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Honing In

Honing My Skills Before Heading Off on Adventure

It begins early tomorrow morning and looks to involve a race against a sweeping weather front.  We’ll be ahead of it initially, but by Sunday night, I anticipate returning home soggy and chilled.  A wet opening act is on tap, but that’s OK.  I’ve spent way too much of my life in a building at seventy two degrees, under florescent lights, and with no breezes blowing. Time to confront nature in all its moods.  Just ask Henry…


“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and wood… keep your spirits up.  Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”  

– H. D. Thoreau

Feeding the Need



Ten years before my fiftieth birthday, I hatched a plan.  I wanted to reward myself for reaching that iconic milestone.  The way things were lining up, fifty would be the year I wrote my last tuition check for my daughters’ educations.  Supposing I’d still be in good health, I started dreaming of a sabbatical as a reward for the sacrifices my wife and I made while rearing two delightful children.  Through all the iterations of those dreams, one thing remained constant… the sabbatical would involve one of my very favorite activities: travel.  A Kerouacian road trip, perhaps.  Or a hike up the Pacific Coast Trail.  Or a voyage down to Antarctica.


Through the years, other reasons began to emerge that started fueling the need for a sabbatical.  Most notably, work.  Recently, my company has been on a magical tear – one of the finest ten year stretches in the company’s 167 year history.  Heavy growth has nearly tripled our size necessitating many workflow, technology, and personnel changes, all of which have kept every single day full of challenges.  It’s been a wonderful whirlwind, but none of it has come easy.  My throttle has been wide open for a long time.  A pit stop seemed in order.


As I’ve dealt with the demands of raising a family and a full throttle career, a few outside interests have become neglected.  Fresh out of college in the ‘80s, I started writing a journal and have kept it alive ever since.  It’s been a wonderful mental therapist.  But the entries have slowed over the past few years.  Setting off on a sabbatical tangent would surely jump-start entries again.


Another outside interest that’s been neglected is simply being outside.  Like my journal, a few hours in the woods or on a mountain top are tremendously therapeutic.  They always refocus me away from the minutiae of an often too-artificial world to a more holistic view of life.  But those experiences have been infrequent lately.  I’ve spent too much time in a building at seventy two degrees, under florescent lights, and with no breezes blowing.  I want to get dirty, in an earthy kind of way.  To step in mud and be guided by daylight hours; not a clock.  To be cold and zip up my coat, or warm and de-layer.  I want to hear wind rustling and water trickling, and not give a shit about electronic dings.


As a final reason for this sabbatical, there’s this: I live a wonderful life that I enjoy immensely, but I often stay under the radar.  Being a bit introverted, I don’t share my wonderful experiences that well.  The forty hours I spent in Cochise County, Arizona last year, for instance, were some of the best of my life; yet few know just how spectacular that was for me.  Now though, I want to make a bolder statement.  Frankly, I want to have a story; one I can reflect upon with great fondness: a feather-in-my-cap when telling stories to the grand kids.


Last July, I took the most important step in bringing this sabbatical to fruition – I secured permission from my employer to take whatever time was needed.  Since then, the planning effort has risen to near-compulsive levels.  And now, extreme planner that I am, a thematic itinerary is in place to address all of the reasons feeding the need.  Here I am, one week from embarking upon the sabbatical of a lifetime.  I couldn’t be more ready for it.

Crystal Coasting

Seated on a front row stool, I’m tapping along as Barefoot Wade sings Pencil Thin Mustache – a song I requested.  He laughs while changing a few lyrics to mock his long hair and acknowledge that he slept until four.  There’s a real happy vibe in this place which is a mix of locals and tourists like me.  In other rooms are shelves and homages to some of the world’s most amazing beers, including a whole corner devoted to Belgians, my own personal faves.  In my cup, fresh from the tap served by a happy young barmaid, is a local, peach-infused – but slightly too sweet – wheat beer.  The couple beside me, for some god-forsaken reason, is drinking Bud Light, but they’re as happy as clams on this warm evening in the middle of winter.  When I left Winchester yesterday morning, I was not expecting peach beer or pencil thin mustaches to be part of my wife’s birthday getaway to the Crystal Coast of Carolina.  But Harrika’s Brew Haus has brought plenty of surprises and will be one of our strongest memories of this trip… or of any of our other birthday getaways over the past twenty years.


These last few days have done wonders to shake the winter doldrums.  We drove six hours in hopes of finding warmer weather and succeeded.  But what we also found were two other gems: spontaneity and creativity.


Harrika’s was not on our itinerary.  And actually, nothing other than our lodging was on the itinerary.  We simply came to the beach to explore with practically no strategy.  I’m typically an extreme planner, but for this trip I sensed that the spontaneity of following our whims would be the better itinerary.  As such, our days included the unexpected – a bench at the end of beautiful bayside marina, a Mardi Gras parade in Beaufort, sitting atop cannons at Fort Macon, buying Girl Scout cookies at a pizza shop, and of course, Harrika’s.


Through all the spontaneity, I had an old friend – my Canon EOS Rebel – dangling from my shoulder.  Composing images is such an energizing & creative endeavor for me.  I come alive finding patterns, seeing textures, and discovering colors that otherwise go undetected when I’m not carrying my pal.  In a beautiful place like the Crystal Coast and on a vibrant day the near-overload of creativity was quite welcomed after spending the past few months engulfed in the grayness of winter back home.


On our way home, I chose the slightly longer option of connecting to the interstate – a 20 mile winding ride through a longleaf coastal pine forest.   One last blast of spontaneity, and a beautiful way to end a nice weekend on the Crystal Coast.


If My Plan Works…

At 51, I’m by far the youngest patient in the Cardiac Rehab center.  The next closest in age, I’m guessing, is late 60s.  And by far, I’m working the hardest.  I’m burning 518 calories-per-hour on my fast moving treadmill set at a 7% incline, and it’s been at this pace non-stop for 40 minutes.  I’m here in pursuit of one goal: to gain confidence.


In a little over a month, I’ll embark upon a 3 ½ week sabbatical which will involve 7,200 miles of travel by car, kayak, and airplane to four different states and – more importantly – will include 35 miles of hiking.  I need this time in rehab to build confidence; to show myself and other interested parties that my recovering heart can handle the upcoming hiking stress.


Last December, in the biggest shocker of my life, I suffered a myocardial infarction – a stinking heart attack.  Luckily, I reacted promptly to the elephant sitting on my chest and received excellent medical care utilizing the latest technology.  The damage was minimized and the blockages are now opened.  Thankfully, I have been encouraged to cautiously resume life (and my sabbatical planning) as normal; hence, the rehab.


The itinerary for the upcoming 3 ½ weeks gets tweaked daily.  Although the big stops are set, the little details are continually being refined.  The big stops represent the skeleton of the trip and reflect my support of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) – an organization I’ve been volunteering with for years.  Since 1951, TNC has thoughtfully preserved ecologically-sensitive lands in every state in the union.  I plan on visiting up to twenty of these locations in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and Arizona atop mountains, along streams, amid forests, and in marshlands.  Some visits will include escorts from TNC providing deeper insights than what I’d be able to gather alone.  My years of volunteering should be paying dividends on this trip.


It should be a whirlwind, heart-pumping tour and I’m doing everything I can to prepare.
Stay tuned… If my plan works, reports from beautiful preserved locations will be rolling in soon.

San Elijo Pit Stop

San Elijo Lagoon, California

I park on Manchester Avenue, cut through a small stand of trees, then connect to the San Elijo Lagoon loop trail. Very shortly thereafter, a dampening begins. The cacophony emanating from of one of the more popular locales in southern California begins to fade as I step further from its sources and deeper into this 1,000 acre ecological reserve.

I’m a mere 300 yards from one of America’s most traveled highways – Interstate 5 – and 800 yards in the other direction is the world famous Pacific Coast highway.  At every possible spot around the boundary of this reserve is a million dollar home with an amazing combined view of both the lagoon and the Pacific Ocean.  Yet amid all of this popularity, I’m nearly alone on the trail this morning.  And it’s a welcomed break.  Airports, taxis, buses, crowded beaches and noisy restaurants have filled the past two days… and starting tomorrow for the next four, I’ll be in downtown San Diego for a convention with 2,000 attendees.  A short break on a quiet trail is a great pit stop on this six day trip.

With the dampening comes an awakening; my frazzled mind turns from schedules, artificialities, and multi-tasking to a quieted, singularly-focused state, alert now for what nature has in store on this loop.  I step quietly and keep my eyes and ears open for experiences that you just don’t get on while traveling much faster on Manchester Avenue, I-5, or the Pacific Coast highway.

This lagoon is a stronghold; a watershed of vibrant beauty that serves as a buffer against the swelling populations all around.  Somewhere in the past, someone stood up for this place and realized its native value.  A conservation organization now has authority to make sure this lagoon stays pristine as the development pressures increase.

I consider myself a reasonable conservationist.  As populations grow, development pressures are a natural side effect.  Frankly, man needing a place to live and work is as natural as mallards needing a lagoon to land in.  Balance, though, is the key, and the San Elijo Lagoon is a prime example of how that can work – man and nature standing side-by-side with clear and protected boundaries between them.

San Elijo preserves the space needed for nature to be nature.  But its secondary benefit comes by way of enticement.  Its easy access reminds us all to pull over now and then, step through the trees and appreciate – even if for just a few brief moments – that the natural world not only dampens the raucous in our lives but pit-stops the focus on multi-tasking, artificial possessions, and the crowded spaces that are the consequences of our swelling population.

Poison Choice


“You comfortable back there?” officer Kernan asks.  From the backseat of his squad car I yell through the bullet proof glass that I’m fine.

Actually though, I could use a little more leg room and the temperature is a bit steamy.  But comfort is not what the sheriff’s office had in mind for passengers in the back of their cruisers.  When I think about the alternative ways in which I could have left the accident scene – ambulance or hearse – the discomforts usually reserved for criminals are just fine.

I’m catching a courtesy ride to my office after having been run off the road this morning – and not just slightly off the road either.  I bounced and slid 200 yards out of sight and down into a ravine.  In fact, officer Kernan’s first question after arriving on the scene was “Where’s your car?”

I stayed upright and walked away from the wild ride unscathed, but my car got the shit beat out of it as I jumped gullies, ran over logs, and sheared the tops off rocks before fizzling to a stop completely out of sight from the road.  It easily could have rolled, flipped, or collided with a tree – thoughts of such possibilities will inevitably wake me in the dead of night sometime soon.

As I crested a hill, a small white car was completely in my lane and aimed right at me.  Survival instinct took over.  The combined speed at which our vehicles were approaching each other had to be 90 mph.  A violent head-on collision or a violent off road adventure?  Pick your poison.

After walking out of the ravine and back toward the road, I was a bit surprised by how few fellow commuters were concerned with my well-being.  A couple had pulled over, but neither of them was the little white car that caused all my fun.  After confirming that I was OK, and after waving the concerned drivers on, it was just me in a dewy field all alone making calls to 911, my wife, and my insurance company.

Twenty Five Minutes Later…

As officer Kernan and I made small talk, the driver from the wrecker service wandered the accident scene taking pictures and videos of my distant car and consulting with the home office.  This was a more complex job than first thought.  Ultimately, a second truck and expert were needed to figure out the right extraction plan, which was quite an engineering accomplishment, I must confess.  Cables, wenches, hydraulics and the ingenuity of two good old boys got the job done.

From the backseat of the squad car on the way to my office, I wondered if I should be thankful to be alive.  Perhaps that’s a bit too dramatic of a position to take in regard to this accident.  Had the car barrel rolled or had the poison I chose involved a head-on collision, I’d certainly feel thankful to be alive.   But through 29 years of commuting to work, which amounts to over a half-million miles driven, if the worst is a wild, off-road ride leaving me unscathed, I’ll take it.