Where: Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England
When: July 2003
What: Two thousand years ago, a 10-foot-tall and 70-mile-long stone wall loomed over the undulating hills of northern England, built at the order of the Roman Emperor Hadrian to keep the savage Scots from raiding and pillaging Roman territory to the south. Today, the remains of Hadrian’s Wall form the largest ancient structure in all of Northern Europe. This photo shows the path alongside the wall as it winds toward a series of crags called the Nine Nicks of Thirlwall, seen here in the distance towering above the pond.
Here’s how I described the experience of walking here in one of my American Adventurer columns from last year: “A ragged mist swallows the rolling hills and checkerboard farmland ahead of me. An icy wind whips at the hood of my jacket. I’m alone today, a solitary hiker following in the footsteps of history, and this is just what I came for: a bleak and breezy walk along the ruined skeleton of England’s most impressive ancient monument.”
I’ve never been wholly satisfied with that description, though. I think it’s because I wasn’t able to use my column to talk about why I really chose this walk. I mean, who among SmarterTravel’s bargain hunting readers would actually care about the personal crisis I was going through in 2003?
But here I can talk about it all I want, and this is what I wanted to say: I was at a crossroads in my life in the summer of ’03, and Hadrian’s Wall is one of the places I went in search of the proper road to take next. Penny and I were separated and I was living on my own for the first time since college. I took six weeks off from work and went to Europe that summer to find myself, and I was drawn to Hadrian’s Wall because it gave me the opportunity to take long, solitary walks in the moody countryside near the Scottish border.
There was something wonderfully anonymous about “following in the footsteps of history.” I took comfort in the idea that 2,000 years ago there might have been someone else standing near that wall, feeling homesick and confused, and wondering what to do with his life. It helped me keep my own problems in perspective. Melodramatic, probably, but it is what it is.
Anyone who knows me today knows that Penny and I eventually got back together, moved to Cambridge for two years and then to Beverly, where we now own a house and have started a family. But back in 2003 that outcome seemed improbable at best.
This is the trek that began the long process of helping me work through what was going on in my heart, and I think I’ll always look back on it with a kind of bittersweet nostalgia. It wasn’t a straight line from there to reconcilation, after all, and things would only get worse between us before they’d eventually get better.
So yeah, bittersweet, for sure. But it was still a hell of a walk.
… I was freezing my ass off in Iceland.
Happy Fourth of July!
Where: Old Lahaina Luau, Maui, Hawaii
When: May 2002
What: Dancing girls with coconut bras—what more could you want? I kid, I kid. Mostly.
Set right on the beach in near the Kaanapali end of Lahaina town, the Old Lahaina Luau has a more authentic (read: culturally sensitive) feel to it than the average luau offered by most of the hotels and resorts on the island. The traditional island music and dance is a joy, and the roast pig isn’t bad, either.
We stayed at the Old Lahaina House, a nice if unremarkable little B&B within walking distance of the town center. (Hey, look, here’s our room!) After a long day of hiking in the volcano or driving the Road to Hana, it was great to be able to come back and stroll around an actual town rather than just hanging out at a resort.
Plus, you really can’t beat the $3 cocktails at Moose McGillycuddy’s.
Where: In the shadow of Mount Hekla, Iceland
When: July 2006
What: When I wrote about this weeklong hiking trip in an August 2006 feature for USA Today and SmarterTravel.com, I likened the Icelandic interior to Tolkien’s Middle-earth: “With its obsidian lava fields and steaming hot springs, its moss-covered foothills and treeless valleys, Iceland is Mordor one minute and the Shire the next. It has a magical quality to it, this Land of Fire and Ice—as if it has been plucked from the imagination and placed here, somewhere between Europe and North America, to be a playground for the adventurous traveler.”
To me, nothing demonstrates that spirit better than this photo. I love the way it captures the wild and wide-open essence of the highlands: the snow-capped peaks, the spidering streams, the mossy greens and reds and browns of a land virtually untouched by human hands. It’s hard to imagine anywhere more epic. I also like seeing the seven hikers there in the foreground, a tiny fellowship of adventurers in true Tolkien-esque fashion.
The backcountry is dominated by Mount Hekla, a volcano that was once thought to be the literal mouth of Hell. A thousand years ago, Iceland’s Viking settlers sent criminals to this same inhospitable interior, where they were forced to survive for 20 years in order to earn a pardon. Most never made it. My wife and I lasted a week, but we needed the help of a guide from the Fjallabak Trekking Company to do it.
The trek meets up with the way-marked Laugavegur Trail on the fifth day of hiking, but before that most of the areas we explored felt as if they’d never been visited by other hikers. These highlands are different than, say, the European Alps, which are so well-traveled that it’s easy for experienced hikers to go it alone. Here, a good guide is essential.
I booked my trip through Adventure Center, the U.S. retailer for Fjallabak and other local operators. If you’re considering a backcountry trip, theirs definitely come with my recommendation. Icelandair, incidentally, offers inexpensive flights to Reykjavik from several East Coast cities, making it a cheaper destination to get to than mainland Europe.
Where: Plateau Point, Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon
When: November 2004
What: Plateau Point is a little more than halfway down from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. To get there you have to take a 20-30 minute detour off the Bright Angel Trail, which adds another mile or so to the hike. Totally worth it for the view of what’s to come, though.
It’s at Plateau Point that you get your first clear view of the Colorado River, which was a nice chocolately brown when I was there. For those planning to spend the night at Phantom Ranch, as I did, I always recommend doing this side trip to Plateau Point on the way down rather than the way up. You need all the energy you can get when hiking out of the canyon, so don’t waste it on side trips.
I bet you haven’t noticed my favorite thing about this picture yet. Take a look at the lower righthand side of the photo. Yep, that’s a squirrel standing next to me on the ledge, posing politely for the camera. I may not be smiling, but I’m pretty sure he is.
One last note: A park ranger told me the average visit to the South Rim lasts about 15 minutes. Are you kidding me? It takes 15 minutes just to fight your way through all the gawkers leaning over the edge! If you’re physically able, lace up those hiking boots and get into the canyon. That’s where the real action is at, people!
Forget Leaving Las Vegas. I practically limped home.
Yep, I’m still painfully gimpy two days after Tuesday’s big hike. But that’s okay. I have physical therapy this morning and hopefully they can figure out what new hell I’ve inflicted on myself.
Anyway, I’ve made it home and thought I’d post my impressions of the company trip. I went into it pretty skeptical due to my inherent distate for all things Las Vegas, but I have to admit it was a much better experience than I’d expected.
Smarter Travel has grown so much in the last few years and this really gave me a chance to get to know some of my coworkers whose names I couldn’t even remember before the trip began. (It’s nerdy, but there’s something really cool about discovering you share the same taste in books with a coworker, for example.)
And the trip was really well executed. All of the activities were fun, the food was okay, and the hotel was fine. I even gambled a little. (And I do mean a little.) I had no idea what I was doing, but the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom slot machines at the MGM Grand are now a dollar richer because of me.
Fortune and glory, indeed.
Yesterday I hiked for the first time since my surgery. It was a fairly strenuous guided scramble around Red Rock Canyon, and it felt absolutely amazing to be outdoors again! My leg gave out on me a few times, and I ended up limping for most of the evening once we got back to the Strip, but man was it worth it. I proved to myself that I can do this again. I also proved that the 18 months of inactivity since Iceland have left me obscenely out of shape, but then I already knew that. So now it’s back to the gym I go!
(Unrelated side note: If you look really closely you can see Las Vegas through the haze in the background. Pretty cool view, eh?)