. Cambodians who were accustomed to city life were forced to work in the fields while many died of overworking long hours, malnutrition and disease. Anyone who was suspected to be disloyal to Pol Pot was killed. The vast majority of the victims included in the mass slaughtering and torturing are from Cambodia but also include people from Vietnam, Laos, India, Pakistan, UK, France, U.S.A, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, and Muslims and Christians. Eventually In 2002 Australia, France, Japan, and the US passed a resolution calling for a tribunal of the senior members of the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity.

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Over the course of three years, it is estimated that the Khmer Rouge killed 3,300,000 people.

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So by now, there is hopefully a point of reference and recognition coming from a high school or college class. I know I owe my knowledge to 10th grade genocide class and Mr. Boyde. A textbook chapter and an accompanying video don’t quite do the trick, though. One minute you are in a dark classroom watching a ton of people blind-folded in a single file line being led to their end and you’re definitely feeling pretty sad and beginning to hate mankind, but then the bell rings, the light switch turns up and you remember how hungry you are and thank god it’s lunch period. You may sit at the table picturing the looks on the faces of the Cambodian children as you eat, but by the time lacrosse practice rolls around, those images are wiped clean. Not much of a lasting impression.

There really is no way to give the full effect of an event to an outsider, but the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center does a good job of bringing you close to the stories and memories. When you arrive, you receive headphones and an audio device to walk you through the site. You begin where the prisoners began, at the truck stop, then move through the detainment space and the check-in area (the Khmer Rouge made sure to double check the whereabouts of each victim- there would be no escaping) and into the huge area of mass graves. Roped off are a few that still churn up bone fragments, teeth, and cloth. Other graves are indicated by divots in the earth.

All along, the audio is telling the story. For some reason, hearing the words from Cambodian accents directly into your ears makes it more real and personal. The marked-off mass graves are lined with bamboo fencing and thousands of bracelets hang on the posts as little symbols of respect and remembrance of the dead. It’s just the traveler finding a way to leave a piece of him/herself behind.

You then walk around the lake listening to stories of survivors, not of the killing fields, but of the S-21 prison. There were no survivors of the killing fields because if whatever murder tool the Khmer Rouge guards used for slaughtering (usually farming tools or hammers) didn’t accomplish its goal, DDT would finish the job. Individuals would kneel in front of the hole, blindfolded and forced to sing songs of the regime, before being hacked/beaten/stabbed to death and falling into their grave.

Children had another story. Yes, children. Pol Pot believed that in order to be successful in offing a “traitor,” the accused person’s whole family must also be killed, or else there would be someone left to seek revenge.

That’s where the “Killing Tree” comes in. This picture says more than a thousand words. After the tree, the infants, toddlers, and small children were thrown into the mass grave with their mothers. I placed my string bracelet on a piece of bark and walked away.

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Well I think that’s about all I can handle writing about the Killing Fields. It wasn’t easy to see but it was well worth the experience. Not only did I gain knowledge of Cambodia’s history, but also endless respect for the people who lived through it.

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Gem Around the Corner

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I think this trip has gotten better everyday. Not because we are seeing better sights or going on more exciting excursions, but because the five of us have gotten more comfortable- more comfortable with each other, more comfortable with the culture of Southeast Asia, the heat, the rain, the sun, the mosquitos, the rain again, the haggling, and the overall discomfort of being in an environment so drastically different from home. We know what beer to order, how much a pair of genie pants should cost, we know the exchange rage of a Riel or Dong, and we know what “karaoke and massage hotel” really means.

Christiana and I stayed back from the group to spend the day roaming, reading, writing, relaxing, and of course, eating. We found a place to call home at the Blue Pumpkin, a traveler’s dream-come-true: cool air, clean water, big, white, fluffy couches, gelato, free wifi, and cappuccino that looks like heaven and comes with a tiny chocolate chip cookie. After a long day of scorching heat, blazing sun, and hazy memories of countless temples at Angkor Wat, it is just what we need.

Every guide book and individual, local and tourist alike, will point you toward Pub street- a crowded, but laid-back string of hopping bars, trendy-looking restaurants, and $1 foot massages- but hell, this gem around the corner from all of that seems pretty perfect to me.

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Cu Chi Tunnels

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At 1:30 PM the monsoon rains came for us and so did our peppy tour guide for the Cu Chi tunnels. The foreigner-filled bus took an hour and a half ride out of Ho Chi Minh and through farmlands, industrial parks, battered neighborhoods with a lot of stray dogs and roadside hammocks, and, of course, a ton of rubber trees, to the heart of Cu Chi, where the famous Vietnam War-time Cu Chi tunnels can be found (and toured, climbed-in-to, and explored). The whole thing was an experience, to say the least.

Stepping off the bus was like going back in time- at least once you look past the gift shop- to a place that no American should feel comfortable in, ever. We watched a video that showed how the tunnels were constructed and what they were used for during the Vietnam War. It gave us background information and taught us that history and truth don’t walk hand-in-hand most times. I couldn’t help but wonder what the Germans, Canadians, and Aussies sitting among us took from the Vietnamese history lesson.

We watched demonstrations of the many weapons and traps used to slice, pierce, puncture, and dice American soldiers. It was unnerving.

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Next, our petite Vietnamese guide led us down into the tunnels where hundreds of Viet Cong guerrillas hid from American forces; they would only come out of the disease, vermin, and insect-ridden spaces during the night to collect supplies, bathe, or engage in battle. Forty suffocating, pitch-black, steaming-hot, extremely cramped meters later, our foreign-tourist string of heavily perspiring bodies and thumping hearts was ready to hit the road.

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We did find a restaurant called Santa Cafe near our hostel with about 300 items on the menu, though. The boys got pizza and us girls stuck to the Vietnamese meat-vegetable-rice-and-something-funky variations we are beginning to get used to.

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