Reflections on the Reality of Travel

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This trip has been a lesson in living in the moment. Every long-haul trip ends up having a meaning, but that meaning tends to wait to make itself known until the closing act. Or at least, until that moment when the end of the trip finally comes into focus. Which is where I find myself now, sitting in a cozy apartment in Hailey, Idaho, with two weeks left until I pull back into my driveway in Massachusetts.

I think a certain amount of reflection is normal, during a trip. It’s almost like we can’t help ourselves, like our brains want to be anywhere except in the moment. Basically since the very first morning of the trip, I’ve been caught between looking forwards and back, stretched between my memories and my hopes. But as the end of the trip grows closer, the pull of the memories grows stronger, and more and more, I get caught up in reflection.

Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

When I planned this trip, I was hyper-focused on adventure. Each stop on the trip was planned to optimize my potential to push myself to new heights outdoors. Colorado, Utah, Tahoe, the Olympic Peninsula. Each location selected for it’s adventure potential.

What I didn’t realize, was how much expectation I was including. Unconsciously, I set this trip up in my head to be glorious, motivating, life changing. It’s what I wanted. What I craved. I wanted this trip to erase the year I’d just had. A year of existential dread and mind-numbing anxiety. A year of pandemic stress.

I thought this trip could be that cure-all because that’s what all my other longer trips have been. Backpacking around Southeast Asia was one of the most profound experiences of my life. Walking across Peru is to this day one of my greatest achievements, and of course, riding my bike around Cambodia was the first time I truly came to love my body for what it could do, instead of what it looked like.

Or at least, that’s how I chose to remember them.

But in looking back at those trips, I forgot one very important fact: long term travel is uncomfortable. While I was backpacking around Southeast Asia, for instance, I was incredibly lonely. Suffering with severe and untreated anorexia, I was self-conscious to the point of exhaustion, and pushed myself so hard physically through yoga, hiking, and trekking, that my hips still haven’t fully recovered today.

On that walk across Peru I was at the other end of the eating disorder, binging on food and drowning in self hatred.

And on that transformational bike ride across Cambodia? I was chased from start to finish by self-doubt and insecurities, plagued by the idea that I wasn’t a “real” bike tourist because I was sleeping in hotel rooms instead of a tent. Even though, by staying in those hotel rooms, I got to actually meet and have conversations with Cambodians all across the country, an experience I may not have had if I’d hidden myself away in a tent each night.

So, when I sat down to plan this trip, after over a year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, and crippling anxiety, I saw it as an escape. An escape from the stress of my new freelance career, from the pressure to figure out a path forward, escape from myself.

Only I forgot, you can’t escape yourself.

I forgot that all the crippling anxiety, that self-doubt, existential dread, and suicidal ideation I’ve been grappling with for years would come along for the drive as well.

And I was held in the suspense of that illusion for a while. Those first few days and weeks of the drive were blissful, in their own way. It’s why we all love short term vacations. It’s where the “honeymoon phase” comes from. When we first enter a brand new experience, we’re charmed by it because it demands all of our attention. It distracts us from ourselves.

Capitol Lake, Colorado

The first two weeks of this road trip were exactly that. Driving across the south, mountain biking in Missouri, hiking and mountain biking in Boulder, I was safely ensconced in my own sense of awe. I was endlessly entertained by the changing environment around me. And of course, I still had the entire trip ahead of me. I still had so much potential. If I felt sad to leave behind the shady oak canopy of the Ozarks, I could at least look forward to the towering peaks of the Rockies. 

That all changed with the first hiccup.

I’d intended to backpack through the Elk Range of the Rockies for four days. It was one of the adventures on this trip that I was most looking forward to. But an unusual monsoon pattern swept in and forced me to cancel those plans. The forecast called for thunderstorms and pouring rain before noon each day. Stubbornly, I refused to accept defeat. 

I drove into the Rockies and picked a car campsite above Aspen. I thought, I’d camp with my car for one day to suss out the real conditions, and start my backpacking trip the day after. It just couldn’t be that bad, right?

By noon that day dark clouds had gathered overhead and rain started to pepper my campsite. Within two hours, the sky was black as night and thunder boomed overhead. Lightning cracked so close I swear I heard the air sizzle. When the deluge came down it took only five minutes for my tent to flood completely. Terrified, I grabbed my sleeping bag and thrust it into the back of my Crosstrek, taking shelter in the metal cage of my car. I slept that night curled in a ball, shivering from fear and humiliation.

I had to admit, I did not have the skill to backpack in this kind of weather. I didn’t know the Rockies well enough. I did not know how to survive.

But even after I made the decision to find a beautiful car campsite and spend the week taking day hikes and mountain bike rides, I was still hounded by shame. Was I a quitter? Was I weak? Was I not outdoorsy enough? 

And there was the disappointment. I’d been so looking forward to this backpacking trip, and now it was cancelled. Was my whole trip a wash? My brain flung itself into the extremes. I was a quitter, and this trip was a disaster.

To make up for my perceived failure, I pushed myself each day to make the most of my time in the Rockies, hiking three days straight, higher and higher, all the way up to a pass at 12,000 feet. On the fourth day, I drove to Crested Butte to ride the storied 401 Trail, one of the most beautiful mountain biking trails in the world.

By the time I got to Moab, Utah, my next stop on the trip, I was exhausted.

But no worries, I told myself, tomorrow was a rest day and then I could get onto the next adventure: mountain biking Moab.

For those who aren’t part of the mountain biking culture, Moab is our Mecca. It is held up as one of the most challenging, fun, interesting, and exciting places to mountain bike. With miles and miles of purpose built trails across terrain you can’t find anywhere else in the world, there is no where like Moab. 

I was so fucking excited to ride my bike there.

Except.

Except I’d exhausted myself in Colorado. Except I couldn’t accept my own exhaustion. I hiked in Canyonlands, climbing 1.5k feet under the hot desert sun, then hiked in Arches the next day. Even though I knew I was making a mistake, I could not stop myself. I had to keep going, keep pushing. To rest was to waste precious time. And besides, I told myself that I should be strong enough for this. That I shouldn’t need rest.

Nevada

So when I took my bike to Slickrock, one of the most famous trails in Moab, my legs were too tired to even ride 3 miles. Once more, I twisted into a tailspin. Too exhausted to take on the adventure I had planned. I was furious with myself. Furious that my legs weren’t stronger. That I wasn’t better. I sat down on the trail with legs that felt like they were on fire from exhaustion, and cried. Self hatred washed over me. Why wasn’t I strong enough for this?

Giving myself time to rest and heal? I didn’t even consider it.

The next stop after Moab was Tahoe, where I’d hoped to take on some extreme mountain biking loops with over 3k feet of climbing. But of course, after pushing myself through exhaustion in Moab, by the time I got to Tahoe I could barely walk. It was all I could do to ride my bike the two miles over to my friend’s house to hang out on the lake.

Now, with the gift of hindsight, I can zoom out and see how incredibly lucky I was to even be present in Colorado, Moab, and Tahoe, even if I couldn’t take on the grand adventures I had planned. But in the moment, I was too lost in my own anxiety to see clearly. I was too consumed by thoughts that I’m not strong enough, smart enough, fit enough, good enough.

Canyonlands National Park

This has plagued me across the entire journey. At no point have I had an escape from it. Driving north through the Redwoods of California, my anxiety convinced me I had planned my trip all wrong. Across Oregon, my anxiety convinced me I never should have left California. In Washington, my anxiety convinced me I wasn’t really seeing the Olympic Peninsula. That I should have been backpacking. I was so consumed by these thoughts that I almost didn’t stop to appreciate the beautiful morning I spent on a cold misty beach at the very western edge of the continental United States, or the four mile walk I took through one of the world’s only temperate rainforests.

Now, sitting in my beautiful AirBnB in Idaho, with the end of the trip only two weeks away, I can look back and see how foolish I was. I can see how my mental struggles, my intense anxiety, got in the way of what was really happening.

But I can also see that I was (and still am) being too hard on myself. There have been moments of true beauty on this trip. When I look back, I know that my memories of this experience won’t focus on the crippling anxiety that left me in tears. What I will remember are the days I felt pure, intense joy. The day I mountain biked in Nederland, Colorado and then sat outside at a brewery in my flannel and trucker cap feeling like the very best version of myself.

Or the day I SUP’ed down the Colorado River in Moab and managed to stay standing through a Class II rapid.

Or the morning I spent wandering through the coastal Redwoods in Humboldt County and felt completely at peace with the world around me.

The trip isn’t over yet, so it’s not time for me to fully understand everything I’ve learned on this journey. But a meaning is starting to take shape. And I think it has something to do with staying present in the moment, appreciating the little things, and remembering that even the worst anxiety, even the worst suicidal ideation will pass if you don’t give it power.

On Underestimating the Start

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I’m driving across the United States for two months. My trip will take me around the country in a big circle, starting and ending in Massachusetts. This is the first blog post of the trip, reflecting on the first week of the journey, where I drove across the Northeastern Seaboard, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and Kansas.

My trip began where it had to begin: on the east coast. I set out from home, in Massachusetts, for a trip around the country. My odyssey. My journey to recover after the year and a half of covid. My journey to find something of myself again.

Why does every journey have to have a purpose? I’m not sure that they do, but for me, I’ve found I get more out of a journey if I go into it with an intention. For this one it was, explore the outdoors of the United States. Do the adventurous things I’ve only ever thought about. Backpack Colorado, mountain bike Moab, camp in Glacier.

You’ll notice all these things take place in the west. The west was the goal. The point. The whole idea.

The East, the South, The Midwest, the Plains, these were places I just had to get through, in order to get to the adventure.

And yet, as the rolling hills of the Appalachians unfurled before me. As I pulled into camp the first night, I realized I may have underestimated these tree-clad hills. I gave the first few days of my trip not even an ounce of my consideration. The first night of my trip I camped at a place called Fifteen Mile Creek in western Maryland. I picked it only because it popped up on Google Maps and was cheap. I didn’t even realize it was situated on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, one of our country’s misguided but no less impressive attempts to build canals for the movement of freight in the early 19th century.

potomac river

That first morning of my trip, I woke up on the banks of the Potomac, mists still hugging its muddy brown waters. I got on my mountain bike and rode down the towpath along the canal as the natural world came to life around me. Riding through the mists, my tires churning up mud left behind from the previous night’s rain, I drifted between contentment and awe. I had no idea this was here. I had no idea it would be so beautiful. 

I was alone on the trail, save for the deer that jumped into the bushes every quarter mile. After half an hour, I stopped along the canal to look around, and I heard a splash in the water. Looking down I saw not one but two beavers, swimming peacefully through the murky water, diving down to fish for their breakfast. 

I’d thought my trip didn’t really start until I got to Colorado. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The next few days were a constant revelation of my own northern ignorance. Kentucky was a revelation. Rolling grassland with horses dotted on the hillsides. Cities with pockets of artisans and craft breweries and whimsical shops. The best vegan biscuits and gravy I’ve ever had.

Missouri, where I challenged myself to complete an epic 26 mile singletrack ride on my mountain bike, the longest I’d ever done. Camped in the Ozarks, in a forest of scrub oak where the setting sun blazed through the leaves like fire, I felt completely at home. My day on the trail, where the only other person I saw was a trail runner who thanked me for clearing out the cobwebs (and there were many), still stands as one of the best days of my trip so far.

berryman campground

This first leg of the trip surprised me. Throughout my planning and right up until the moment I left (and probably even through Connecticut) I saw these first few days of the trip as something to get through. Something to get out of the way so that I could get to the real trip, out west. So to my surprise I realized that these first few days of the trip have transformed not only my opinion of that slice of America but also of my perspective on this trip.

I wish I’d done a bit more research. I wish I’d known a bit more about the land that I was driving across, and the people and events that shaped it. 

In Kansas, especially, I wish I had prepared more. Driving across eastern Kansas, rolling green hills gave way to vast expanses of agricultural land. This is where so much of the American myth was born, and where the first Americans fought and died and persevered. And I’m woefully ignorant of it. 

wichita

Whenever people describe road trips across America to me, they describe the great plains as an obstacle, something to drive through as fast as you can, get it over with, there’s nothing there. The big flat boring area.

But to my eyes, that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are forests and streams, rivers and farmland, open prairie, towns that blend the architecture of the east with the mythology of the old west. Rail lines that stretch for miles. 

It is beautiful here, so open and wide and vast. Kansas is somewhere you slow down, take it in, cross each rise only to have another expanse open up before you, like an ocean of earth.

As I drive across these Great Plains, I’ve been working on focusing on the present, on really living in the moment. Too often, I’m focused on whether I’m doing this trip the right way, or whether I’m living up to other people’s expectations. Even on my mountain bike ride in Missouri, I let my anxiety win out, convincing myself I had to be riding faster, harder, achieving something, when it was an achievement in and of itself just for me to finish the route. Just for me to be there. I got so caught up worrying whether I was riding fast enough, or hard enough, I didn’t savor the experience of being out there, riding one of the oldest trails in the Ozarks.

Am I clinging too tightly to experiences as they happen? Or am I too focused on the future? Why is it so challenging to simply be present?

kentucky

Is it possible to feel nostalgic for something you’re still experiencing?

Each day I pack up my campsite and head back out on the road, I feel a tug at my heart. This is the end of this part of the trip, I won’t be coming back here. Did I savor it enough? Did I appreciate it enough?

Always looking backwards. Clinging to what was, forgetting what is.

To travel is to be in a constant state of transition. Are we made to live like this?

Has my perspective shifted so much since the last time I did a long term trip? It seems like it has.

It was more challenging for me to settle into this trip than was in the past, when I rode around Cambodia, or walked across Peru. For some reason I didn’t quite feel like I deserved this trip. I think the American mentality has gotten too far under my skin. I’ve given in too much to the idea that in order to be worthy, I have to be productive. I have to be earning money.

Of course, this is a privilege. The amount of financial security, and emotional security I have to allow myself to travel like this, it’s a huge privilege. Is it worth it for me to feel guilty for this? I’m not sure. But I know that I did feel guilty about it. I still do, though that is wearing off. For better or for worst, I have the financial stability to do this, and this is something I crave. And after getting laid off at the very start of covid, of languishing in unemployment and fear for months, and finally rebuilding a freelance career that I’m proud of – I am going to allow myself to enjoy this trip around the country.

fifteen mile creek
fifteen mile creek
chesapeake and ohio canal
Middlesex Fells MTB

Where I’ve Been Mountain Biking

Massachusetts

It’s coronavirus season and although most states have started easing restrictions, those of us with half a brain and fully developed anxiety know we should still stay inside. Mostly.

Coronavirus has obviously been hardest for those who got sick, passed away, or had to work on the front lines of this shit in hospitals or in grocery stores. You guys deserve double pay and six months paid vacation when this is over. But even for those of us with the super privilege of staying home, shit’s been tough. Not “fuck your rules I’m going to a crowded beach without a mask on” tough, those people are idiots. But it’s been tough.

Since getting laid off from my job at the beginning of March, I’ve more or less languished in a state of semi-conscious depression, staying awake just long enough to bitch about the President on social media and get drunk. Some days are better than others but if I really dig deep I’m terrified of moving and terrified of staying still. I don’t want to go back to corporate America but all the fun outdoor jobs are shut down because of this ridiculous disease. So instead I sit on my porch and scroll through social media while I sink deeper and deeper into a state of ennui so total I’m not sure I’ll ever emerge.

Except, that is, when I’m mountain biking.

Cycling on the roads and trails has been the scotch tape holding me together. It’s the only healthy coping mechanism I have, all the beer and wine I’ve consumed in the last two months notwithstanding. So on that note, I thought I’d tell you guys about some of my favorite places I’ve been mountain biking around Boston, MA recently while I also try to comb through the mountain of anxiety that is pinning me down to the earth.

First, A Note on Crowds

Crowds are bad. People are stupid. People in crowds are exponentially stupid. Right now, crowds are in parks. Crowds in parks are biggest on the weekends when the rule-defying mob flocks to trails they heretofore had never heard of in order to walk without masks and spread this nasty disease as far as possible while telling themselves that they are following social distancing guidelines. Don’t go to the parks on the weekends.

Seriously, where the fuck did you all come from? Get out of the woods.

Great Brook Farm State Park

In truth, I haven’t actually been here since the first few days after I found out my job didn’t want me, sorry, couldn’t afford me anymore. The trails here are pretty easy, lots of fire roads where you can ride wicked fast and scare the parents of small children, and plenty of easy, winding single track that you swore was going to lead you back to that fire road but instead you end up in some neighborhood in Carlisle and now you have no idea where you are and the neighbors are looking at you funny.

It’s easy to get lost there. But the trails are easy, so it’s a good place to work out your fear, terror, and anger about your layoff.

Willowdale State Forest

I love this place almost as much as I love having a sense of purpose. A step up from Great Brook Farm State Park, Willowdale has a nice mix of easy trails and technical singletrack. And it’s big but not too big, so you can get comfortably lost while holding back tears of impotent rage at the unfairness of this senseless epidemic and the fact that you’ve now had to have your hopes of retirement dashed by not one but two crippling recessions. There is even a trail called G-Spot so if you’re tired of contemplating your rapidly declining chances for financial freedom, you can get worked up about the men who still believe the G-Spot is the source of female arousal.

Every part of a woman’s body is an erogenous zone. We aren’t you. We don’t have an ON button in the form of a penis. You have to slow down and work your way down there or else we’re going to be bored and disappointed. Forget about the fucking G-Spot for a second or every woman you ever have sex with will come away disappointed. And no, we don’t pee out of our vaginas.

Great Brook Farm State Park Mountain Biking

Wompatuck State Park

This little park is one from my childhood, back when I thought unicorns existed and life would be one continual adventure toward blissful happiness. If you ride deep enough into the woods, you can still find some of the old concrete bunkers leftover from when this place was an armory during WWII, and America was led by men of integrity instead of men whose only interest is their self-interest.

But really, this place is a labyrinth worthy of Daedalus. I’ve been riding bikes here since before I hit puberty and I still find new parts of the park every time I go. It’s got a lot of technical track but too few hills so while it is a fun challenge, it’s not my favorite place. Megan likes to go fast, adrenaline is the only thing that distracts me from my debilitating anxiety.

Middlesex Fells

The last spot on this list challenges me as much as the coronavirus lockdown challenges white America. Seriously just wear a fucking mask and stay the fuck away from me, it’s not that big of an imposition. The Fells are great if you like to punish your body for things it hasn’t done wrong yet. I find giving myself a nice, deep bruise somewhere on my legs a perfect antidote for the existential dread I feel when I think about getting another job in a cubicle farm.

The trails in the Fells that are worth riding are pretty tough, I still can’t ride through the whole park without falling off and seriously hurting some part of my body. It’s a nice reminder that no matter how hard I try I’ll never be as talented, capable, or impressive as that asshole at the top of the Forbes 30 under 30 list. There are also easy fire roads as bailout options but riding on those is like being a social media social justice warrior. It feels like we’re fighting the good fight but we aren’t actually doing any real work at all.

So that’s it. Those are the places I’ve been going mountain biking to try to fight through some of the issues that have churned up inside my psyche during this period of lockdown and existential dread. Have some other spots where I could wrestle with my own mortality? Let me know in the comments.

Wild River Wilderness New Hampshire

Camping & Hiking the Wild River Wilderness

Adventure Travel, New Hampshire, Travel, Trekking & Hiking, United States

Recently, my partner Erich and I spent an unforgettable weekend hiking and camping in one of New England’s most remote wildernesses—a place so wild and inaccessible there is only one road in or out and most of it can only be reached on foot. The Wild River Wilderness.

What is the Wild River Wilderness

One of 6 officially designated Wilderness Areas in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire, the Wild River Wilderness is a 23,700-acre area comprised of steep mountainous walls surrounding a wide, deep valley with the capricious Wild River cutting through its center. Located at the far north of the White Mountains, this valley is only accessible via a single dirt road or by hiking. It is also the newest of the Wilderness Areas in the Whites—designated in 2006. 

This is the kind of place where you can spend a day in the woods and never see another soul. Right now, the Wild River Wilderness feels like a secret held close to my heart. If I write this, am I contributing to the over-trafficking and abuse that our wilderness areas are facing? Perhaps so. And yet I feel compelled to share it. For those who favor adventure, who aren’t afraid to explore the deep woods, who don’t fear the things that go bump in the night, the Wild River Wilderness presents a chance for adventure still within a days drive of Boston.

Megan Brake stands in front of waterfall in Wild River Wilderness

Where to Stay in the Wild River Wilderness

There is one car camping ground within the Wilderness area: the Wild River Campground. This is a primitive campsite for tent camping, accessible via a 5-mile dirt road. There are 12 sites available, one of which includes a log shelter—a primitive 3 sided lean-to. All sites are first-come, first-served. 

The campground is hosted. Camping is $20 per day, inclusive of one vehicle. There is a $5 additional fee for a second vehicle. Firewood can be purchased on-site.

There are also several backcountry tent sites accessible via hiking. When I visited one of these, the Spruce Brook tent site, in October of 2014, it was unhosted with no tent platforms or bear boxes. Be prepared to hang your food or store food safely in a bear canister or ursack. Tent sites are free, no reservations required. Follow leave no trace principles and be keep the wilderness wild for future hikers.

The floor of the Wild River Valley is wide and relatively flat, so backcountry camping options are plentiful on the Wild River Trail, Highwater Trail, and on all the other trails that cross the valley floor. Follow Wilderness Area rules for choosing a campsite.

Campsite at Wild River Campground with picnic table and fire pit

What to do in the Wild River Wilderness

This vast wilderness area is a playground for the adventurous. The Wild River is long and deep in places, with crystal clear water flowing over massive boulders, swirling in and out of deep pools and shimmering over the riverbed. Swimming is possible in places, as is a simple soak or sunbathing. I’m not into fishing but I hear people come here to fish as well.

Hiking trails criss-cross the area, some following the length of the valley, others climbing steeply up to the mountain ridges that line either side. Some of my favorite trails that I’ve hiked here are the Black Angel trail down from Carter Dome and all the way up to the Basin Rim Trail (7.7 miles in total). The Basin Trail, 2.2 miles from the valley floor to the Basin Rim trail, was exceptionally beautiful. 

For those looking for a less strenuous but no less wild and riveting hiking experience, the Wild River trail and Highwater Trail each parallel the river up the valley, offering glimpses of its waters as they make their way down from their source at No Ketchum Pond. The two trails form a nice 5-mile loop starting from the Wild River Campground, though you will need to cross the river without a bridge at one end.

In truth, you can’t go wrong hiking in the Wild River Wilderness. All the trails have their own points of interest, the sheer vastness of the valley floor makes every trail up to the ridge an adventure, and the diversity of life and ecosystems within this forest make each hike a fresh experience. 

Wild River Wilderness Hiking Trail

These wilderness area signs are my favorite.

How to get to the Wild River Wilderness

If you plan to camp at the Wild River Campground or to access any of the hiking trails from the trailheads in the valley, you’ll need to find the 5-mile Wild River Road.

From Boston: Take 93 N through Franconia Notch. Exit to Route 3 North, then take Route 115 to Route 2. Follow Route 2 until you enter Maine (Yep, crossing state lines!) then take Route 113 south for just a few miles, past the gate you’ll see a sign for the Wild River Wilderness and the turn for Wild River Road is just beyond here. The Wild River Campground is 5 miles down Wild River Road, but there are several trailheads with small parking areas located along the road as well.

Route 113 is not maintained in Winter so this area is only accessible by vehicle from May to October.

Hiking into the Wild River is also possible from the Pinkham Notch area on Route 16 in New Hampshire, and from Route 113 in Maine/New Hampshire.

Now that you’ve got all the facts, if I still have your attention, let me tell you a story about the magnificent, unforgettable weekend I had with my boyfriend Erich in the Wild River Wilderness. 

megan and erich on mount meader in the white mountains of New Hampshire

Our Weekend in the Wild River Wilderness

All week eagerness coursed through my veins like fire. After five years of dreaming about it, I was finally returning to the Wild River Wilderness. 

Five years ago, in October of 2014, I planned a haphazard backpacking loop that took me in and out of a valley called the Wild River Wilderness. At that point in my life, I’d only done one other backpacking loop around the Pemigewasset Wilderness in early August. The Pemi, as it is affectionately called by locals, is a 40 mile, well-trafficked loop that follows the Appalachian Trail for at least half of its path. In early August, I was sharing the trail with day hikers, fellow Pemi loopers, and AT thru-hikers. Every night I camped at a hosted tent site where bear boxes were provided, a host assigned me a platform, and the company was plentiful in the cooking areas. Although it was a solo trek, I was hardly ever alone at all.

I expected my loop through the Wild River Wilderness, in early October, to be the same.

Instead, I spent a grueling four days in the backcountry completely and utterly alone. I lost the trail at one point, walked myself to the point of exhaustion, realized on day three I didn’t have nearly enough food, and in four days of hiking I only saw three other human beings. By the time I made it back to my car I was grateful just to be alive. But somewhere in that mess of agony and strife, I’d fallen in love. The Wild River Wilderness held a special place in my heart. Its vast expanse, its poorly maintained trails, its air of pure, unadulterated wilderness wiggled itself into my heart and didn’t let go. 

In the 5 years since that misbegotten backpacking trip, I’ve dreamed of the Wild River valley often. Every time I returned to New England from my life in Peru or Cambodia, I’d stare at my map of the White Mountains and try to find a chance to get back there but I could never quite make it work.

That is until I rolled onto my side earlier this Spring and popped my kneecap out of place. Injured and unable to take on serious backpacking trips, I started looking for car camping options. It was then that I realized: the Wild River Campground. The moment I thought of it, my heart bloomed with hope. All I had to do was find the perfect weekend and I could finally get back to the landscape that enchanted my dreams.

waterfall on Basin Trail in the Wild River Wilderness

For weeks this summer I stared at my worn-out map of the White Mountains, tracing my finger over the little red “Wild River Campground” label. I watched the weather, peeked through my calendar, and finally, in mid-July, the perfect weekend opened up. I finished work at 1pm on Friday, shut my laptop with a snap, and loaded my gear into the car. Erich rolled up and we were on our way. We tore out of my driveway, rumbled down the poorly paved streets of Medford, and merged onto the highway ready to fly—or crawl north, rather. We sat in traffic from Medford to Concord, inching our way north with the throngs of others who, I hoped, were headed to the Lakes region and not to the Whites.

Just before 7pm, after 5 hours of highways, country roads, and mountain views, we made the turn onto Wild River Road, a long dirt road that follows the Wild River and feels like it has seen its fair share of tough winters. By the time we pulled into the campground, it was after 7pm. We drove the small loop around the 12 sites to look for an opening. Site after site had cars in front of them, tents set up, people sitting in chairs around a fire. As we drove, my spirits sank lower and lower and despair started to sink in. We’d driven all this way, no reservations, what if we didn’t get a spot? I looked at Erich, trying to keep the panic out of my eyes. He reached over and held my hand. 

But I wasn’t ready to hear him say, “I’m sorry, babe.” Not just yet. I drove back down the hill, there were a few more spots near the gate of the campground we hadn’t checked. That’s when I saw him, an old man, still surprisingly tall, standing by the side of the road in a plaid shirt with a big welcoming smile on his face and his hand in the air waving us over. I drove up next to him and rolled down the window.

“You looking for a campsite?”

“Yessir.”

“Well, I’ve only got two left. One up there on the hill, or down here at the shelter. The one up there is still open but the people next door have one of those yappy little dogs so I don’t know if you want that. If you take the shelter you don’t need to sleep in it, there is still room for a tent on the ground.”

I could see the shelter just in front of me, the only campground wide open to the road. I pointed uphill, where a set of stairs were built into the landscape.

“The other open campground up there?”

“Yep, just up those stairs.”

“Ok, we’ll take it.”

He nodded, I backed the car in and looked over at Erich with tears in my eyes. Maybe I was being overly emotional, but I’d dreamed about visiting this campground and this valley for years, the idea of having to turn around, to camp somewhere else, was too painful to consider. But it didn’t matter, we got an open spot and it was perfect. Carrying our stuff up the small stairs, we found an open area cut into a grove of beech and pine. The site had enough space for several tents, plus it included a surprisingly stable picnic table and a fire pit with cooking grate. 

That night we built a fire, cooked veggie fajitas in a cast iron pan over an open flame, and indulged in a few Birds of a Feather IPAs from my favorite Boston area brewery, Lamplighter.

Mount Meader New Hampshire

The next morning dawned bright and beautiful. I’d originally planned for us to hike up to Mount Moriah, one of the 48 4000 footers that I haven’t bagged yet, but our morning got off to a slow start. By the time I’d made coffee, eaten breakfast, and gotten dressed it was already past 10am. Not an ideal time to set off on a 12-mile hike. So we reassessed, scoured the map, and devised a plan to follow the Basin Trail up to the eastern rim of the Wild River Valley and hike up to Mount Meader. It’s not a 4000 footer, but it would still be a beautiful day in the mountains and by the end, a 10-mile hike.

The Basin Trail was enchanting. From the campground, it wound along the valley floor through a hardwood forest where the sunlight filtered through the trees to dapple the ground in soft green light. After winding around the trees like a ribbon, the trail worked its way gently uphill following a small creek. After a slightly steep section, we came to a beautiful pool of copper-colored water. At first, I was so taken with the pool flowing through shapely rocks that I failed to look up. I walked to the water’s edge and dipped my hand in, testing the temperature—cold, even in mid-July. It was only when I looked up at Erich to share in this beauty that I saw it.

Through the trees on the other side of the pool rose a sheer exposed cliff face completely devoid of trees or plants. It looked almost fresh like the rock had just fallen away yesterday. I could just make out a few groups of rock climbers working their way toward the top. It was massive, impressive, looming over me like some gray giant. For a moment I could have believed I’d been transported out west where the mountains are bigger and the cliffs more dramatic. I said as much to Erich as we continued up the trail.

Basin Rim Trail White Mountains

Soon enough, we reached Rim Junction, where we headed south on the Rim Trail toward Mount Meader. The trail crossed an open granite slab and we had our first view out toward Maine. Mount Meader rose above us, huge and rounded, crowned in pines. It looked absolutely massive from where we were standing and I knew that even though it was less than 3000 feet tall, we still had quite a strenuous climb ahead of us. We pushed on and the trail took on that relentless character of all White Mountain trails. Granite stairs led ever upwards and we stopped often to catch our breath. Hardwood gave way to pine as we pushed ever up, scrambling over rocks. Finally, we broke free of the trees and found ourselves near Meader’s peak. Just before the peak, there is an area that grants a commanding view of the ridgeline and Caribou Wilderness to the east. It was breathtaking. Rolling, pine-covered mountains stretched in all directions. Here and there, the pop of a granite cliff face shone through the hazy air. It had been a grueling climb, but the view made it all worth it.

We took a seat in a sliver of shade and munched on our banana and peanut butter sandwiches, relishing in our sense of achievement sitting up here on the summit. It was a warm day and we stretched out, taking a moment to rest. 

The way back down to Rim Junction was slow. Erich had managed to hurt his leg somehow and climbing down the steep granite trail only exacerbated the pain. I was worried about him and halfway back, resolved that we’d shorten our hike by taking the Basin Trail back down, foregoing our planned loop for an out-and-back. But Erich insisted he still wanted to do the loop, so we headed down the Black Angel Trail—a straight shot down to the valley floor, or so I thought.

basintrail

I was so excited to reach the river down below us, and couldn’t stop chatting about it to Erich. We were going to soak our feet in the cold water, lay out on the round boulders, it was going to be great. I thought the whole way down would be a fairly easy walk. It had looked that way when I glanced at the topo this morning and at first, the trail seemed to do exactly what I expected. It meandered down until we reached the Blue Brook Tent site, then dropped somewhat steeply down to a creek. Just as we were peering about to find where the trail reappeared on the other side, a woman popped out of the trees. She was kitted out for a camping trip with a full pack and a sunny disposition. We made small talk, shared insights on the trail, and as we headed in our separate directions, she left us with a final comment.

“You’ll love the Wild River when you get down there but you’ve got some serious climbing to do first.”

Climbing? The Black Angel Trail is supposed to just go down to the valley floor. I pulled out my topographical map and quickly realized my mistake. Very clearly the contour lines showed that we would need to cross a kind of pass between two hills before heading down to the river. I looked apologetically at Erich. I really hadn’t read the map closely enough this morning. He shrugged and we stepped out. What else could we do?

The climb was fast and steep, with the final pitch so sheer I found myself using tree roots and trunks to stop me from sliding back down the hill. Thankfully, it was also fairly short and before long we were starting the descent. The trail hugged the higher side of a hill, looking down on a creek far below. It would have been prime moose spotting territory, I assume, though the only thing we saw was pile after pile of deer poop. Meandering slowly back down to the valley floor, we eventually made it to the intersection with the Wild River Trail and the much-anticipated Wild River itself.

Eagerly, we cut through the trees and clambered over the giant boulders that formed the riverbed until we found an area to dip our feet. The water felt so good and we were standing right by a nice, deep pool with a little waterfall pouring into it. I looked around, didn’t see any people, figured I’d be hidden once in the water, and I made a decision to do something I’d never done before.

I got totally naked and slipped into the river. 

The water felt so good on my sore muscles and if I stood under the waterfall just so it gave me the most wonderful massage. Erich joined me and we leaned against the rocks, floating our legs in the cold water, dunking our heads, and just reveling in the feeling of being alive. It was a magical afternoon.

But all good things come to an end. The water was cold and when I started shivering, I climbed back onto a dry rock in the sun, dried off, and got dressed. The walk back to the campsite was fairly uneventful. The trail had been washed out in places, the riverbank torn away by the river in some of its wilder moments, but there were clear herd paths showing where to go.

Overhead, clouds began to gather and we heard the distant rumble of thunder. At one point, less than a mile from the campground, I saw a bolt of lightning strike down at the far end of the valley. We hustled and made it back to camp just in time to slip into our tent. Then the skies opened and the rain pounded down. Safe and warm and relatively dry in the tent, we listened to the sound of the rain in the afternoon light. After about an hour or so the skies finished their temper tantrum and the rain cleared. Starting a fire that night with wet wood was a particular challenge and I may have had a temper tantrum of my own but eventually, we got it started. A well-earned box of Annie’s mac n cheese each and we were happy campers. 

The final morning we took it slow, lazily making breakfast and packing up camp. By the time we drove away, it was already 11:30am. We made our way over to Pinkham’s notch to take a small stroll up the Square Ledge Trail and ogle Mount Washington, then drove down to Ossipee to get a well-earned lunch and a beer at Hobb’s Tavern.

Erich reads trail signs in the white mountains

All in all, the weekend lived up to my expectations, and the Wild River Wilderness remains one of my favorite spots in all of the White Mountains. Hopefully, it won’t take me another 5 years to make it back.


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Discover the best camping and hiking in the Wild River Wilderness of New Hampshire's White Mountains

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10 Best Places to Visit in New England This Summer

Adventure Travel, New Hampshire, Travel, Trekking & Hiking, United States, Vermont

Summer in New England means one thing and one thing only: adventure. During summers in New England, something seems to shift—as if everyone lets go of that last bit of tension they were holding onto from the winter and gives into pure bliss. Memories of the bitter cold stashed away, we all relax, smile at our neighbors, and head outside to enjoy whatever it is that we love most about the hot season. The sun is blazing, the trees are green, and the ocean is calling. 

If you’re new to New England or are visiting this summer, there is an almost endless list of places to visit and things to do. It can get a bit overwhelming. If you’re like me, you’re looking for places where can you hike, swim, eat great food, drink delicious craft beer, and hang out with friends long into the night. Well, look no further. Here are my top 10 places to visit in New England this summer—trust me, I’m a local. 

I tried to get at least one in every state so, Connecticut, you don’t have to feel left out.

Cape Cod National Seashore

Photo by m01229 (Flickr)

1. Cape Cod and the Islands

Could any list of places to visit in New England not include Cape Cod? I grew up going to the Cape every summer. Around here, we call it “going down the cape” and it is as essential to every summer as beach days or afternoon margaritas. Something about the Cape is just better than everywhere else. Maybe its the slow pace of living, the small cape houses perched above the sea, or the way the sand dunes seem to stretch on forever. Whatever it is, one thing is clearly true: if you didn’t go to Cape Cod, it wasn’t really summer.

My personal favorite spot on the Cape is a little tiny town called Wellfleet. It’s way out on the outer cape, almost all the way to P-town. And because of that, very few people are willing to make the long trek out there. Sure, you’ll sit in some traffic on your way there but if you’re willing to make the journey, you’ll be rewarded with quiet streets lined with colonial-style cape houses, pristine beaches guarded by jaw-droppingly beautiful sand dunes, and long hot days spent surfing or just drinking summer ales on the beach. 

Have I convinced you? If you’re going to head to Wellfleet, here are a few things not to miss: drinks at the famous Beachcomber, takeaway lunch from Box Lunch (get the lobster roll), and fish from Hatch’s Fish Market. But most of all, you need to relax, hang out, try surfing (or at least boogie boarding) and soak in the laid back pace of life characteristic of the outer cape. 

Newport Rhode Island Lighthouse

2. Newport, Rhode Island

Imagine a long rocky path stretching into the distance. Down below, the waves of the sea crash into the wall of stone and the smell of the sea is rich on the air. As you walk, your gaze turns from the sea over to the magnificent green lawn that lays sprawled out in front of you, meticulously groomed and artfully designed. At the far end of this elegant lawn sits the most magnificent manor house you’ve ever laid eyes on. You stop, take it in, wonder at the family who had the money and power to build such a house. Yet it’s not alone. House after house, on and on in a parade of opulence and historic wealth. You walk for a whole afternoon taking in the exquisite architecture while the ocean plays below you. This is the oceanfront walk in Newport, Rhode Island.

To walk along this path is to take a step back into the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Great Gatsby. To throw yourself back to a time when robber barons and oil magnates were taking over the world. Sure it was a problematic time and they were problematic men—but the architecture they left behind leaves an imprint in your imagination that you won’t soon forget.

Little House Brewing, Chester CT

3. Chester, Connecticut

For many New Englanders, myself included, Connecticut is a bit of a throwaway state—roads too heavy with traffic till you get close to New York and then it just gets worse. I always wrote off Connecticut as a place not worth visiting. That is, until this past Spring when my boyfriend and I took a weekend trip and I was forced to confront and reject my preconceived notions.

We stayed in the village of Chester, Connecticut and I was legitimately floored by how charming it was. Built along a small river, Chester has all the allure of a colonial New England town with a wealth of dining options and even a craft brewery. The nearby Cockaponset State Forest offers trails for hiking in the quiet of the wood. If you’re planning a New England road trip this summer, I’d recommend adding Chester to the list. 

Hiking Mount Greylock up the Cheshire Harbor Trail

4. Mount Greylock, Massachusetts

The tallest point in Massachusetts and allegedly an inspiration for numerous writers include Henry David Thoreau, Mount Greylock rises high above the town of North Adams at the northern edge of the misty Berkshire Mountains. At a whopping 3,491ft, it’s no Mount Everest, but it is still a prominent peak with a quiet, noble beauty. Draped in hardwood forests and carpeted in pines, Greylock sits like a sentinel, staring out over the surrounding mountains and ridgelines, a commanding presence in an already imposing landscape.

For the adventurous, Greylock is crisscrossed by a network of trails that range from a moderate 6-mile out-and-back to overnight backpacking loops through dense old-growth forests. If you’re not here for a hike, there is an auto-road that you can take to the top (for a fee, of course) with a historic old lodge offering meals and a scenic overlook facing east.

For more information, trail maps, and most up-to-date pricing for the auto road visit the Mount Greylock official site.  

Acadia National Park, Maine, New England

Credit William Brawley (Flickr)

5. Acadia National Park, Maine

Because, of course. Because you can’t go on a summer adventure across New England and not visit it. Because if you’re looking for places to explore and you love adventure, you cannot in good faith ignore Acadia.

Situated on the coast of Maine, a five-hour drive north of Boston, Acadia National Park is a place unlike anywhere else in the world. Mountains rising up from the sea with dramatic, sloping rock formations worn soft by years of oceans spray. Quaint little villages offering lobster by the pound and clam chowder by the cup perch above the crashing waves. Bike trails meander through the park following carriage roads laid down by long-dead entrepreneurs.

It has mountains, it has the sea, it has forests, it has a coastline, it has fishermen, it has historic colonial architecture, it has everything. Hike Cadillac Mountain to watch the sunrise then ride a bike around the trails to explore some of the more hidden corners of the park that most of the tourists in Bar Harbor will never catch a glimpse of.

Welcome to Maine

Credit Renee Johnson (Flickr)

6. Ogunquit, Maine

Another Maine location makes the list, but are you surprised? When it comes to places to visit in New England, the coast of Maine is hard to ignore. Far, far to the south of Acadia on the southern coast of Maine is a stretch of charming, eccentric, quaint, and idyllic little towns that just beg to be explored at a leisurely pace.

Think of it as the slightly more rugged cousin of Cape Cod. Cape Cod of the North, if you will. Beaches here give way to long spines of stone that reach out into the sea. Red roofed lighthouses look out over turbulent seas as the waves crash against the rocks. And on the shore? Shops selling knick-knacks, antiques, and curios sit snug against cute little cafes and well-thought-out restaurants.

Spend a day exploring the towns or, if you’re more into active adventure like me, bring a bike and take yourself out for a long and beautiful bike ride. The coastal road from Wells down south to Nubble Point outside York is an unforgettable ride. Turn inland to explore the farmland and quiet communities that live in this coastal paradise year-round. Not into planning your own bike routes? If you’re looking for inspiration, you can use this route that I designed for my long weekend up in Maine this past Memorial Day.

If you do the ride, leave a comment and let me know what you thought! Or feel free to follow me on Strava, if that’s your thing.

Best Hiking Trail Near Lake Winnipesaukee

7. Lakes Region, New Hampshire

Lake Winnipesaukee. Say that ten times fast. Pronounced “Win-eh-peh-saw-key” it is an Abenaki word with a contested meaning. Some sources record Winnipesaukee as translating to “The Smile of the Great Spirit” while others recorded it as signifying “Beautiful Water in a High Place.” Though we may never know for sure what the Abenaki word means, one thing remains true: this is a special place.

The Lakes Region of New Hampshire is comprised of several large lakes, of which Winnipesaukee is the largest. Known for its boating, fishing, and motorcycle gangs, the region is actually home to a wealth of adventure for those willing to look for it. From little known hikes buried deep in the hills to full-day kayaking or stand up paddle board adventures, the Lakes Region offers outdoor adventures for everyone.

Hike outside Stowe Vermont

Credit Patrick (Flickr)

8. Stowe, Vermont

I love Vermont. From verdant green hills draped with farmland to the two parallel rows of green mountains running down the length of the state like a terrestrial spine, the Green Mountain State is perhaps New England’s best-kept secret. Picturesque villages perched among green and yellow fields, more hiking, mountain biking, and skiing than you could finish in a lifetime, and of course, an overwhelming number of microbreweries and nanobreweries cooking up some of the finest craft beer in the country (the Alchemist, anyone?)—Vermont really does have it all.

And if you’re new to Vermont and have to pick just one place to visit: make it Stowe. For the intrepid traveler, Mount Mansfield and Smuggler’s Notch offer hiking, mountain biking, and skiing (in the winter, of course) both in bounds and backcountry that is on par with some of what you can find out west (no, I’m not kidding). Once you’re done with the trails, head back into town and pick up some of the finest beer in North America from the Alchemist or try some of the headier brews from Vermont’s less well-known breweries at literally any of the stores and restaurants in town. My favorite Vermont brewery is Upper Pass. Try their Cloud Drop IPA, you won’t regret it. Need something to eat? Stowe has everything from five-star meals to cheap and tasty burritos.

Find yourself a nice little farmhouse to rent in Airbnb and discover why people are leaving Colorado to come live in this tiny little state in New England. You won’t regret it.

Whately, Pioneer Valley

9. Pioneer Valley, Massachusetts

The Pioneer Valley is a region of Massachusetts that sits just to the east of the Berkshires, nestled among the foothills along both sides of the scenic Connecticut River and the considerably less scenic Interstate 91. It stretches roughly from Northampton to Greenfield, though the people to the north and south of those towns might contest that border.

What is there to do in the Pioneer Valley? Go tubing down the Deerfield river, take a hike up Mount Tom, spend the afternoon exploring breweries that line the Connecticut River, buy farm-fresh produce from one of the hundreds of farmstands that dot the roads, and explore the many college campuses that blanket the city streets of Northampton and Amherst.

As an added bonus, Northampton is one of the most LGBTQUIA+ friendly cities in New England, long known to be a center of the lesbian community complete with rainbow crosswalks. 

DSC00958

10. White Mountains National Forest, New Hampshire

It’s dawn. A warm, pink light has just begun to suffuse the sky as the birds begin to sing. You lay in your sleeping bag, warm and content, listening as the forest slowly comes to life. Soon, however, the sun streams in through the tent. You rouse yourself and exit your nylon shelter. You are deep in a forest of pine, not another soul to be seen. The air smells like Christmas and the ground is soft beneath your feet.

After a quick breakfast, you pack up your campsite, deftly fitting all of your supplies into your single backpack. Stepping out, you follow a narrow path as it winds its way through the pines. Soon you are walking up and up and up, the trail turns into a granite staircase and you start to sweat. Just before you decide you need a break, the pines shrink, fall away, and you find yourself on a rocky, exposed summit. Your breath catches in your throat as you stare around you with eyes wide with wonder. In every direction, as far as you can see, mountains and forest-clad hills roll off into the deep blue distance. You set down your pack, take a seat on a rock, and soak it all in. It is magnificent. It defies understanding. It is the White Mountain National Forest.

This is, without question, my favorite place in all of New England. A mountain wilderness so beautifully wild, so deliciously remote, it seems impossible that it’s only a 2-hour drive north of Boston. In the Whites, ridge after ridge of mountains hide dense valleys where the maples and oaks grow thick around bubbling streams. For the intrepid hiker, it could be the work of a lifetime to explore every last trail that winds through these mountains. 

But even for the less adventurous, the White Mountains offer something for everyone. From scenic drives to tubing down rivers, lavish hotels and rustic campgrounds, the Whites are perfection. They are my happy place, my refuge from the world, my wonderland that I cannot stop exploring.

These Places in New England Are Just the Beginning

For such a small part of the United States, New England is truly a treasure trove of places to explore. From wild rivers to scenic beaches, hip cities and rustic farmland, I honestly believe that New England has a little bit of everything (but I might be a little bit biased). Have you visited New England? Do you have places that were left off of the list? Let me know in the comments.


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10 places to visit in New England this summer for the adventure loving traveler from Into Foreign Lands

Mount Washington Cog Railway

2018: My Year in Review

Adventure Travel, New Hampshire, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

2018 was a tumultuous year for me. It was the first full year I’ve spent in the United States since 2011. As such, it has been quite a year of transitions. I have had days and weeks where I questioned my decisions and worried about the future. I’ve struggled with depression, physical injuries, and anxiety.

My tough transition back from living abroad surprised me. Living abroad is a constant adventure where your mind is learning every day. Whether you’re adapting to the new cultural norms, learning the language, or exploring some new area of your foreign home, living abroad is thrilling. The transition back to living at home can be jarring. Suddenly all that mental energy that went towards your day-to-day has nowhere to go. For me, that resulted in, at first, a lot of tension and emotional confusion, and eventually, in a lot of activity. I had to throw all that mental energy into learning new things and finding new challenges, or else get lost in a mire of confusion.

For all that I miss my life abroad, I’ve also had some really fun adventures since moving back to New England. I’ve explored the absolute heck out of the White Mountains, taken several trips to Vermont, and I did get to take one really special trip abroad at the beginning of the year. So, instead of focusing on the hard times of 2018, I want to take a moment to reflect on the year that was, review some of my favorite adventures, and talk a bit about some of my hopes and plans for 2019.

Megan standing on Osceola Peak

My Top 3 Highlights of 2018

Most of my 2018 adventures were undertaken solo, but some of them featured my boyfriend and best friend Erich and some other seriously awesome women who have come into my life this year. It was the support of these people that really gave me the energy to accomplish all that I did in the past year.

whistler 1

1. Skiing at Whistler

This year kicked off strong with a week-long trip to Whistler, one of Canada’s premier ski resorts. I’d never visited this part of the world before and the sheer magnificence of the place shocked me.

On our first day, the summit was wreathed in fog. I did my best to explore the terrain—skiing off-piste for the first time in my life and navigating a field of bumps larger than most east coast mountains—but it was on day two that I really discovered Whistler. That day I woke up to crystal blue skies and saw for the first time the majesty of the Canadian Rockies. From the summit of Whistler, a wonderland of snow-capped peaks stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. For the whole day, I skied in a kind of blissful dream state. Every dip and curve of the slope revealed some new magnificent vista of mountain wilderness. I was in heaven.

I realize Whistler and the sport of skiing are not accessible to everyone. It’s extraordinarily expensive and requires years of practice to get to a level capable of skiing on a mountain such as Whistler. On top of that, it requires a level of wealth and privilege just to take a trip and spend a week there. So, I realize this isn’t accessible to everyone and doesn’t really fit into my usual approach of extreme budget solo travel. That said, if you do get the opportunity to ski at Whistler, take it.

century ride in new england

2. Completing 2 Century Rides (My first!)

For those not in the world of cycling, a century ride is a 100-mile bike ride. This year, I completed my first and second century rides and I couldn’t be prouder of myself. The first I did solo, training in the cold, wet New England March and April, trying desperately to get into shape for my May 20th ride, terrified I wouldn’t be able to finish it.

The night before that first ride I could barely sleep. As the sun rose that morning, I took off with no fanfare. The ride had no official start so I started riding by myself. I feared I would ride the entire century solo, struggling in vain against a ferocious headwind. But my fears were unfounded. Before I’d even ridden 10 miles I was picked up by a group of friendly but competitive riders from south of Boston who encouraged me to “hop on!” their peloton. I kept pace with them for the next 20 miles, adrenaline coursing through my veins. When I got to the first rest stop I pulled out my phone and checked Strava to find my speed. Though I hoped to average 16 mph for the whole century, I was shocked beyond belief to see I’d averaged 18.9mph over the first 30 miles. To my knowledge, that was the fastest I’d ever ridden. By the end of the ride, my average speed was just above 18 mph.

I learned that day that I am capable of so much more than I give myself credit for.

DSC00958

Hiking My First Presidential Traverse

The crowning achievement of my year, by far, was my first Presi Traverse. This hike, known as one of the toughest in New England, spans roughly 23 miles and crosses several of the tallest peaks in the region. For me, this hike was yet another example of my tendency to underestimate myself. In the days leading up to my hike, I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to complete it. And yet when the day came I flew along the trail, covering the main section, 15 miles, before 5pm, nearly 2 hours ahead of schedule.

What really makes the Presi Traverse stand out as my top adventure of 2018 is the amazing community of hikers that exists in the White Mountains. Over the three days that I spent on the trail, my fellow Presi hikers became my companions, almost friends, though we were all strangers at dawn. As I saw the same people, peak after peak, we started to look out for one another, checking in, offering tips, giving each other a heads up about the weather. The people I met were the backbone of my Presi Traverse experience.

Entering the Dry River Wilderness, New Hampshire

My Adventure Plans for 2019

There were so many more adventures that peppered my 2018: riding my bike to the top of Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont, beginning my journey into rock climbing with the baddest group of women around, spending three days hiking in the Pemigewasset Wilderness by myself, and taking Erich up for his first ever backcountry camping trip. But enough about 2018. Here are some of my (as of yet, tentative) adventure plans for 2019:

Colorado

As of this moment, Erich and I are planning to head to Colorado at the end of the summer. His favorite band, Phish, plays an annual three-day show at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Arena out there. So we are using that as an opportunity to take a full week and explore the Rockies, drink some awesome craft beer, and see one of the most exciting bands around. If you have any recommendations for hiking spots or mountain biking routes we should check out, let me know!

Oh yeah, did I mention that in 2018 I also fell a little bit in love with the band Phish? Because that happened.

Bike Tour of Vermont

I’m not sure how many days I’ll get to do this, but at some point, during the summer of 2019, I’d like to do a bike tour of either just Vermont or of Northern New England. I’ve seen some trail maps floating around of a Vermont tour that can be done on dirt single track and dirt roads, so if I get my hands on a mountain bike, I’d love to check that out. Otherwise, I’ll probably be planning a road bike trip, hopefully crossing several of the steep gaps that cut through the Green Mountains.

A Single Day Presi

After completing my first Presidential Traverse in three days, it seems only obvious that I need to up the ante a little and challenge myself to complete the entire hike in a single day. It might require me to even pick up a bit of trail running.

Colombia

I’m planning to take at least one trip in 2019 that requires me to use my passport and Colombia is close to the top of my list. Not so far away, and with a thriving South American culture that I’m just dying to return to, my imagination is alive with thoughts of Colombia. I want to immerse myself in her cities and lose myself in her mountains. It may happen even this February.

But if I’m being totally honest, the trip I really want to make in 2019 is

Patagonia

This is currently just a dream, but if I can make it work I might (that’s a big MIGHT) try to tackle Patagonia as a solo traveler. Patagonia sits at the top of every outdoor adventure traveler’s list. How can it not? With so much wild beauty, such a mystique, and being positioned at the very end of the earth… Patagonia is my dream destination for 2019. Now, I just need to make it happen.

That’s a Wrap

So that’s a wrap on 2018. Honestly, when I take a step back I have to admit it was a really good year. Emotionally, mentally, I’ve had my ups and downs. More often than not I’ve been struggling. But at the same time, I accomplished some amazing things.

What did you do this year that you’re most proud of? What plans do you have for 2019 that excite you? Let me know in the comments!

 

The Beginner’s Guide to Winter Hiking

Adventure Travel, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

Winter hiking can be intimidating for beginners. Although I’ve been hiking pretty regularly since about 2010, I didn’t go on my first winter hike until 2018. I thought it would be windy, cold, and generally unpleasant. I love the feeling of warm sun on my skin as I lay across the warm rocks on a well-earned summit. I thought winter hiking would be just awful.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Winter hiking is a wonderland. The pines are draped in snow, the ice is shaped into a million intricate sculptures, and the entire world is turned into a majestic landscape like something out of a dream. On top of all that, there are way fewer people out, so you may get the summit to yourself.

Winter hiking is amazing. But, more than at any other time of year, it is imperative that you go prepared. Winter is a volatile season in the mountains and it can be dangerous. Preparation is key and safety should always be your top priority. If you take the proper precautions, winter hiking can be one of the most amazing experiences you’ll ever have in the mountains. Even as a beginner.

beginner winter hike

 

Winter Hiking for Beginners: Before You Go

There are a few key things that beginners ought to keep in mind as you start to plan your first winter hike. First, don’t hike alone! If you’re used to hiking solo in the spring, summer, and fall this can be a tough pill to swallow—but winter hiking is dangerous! Hike with a buddy for your first winter season until you learn how to adapt to the changing landscape. You can find hiking groups on facebook or places like meetup.com if you don’t have any hiking buddies.

Second, know your route. I realize this is also true during the warmer months, but it is so much easier to get lost in the winter. You could be hiking an unbroken trail, an unexpected whiteout could hit, or you could lose the trail when hiking above the tree line. More than ever, when winter hiking as a beginner you need to know the names of the trails, have a map, and be ready to use it.

Third, be prepared for any conditions. On a single winter hike, the weather could change from bright, sunny, and above freezing, to windy, snowing, and dangerously cold. Come prepared with the gear you need to face any weather, not just what the forecast reads.

And on that note, let’s get to the good stuff…

20181124_114256

 

What to Wear Hiking in Cold Weather

The key to hiking in the winter is wearing layers! You want to ensure that you don’t sweat on the way up. If you sweat, your clothes will get wet and you run the risk of frostbite. Wear clothing that breathes well and wicks away moisture. Stay away from cotton. Once wet, it will never dry. Instead, try packing winter gear like this:

  • Base Layer shirt and pants made of a thin, breathable, synthetic material.
  • Warm second layer like a fleece shirt and thicker leggings.
  • Down jacket with detachable outer shell like this North Face jacket.
  • Insulated snow pants
  • Insulated tall socks and sock liners
  • Glove liners and insulated mittens (I prefer mittens to gloves for my outer hand layer as they retain heat better).
  • Insulated hat.
  • Insulated hiking boots. I wear Salomons.
  • Gaiters (if your snow pants don’t include them).
  • Sunglasses or ski goggles
  • Balaclava or other face cover

winter hike new england

 

What Gear to Pack for a Winter Hike

Because you need to be prepared for several different situations on any one hike, winter hiking can require a lot of gear. Finding friends or groups to hike with can help offset the cost, as can renting some gear, such as snowshoes, for the first season if you can’t afford all the gear up front.

But, to be properly prepared for a winter hike, I recommend packing the following gear:

  • Map + Compass (and know how to use them)
  • Snowshoes and microspikes/hillsounds – be ready to need both depending on conditions.
  • Water in insulated containers. Choose water bottles over bladders as the tube can freeze too easily. Bring hot water in a thermos.
  • Small stove and pot for boiling snow, especially on very long or very cold hikes.
  • Hand Warmers – these are useful for keeping extremities warm. But also keep one in your pack near your phone to save battery life. If you want to be environmentally conscious, I recommend getting some reusable hand warmers.
  • Flashlight – even on a day hike it gets dark fast in the winter.
  • Hiking Poles

summit view from mount moosilauke in winter

 

What To Wear On Your Feet

This is the big question and a source of major debate among winter hiking enthusiasts. But if we rule out skiing/boarding for now, on the day of your hike you have three choices for footwear.

  • Snowshoes: No matter what the conditions, you should always bring snowshoes with you. When there is recent snow on the trail or lots of snow, you’ll want to use your snowshoes. It’ll make it easier for you to walk, and help preserve trail conditions for other hikers.
  • Microspikes/Hillsounds: If snow cover is thin or you expect the trail to be hard packed and maybe a bit icy, microspikes or hillsounds are the way to go. These smaller spikes help you grip the snow and prevent you from slipping as you walk.
  • Crampons: These larger spikes are necessary when the trail is extra steep or icy, or if you plan to descend down a steep rock face during your hike. The long spikes help you secure your footing and prevent injury.

As always, no matter which of these options you choose, you’ll want to wear a pair of insulated winter hiking boots.

What Food to Bring on a Winter Hike

Winter hiking uses up more energy than warm weather hiking because your body is working overtime to keep you warm. Because of this, you need to eat plenty of high calorie food to keep your metabolism and your body temperature high. Some snacks I recommend are:

  • Nuts and dried fruit
  • Candy (Snickers is my favorite hiking candy).
  • A thermos of hot cocoa
  • Protein bars

Whatever food you like to eat on a hike, bring lots of it and eat! You’ll be very cold by the end of your hike if you neglect your nutrition. Eat a lot and keep warm.

winter hiking in new hampshire

Winter Hiking Can Be Awesome for Beginners

Most of all, have fun and be safe! Be willing to turn around if the weather gets bad. Let go of pride and prioritize safety. Pay attention to your gut feelings—especially if they are telling you to be careful! Be safe, follow these winter hiking tips for beginners, and I promise you’ll have an absolutely amazing time exploring a winter wonderland.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!


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Winter hiking can be intimidating for beginners. It is more important than ever to come prepared with the right winter gear, food, and tools to survive. Get the inside scoop here.

Review of MSR FreeLite 2 Tent

Adventure Travel, Gear

My in-depth review of MSR’s Freelite 2 Ultralight Backpacking tent.

I purchased the Freelite 2 last Spring when it was on-sale at REI and I still had some left over dividend bucks to play with. At the time, I’d been camping with my now 8-year-old REI Quarterdome 2 tent. That tent has been around the world with me, from camping at music festivals in California to hiking through the Huayhuash region in Peru. I loved that tent. But it was time for an upgrade.

For my new tent, I wanted something that could offer the same spacious interior of the Quarterdome but without all the weight. My ideal tent would be a two person tent weighing less than 3 pounds. After weeks and months of exhaustive research, I came across the MSR Freelite 2 on the REI Garage Sale website. I wasn’t going to find a better deal, and I bought it.

If you’re wondering if you should buy the MSR Freelite 2, read on.

MSR Freelite 2 Features:

Ultralight: this tent weights in at 2.75 pounds
Spacious: Room for 2 sleeping pads with a 36” peak height.
Floor area: 29 sq ft
Vestibule area: 17.5 sq ft
Doors: Two side doors that unzip completely.
Ventilation: micromesh canopy for maximum ventilation and moisture control
Separate rainfly
Packs up small 18 x 6 x 6

Where the Tent Was Tested

I used this tent for 5 months across the Summer and Fall of 2018 primarily in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire in environments that were wet, had fairly extreme temperature fluctuations, high wind, rain, and lots of bugs. The MSR Freelite 2 held up beautifully for its first season and I have close to no regrets about my purchase. We’ll get to my issues about this tent, but first: the things I like.

MSR Freelite 2

A Truly Ultralite 2 Person Tent

Having carried around a heavy 4 pound tent on solo backpacking trips for many years, I was happy to find that the MSR Freelite is genuinely a 2 person tent below 3 pounds. Personally, I like to carry 2 person tents even on my shorter solo trips because I like the comfort of having my pack and all my gear inside the tent with me with room to move around. We all have our quirks. I see you, people who hike fresh vegetables into the mountains.

Most ultralight tents cut a lot of corners to reduce weight. They decrease interior space, choose flimsy material, or the tent doesn’t have a separate rainfly. The Freelite doesn’t cut these corners. The nylon is thin, yes, but it held up beautiful against the ferocious rain storms that swept in on me one night in mid-July.

More Interior Space

The Freelite cuts down on interior space, but they did it in a really smart way. The peak height is 38” and is located not at the center of the tent but slightly more towards the head area. The roof lowers down towards the feet. So, unlike a dome tent, you’re limited in which way you can sleep. But at least the interior space is large enough that I could sit up straight while getting organized in the morning.

The Freelite 2 is Sturdy (once staked)

MSR claims that the Freelite 2 is freestanding. And it is… technically. It will stand up without being staked down. But you don’t really want to sleep in it like that.

In truth, this tent needs to be staked or tied down to be completely standing. Once staked firmly into the ground, this tent is capable of withstanding quite high winds. I never had any issues with leaks or moisture collecting inside the tent. A tent that can keep a hiker completely dry throughout the entire humid summer season of New England is basically a miracle.

Easy Camp Set Up and Breakdown

I found the Freelite an easy tent to set up and take down on my own, even in high winds. The single pole construction snaps together effortlessly and the external clips make it fairly simple to erect the tent.

The only tricky part is figuring out which end of the tent is the foot when you are laying it out. It’s just a matter of finding the clips for the poles really, but does take a second of finagling.

The rain fly goes on easy, with my only small complaint being that the interior snaps on the rainfly have to be stretched quite significantly to get them onto the short pole that supports the roof of the tent. I did worry I was going to split a seam on the rainfly a few times.

Positive Overall Tent Construction

The overall construction of the Freelite 2 works for me. Like I mentioned before, the peak height allows me to sit up straight, I don’t mind having the area around my feet a bit more constrained.

Once set up and staked down, the poles are fairly strong and able to withstand the force of strong winds or even my hand pressing down on them. Though perhaps not the most structurally sound tent that has ever been created, it’s good enough for me.

The tent is wide enough for two people, if you’re close. We’ll get into this a bit more in the negative section of the review. The double doors are great, everyone likes a tent with two exits (looking at you, Big Agnes…). The doors unzip completely which is controversial feature but I’ll say that I like them.

The vestibule area under the rainfly is spacious enough for a bag and some shoes. My only issue is with the doors on the rainfly. They have two zippers, which means you can unzip from the bottom and from the top. I really don’t understand the utility of this, and often in the middle of the night when trying to re-close the rainfly door after a quick, cold midnight pee I’d accidentally pull down both zippers, so that the door would still be open, but pinched closed at the bottom. It is a weird feature and I don’t love it.

This seems like as good a time as ever to transition into…

What I don’t love about the MSR Freelite 2

Before we get into the negatives, let me preface with saying that I like this tent a lot and am not unhappy with my purchase. It provided a safe home for me all the way until just before winter hit and I appreciate that. But there are some gripes and some small things I would change about this tent.

Interior Space Not Fully Optimized

This could be a bit picky, but I feel that the interior features of the tent aren’t fully optimized. Namely, that there is only one mesh pocket in the interior, near your head. I wish there would be a second pocket down by the feet, sometimes I don’t want all my stuff hanging just over my face while I sleep, you know?

Not Quite A 2 Person Tent

The MSR Freelite 2 claims to be a 2 person tent, and it is… technically. My boyfriend Erich and I used this tent in mid-October for a single night trip into the Pemigewasset and it was perfectly comfortable for the two of us, but again, he is my boyfriend.

If two fully grown men were to lay on their backs in this tent, I think it would be a tight squeeze. So while, yes, it is a 2 person tent, it is a very cozy two person tent. If you and your regular camping partner are both big humans, this tent might not be the right fit.

If you’re small like me, I’m 5’3 and 150lbs, boyfriend is 5’7 and has a fairly thin/smaller frame, it’s a great tent.

MSR freelite not freestanding

Not Freestanding

This is my biggest caution to those considering the MSR Freelite 2. It is not truly freestanding.

Camping in the White Mountains, you have the choice between backcountry camping or camping at designated AMC campsites. The Freelite 2 is a perfect tent for backcountry stealth camping in the Whites. The soil is usually soft yet rocky, so with a little fiddling, the stakes will slip right into the earth and the tent is secured.

The challenge comes when you choose to sleep at an AMC campsite. Here, tents are often placed onto flat wooden platforms. It’s nice to know you’ll be sleeping on a completely level surface, but it is not so easy to set up a tent that needs to be staked down. I managed to mostly make it work by tying the tent down using some creative string work, but the hardest part is getting the rainfly set up. Thankfully it never rained on me in that situation.

So, if you often camp on wooden platforms or on terrain where it is not possible to stake down a tent, you may want to bypass the MSR Freelite.

TL;DR Pro’s and Cons

Pros
Below 3 pounds (allows for a 2 person tent on a 1 person trip)
Ultralight tents often cut down on materials to cut down on weight, they made smart decisions with this design so while yes, the interior is smaller than a typical dome tent, it’s still roomy above your head
Can set it up in the rain by putting the rain fly on first (but it’s awkward)
Have camped in this tent in the rain and very high winds and never had a problem
When staked down, really roomy and wonderful, when I had to set it up on a platform, not so much.
2 Doors for easy access and great views.
Easy to compress down, doesn’t take up too much space in my bag

Cons
Not enough pockets inside the tent
Hard to get the rainfly on completely properly
VERY cozy for 2 people – it works for my boyfriend and I but if you were with someone you didn’t know super well, it could be weird
Hard to set up on the platforms featured in campsites on the white mountains, or hard to set up on rocks – great as long as you can stake it down properly

Should You Buy the MSR Freelite 2?

At the end of the day, this is a great ultralight tent for solo hikers and duos who are comfortable with each other. It’s easy to set up, can withstand the elements better than a lot of other three season tents, and doesn’t weigh down your pack.

I like my MSR Freelite 2 a lot and would recommend it to friends who understand the compromises that are inherent in purchasing an ultralight tent.


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How to Take the Boat from Pucallpa to Iquitos

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel

Taking the slow boat from Pucallpa to Iquitos is easily one of the wildest and yet most relaxing adventures you can have in Peru. The journey grants you a rare glimpse into the authentic lives of people living in one of the most remote corners of Peru: the Amazon. For those with a taste for adventure and a little extra time in their schedule, the slow boat to Iquitos is more than worth it.

slow boat on the amazon

That’s the thing about Iquitos, it is completely cut off from the rest of the world in some ways. There are no roads that go there. Your only options, should you choose to make the journey, are by plane or by boat.

The journey can take anywhere from 4 to 7 days, depending on the water levels in the river. Along the way, you’ll get a tantalizing view into a place where life is slower, where time moves languidly alongside the waters of the Amazon. By the time you reach Iquitos, stuffed full of fried plantains and speaking Spanish fluently with your Peruvian neighbors, you’ll be half convinced it’s time to buy some land and build yourself a house on stilts deep in the Amazon jungle.

The journey on the slow boat is not for the faint of heart, but the experience is beyond compare.

sailing down the river from pucallpa to iquitos

What to Expect on the Slow Boat to Iquitos

Expect long, relaxing days laying about in the sun. Expect unexpected stops at villages perched precariously over the swollen waters of the Amazon. Expect the ship to run aground in the middle of the night, the distant sound of metal groaning far below you as the hulk hits the muddy river bottom.

But first, you have to get on the boat. And that is the hardest part.

The boat is a small container ship. A long, flat bed at the bow of the vessel is slowly filled with supplies for the villages that line the river. Massive pallets of rice and sugar, furniture, dry goods, everything that towns isolated in the center of the Amazon would need to survive. At the stern, there is a tower, three or four stories, and passengers find space on the second and third story. Everyone hangs a hammock side by side. People squeeze in as tight as possible. There are tables in between the rows of hammocks that make it easier to hang out and eat during the day.

The boat doesn’t leave until the front cargo area is full. So the catch is this: the boat doesn’t leave at any pre-arranged time. It leaves when it is full. That could be today, it could be tomorrow, it could be in three hours, it could be in 72 hours. You, as a passenger, do not know when the boat will leave.

This makes it extremely important for you to reserve your spot on the boat as soon as you get to Pucallpa.

boats at dock in pucallpa

Reserving Your Spot on the Slow Boat to Iquitos

  1. First, find the boat. You’ll need to head down to the docks by finding Jirón Inmaculada and walking all the way down that road to the river. If there are no boats there, check up and down one block.
  2. Second, find the cargo ship that is currently being loaded up with supplies.
  3. Third, find the captain or representative of the ship. Ask if he is taking on passengers. Purchase a ticket. It should cost about 100 soles.

Your ticket guarantees you passage to Iquitos as well as two meals a day. The boat has bathrooms but no showers, so expect to feel quite stinky when you arrive at the other end.

In all honesty, when I arrived I could not figure out which boat to take. I waited until I found some other gringos (foreigners) hanging around the docks and asked them where to look. They pointed me in the right direction. So, if the above directions don’t work and you can’t find a ship—find the gringos.

boat waits at the dock in Pucallpa

Once you get a ticket, the next thing you need to do is buy a hammock. There will be merchants selling hammocks at the gate to the dock, but those are generally the most expensive. Your better bet is to head to the nearest market and buy a hammock from one of the sellers there.

Hammock in hand, head on board the ship and pick your spot. The second and third level are set aside for passengers so you can string your hammock up where ever you see free space. I recommend stringing the hammock up next to a table, otherwise, you are going to be eating off of the floor for the next four days.

hammocks on the slow boat to iquitos peru

What You Need to Bring

You need surprisingly few supplies to enjoy the journey from Pucallpa to Iquitos in relative comfort, but there are a few necessities you can remember that will help make your journey more enjoyable.

  • Water: bring large bottles of water to sustain you for the journey. People will be selling water along the way, but if you want to avoid buying many small plastic bottles, bring some big ones.
  • Books: needless to say, there is no wifi on a container ship floating down the Amazon river in the depths of Peru. Bring something to read.
  • Extra toilet paper. Trust me.
  • A deck of cards or some other games to pass the time.

Something you don’t really need to bring is food. You’ll get breakfast and dinner provided by the ship. It’ll be underwhelming. During my journey, we got watery porridge for breakfast and honestly, I don’t even remember the dinners.

The real food comes in the middle of the day. The ship will stop at one or more villages each day to drop off supplies. Technically, you can get off the boat here to explore the village, but the boat will NOT wait for you. If you’re still ashore when it disembarks, you’re out of luck and will need to convince some villagers to ferry you after the ship on their little-motorized canoes.

woman selling food

Every time the ship stops at a village, men and women will swarm onto the ship selling all manner of local delicacies. Coconuts, fried plantains, juanes (rice and spices and plantains wrapped up in banana leaf), tacacho (meat, rice, and plantains), and so much more. It was one of the highlights of my time on the boat. Peruvian Amazonian cuisine is totally different from the cuisine in the rest of Peru. The flavors are more tropical, the ingredients exotic, and the preparations scream of long hot days spent drifting down the world’s longest river. The food somehow belongs in the Amazon, it is of the Amazon and tastes of the deep roots of indigenous life there. Exploring the food of the Amazon is to explore the Amazon itself: rich, wild, and untamed.

Other than that, your only job for the next four days is to chill. Relax in your hammock. Hang out on the top deck and watch the Amazon roll by. Wave at small children peeking out from between the trees that line the river. Picture their homes and the winding muddy trails their feet follow every day. Imagine what it might be like to spend your days running through the dense trees and climbing up to the canopy.

man cooks alligator on the Peruvian Amazon

A journey down the Amazon River is a rare, once in a lifetime experience. The slow boat from Pucallpa to Iquitos gives you, the tourist, a rare opportunity to experience life as a Peruvian. This isn’t a tourist trap—it’s the real deal. The authentic Peruvian method of travel to Iquitos. If you have the opportunity to make this journey, take it.


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Learn how to take the slow boat down the Amazon from Pucallpa to Iquitos: Travel in Peru

Robbed in Cambodia: My Story

Adventure Travel, Cambodia

The story you are about to read recounts one of the worst experiences I’ve had in all my years of living abroad: in August of 2016, I was robbed in Cambodia on the streets of Phnom Penh.

It left me feeling vulnerable and violated. But this story is about so much more than that. What I really learned that hideous August morning two years ago was a lesson about the kindness of strangers and the interconnectedness of all humans. I only survived this episode because of the kindness of the Cambodians in my life.

At the end of the post, I’ll include some lists of what I learned from this experience, including what to do if you lose your passport abroad, how to get a new visa to Cambodia after you get robbed, and how to stay safe when traveling.

But for now, here is the story of the time I ended up stranded in Phnom Penh with nothing more than the clothes on my back, and how I survived.

The Story

At the time this happened, I’d been living in Cambodia for about six months. My friend and co-worker, Kimleng, a young Khmer (Cambodian) woman, was spending the summer near Phnom Penh organizing a summer camp for the NGO we worked for. I decided to visit her.

Because I only had a weekend for the trip, I made the rather unwise decision to take the night bus. Several people told me not to take the bus, that it was dangerous. But I wanted to have as much time as possible with Kimleng, so night bus it was. I popped a couple sleeping pills to help me get through the 6 or 7-hour bus ride from Battambang to Phnom Penh.

When we arrived my mind was wrapped in a sleeping pill-induced fog. It was the hour just before dawn, the sky a deep royal blue, the horizon only just hinting at the hot day to come.

I hopped into a tuk-tuk to go to my hotel. As we puttered down the main boulevards of the city, I leaned out of the tuk-tuk, gazing around at the magnificent embassies and luxury hotels. This city was so wildly different from Battambang, the contrast stunned me. My small pack, the only bag I packed, sat forgotten on the seat next to me.

As I’m looking around, I hear a motorcycle approaching from behind. Two men are seated on it. I turn to watch them pass and I see the one sitting on the back reach into my tuk-tuk, grab my bag, and swipe it off the seat. They drove around the corner and my bag was gone.

I stared at the empty space where my bag had just been. My mind faltered, unable to comprehend what had just happened. For a few seconds, I sat in shock, unresponsive. Then the truth hit me and I did the only thing I could do:

I screamed.

What Did They Steal

That backpack they stole had been the only bag I had carried with me for the weekend, and unfortunately, I had packed most of my expensive possessions. Here is what they stole:
My MacBook Pro
My phone
My wallet with $800 cash, my debit card, and my driver’s license
My clothes
My passport

The loss of the passport hurt the most. For the obvious reason: it was my only form of valid identification and documented my legal status in Cambodia. But also, that passport that had traveled all over the world with me. From my first day moving abroad to Korea, to my first trip to Japan, my six-month backpacking trip around 12 countries, Australia, my year in Peru, and now my life in Cambodia, this passport recorded it all. It was my most treasured possession. And it was gone.

You may also be wondering why I was traveling with the hard copy of my passport and $800 in cash. The explanation is simple: I was working for an NGO in Cambodia who paid me in checks. I wanted to open a bank account in Cambodia so that I wouldn’t constantly be cashing checks and keeping hundred dollar bills in an envelope in my bedside table. It wasn’t a good look.

I cashed the check in Battambang but didn’t have time to open the bank account. I told myself I would do it in Phnom Penh, with Kimleng there to help translate. But to open a bank account, I needed to have the cash and my passport. So I got on a bus with the hard copy of my passport and $800 in cash.

So this was what was all running through my head as I sat screaming in a tuk-tuk, in the middle of Phnom Penh, at five in the morning.

What Happened After I Was Robbed

My screams alerted the tuk-tuk driver to the fact that something was not ok. His first concern, once he understood my situation, was how I was going to pay him. I feared, at that moment, that he would leave me right there on the sidewalk, alone and abandoned, with nothing but the clothes on my back and the plastic water bottle I was holding.

The depths of my desperation and sense of vulnerability are not something I wish to relive, ever.

After a long period of confusion and negotiation, and many, many, many tears on my part, the tuk-tuk driver took me to a hostel and explained what had happened to the kid at the front desk. The kid gave me his phone and I used it to reach out to Kimleng, my Cambodian friend. She immediately hopped into a tuk-tuk and drove for an hour to come to get me.

Meanwhile, I walked to the U.S. Embassy and demanded to speak to the on-duty officer. It was a Saturday so most of the embassy was closed. The Cambodian guards there tried to send me away, but I insisted, strongly, and through tears, that I speak to an American. It took some convincing, but they finally put me on the phone with whoever was on duty that Saturday morning and she calmed me down, helped me make an appointment to get a new passport, and told me everything that I needed to do.

Walked back to the hostel where Kimleng found me. She took me to the police station to file a report, calmed me down when I cried, steadfastly listened to me rant about how much I hated Cambodians in that minute and gave me enough money for a bus ticket back to Battambang the next day. Kimleng saved me that day.

Once back to Battambang, I had access to my credit card, which I had left in my apartment building, a photocopy of my passport taken at work, and some cash I’d stashed in my apartment. Slowly, over a period of months, not days, I recovered emotionally from the theft and moved on with my life.

So now, let’s get into the hard stuff, the lessons I learned from this experience, what to do if this has happened to you, and what you can do to make sure this does NOT happen to you.

What to Do When Someone Steals Your Passport Abroad (For U.S. Citizens)

  1. Stay calm and know that everything will be ok.
  2. Go to the police and file a police report. The U.S. embassy will need this.
  3. Go to the U.S. Embassy. If it is a weekday, you may be able to speak with a representative almost immediately. If it is a weekend, ask the guards to put you on the phone with an American citizen. They can make an appointment for you to come back later and get a new passport or discuss your options if you need to travel across international lines immediately.
  4. You will need a copy of your stolen passport, a copy of the police report, and the fee in USD. If you do not have a copy of your stolen passport, don’t panic. They will find a way to verify your identity and get you a new passport.
  5. It may take up to a week for your new passport to arrive. You will need to return to the embassy or consulate to retrieve it. Emergency same or next day papers can be arranged.

Once you have your new passport, you’ll need to get a new Cambodian visa. Sit tight, because this is a complicated process.

How to Renew Your Cambodia Visa After Your Passport Is Stolen

  1. You need to get an exit visa. There is only one place in all of Cambodia to get an exit visa and it is not convenient. Go to the immigration office across the street from Phnom Penh Airport. The exit visa costs $30 and they usually do not ask for a bribe. It takes 3 working days for them to process this visa. You need to return after 3 days to retrieve your passport.
  2. From the day they issue the exit visa, which may not be the day you pick it up, you have 7 days to leave Cambodia. Be sure to check the date on your exit visa. If you try to leave Cambodia with an expired exit visa they may send you back to get yet another one.
  3. You must leave Cambodia within 7 days of receiving your exit visa. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is to go to Thailand.
  4. Once you leave Cambodia, you are now able to re-enter. You will have to purchase a new tourist visa and, if you’re entering at a land crossing, pay the associated bribes.

The whole process will cost you over $100 if you choose to re-enter. It will be less expensive if you simply continue your trip and do not return to Cambodia.

Tips to Stay Safe in Cambodia

  • Avoid taking night buses whenever possible.
  • Always hold onto your bags firmly when riding on motos or in tuk-tuks, especially in Phnom Penh.
  • Keep valuables out of sight.
  • Always have more than one way to access your money. Whether that means a credit card and debit card, traveler’s checks, or other option, make sure if one card is stolen, you can still access money another way.
  • Don’t keep all your money in one place. If your debit card is on your person, keep your credit card stowed somewhere else.
  • Bring a lock and store your belongings in a secured locker in your hotel or hostel while you are out on day trips.
  • Always have a photocopy of your passport. Keep a PDF version in your email.
  • Don’t carry your passport unless you absolutely need to. It is safer locked up securely at your hotel.

What if my passport and money are stolen far from a main city or embassy?

  1. Don’t panic.
  2. Trust in the kindness of others. The majority of the human race is inherently kind. People will help you.
  3. Ask for help. Talk to other travelers at your hotel or hostel. Talk to the staff. Find someone who is willing to help you.
  4. Call the US Embassy and report the theft from there. Ask for assistance.
  5. Find a friendly local with decent English, have them come with you to the police to file a report.
  6. Travel to the capital city and get to the embassy as soon as possible. The staff there will help you.

Overcoming the Emotional Trauma of Being Robbed in Cambodia

Long after I had recovered financially from the theft, I was still recovering from the emotional trauma.

People generally respond in one of two ways when they find out you’ve been robbed. They either pity you and say things like “oh, so terrible! I’m so sorry that happened to you.” Or they say, “Oh, well you should really be more careful.” (or they say both).

If you are like me, this second response will wear you down. It implies that it is your fault for not being careful enough. It is your fault that you were robbed.

Now, sure, every traveler needs to take steps to secure their own safety while traveling. But it is not your fault that thieves are selfish, cruel, or motivated by whatever greed or hardship causes them to steal.

It is not your fault you are a victim.

Give yourself time to feel. You will feel vulnerable, violated, and angry. You will go into denial, you will wish it had never happened, and you will struggle to cope. You may become angry and mistrustful of the people around you. Let yourself feel these things. It is ok.

But be open to the love and kindness that you will experience as well. In the minutes, days, and weeks after you are robbed, people will come forward to help you. Their kindness and selflessness will blow you away. Ultimately, you will recover and return to the joys of traveling and it will be due, in part, to the kindness of strangers.


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Robbed in Cambodia: My story of surviving a massive theft in Phnom Penh. Learn what to do when your passport is stolen abroad and how to stay safe in Cambodia.