silver toes and Catskills fire towers

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Summer is gone and so are some toe nails. I never lost toe nails as a runner, but once we started hiking off they started coming, ever so slow and blackfully. Off they go to a better place, a place that is not my toes. That’s a rather sultry image but fear not. Pictures of my busted feet aren’t forthcoming. There’s not much to see anyway and that’s because my nephew got married at a beautiful farm in New Jersey. For this special occasion, I painted every toe with a dark silvery polish that now will not come off. On the two toes that were lacking in the nail department, I simply painted the skin where the nails once were. My pretty-if-you-squint toes were basically a wedding gift to them.

And now you know who to come to for beauty tips.

I’m also qualified, through on-my-feet experience, to offer advice on how not to buy hiking boots. For instance, when a teenage boy tells you men’s and women’s shoes are pretty much the same thing and that you should just buy men’s shoes because your size is sold out in women’s and the sale ends tomorrow you should … not. I go through pain so you don’t have to. My men’s hiking boots felt great in the store when I bought them about two years ago. I even tested them on the ramp. I loved those shoes for all the places they took me, but even the short easy hikes ended with pain, specifically blisters, bruised toes and throbbing arches.

Which leads me to suspect that men and women have different feet. Over Labor Day weekend, I lucked into a pair of Columbia hiking shoes made for women and the difference is glorious. Hiking doesn’t have to hurt. Hopefully I’ve resolved my shoe issue and will go back to merely stubbing the toe nails off my feet.

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We made it back up to the fire tower on Hunter mountain, this time we hiked up instead of cheating on the ski lift. You can hike the fire towers year round, but the top cabin parts will only be open for one more weekend until next Memorial Day I think. This view is from the last weekend in September. There’s much more color in the Catskills now. Hike the Hudson Valley shows the views around peak foliage and details the path we took. It’s steep and beautiful like so many places up there.

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We’ve been working on our 35er peaks, looking forward to joining the 3500 club some day. Right now I have a bit of a block on the peaks that require bushwhacking so we’re focusing on trailed peaks. Slide mountain (peak #1) and Panther mountains (Peak #2) were under our belts from a previous year. Hunter was our first fire tower of the year and peak #10 for us. The volunteer working the fire tower told us about this year’s Catskills Fire Tower Challenge. Hike up all five and you get pins. I love pins! Guess what we’re doing this fall?

Last weekend we hiked up the Balsam Lake Mountain fire tower.

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Balsam Lake Mountains is peak #11 for us and fire tower #2. This was by far our easiest Catskills hike, more like a storybook walk in the woods.

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Here’s the view from the top of the fire tower. Its also the westernmost Catskill 35 peak.

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This peak comes with its own soundtrack of continuous bird song. Heading back to the car, we passed dozens of people but it was still way less crowded than Hunter. At the top, a Jack Russell puppy sat in Raj’s lap while his human friend told us about the fire tower’s history. The clearing around the tower is shaded with plenty of warm rocks to have lunch on. The first and last two miles of this hike were on an old logging road so it’s a very gentle walk most of the way. Good for all fitness levels, with slightly more challenging trail over the last .7ish miles.

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Hiking mornings can be rough. We wake up in our Brooklyn apartment around 4 am, shower and we’re on the road before 5 am. After a few stops we usually reach the Catskills around 8 am then we get lost for about 30 minutes. During these early hours we’re tired and maybe a little cranky. In the moment it feels insane. Why are we waking up so early and driving all this way to walk in the woods for miles? Why are we doing this?

Then we finally have our shoes laced and packs on our back and within a few steps on the trail I am so thankful we give ourselves these hikes. I may not enjoy the before, but I love the during and after I’m good tired and all the negative stuff is wrung out. Then you hop on a country road, get lost again and eventually if you’re lucky you end up at the Bad Seed tap room and farm in Highland.

 

up and down Mount Washington

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We wanted an adventure and Mount Washington delivered. Three days later, my calves, quads and toes are still singing. In my head they sound like Tom Waits crooning ‘All the World is Green’.  Not quite all the world. The last half mile of Mount Washington is an endless pile of grey granite rocks wrapped in 50 mph gusts and thick grey clouds.

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I really wanted to reach the peak on a clear blue day. Who wouldn’t? Supposedly there are some nice views from the highest peak in the Northeast. We can confirm other rumors of the summit circus – the massive parking lot full of vehicles carrying clean people that chose to drive up. There’s also a cog railway and a visitor center with soup, cookies and pizza that looked awful but managed to tempt nonetheless.

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I’m remembering the hike backwards because I’m still surprised we actually did it. Leading up to the trip, we referred to the hike only as an attempt. We were making our first attempt of Mount Washington. It’s listed as the 8th deadliest mountain in the world, Everest is 7. Unlike Everest, Washington is free to hike and, at only about 4.2 miles to the top, far more accessible. Dubbed ‘Home of the world’s worst weather’, conditions near the top don’t make for easy hiking. It has snowed on Washington every month of the year.

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We took the Tuckerman Ravine to the Lion’s Head trail and back the same way. It offered some fun scrambles and allowed us to avoid the steep sections and crowds of the more popular Tuckerman Ravine trail. Like the rest of this monster, the Lion’s Head exceeded expectations. I thought we were above the treeline when suddenly the trail takes you through the alpine garden, a green oasis of protection with stubby pines hugging the trail.

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This was my favorite section.

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Don’t do what I did and start thinking you’re anywhere near the top. You’re not. It’s more than an endless mile away. Think a half mile ascent over stabby, sometimes loose rocks. Cairns help lead the way but there’s not really a trail. You just keep going up. This was the most mentally challenging part of the hike because it’s endless rock, you can’t see if you’re making any progress and the fog and wind made it hard to stop and rest for long because the chills would set in. A few seasoned hikers made it look so easy, a simple matter of hopping up a few rocks. I was not so steady on my feet and had to take every single step with care, announcing loose rocks with a Don’t step there. That’s a wobbly one. Raj was way ahead of me but talking out loud kept me going up, up, up. Then suddenly you’ve made it and you know you’ve reached the top because there’s a . . . . . . . parking lot.

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I like that this mountain has a road to the top because anyone can experience the peak regardless of age or physical condition. But in the moment of reaching the summit after nearing it for so long, when you really feel like you’ve been through something to get there, it’s jarring to breathe in a mouthful of mountain fresh exhaust. Ah well.

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Checking Mount Washington’s weather is a regular habit so it was fun to finally see the observatory up close. The visitor’s center was packed with people as expected on Labor Day weekend. I didn’t care. Raj grabbed a bowl of New England clam chowder and we found a warm spot downstairs to dry our hats and gloves and shake off the shakes. I’m wishing I’d thought to stretch my legs, but it was nice to sit and chat with other hikers.

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We had considered taking the Crawford path over to the Lake of the Clouds hut for the 1.5 miles of ridge trail then up another .3 miles to Mount Monroe then about 4.5 miles back down to our car at Pinkham Notch. It’s always tempting to grab another peak and we do love visiting the AMC huts. I didn’t have it in me this time. I was already feeling shaky from some combination of vertigo and exertion. I regretted this call at first, but had we pushed on we would’ve been hiking in the dark. As it was we didn’t reach our car until 6:30 pm. We did take our time, this hike is what we drove 6+ hours to do, but I’m not sure I could’ve gone much faster if I’d wanted to.

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After descending the half mile rock pile we were back below the clouds. I felt way more steady on my feet heading down. If I fell I knew I’d land on a rock about where my feet were. With the wind gusts against us going up I kept thinking about that fellow who was nearly blown off the mountain a few years ago. Scrambles that seemed tricky going up were more a matter of scooching heading down.

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This is a doable hike in the conditions we faced. I tend to obsess and this time over preparation made me my own hero. We almost made so many mistakes, like leaving our outer layers in the car because it was a warm morning and the hoodies only added weight. Thanks to the summit forecast, we knew to anticipate the wind gusts and cold, damp fog. I stuffed my pack with layers just in case. We wound up wearing winter hats, gloves and those hoodies for more than half of the hike. I’m also glad I actually paid attention to my body and knew my limits on that day. Mount Monroe and the rest of the Southern Presidential Range will still be there next summer.

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I think that’s Mount Washington in the distance. Didn’t see it up close, but I think we saw it from an overlook on the side of the road. Other than three bears by a hotel dumpster, we didn’t see much wildlife during our time in New Hampshire. We’re starting to think moose don’t really exist. Where are they?

With Franconia Ridge and Mount Washington under our boots, we’ve now hiked 3 of New Hampshire’s 4000 footers. Only 45 more to go. At this rate we’ll be done in about 45 years.

I see black bears

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I saw another bear on a trail. This doesn’t mean a bear was actually there. Only that I saw one. We were in the Lake George area in the lower Adirondacks, descending Prospect Mountain. This relatively busy trail is an 3 easy miles out and back with a trailhead right in the town. But even on busy, short hikes up tiny mountains you still get those quiet stretches. Perfect opportunities for taking in the surroundings, smelling pines, looking for birds. Zoning out or zooming in. Me, I look for black bears.

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This time I saw a big black furry head with rounded ears. He didn’t move towards us or away. He just watched us. A group of hikers were on their way up so I didn’t panic too much. Just two weak knees and that familiar fear-for-my-life shiver. I didn’t say a thing about the maybe bear because saying something makes it real and this wasn’t real. Also, I read that fear is contagious and I don’t want to pass my fear on to my hiking buddy. Though he doesn’t want to run into a bear again either, he refuses to hike in fear.

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I try to keep my sightings to myself. This would be a dangerous habit if the bears I saw were real and not the back lit silhouettes of stumps or trees with lumps. Besides, I suspect I can only ask my partner Is that a bear? so many times before he drops me for a lady with decent vision, or one who wears her glasses.

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I wear glasses to drive, but that’s all. Raj wears glasses all the time and doesn’t understand why I won’t. I tell him why: I don’t want to. That’s the answer. Also they give me headaches and squeeze my brain. It’s true. I’ve tried new prescriptions, different frames … before and after sitting on them.

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obligatory me having a think shot, Stewart’s Ledge

For the most part, leaving my glasses in the car is inconsequential. So what if I walk through life with rage vision?

Me – Eight dollars for asparagus! Unbelievable!

Raj – It’s $2.

Me – The sign says $8! How dare they!

Raj – The sign says $2.

Me – Oh.

And I see black bears everywhere.

I should stop looking for them. Stop thinking about them and talking about them. Though I do enjoy learning about them, and they come with the territory. We’re hiking in their home. Seeing them might be rare for some people, but it’s almost always a possibility. We’re finding every hiker has a bear story, along with strong opinions on protection. In addition to whistles and bear spray, we just added an air horn to our arsenal.

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There’s much debate on whether air horns are effective bear repellents. I think it can’t hurt. We picked ours up for a few bucks in the boating section and I do feel safer with it. It’s piercingly loud and unpleasant. Should the rare predatory bear approach we don’t have to worry about wind direction, or waiting for it to get close enough to spray or the fact that our can of spray says it empties in 5 seconds. Then what?

Oh, by the way, bear spray can explode so don’t leave it in the trunk. Fortunately, we didn’t have to learn this the hard way even though all last summer we kept ours in the trunk whenever we weren’t hiking. One less thing to remember to pack. Apparently, it can explode at high temperatures and car trunks get very hot. Don’t leave it in the car.

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Probably the main takeaway for us all to learn is that calling me Haileybear on the trail doesn’t help. Cue: fear-for-my-life shivers every time. All I hear is BEAR.

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Home Fries Sexy

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Apparently, I like my home fries sexy.

We stopped at a diner on our way home from the Poconos. Unless specifically stated, diners menus offer very few vegan/ gluten free options. Still, I have a soft spot. Sitting in window booths at tipsy tables with rippled chrome rims or at the counter on spinning stools watching a fresh pot of coffee fill from the drip is a post-hike ritual. Raj will try anything on a menu while I tend to stick to what I know I like (and won’t make me sick). My order is simple: coffee and home fries with peppers and onions. This is my old tee shirt of food. I’ve been ordering home fries with peppers and onions all my diner-loving life.

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Imagine our surprise when the check comes and we see our orders were written as they’ve never been written before. Our home fries were “sexy”. Now I have questions. Does sexy = peppers and onions at all diners? There’s only one way to find out. Raj will have to order his potatoes sexy next time and see how the waiter reacts. I can’t. I still get Moon Over My Hammie flashbacks.

Home fries … and put some heels on ’em.

I did a Google image search for home fries sexy. No naked people popped up, but neither did an answer. People seem to enjoy calling all sorts of potato dishes with stuff on them sexy, which kind of makes sense. If you want to feel sexy you put stuff on? Makeup? Uncomfortable shoes? Scented products? Putting on all the stuff at once is super sexy, or too sexy. I don’t know.

The real question is: Do we want our breakfast-for-dinner potatoes too hot to handle or just a tad gussied up?

Home fries … and give ’em some appeal. You know what I mean.

Sexy is very subjective, too subjective for my old tee shirt diner staple. I want mine with peppers and onions and now I want to order them in a fun way that’s universally understood. Think of all the potential for nonverbal miscommunications. What if someone shimmies? I don’t know why Raj would shimmy, but what if he does? My home fries could come out with a runny egg on top. Home fries sexy, but not too sexy. Clearly means peppers and onions, no bacon, but some diner cooks might get a little saucy and sprinkle on some cheese.

Home fries sexy opens too many doors.

Or maybe this particular waiter was making a comment on her customers? Maybe she took one look at our hat hair, mud-streaked clothes and my come hither slouch and thought Now there are some sexy potatoes. That must be it.

 

 

Gertrude’s Nose trail in Minnewaska State Park

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It’s pj season and that means our Friday night ritual is to play will-we-won’t-we hike tomorrow. It’s an annoying cycle, but lately the Friday night into Saturday morning/afternoon rain makes it hard to decide, especially on cliff walk hikes with lots of exposure. On the flip side, I get grouchy, whiny and all sorts of charming if too much time passes between hikes. It’s really a question of will I be able to stand to myself if we don’t go? When we’re on the fence, I make peanut butter jellies. Once the pjs are made, we have to hike. It’s the rule.

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As promised, the rain stopped when we arrived and this normally very crowded park wasn’t. Nice for our first time back to Minnewaska State Park Preserve in years –  we don’t think the public should have to pay to access hiking trails. Why pay $10 with the Catskills a little further north and the Hudson Highlands and Harriman closer to the south? On this early spring day we paid because the Catskills were still holding on to some winter and we recently hiked our favorite Hudson Highlands trails.

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This was our first time hiking Gertrude’s Nose. Morning showers not only kept some of the early birds away, it also left us with the right amount of fog – enough to cool us down and add an otherworldly feel without swallowing the views. That large glacial rock to the left is called Patterson’s Pellet. The trail soon dips down the ravine and back up to the white cliffs on the other side.

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Beware of the booby-traps. These crevices made parts of the trail feel like an obstacle course. It’s very easy to see why this is such a popular hike. Some Catskills hikes have views, but they don’t take you above the treeline like in the White Mountains or Adirondacks.

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We felt a lot higher than we were. High enough to wave to the mountains over yonder.

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I love how stubby pitch pines push their way through. This was a nice, relaxing section until Raj decided to slip in slow motion. I watched with my hands helpfully waving while he fell for about ten minutes. Once he finally got tired of sliding around on wet rock he looked at me confused. Were you waving goodbye? I like to think I’m the kind of gal who would help a falling person, but now I know the truth: I’m a waver. You fall? Later alligator.

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These birds (turkey vultures?) had beef with us. As we approached, they slowly turned our way then spread their wings like flexing muscles while making full eye contact. They stood still for a few angry breaths before creeping towards us. Closer and closer and why are we still standing here? Off we went. I didn’t look back a few times half expecting to see these giant birds running with their arms out licking their lips.

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The picture doesn’t do them justice. These birds thought they were twenty feet tall. I wish I had their confidence.

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Here’s my fellow as we picked our way down the melting trail. The water was ice cold and running at a clip – perfect for wetting our hats to cool off once the sun came out. At this point we had no idea how far we’d gone or how much distance we had left. We had a map, but both of us got immediately bored and annoyed every time we took it out. After the cliffs, there were a few fun scrambles, a rock hop creek crossing and lots of mud. At some point the trail takes you through Mohonk Preserve before ending back at the lake. We saw a sign for Mohonk and started doubting that we were still on the right trail. I really hate that panicked questioning of every step forward. Fortunately this is a popular trail and it wasn’t long before a couple came along to reassure us.

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Not a bad place to rest. I highly recommend some shut-eye at a picnic table before heading down to Awosting Falls. We drove down to the lower lot because I’d already taken off my man boots and wasn’t about to put them back on. The falls are a pleasant, easy 15-minute walk from the lower parking lot.

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Our final pj spot of the day. I can’t wait to do this hike again on an October weekday. Next time, I want to go in the reverse direction to get through the more challenging wooded and scrambling sections first and savor the views the rest of the way.

If you must unburden yourself of $10, Minnewaska is lovely place for it.

The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule

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True crime is having a moment. Calling attention to the fact that true crime is having a moment is also having a moment. It’s too much, too sad and ugly. That’s not for me, I say while scrolling through my horror to-watch list. By the way, I’m happy to report Puppet Master (1989) still holds up. You might even detect an awkward Twin Peaksy vibe, though Puppet Master preceded the show by a year. Ahead of its time.

I make some true crime exceptions.  Midnight Assassin, The Murder of the Century and Devil in the White City detail crimes that all occurred prior to or on the cusp of forensic science becoming a thing. In small doses, these books are fascinating. How did they find the guilty if they weren’t tromping around wielding bloody knives? What about the psycho killers who looked normal or worse, attractive?

Recently, I dipped a toe in more modern recent crime with People Who Eat Darkness, reconfirming this stuff is not for me. Nope. Definitely never again. Until I stumbled on late author Michelle McNamara’s True Crime Diary and her excellent book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.

Next thing I know, I’m reading more than I ever wanted to know about Ted Bundy. Is this how true crime gets you?

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With more than 30 books to her name, Ann Rule is often referred to as the Queen of true crime. The Stranger Beside Me is her first and maybe most famous. What sets this one apart from both her body of work and other books written on Ted Bundy is the author’s personal relationship with him. Long before he was first arrested, they were friends. The two met as volunteers at a Seattle suicide hotline in 1971. Lucky for her, she wasn’t his type.

At the time, Rule was a former police woman supporting her family in part by writing up crime summaries for local police and freelancing for true crime magazines. Bundy was a psychology student. If this story were fiction it couldn’t be more contrived.

We go right into one of Bundy’s most dangerous traits: his appeal. Rule’s first impressions of Bundy were all positive. Obviously she wrote this book in hindsight. You can almost feel the author looking for red flags her cop radar somehow missed while they were working phones together late into the night. Instead she describes him as attractive, intelligent and charismatic.

The later edition I read included several additions where Rule revises this depiction. She expresses regret at overstating his attributes, perhaps inadvertently feeding into the frenzy of fan mail and females lining up to give the serial killer bedroom eyes during the trial. A common criticism of the book is that the author was too close to him, but her point was that not all killers look like killers. There’s an ick factor in the author’s remembered fondness, but it comes across honestly and illustrates the effectiveness of Bundy’s well practiced duality.

If you like true crime, you’ve probably already read this book. If you’re tiptoeing around like me, I recommend reading it fast and then go plant a flower or hike somewhere pretty. Do something to shake it off the heaviness. Bundy confessed to murdering more than 30 women, though many believe his victims number much higher. His known crimes spanned Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado and Florida, where he was caught and later executed. The author’s later revisions include a few graphic details of the crimes in an effort to cool any sympathy for Bundy her earliest editions may have generated.

Rule’s firsthand account is compelling and thoughtful. She delivers on the book’s promise and shares the magnitude of one particularly devastating missed opportunity. After a series of women go missing in the Pacific Northwest, one woman escaped with a close call. She was able to give police a detailed description of the man’s face, the car he tried to lure her into and a name, Ted. On noticing the similarity of the police sketch to the friend she used to volunteer with, also named Ted, Rule called a friend on the force. She didn’t actively suspect him, but it was enough of a coincidence to throw his name in the hat. She pointed cops to Ted Bundy. The face matched, he even drove the same kind of car as their suspect and yet that’s as far as the lead was followed. It was a big hat full of thousands of leads. This fact haunts the rest of the book as many more brutal murders followed.

That’s it for me with the true crime. No more. I spent some time recently on a looong car ride with a true crime addict. Guess what kind of podcasts I got to listen to? She says she loves true crime because it makes her feel more prepared. These bad things happened to innocent people and we should know what they went through. Wouldn’t you want someone to know what happened if it was you?

That was a fun question to ponder on the parkway.

Me, I’d rather make a thrilling web series about crocheting a calendar blanket whilst watching Puppet Master. Turn it into a Netflix show. Then we’re rich. Boom. Three-month plan. No more true crime.

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What About Bob? gets me through another beating, I mean taxes

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My taxes are finally filed, though I must admit my heart wasn’t in it this year. My brain was checked out, too. After slogging through, I always step away for a few days then go back and comb through every step for mistakes. Usually I fix the one or two errors, wipe my tears with all my money before kissing it good-bye, and swallow my rage with a long muddy hike. This year, I go back to check my work expecting the usual only to discover more than one or two tiny mistakes. I told them I was legally blind? I lived abroad for more than six months of the year? Yes to foreign bank accounts? My life rocks? It was such a mess I deleted the whole thing and started over, doing only one little section at a time.

Baby steps, like the good Dr. Leo Marvin tells Bob in the best movie ever made. What About Bob? Bob is my spirit animal, my Patronus if you want to get all Harry Potter about it.

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As every four years we the people realize how stupid and dangerous allowing the electoral college to continue choosing our president is, every year I allow myself about two minutes to fantasize about living in another country where taxes are like laundry, just another thing that has to get done. It’s not the paying them, it’s the unnecessary complexity (we’re both freelancers), and unfairness of what the peasants pay compared, but I won’t go there. I can’t because it makes me mad and I don’t have a hand puppet to keep me civil.

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Every year I get a little better at managing finances and running my work like a business instead of a series of ongoing, overlapping side projects. This year I even checked out a finance book from the library. I didn’t read it. Baby steps. I did read Rich Dad Poor Dad a few years ago. I learned some things, applied none of them and now forget all of them with the exception of one realization. I’m financially illiterate.

I’m looking for a finance book to read. Most of them want to make me a millionaire and I’m like settle down. Let’s get me a bank account first. Pull the cash out of the mattress, you know. Any books on how to remember which floor boards the piggy banks are under?

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Should the government ever develop an interest in us humans without three vacation homes, I do have one idea. Our library system used to let kids read down their fines. I think it was a summer program, not sure if they still do it, but I always admired the spirit of the idea. Kids with overdue book fines were able to lower their fines with every book they read and logged. Simple. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could volunteer down their taxes? Every X amount of hours volunteered reduces taxes by X percent. Or read down our taxes. Let’s do as Neil deGrasse Tyson says and Make America Smart Again.

There’s so much need in communities – hospitals, senior homes, food programs, learning programs, athletics programs. Help a financial illiterate decipher the treasure map she bought on a postcard in Coney Island. You know there’s old timey ganster money buried in the Catskills? Dutch Schultz hid it right before Lucky Luciano and friends deleted him. True story.

Organizations like New York Cares and Achilles International simplify the process of getting registered and out the door. They guide you from the vague desire to do some volunteer work to the real place of doing it. Lowering taxes in proportion to hours of volunteer work would get so many more people out the door, giving communities a wealth of resources to draw from. Come tax time, regular people might feel a little less forgotten and helpless because they have some agency. They already paid some taxes in the form of time and effort. In fine fine print, say 2-point font, let’s add that volunteering is good for a person’s health, offering a sense of purpose, socializing, physical activities in these days when it’s so tempting to crawl under the force field of the covers. At least build a blanket fort for someone else first.

Bob says it best.

Gimme Gimme Gimme. I need. I need. Gimme. Gimme. Please.

 

Ghosts Among Us by James Van Praagh

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Time to go back to sleep and try this day again tomorrow.  I just learned my fellow poisoned me with decaf this morning and all this past week. This was after attempting to move the car for alternate side parking only to discover we have no power steering at the moment. We tried to maneuver the car to the other side of the street and parallel park it. That didn’t happen. Then I was poisoned. Did I mention he tried to decaffeinate me? By accident, he says. I shall avenge myself anyway.

After revisiting Ghosts Among Us by James Van Praagh. I am too old to care what other people think, especially about my reading choices dammit. Still best to click away. Something very interesting is happening over there. I’m gonna write some stuff for my eyes only and post it on the internet if you don’t mind.

At some point, past-me put this book on hold at the library and then forgot why so present-me could mistake it for a collection of ghost stories. It is kind of that, only I assumed it was a work of fiction or something along the lines of Weird NJ.

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If you’re going to read this book, I recommend an open mind. Skeptics will not enjoy themselves here. I flip back and forth. Scientists are convincing, but I prefer to believe there’s more to us than just this. Even still, it takes effort to refrain from Oh, boy eye rolls when people insist they’re sensitives or mediums – with the exception of Amy Allan on Dead Files. Her I believe because she reminds me of my sister. That’s reason enough.

Van Praagh is a mental medium. Want to know what that’s like? He tells you, sharing his own story as well as anecdotes of the dead passing on messages to their loved ones. He lays things out in a matter-of-fact, take-it-or-leave-it way. Better still, he goes there, right to the spot hard skeptics love to poke and poke at. Not proof, the other place. In Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife author Mary Roach writes that the difficulty of believing in spirits is that they never seem to acknowledge the most obvious questions: Does death hurt? Where do we go? What’s it like?

The meat of this book addresses these questions and expands them to why we’re here in the first place. I had to power down my skepticism in a few parts because I like the overall intention behind what he has to say. He urges us to learn our lessons, take risks and don’t waste potential. Sometimes it comes across as motivational speakery, but these aren’t bad messages to hear.

Who wants to entertain the possibility that our souls live on, death is painless and deceased loved ones visit us? That we’re our higher selves when we laugh and love? That putting out thoughts of love and light is healing? Who doesn’t? This is a quick, compelling read, though not so quick for me. I kept looking up to share the details with Raj because many of the ideas were new to me, or intriguing takes on familiar concepts, looking at you, hell. Sharing details led to pointing out passages, which led to him holding on and finishing the whole book before me.

According to Van Praagh, there are no coincidences, but there are often signs. One of my favorite sections dealt with energy and the power of our thoughts. He also provides some meditations. I read this section right after listening to the StarTalk episode with Sam Harris, The Illusion of Free Will, where they also discuss the practice of meditation. Coincidence? The universe wants me to hush up and calm down. Maybe the universe decafed me. I will begin thinking positive thoughts and learning my lessons after payback, Universe. Or Raj accidentally buying decaf and destroying me with it was my payback for making him watch Crazy Rich Asians. (Why do people love that movie?)

I must admit once I realized what this book was about I stayed aboard for the after party. Tell me what happens when we die. This book gave me a glimpse of what I want think about death, afterlife and how I want to spend my time here. There are sections on angels, earthbound ghosts, demons, hell and this lovely place called Summerland where apparently there’s a house being built for me. I hope they know I prefer winter and make appropriate adjustments. Just kidding. Straight to hell for me. Kidding. Not. Yes. Not. Yes. Carry on.

January in California

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We flew back from San Francisco on Sunday and I reported for jury duty in downtown Brooklyn on Tuesday, hopping from one favorite place to the next. I will not gripe about jury duty anymore. Tuesday morning Raj rode the subway with me, walked with me to the building and didn’t leave until I went inside. I thought he was being nice when actually he knows me well enough to suspect I’d turn around and draw this jury duty thing out a little longer, which I would have. But at last it’s over and I can go back to missing California.

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We had Fisherman’s Wharf kind of to ourselves. Thanks, downpour.

It’s only been a few years, but I forgot how it feels to walk among the redwoods in Big Basin. The region was deep into a drought on our last trip here. This time we balanced on fallen trees to skirt stretches of sludgy mud. Streams ran and creeks babbled so hard they graduated to Chatty Cathy status.

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Our first hike of 2019.

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Along the way we crossed paths with banana slugs,

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rare albino redwood,

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and the tallest tree in the park, over 500 years old.

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Though California smacks a bear on every souvenir, the state animal is Ursus californicus, there are no bears in Big Basin. I asked every ranger I saw and they all confirmed. I was asking for a friend. A friend was just wondering. I love Big Basin for its trees and birds and views and trails, but mostly for its lack of bears.

Oh, but you know what? There are mountain lions. They said this so casually I was stunned into WTF. How are they cool with mountain lions?

How do Californians hike, camp or bike at ease in mountain lion habitat? That amazes me. It seems like they’re everywhere. We stayed in Mountain View during the week for work. On a free afternoon, I decided to run to the Rancho San Antonio Preserve a few miles from our hotel. You know what I didn’t notice on the website? Warning of mountain lion activity. Fortunately I didn’t miss the sign posted on the trail I’d planned to run. I found another trail and tried to enjoy running in this beautiful place where mountain lions live. Soon enough I was back on pavement pretending suburban streets with squirrels and lemon trees were just as thrilling.

There are worse ways to travel home than a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway (plus a plane ride).

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We reached the highway with an hour of daylight remaining. The only downside of visiting California in winter is the shortened days. With the exception of enjoying an Irish coffee, trying Fernet-Branca and building a fort for pillow fights, most of we wanted to do was outside.

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Rain held off just long enough for the sun to set over the Pacific. Then it was just us in the rain on a dark highway with a thousand speeding lunatics. Hint. Hint. Okay, West Coast. We’re leaving.

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Free brownies if you can you tell me what this is? To be clear, free brownies for me. I will eat the brownies.

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Chocolate chip cookie mush anyone?

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If the tree in our living room strung with lights and shiny balls wasn’t a loud enough indication of the holiday season, the tin of sugary buttery bits on our table must be. Baking is challenging enough for those of us who like to wing it. Add veganizing and gluten free-izing variables and the odds of realizing our baking intentions are not in our favor. Sometimes it works out and when it doesn’t we pretend. We peel or scrape up the results and drop them not in the trash but in a cookie tin to be offered to guests with a straight face. If we can’t eat chocolate chip cookies at least we can watch the lights go out in friend’s eyes once they pry open our lovely Christmas tins and see what we’ve done.

In lieu of photographic evidence of our failure, here’s a view from one of my favorite hikes this year. There, that’s nice. Hungry? Have a cookie.

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Bryce Canyon National Park