Monday, March 29, 2010

Bluebird Skiing and Stars & Stripes

Alpine Meadows is our weekend Mecca. We spend considerable time and money to get there for two days of “bluebird” skiing, accurately forecasted by Michelle’s bluebird sightings at breakfast time each morning.

An unpretentious mountain, people come from near and far – The Bay or France, for instance – to ski, nothing more. With a deliberate lack of fussy to-do, of shopping or ritzy restaurants, its raison d’être, its no-frills vision is clear. “Skeezy” snowboarders, skiing purists, and families of four are all waiting to mount the main lift, called Summit, to take advantage of the bounty from the previous night’s blizzard: powder. A lift attendant, using her pink, plastic toy wands, directs the medley of enthusiasts to the “chair” when their turn is up, and a mother assures her daughter, who is concerned about the upcoming seating arrangement on the five-person chair, that is doesn’t matter who sits where.

Atop Alpine, on top of the world, the sun and relatively warm weather are somewhat negated by the blasts of 45mph wind. But we tuck our heads, dismount from our skis, and hike up further to the out-of-bounds terrain – away from the crowds, the “pizza-french fries” novices, the week’s residual stresses, and perhaps life itself, which we’ve seemingly ascended above in euphoric states and high altitudes. Back on our skis, we traverse a looming cornice, careful to avoid what the ski patrol (wearing his distinguishable red jacket and his mountain-man mustache) calls a “snow creep,” which is the petrifying, 20-foot deep hollow that has formed between the ridge and the gargantuan snowdrift that sits next to it. It’s beneath the surface, but it’s top-of-mind as I stand, ungrounded, on the snowdrift; that is until I neglect it to fully absorb the view of untracked wilderness to my right and bluer-than-blue Lake Tahoe to my left.

We take the plunge, a leap of faith. We plunge down the cornice through blissful puffs of white powder, softening moguls, funnily named gullies, and patches of pine tree obstacles, which are a lot more fun to navigate than city traffic and daunting chore lists. But the traffic and chores are so far from the threshold of the mind because these gratifying days at Alpine leave you giddy and carefree, with a “raccoon face” (the result of wearing goggles combined with sun and wind burn) that beams uncontrollably.

What makes the Alpine Meadows experience even more savory is its après-ski gathering on the large, inviting deck at the bottom of the lift. (Okay, maybe there is a little more to Alpine than the skiing, but why not loosen your ski boots and bask in all of the day’s glory on the deck, in the sun, margarita in-hand, with your friends who recap the highlights?) Making the excitement on the deck even more palpable is the young, cavalier gentleman who seems to be somewhat of an American hero. He stands atop the cliffs that are within view of the people on the deck (and we are within his earshot), and he is wearing an American flag tee shirt and carrying a pole bearing the Stars and Stripes. “That can’t be safe, skiing with that pole,” I say, and a gentleman at the table next to me simply replies, “Darwinism”. The hero waves the flag proudly and then, having heard our yells of approval and cheer, takes the plunge over the jagged rocks. He does not land the jump smoothly and is roughed up just a bit, but he is back on his feet a second later, waving that flag even higher.

Long live the hero! Long live America!
Long live Alpine Meadows!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tides of Change

December brought an end to a year that both topped the charts and sunk to new lows, and it also brought some new beginnings. Most importantly, I became an auntie on New Years Eve, just a couple of hours before 2010. My sister and her husband welcomed Finn Patrick McCormick to this wide world, and the $3,000+ tax break that came with their little bundle of wonderment. (I, meanwhile, was popping bottles of champagne with friends in Nevada City, California - at a cozy cottage and at a saloon called Chief Crazy Horse -celebrating Finn's arrival from a distance as best I could).

And speaking of new beginnings and the wide world, I started my role as Assistant Country Manager at Geographic Expeditions in mid-December, wrapping up my last shifts as a barista in the mornings and training at GeoEx in the afternoons. In contrast to last December, when I was gearing up to embark on a journey of several months around South America, this December saw me getting established again in San Francisco (though I use the word "established" quite loosely since it seems paradoxical to describe a wanderlustful drifter like myself doing anything along the lines of settling down).

In a fantastical world, my being an Assistant Country Manager means leading trips around the world to the "beguiling destinations" that GeoEx visits, when in fact it means being a sort of glorified receptionist. Yes, answering phones and running the mail is not what I had pictured for myself either, but it's, as they say, a foot in the door. I fill catalog and itinerary requests with a smile, and I drive to the post office in the 1987 Dodge Caravan with its interior that smells strangely of Play-Doh and its bumper sticker that reads, "My other car is a pair of boots".

I can't say I'm not a little soured by the fact that I could have done this job when I was 16, but the perks of working at GeoEx make the whole experience pretty darn sweet. The office, a former hospital building, resides in the Thoreau Center for Sustainability in the Presidio, a national park that served as an army post for 218 years. On nicer days I take twenty minutes to bike to work, coasting past fragrant eucalyptus trees and boasting palm trees and sometimes seeing blue herons perched in the tall grass along our driveway. Inside the office there are large, vivid prints of photos taken in all corners of the world, and plants, worn travel books, and ornate tapestries cover the shelves. Friday afternoons typically feature Planet Earth screenings or slideshows of employees' recent trips, and hopefully I'll have the chance to schedule a familiarization, "FAM," trip in the near future.

And so, while my current gig at GeoEx may be just a stepping stone, it is a nice, sizeable stone, and even though I'm performing elementary tasks like taking the mail to the post office, I can relish the views of the Golden Gate Bridge (and, on some mornings, the sound of the fog horns that are audible from my desk) while doing them.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Mojo Come and Gone?

Remy, the French-American, only-child owner of Mojo Bicycle Cafe, hired me as a barista despite my not having had any experience, and let me tell you, my two months as a barista was an experience.

As the new guy I, naturally, was gifted with the most sought-after shift - the one starting at 6:15 in the morning. Waking up at 5:15 and biking to work (a mere four-minute commute) in the dark five days a week went against my grain but taught me that I could get by, even if painfully, on just a few hours of sleep if need be. And the real beauty of the early-bird shift?: being finished at 12:30 each day.

Not only did I learn my limits of sleep and my appreciation for being a free bird in the afternoons; I also learned during my tenure at Mojo that:
1. consistently pouring the perfect shot of espresso is not an easy feat; in fact, it is an art form that is pretty exacting. The shot should be "tamped," for instance, with thirty pounds of pressure, and a good one-ounce shot should pour for no longer than thirty seconds.
2. the only difference between a cappucino and a latte is the consistency of the milk. Who'd a thunk it?
2. people love to feel like they're king of the castle, and making them feel this way is as easy as, "Good morning, Susie Q. Would you like your ususal decaf soy latte?"
3. baristas are not tipped the way bartenders are. What's with the double standard, folks?
4. opening a coffee shop with only a handful of pennies in your register (because your co-worker who closed shop the night before accidentally pocketed the keys to the cash boxes) is pretty trying, but yours truly managed to pull it off.
5. opening a coffee shop with your coworker named Jesus, who's almost always hungover (and who spends a good part of the shift getting sick in the bathroom), is pretty trying, but yours truly managed to pull it off.
6. being a barista is a lot of fun. I relished getting espresso grounds all over my clothes; listening to my eclectic Pandora station throughout my shift; getting hopped up on caffeinated beverages; being a part of the SF bike culture (and getting free tune-ups by great mechanics); and eating free pesto-mozzerella sandwiches and other free, tasty things at the end of each shift. And did I mention being finished by 12:30 each day?

So why did I give up my lush barista lifestyle? Well, once again a little (or big?) fortuity was at play, and Alice Howell, my good friend - or should I say, "guardian angel"?, got me moving in the right direction by getting me a job at a high-end, adventure travel company. If it weren't for that, my complacency may have led me to be a lifelong barista; I was a little apprehensive about losing my Mojo, but I said good riddance to predawn hours and micro-management and hello to Geographic Expeditions.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Keep Tahoe Golden

I escaped the mayhem of The City by car, once again, and went this time to Tahoe.  Plans for the getaway had been in the works for a while since my friend Melissa had been wanting to surprise my friend Hayden, her boyfriend, for his 26th birthday.

About fifteen of us made it to the rental cabin in North Lake despite the snow storm that erupted that Friday, the first big snow of the season.  It took my friend Brent and I about six hours to do the drive, which normally takes three and a half hours, because we were forced to stop and buy chains for my tires and to drive 30mph for the last fifty or so miles.  When I asked the guy who sold us the chains why they're required in California but never in places like Colorado, where I drove sans chains through the snow on plenty of occasions, he simply replied, "Because of California drivers".  

So once all of us - save Melissa and Hayden - made it safely to the nicely furnished cabin, with its firetruck bunked beds, cheesy family ski photos, foosball table, and well-stocked kitchen, we made ourselves at home and then planned the surprise attack on Hayden.  After mulling over a number of ideas, we decided the best one was to greet Hayden on the our underwear....with snowballs.  Once they finally arrived, about two hours after we had stripped down to our skivvies, we were drunk and freezing cold and ready to go.  We launched snowballs at the car and then proceeded to stand in a line and moon them.  I don't think Hayden would have had it any other way.

The remainder of the weekend was marked by: many nerve-wrenching games of Jenga; hardcore sled riding; hot tub stews (it never did get quite hot enough); Back to the Future; guitar jams; dancing; and, needless to say, a lot of eating and drinking.  I may have shaved a few years off my life between Jenga, sledding injuries, and inhaling some Black Box Wine, but I'd say they were a small price to pay for the fun that was had.  

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


My first weekend getaway of my second round in San Francisco took place just a couple of weeks after my move back out here, because even though I'm living just enough for The City, I'm not just living for The City.  It was time to escape the congestion, and a silver friend of mine, with whom I crossed paths the week before, had invited me to visit his cabin in Arcata.  Once he mentioned the words "cabin," "redwoods," and "sangria," I was pretty well sold. 

One of my roommates and I made the five-hour trek late on Thursday and met "Yo-Heezy," the owner of the cabin, and another one of my roommates around 1:00 in the morning.  Much to their delight, I brought along some Black Box wine and Sarah Lee baked goods (not to be confused with Sara Lee baked goods), and we commenced our celebration of social solitude in the unkempt but cozy cabin. 

The rain and the cool air on the following day made it difficult to leave the comforts of the cabin, but I experienced a bit of the culture up North nonetheless.  Dinnertime snuck up on us, and me and the fellas made a hodgepodge of yams and ginger, guacamole, fajitas, and sangria that left us slightly comatose.  Ironically, in an effort to revitalize ourselves and mend some of our ailments, Yo-Heezy nearly broke his back while trying to crack mine (I suppose I ate a little too much guacamole), so he was bed-ridden for the rest of the night; the remaining three, however, managed to shake our comas and adventure through the duration of the night.

With the Lost Coast Brewery as our sponsor, we built a roaring fire of aging furniture and other odds and ends in a large and rusted barrel, which we called the Barrel of Monkeys.  We were impressed with ourselves since the conditions were rather wet - though the rain had finally subsided - but our biggest task was still ahead: making the unfunctional sauna functional without doing any rewiring.  And so we put a bunch of rocks in a metal pale and put the pale in the fire and then poured water over the hot rocks once inside the sauna.  We tried this a number of times over the course of a couple of hours, and strange as it was, the first attempt, with mediocre results, was the most successful.  Once this cat-and-mouse game lost its fun, we played in the shipwreck of redwood trunks and fifteen-foot stumps just beyond the cabin, and once that lost its fun (or did it?), we retired to the cabin and fell asleep, sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning. 

The next day of in-and-out of sleep, reflecting, and burnt bacon ended around midnight, when my roommate and I made it sleepily back to San Francisco, which was not so sleepy itself.  It was a lively Saturday night, but I went straight to bed, readying myself for my 7:15 barista shift the next morning.       

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Righteous Return

This year has taken me far South, far North and back to the Heart of It All, but after all of life's twists and turns the road inevitably led West again.  The great bivalve mollusc that is the World swallowed me whole and spit me out in San Francisco - The City by The Bay, the "golden handcuff with the key thrown away," and "the most cordial and sociable city in the Union."

I resisted the City's lure for ten months and then finally gave in to its charms, packed my Honda with all of my things and hit the road.  How could I let a silly thing like not having much money or not having a job lined up prevent me from reigniting my love affair?  After all, hadn't I made it work the first time, when I was starting from scratch?

I immediately moved into an apartment in the Lower Haight with some friends of a friend - four guys, as it goes - who are, so far, quirky, bright and lovable.  That they keep a clean apartment with maps all over the walls is probably enough for me, but I can certainly appreciate the distinct personalities as well: the vegan, entrepreneurial sweetheart; the hippie with crystals in his dreadlocks who loves drawing brainstorming webs on his over-sized whiteboard; the excitable grad student; and the has-his-shit-together business professional who gets off on camping and literature.

The apartment was not the only thing that fell into place; a job did as well.  A mere three days into my SF renaissance, I was hired as a barista at Mojo Bicycle Shop & Cafe.  And so, as my dear friend Alice said, I was "back into the SF groove," and boy did it feel good.  

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Ashley and I left Seward for Anchorage, where we were hosted by another Couch Surfer, Kyle, and his dog Indy.  Anchorage was essentially just a jump-off point for Denali, but we did manage to see a little bit of the unremarkable city - the state's largest and home to just over 40% of its population of roughly 680,000 - when we went downtown to grab some pizza with Kyle.

We checked the forecast for Denali the night before we left, and it said something along the lines of 63 and sunny with a very low chance of rain.  I thought, "Fat chance!", after all I had heard about typical conditions in the park, i.e., only 30% of visitors to the park get to even see Denali (Mt. McKinley) because of fog, clouds and rain.  As we drove the four hours toward the park the next morning, however, my cynicism was put to rest; there was not a cloud in the sky, and we could already see Denali, in all its glory, from 130 miles away.

Once inside the park we boarded the camper bus, because private vehicles are not permitted beyond Mile 15 of the 90-mile park road.  The bus was brimming with excitement about the exceptional weather, and even Alan Seegert, our blasé driver who has worked at the park for decades, seemed eager.  Alan carried himself much like Carl Spackler from Caddyshack, low-talking with a side-slung underbite and looking through catatonic eyes.  He told us repeatedly that whether or not we were to see an abundance of wildlife was all "sloppy luck" but that we had come to the park on what was probably the most beautiful day of the year.

We rode through about five hours of slopes and valleys shaped by glaciers 10-14,000 years ago, and along the way we saw a grizzly and her two cubs grazing along a stream and a caribou taking a drink from a pond.  The vegetation on the tundra was starting to take on burnt Fall colors, and the views of Denali made my heart swell.  The four-mile high peak, with a greater rise and bulk than Everest, evokes a certain feeling of reverence that is rare and impossible to forget.

Other highlights of the bus ride included the caribou fight that Ashley and I had when we hoisted sets of extremely heavy antlers above our heads and also the friends that we made: a couple of guys from Milwaukee, who we saved from getting left behind by the bus, and a Frenchie named Julien, who we invited to share our campsite at Wonder Lake.

Our campsite, just 26 miles from the base of Denali, was not lacking for views or good company.  Julien, so grateful that we had taken him in, perched his tent next to ours and promised us a French-themed party when we were all back in San Francisco, and a group from Seattle shared with us utensils and pulls from their bottle of Jaigermeister.  We all watched the moutain range turn into a soft pink color when the sun set around 10p.m., and thanks to sloppy luck (or maybe karma), Julien spotted the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) a couple of hours later.  As we watched the green lights make waves through the night sky I grabbed and hugged Julien and told Ashley that we did well in bringing him there with us.

The temperature had dropped to thirty degrees by the time we retreated to our tents, making it difficult to find sleep, but I thought it was a small price to pay for the day we had just had.  What made it even more worth it was that conditions the next morning were optimal for seeing Denali's perfectly still reflection in the pond made famous by some Ansel Adams photographs.  The bus driver that day, a guy named Chuck, told us that we were extremely lucky because a reflection that clear can only be seen about five days out of the year.  Not only did we have that good fortune; we also got to see a large bull moose, a herd of caribou, and a grizzly that walked just in front of our bus for a good five minutes.  Oh, la vie est bonne!