Category Archives: local culture

Life in a Northern Town

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It’s 8 AM on a Thursday morning in Reykjavik, Iceland’s Capitol and largest City.  The sun has yet to come up, as this far north (64 degrees latitude) days are still quite short in the middle part of February.  A quiet dawn persists over the town for nearly two hours, from 8 to about 10.  A couple of local teenagers are hanging outside the grocery store.  A group of tourists can be seen hanging outside one of the few restaurants that are open.  Otherwise, the streets are quite empty, and the shops are mostly closed.

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It’s odd because, in many most major cities, 8:00 is the peak of what is often referred to as “rush hour”.  It is a time of people hurrying to and from train stations, and crowding highways trying to get to work.  Even in the more touristy sections of cities, which this most certainly is, a lot of motion can still be found at this hour.  At places like Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, and New York’s Time Square, which are utterly packed with tourists nearly every day, there are still plenty of people to be found at 8:00 on a weekday morning, mostly people headed into work.  Here, that culture just does not seem to exist.  Are all the office jobs elsewhere?  Do people have office jobs?  Do they work different hours?  Or is the economy so heavy on tourism and fishing that there is just no point in being awake at an hour when all the tourists are likely still asleep and the sun is not out?

By noon, things start to pick up.  On some days, the sun comes out and hits the harbor.  At this latitude, when it hits the harbor, it hits it in a way that seems to highlight every single feature, from the boats in the harbor to the snowy mountains on the other side.  From the perspective of someone that has always lived in the mid-latitudes, is feels neither like mid-day nor twilight.  It is a different feeling altogether, and those who take a pause from their tourist itinerary and truly soak up the moment are reminded as to why it is worthwhile to visit different places in the first place; to see something, experience something, do something that cannot be done at home.

The day progresses.  Tourists fill streets whose names are too intimidating to even try to pronounce, make their way into the bars, the restaurants, and the dozens of souvenir stores that feature a gigantic stuffed puffin in the window.

The weather inevitably changes- but, well it doesn’t.

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There is this saying, “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes, it will change.”  Anyone that travels on a regular basis to places outside the tropics has most likely heard the phrase too many times to count.  It is used here.  At souvenir shops, mugs and shirts about Iceland sport the phrase.  And, it is true to some extent.  At any moment, it can turn from sunny to cloudy, or suddenly get windy.  But, the temperature does not vary too much.  On a four day trip to Iceland, the temperature, including daytime and nighttime, seemed to only vary between a few degrees below freezing and a few degrees above freezing.

Regardless of these changes, winter in Iceland is consistently cold and damp.  For this reason, one of the most popular items made in all of Iceland are wool sweaters.  While any visitor to Reykjavik can find these sweaters for sale all over town, the best deals on them are found at the Kolaportid Flea Market.  Even at the Flea Market, though, they can be quite expensive, the equivalent of roughly $100.  Money talks, and it is easy to figure out what a certain culture values by seeing what they are willing to spend money on.  Coloradans are willing to spend thousands of dollars annually on ski equipment.  Icelanders are willing to spend money on a warm wool sweater.

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Reykjavik’s population is only just over 200,000 people.  In fact, the population of all of Iceland is 330,000- significantly less than every borough of New York City, even Staten Island.  Yet, it is a place that knows how to party!  The nightlife is surprisingly good- probably better than many towns 2-3 times its size!

Making up for the lack of action at 9 in the morning, festivals, shows, and clubs give locals and tourists alike plenty to do in the nighttime hours.  Iceland has been promoting tourism quite hard since the economic collapse of 2008, which hit Iceland particularly hard.  Iceland Air has been particularly active in promoting tourism, by adding direct flights to more places in both Europe and North America, possibly with the goal of becoming a preferred airport for making connections while traveling between Europe and North America.

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Looking at this map, it is hard not to imagine an executive with Iceland Air looking at at map, possibly even Risk the board game, and thinking of this grand plan to become a connecting point between the continents.

Well, it’s working.  Recently, more people talk about Reykjavik being their favorite place to make flight connections, and more and more people seem to have visited Iceland.  At this point, in Reykjavik, it is probably impossible for locals and tourists not to interact with one another in some way, especially at clubs and shows.

After hours of partying, all of a sudden it is 4 AM.  Many clubs still have lines to get in!

At 5 AM, on the streets, music can still be heard coming from multiple directions.  In fact, by this hour, it almost becomes easier to find a place to eat than it was at 9 AM on Thursday morning.

Sometime in the next few hours, the blurry memory of a fun filled night fades into the next morning, likely to be delayed through at least part of that lengthy twilight period.  In my particular case, it faded into the realization that it is now noon, and Millions of New Yorkers (where the local time is 7 A.M.), despite the time difference, have woken up before me on the other side of the Atlantic!

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I only spent four days in Iceland.  I do not know the full extent of life in this nearly arctic city of Reykjavik.  I only know what I experience in this short period of time, where I did the best I could to experience the local culture.  Regardless, it does appear quite different from any place I have ever been.

 

 

Where New England Begins

 

Everyone has this idea in their head of the ideal place to live.  For some, it is right in the middle of something; the middle of the big city where everything is happening, the middle of the woods, or somewhere else one can truly immerse themselves in the kinds of activities they enjoy most.  For others, it is places like this, places that are kind of on the edge of two worlds, that combine easy access to several types of amenities.

Greenwich, Connecticut is literally the first town across the border from New York State.  Since the people of New York, and the people of New England have a mutual preference to not include New York in the region known as “New England”, this is the exact place where one enters New England.

But, how much does one really feel like they are in New England when here?  The town is clearly a suburb of New York City.  There is no unincorporated area that separates Greenwich from the adjacent suburbs that are part of New York State.  With an express train, one can be at Grand Central Station in Midtown Manhattan in around 40 minutes.

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The town does have a New England-like charm.  One needs only travel, by foot, several minutes away from Greenwich Ave. (the town’s main street), and the train station, before they enter an area of windy roads, dense trees and quaint houses one often associates with New England.

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It has a charming downtown, as well as a “Commons” outside their City Hall, which is something I have come to associate with New England, as I had not seen areas like this referred to as a “Commons” in other regions of the country.

Perhaps one of Greenwich’s greatest attributes is the beach in an area referred to as “Old Greenwich”.

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One of the largest beaches in the area, and one of the few that permits dogs, it attracts a significant  number of people, even on a dreary day in January.

Once again, here at the waterfront, one can see where this town sits geographically.  Even on a cloudy day, at the end of the Peninsula that extends southward into the Long Island Sound, one can see both the rocky shores that pop up the along the shores of New England, extending all the way from here to Maine, but can also see the skyline of New York City.

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Around town, I got that same hybrid-like vibe.  The pace of life is definitely different from New York City.  In New York City, people appear to have some kind of sense of urgency in everything they do.  I tell people who have never lived in New York to imagine the second or third most stressful day of their past year and assume that every person around them is having that kind of day.  In the short amount of time I spent in Greenwich, I did not sense nearly that level of urgency in the people around me.

Greenwich’s New York-like and New England-like characteristics are overshadowed by one characteristic that seems to define everything here; wealth!

Dealerships selling expensive cars, even Bentleys, line U.S. highway 1 coming into town.  The beachfronts are lined with large, multi-million dollar homes, and downtown is lined with shops selling expensive designer brands.

Gucci, Louie, Michael Kors…  I do not even know the name of all of them.  Frankly, I do not even care.  I can never picture, even if one day I become this wealthy, choosing to spend my money that way.  The only reason I know the names I do know is that they pop up in popular song lyrics, particularly rap music.  While sometimes I can get extremely annoyed by designer brands, particularly if I am EVER pressured into making a purchase, I cannot help but have some kind of odd admiration for the people that managed to market them, and, convince people to spend the amount of money they do on such products.

The people who create and market designer products have a keen understanding of human psychology (albeit, they could have used it for a better purpose).  Anytime anyone spends money (and sometimes time) on something, they want to know what they are getting.  It is the same dynamic that takes place when we ask our friend regarding their experience with a specific doctor, or a real estate agent.  We do not know what we are getting.  Through brands, we create trust.  “I know Subarus won’t break down on me”.  Or, “I trust the Cohen brothers to make a good film.”  So, we buy the product.  Those that created these designer brands managed to create a reputation so powerful that millions of people worldwide purchase this product when they could easily purchase something similar for a fraction of the price!

The two main things that stop people from living in that “ideal place” in their heads are job availability and money (which are closely related).  The fact that people with this amount of additional money chose to live here speaks volumes to Greenwich’s appeal as a place that combines the best of both worlds.  People who live here seem to have the best of both worlds; easy access to New York City, the city with more amenities than any other in the country, and fairly easy access to outdoor activities.  Friends that moved here from Manhattan tell me that the move has reduced the travel time to nearly all outdoor activities (hiking, skiing, the beach) by 30-60 minutes.  While it’s easy to come here and be envious of the fortunes here, it is also quite easy to see, even from someone who might have a different “ideal place” in mind, why people chose to live here.

Tea that Isn’t Really Tea

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Tea is not something I ever give any real thought to.  For me, it is one of those products that has always just been there.  As much as I claim to be a curious-minded person, I had never even sat and pondered who was the first person to come up with the idea to take a bunch of ground up leaves, put it in a tiny little bag and dip it into a cup of hot water.  In fact, if you think about almost every product we use on a regular basis from the standpoint of a culture that has never been introduced to that product, it probably sounds absurd.  As I write this, I am eating a bagel.  Imagine telling someone who has never heard of a bagel that you have an idea to take condensed bread, bake it into a cylindrical shape with a hole in the middle, and maybe put some random seeds on top.

You would have probably been told, by at least some portion of the people around you, that your idea was either absurd, or unnecessary.  If I could, I would communicate this point to an entire generation of aspiring entrepreneurs, as nearly all of them, will at some point receive a similar reaction from people they describe their idea to.  In fact, some will even be turned down and laughed at by potential customers and investors.

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One of the reasons I had never given tea too much thought is that in my mind I had always associated it with things that I do not find too exciting.  Our subconscious minds have this strange ways of synthesizing our experiences, the experiences we hear about, and even some of the media we consume into some general associations.  Whenever anyone mentions tea, the image that naturally pops into my head is a fancy table with fancy chairs on someone’s lawn, in front of a garden on a day with the most pleasant weather imaginable, and people wasting that pleasant afternoon, with so many possibilities to engage in activities and explore what the world has to offer, just sitting around drinking tea.

In fact, I did not even start drinking tea until I got my first job after Graduate School.  It was free at work.  I started drinking it to save both money and calories, particularly on chilly mornings.  The only variety of tea that was free at my job was “black” tea, which is perfect, because, as I learned at the Celestial Seasonings tour, it is one of the most heavily caffeinated teas out there (surpassed only by Oolong tea).  So, I conditioned my taste buds to the rather plain flavor of black tea and did not ponder other options.

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However, Celestial Seasonings is a place that has way more character than the stuffy images I think of when I think of the average “tea time”.  It was started by a bunch of hippies, which should not really surprise me given that it is in Boulder and was started in the late 1960s.  They would gather leaves in the Rocky Mountains outside of Boulder to make their beverages.

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However, the leaves that constitute “tea” come from plants that cannot be grown in this part of the world.  So, the beverages they put together were drinks that could not actually be considered “tea” by the technical definition.  They would have been considered “herbal infusions”.  The phrase “herbal infusion” had a clear association with the hippie movement.  So, to sell these products to the general public, which was (and still is) largely skeptical of the hippie movement, they labeled the beverages “herbal teas”.

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Now nearly a half a century has passed.  A lot has happened.  First, the hippies reached full-fledged adulthood (over 30, is that what they said?), got jobs, bought houses on cul-de-sacs, and, eventually SUVs and mini-vans.  A new generation emerged, powered by a rejuvenated economy, and became Yuppies.  They managed to both continuously enlarge the houses and vehicles in suburbia, while also turning formally blighted neighborhoods in city centers across the country into high-class urban playgrounds.  Many of the areas that were once focal points to the hippie sub-culture, including San Francisco, and even Boulder, are now firmly under the domain of this new urban culture.  Of course, this is all an over simplification, but hippie communes still exist, largely in the same way soda fountains and other relics still exist.  A family will randomly encounter one in an out of the way place on a road trip, and grandma and grandpa will explain to the children what they are/ were all about.

Yet, the label “herbal tea” is still there, both in this tasting room, and in their packaging.  It is still there despite the fact that so much has changed.  Not only does the general public have absolutely nothing to fear from the hippie sub-culture anymore, but, I would argue that many of their ideas have penetrated our mainstream thinking, both “right” and “left”.  We do not wear suits to baseball games anymore.  People aren’t mocked or reprimanded nearly as much when they explore their feelings, and try to find themselves.  There is no more stigma around going to seek therapy, and tons of people participate in yoga classes.  We may largely be in boring cubicles and offices, but it is not unheard of to openly defy the authority structures there.

Despite all of this, people are still drinking “herbal tea” instead of “herbal infusions”.  “Herbal teas” are Celestial Seasoning’s three top selling “teas”.  Is this simply the power of inertia?  Are there still a significant enough number of people that would shy away from drinking something if it was labeled an “herbal infusion”?  Or is something greater at work?  Our world is in a constant state of flux, and that flux includes language, definitions, and standards.  The hippie movement did not survive, but some of the ideas joined the mainstream.  Maybe, although, these “herbal infusions” were not considered “tea” in 1969, they are now.  Very few people, when they buy these products at the store, even ever realize that they are not actually drinking tea.  For all practical purposes, it is tea despite the technical definition.  After all, Colorado is already a major part of a movement that changed the standards for what is considered beer, why not another product?

A Tribute to a Companion

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October has been a crazy emotional month.  Most of what I write about in this blog pertains to specific experiences.  This past summer was certainly filled with activities of all kinds, trips to various interesting places, and new experiences.  It is what I love doing.  I started writing this travel blog to catalog my experiences.  However, this month, I feels like all I have been writing about is heavy emotional types stuff.

For an experience is not just simply the place one visits.  It is also about what one does at that specific place.  It is often about the company one keeps, and who that experience is shared with.  It is the thoughts and feelings we all experience when in various places.  It is the revelations we come to, about life, about the people around us, and about ourselves.  It is also the connections we make, or the connections we deepen on these trips.  I often have some of the deepest conversations with others on lengthy road trips.

On the evening of Tuesday, October 27th, 2015, last night at the time of writing, I unexpectedly had to say goodbye to not only a travel companion, but also a companion in life- my dog Juno.

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It is nearly impossible to fully describe how it feels to have lost a companion an wonderful as Juno.  Not only did we share a ton of adventures together, but we also shared a lot of aspects of day-to-day life.  As one can see by looking through the pictures on this blog, Juno would accompany me on quite a few adventures, from hiking, to camping, and so much more.  As a cold weather dog (Siberian Husky), she particularly loved the mountains.  In fact, I remember the look on her face when we departed from one of our weekend camping trips in the mountains.  She knew we were headed back to Denver, and the look on her face said, clearly, “Why don’t we live here (in the mountains) instead of there”.

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But not only was she around through all of the fun times and adventures, she was also present for my day-to-day life, the ups and the downs, and well, the part of our lives that is not always as glamorous.  One thing we as human beings in the 21st Century tend to do, when we invite others into our lives, is only invite them for the good part, the fun part, the adventurous part.  This comes, obviously, out of the desire to be liked.  So, we present the portion of ourselves that we feel is most likely to be desired by others.  But, it is when those around us see the part of us that is not so great, the part of us that deals with discomfort, pain, disappointment, and heartbreak, that we build deeper connections.  Juno saw me in all parts of life; the night, as well as the morning after, when the consequences often come.

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It is really impossible to replace a companion like this.  A friend, whether it be a two-legged friend, or a four-legged one, simply cannot be replaced.  There is no substitute for the experiences we have had together.  There is no substitute for the way we interacted with one another.  And there is no substitute for the joy we had brought into each other’s lives.  Experiences cannot be replicated by design.  One can only hope to find something similar, or to happily move on to a new and positive experience when one is done.

I will miss the way Juno greets people in the neighborhood, almost invariantly getting a positive response from anyone we would walk by.

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I will miss the way Juno problem solves her way through the rocky sections of hiking trails.

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I will miss the way Juno would always give me a facial expression that made me feel confident in knowing that she was happy to see me.

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I will miss the way Juno often sits on the ground in a manner that makes her look like a three-legged-dog.

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I will miss the way Juno would alternate between sticking her head in front of the head rest on the drivers and passenger seat sides on car rides.

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I will even miss the way Juno found sneaky ways to pull random chicken wing bones off the ground on walks, particularly on Sundays, without me noticing.

Most of all, I will just miss the happiness she would always bring.  I guess there is no better way to describe how I feel right now that simply with the word sad.  Sure, there are thousands of other ways to complexify the emotion.

I know I took care of Juno responsibly, but was I responsible enough?  Juno started acting strangely roughly a couple of weeks ago.  The main thing I noticed was that she was kind of lethargic, moving slower than normal, and drinking a lot of water.  This felt to me like someone who has a bad cold, something which people can usually recover from with rest and plenty of fluids.  It was not until Monday, when Juno did not appear to be recovering, that I brought her into the Vet.  Still, I was not prepared to lose Juno this quickly.  I was just perplexed by why she had not been recovering and still seemed to be acting strangely.  We had brought Juno home from an animal shelter in 2011, four years ago.  At the time, the shelter told us she was five years old.  Some of the vets we had brought her to had subsequently estimated her age to be less than five.  So, at most she had been nine years old.  And, although she had EPI, a disease that renders a dog’s pancreas as useless (we had to mix her food with enzymes to get her to absorb it properly), I still seriously had expected to have her for at least several more years.

I took Juno on adventures, but did I take her on enough of them?  Did I really give her the life she deserved?  A look through this travel blog, which covers much of what I had done for a large portion of the time I had her, shows many adventures she was a part of, but also many adventures in which she was not included.  Additionally, as someone who has had to work standard M-F 9-5 types jobs for much of life, she has spent a good number of weekdays home alone for more than eight hours.  I know this is typical in today’s society, but does that make it right?  I wonder how she felt all those days.

Mostly, I just hope I gave Juno the best life I could have given her.  Because, as many animal lovers will attest to, a dog is not just a pet, it is part of the family.  I remember how strange it would feel to come home to an apartment without a dog anytime I would be out of town for the weekend and have brought Juno somewhere else.  The coming weeks will not only feel strange, but sad.  There are some sad events where one reach deep down inside and find a way to take comfort.  Many people can find a way to come to view a lost job as “for the best”, or see something like the not-quite world series bound Chicago Cubs as still having had a “great season” that “exceeded expectations”.  But, when it comes to something like this, I dig down, deep inside my heart, and all I see is a hole, for I know that I had a great pet and a great companion, she is gone, and there is nothing I can do about it.

A Weekend in Texas

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In my last post, I describe my experiences visiting the City of Austin, Texas.  Some people describe Austin as being “not really Texas”.  And, while that may be a simplification, or exaggeration of the experience there, the general point is that the experience of being in Austin is different than the the experience of being in any other part of Texas.  So, while I spent some time in Austin last weekend, I also got the opportunity to experience other places in Texas, and actually get immersed into the culture here.

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One of the first places I went to, just 20 miles or so outside of Austin, was the Salt Lick, for some high quality Texas barbecue.  I was surprised to see such a large establishment.  I had gone to BBQ in places like Oklahoma City and Tulsa in the past, and those experiences usually involved smaller, more side-of-the road type establishments.  I had come to, in my head, assume that was the standard BBQ experience, but the Salt Lick is pretty gigantic.  And, the first thing I saw when I entered the restaurant was a gigantic barbecue pit.  The last time I had seen so much meat in one place was at the World’s Largest Brat Festival in Wisconsin.

Texas style barbecue, of course, includes brisket.  In order to experience the full range of barbecue experience, I ordered a combination plate that included brisket, ribs, and sausage.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the restaurant asks their patrons if they want their brisket “lean”, or “moist”.  Not being a fan of fatty meats, I chose “lean”, and really enjoyed the entire meal.

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In fact, I kind of felt like I spent the entire weekend eating brisket!  The other establishments I went to, like the Salt Lick, were sizable establishments.  Coopers, in New Braunfels, was big enough to accommodate a group of 16 people without really having to adjust anything from their normal operating experience.

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Whenever I was not eating barbecue food, I was eating Mexican food, which is plentiful in Texas due to it’s close proximity to, as well as history of being a part of, Mexico.  I visited several Mexican food establishments while in Texas, including a place many of us that live elsewhere should become familiar with: Torchy’s Tacos.  Later this year, they will expand beyond the borders of Texas, opening up a location in Denver, Colorado.  They may very well expand to some other areas as well.

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This area is often referred to as “Texas Hill Country”, as, well, unlike most of the Great Plains, it is kind of hilly.  Parts of it sort of remind me of the “Driftless Area” of Southwestern Wisconsin, with rolling hills one to several hundred feet tall.  Although, the geological history these regions is quite different.

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Here I attended a wedding, and took part in another local custom, floating the river.  At the wedding, the main thing I noticed about the culture here in Texas was the affinity for line dancing.  I had expected the country music line dancing.  But, what shocked me was how often people would just naturally form a line while dancing to other songs.  When YMCA, and Gangnam Style, came on, people here just naturally formed themselves into a line as if it were second nature.

In Texas, if is quite common for people to go on “floating”, or “tubing” trips.  It is basically an outdoorsy activity that is far more relaxing than the ones I usually take part in here in Colorado.  It mostly just involves laying in a tube, and gently floating down a river.  Many people here own their own tubes to float in, and bring floatable coolers, where they pack beer.  I have heard it is quite common for people to get quite intoxicated while taking part in a float trip.

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Texas hill country also contains a lot of natural features, some of which have become common family-type tourist destinations.  A few miles west of New Braunfels is a place called Natural Bridge Caverns, which, just as the name advertises, is a Natural Bridge above ground with a cavern below ground.

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Every time I visit a place like this, I always come away with mixed views regarding the commercialization of these natural features.  One one hand, I look at staircases, buildings, and all of these artificial looking features being present, and wonder if we are losing out on some of the experience.  But, I also see that having paved roads to get here, walkways through the area, and other comfort related conveniences opens up the experience of viewing these places to many people who otherwise would not have been able to see them.

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It was in San Antonio, however, where I learned about the history of Texas.  Downtown San Antonio kind of has an odd combination of historical significance.  On one end of downtown is The Alamo.  Originally a “mission“, the place later became a military post in the war for independence from Mexico, and now a museum, which is also considered a Shrine of Texas Liberty.  This place very much celebrates the people of Texas separating from Mexico, and, of course, later joining the United States.

On the other end of downtown is a place called Historic Market Square, a place that celebrates Mexican cultural heritage.  In the plaza, I saw T-Shirts for sale that exuded Mexican pride.  In fact, with authentic Mexican food and cultural items for sale everywhere, I almost felt like I could have actually been in Mexico.

It just makes me wonder.  Is this a City that is in conflict with itself?  How do those of Mexican decent here in San Antonio feel about Texas history?

The area between the Alamo and Historic Market Square was also kind of confusing.  On the surface, the city looked kind of dreary.  I kind of felt like I was in a bad part of Chicago, or any other big city that has a significant amount of blight.  But, underneath the surface was San Antonio’s Riverwalk, which is quite lively.

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In fact, San Antonio kind of pioneered the idea of riverwalks.  And, it appears other cities are trying to copy them.

After reading about Texas history, I kind of had a better understanding of the place.  Specifically, at the Alamo, they describe a struggle in Mexican politics.  On one side there was a group of people that strongly supported a Federalist type system of government based on a constitution that was modeled after the United States.  Under this system, some powers were devolved to the states, of which Texas (or Tejas) was one.  On the other side, was a group of centralizers that wanted more control in the hands of the central government in Mexico City.  Texans strongly supported the former over the latter, and when the latter won power, they felt their way of life threatened.  The successful defense of Texas, establishment of the Lone Star Republic, and later admission to a country whose values more closely resembled their own is viewed as a triumph.

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It is without a doubt that many Texans today see a lot of parallels (whether or not they are correct) to today’s political struggles in the United States.  Having this history, one in which many people in the state take pride, definitely explains why succession talk would be much more prevalent here than it would be in other states who strongly oppose some aspects of how our Federal government is operating.

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There was always some concern over whether I would fit in here in Texas.  Anyone that talks to me can clearly hear my Long Island accent.  I do not try to hide it.  Some people who have lived in Texas  told me that it would also be obvious that I am an outsider by the manner in which I conduct myself, and the types of topics I discuss on a regular basis.

But, I took a “leap of faith” of sorts, and just decided to be myself when interacting with people here.  And, I was actually received quite warmly here, by people who probably have a significantly different lifestyle and set of values than my own.  Everyone was friendly to me, and they were even receptive to the kinds of conversation topics I tend to engage people in.

As I thought through the acceptance I experienced here, as well as the history, the current succession talk and anger, I came to an important realization.  Maybe we are not nearly as divided as people make us out to be.  Maybe it is really only the most vocal (and angry) among us that display this division.  After all, if 1.4 Million people can live in a city which celebrates both it’s Mexican heritage and it’s struggle for independence from Mexico, maybe we can find a way to celebrate what makes everyone unique.

Lone Star Capital

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It is with some amount of hesitation that I visited Austin, Texas.  Compared to other cities in the same region, of similar size, and with similar recent economic fortune, it gets talked about a lot in certain circles.  I am quite cautious about simply parroting what is said and done by others.  I am not a complete hipster.  I do take part in some things that are very popular.  But, I just want to make sure that whatever I choose to do, particularly with my own time, I do for my own reasons.  It is for that reason I never read the Harry Potter books, or watched certain mega-popular television shows.

Additionally, I know a lot of people who care way more deeply about certain hot-button social issues than I do.  So, when I hear people talk about Austin instead of San Antonio, Houston, or Dallas, cities in Texas that are also rapidly growing, I can’t help but feel a bit skeptical.  I want to visit a place because it is interesting, not because it has people with certain viewpoints on things that others think is important.

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What I saw in Austin, Texas, though was that the place is interesting on its own merits.  As soon as I landed at the airport, I saw sculptures of guitars displaying Austin’s pivotal live music scene.

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The river that runs through the center of town, oddly enough also called the Colorado River (I am accustomed to thinking of the Colorado river as running from Rocky Mountain National Park, through the Grand Canyon and down to Mexico), is a center for all kinds of interesting outdoor activity.  Numerous kayaks, stand up paddleboards, and these water bicycle things that I haven’t before seen, could be found on the river at any time of day I rolled past it.  Additionally, it is on the Congress Ave. Bridge over this river that one of the largest bat colonies live.  Every evening, sometime around dusk, the colony of bats swarms outside for some reason.  People line up on this bridge before sundown to watch every day!

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The nightlife there is also quite amazing.  There are several areas of town that have bars, restaurants, and plenty of youthful, vibrant activity.  It felt like everywhere I went, even at times like 10 in the morning, I would hear some kind of live music coming from some direction.

There is certainly no shortage of things to do for fun people.  My evening in Austin ended at one of the best dancing bars I have ever been to, a place called Barbarella, which was recommended to me by a co-worker.  It is the kind of bar I wish I had in my hometown, a place where a lot of people are dancing, but without the high prices and pretention of some of the clubs one will find in major cities.  This bar had a large dance floor, which was periodically infused with fog from a fog machine, some interesting lighting, and affordable drinks.  And, on the night that I was there, they were playing nothing but 80s music.  It was the kind of crowd where a lot of people were just letting loose and seeing where the night takes them.  With the number of college students and recent grads in the area, I could not help but fixate on the high likelihood that at least one person there on the dance floor was “hooking up” with someone to the exact same (80s) song that their own parents first “hooked up” to without even knowing it!

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All over town were reminders of youth, and all things youthful.  Of course, there is the campus.  Last weekend, while I was there, a new student visit weekend was taking place.  So, the streets were filled with people, young and energetic, excited about the new chapter of their lives they were preparing to start.  Remembering it, there is nothing like this first time you go out on your own, something every 17 or 18 year old wearing those maroon t-shirts were preparing for in less than two months.  I could feel the excitement as people explored, formed new bonds, took pictures displaying the Longhorn signal, and just looked forward to what is to come.

Also, while at one of the live music clubs, I accidentally (as in I did not plan this) wandered into a room where one of the scenes in the movie Boyhood had taken place.  The movie, released last year, follows the life of a boy growing up from age 6 to age 18, when he goes off to college.  I particularly related to the main character in this movie, as he grew up and developed his own set of thoughts and values.  In one scene he goes on a rant about how people use facebook that seriously could have matched word for word something I had said a few years earlier!  All this served as a reminder of how magical that part of life really is.  The hope, the promise, and the excitement of making yourself into what you are to become is one that really cannot be matched.

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Oddly enough, in Austin, I may have found a place that shares my values, including the very values that made me hesitant to visit the place in the first place.  This poster particularly resonated with me.  I just wish I could have gotten a better picture of it.  It’s hard to get a picture of a lit up sign like this in Texas, in the sun, in the middle of the day.

The phrase “Stop Being Livestock” is definitely a play on the University’s team name; The Longhorns.  But it definitely also depicted how I, and many of us, feel sometimes in the working world.  I mean, every large organization has a department called “Human Resources”.  Just thinking about that phrase gives me goose bumps sometimes.  That person, sitting in the cubical farm, is a “resource”.  Maximizing that resources’ output sounds a lot like fattening up a cow, or getting as many eggs from a chicken as possible.

Around town I heard plenty of intellectual discussions like this one.  Some locals described Austin as having an uber-sized commitment to individuality.  It appeared as if this commitment was genuine, based on everything I had seen around town.

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From the intellectual nature of discussions, to the outdoor activities people engage in, as well as all of the bike lanes I saw all over town, it felt like a place that shared my values.  I would definitely be more likely to find people that understand me here than in many other places.  It is just ironic that these were the values that made me more hesitant to come to Austin in the first place.

Bozeman, Montana; Where My Journey Begins

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“I had always known that we had the best downtown in all of Montana.  And then last year, we were voted the best downtown in all of Montana.”  At least that is how Bozeman was described to me by one of the locals, while giving me lunch recommendations.  He eventually told me that every place downtown was good, and to only avoid chain restaurants.

The first person I interacted with in Bozeman was the cab driver that drove me from the airport to the REI, where my bicycle had been shipped to, reassembled, and was waiting for me.  He described Bozeman as a “town full of expert skiers”.  With all of the other observations I had made while in town, and with the other interactions I had with people from Montana, it feels to me as if Bozeman is like a smaller and more extreme version of Denver or Boulder.  The cab driver indicated that the town almost shuts down on powder days, as everyone is headed to the mountains.  And, the people coming in and out of the bike shops appeared to be people that could ride a fair number of miles in challenging conditions.

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Bozeman is only 50-some miles from Big Sky, one of the most famous ski resorts in the country.  Locals, however, appeared more proud of their local ski resort, Bridger Bowl, only 16 miles from town, as indicated by this sign.  It was also described to me as “the only non-profit ski resort in the Country”.

However, my mind was not on skiing at the time.  My mind was on bicycling, as this was the beginning of a 3-day bicycle journey that would take me through some of the country’s most amazing natural features.  And, it would be the most challenging ride I have ever attempted.

After picking up my bike, as well as all of the necessary supplies I needed for my trip at the REI, I rode the first 1.3 miles of my journey, to the Bozeman Inn, where I would spend the evening.

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Having my bike shipped to the REI and assembled there worked out quite well for me.  The price to assemble the bike from the box is $40, and they pretty much made sure that nothing was wrong with the bike, which is something I really wanted for a bicycle journey that would take me through long stretches without bike shops.  They even checked the spokes, trued the wheel, and made sure everything else was working.  And, when they realized they still had my tire lock key, someone from the shop brought it to me downtown.

It would be nearly 10:00 P.M. before the sun went down that evening.  I had already checked into the motel, but was looking for some information about the town, maybe a bike map, or even a restaurant guide for the time I would be in Bozeman.  Instead, there was just a bar and grill located adjacent to the motel.  “Lights” by Ellie Goulding was playing quite loudly where people were drinking inside.  It was a clear reminder of what evenings were like on a normal night during my “normal life”.  So, I had the instinct to go inside, drink a little, enjoy the music, and try to meet some locals.  But, I knew better.  I was on the verge of something special.  It would be a challenging ride, and I needed my energy.

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I loaded up my bike with all of my supplies packed nicely into the panniers I had carried with me on the flight into Bozeman the previous evening.  I looked around me and saw mountains in all directions, reminding me that, yes, I was in for some challenging climbs in the coming days.

Spending the morning, and mid-day, in Bozeman gave me some time to mentally prepare for the challenge I knew I had ahead of me.  I decided to check out the attraction I had heard about the most; The Museum of the Rockies.

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This museum has somewhat of an interesting local take on geological, biological, and natural history.  Like the Field Museum in Chicago, it has an exhibit that displays how life evolved over time, starting with the single celled organisms that dominated the earth for Billions of years prior to the Cambrian explosion, through the time of the Dinosaurs and beyond in chronological order.

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This museum’s exhibit was way more dinosaur centric than the other life over time exhibits I’ve been to.  Their main attraction is the “Montana T-Rex”, the biggest T-Rex to be discovered inside the State of Montana.

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The museum is quite locally focused.  The exhibits on geological history contain a lot of information specific to the geographical area around Bozeman.  Most of the dinosaur exhibits are displayed along with a map of Montana which show where the bones were dug up.

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Seeing some of these specific exhibits actually changed the way I look at scenery.  Exhibits like this one, about the Beartooth Mountains, don’t just show how pretty they are, but show what rock formations can be seen, and how and when they developed.  The geological history behind all of these processes, from plate tectonics to atmospheric composition changes, and even processes involving air pressure changes and erosion all help explain why everything we observe is the color and shape that it currently is.  And, ultimately, for people who study natural history, all of these rock formations that we observe provided clues to Earth’s past, and helped these scientists discover what we now know.

I’ve looked at a lot of mountains, and a lot of natural scenery over the past few years.  It occurs to me that the scenery that we observe means something different to everybody.  Some people focus on the aesthetic nature of what they see, a beautiful mountain, a beautiful lake, a scenic overlook.  Others focus on the adventure.  Wow, this mountain would be great to climb, or this river would be crazy to kayak in.  But, still others are trying to deduce how this scenic view in front of them came to be.  They are the ones that see red rocks and see the process of rusting, which occurred over the course of 2 billion years, as early photosynthetic life gradually increased the oxygen content of the atmosphere, lead to the chemical reactions that made some rocks red, so long as they have had significant above ground exposure.  They are the ones that look at the rocks and see as story, a progression of events.

I almost felt bad, walking around the museum in my bicycle clothes, looking kind of like a bad-ass, talking to people about my bike trip, when the truth is, that I had only biked 7 miles so far, from the REI, to my hotel, and then to the museum.  It was the guy at the ticket window that had told me that Bozeman’s downtown was the best one in Montana.  He informed me that the museum and downtown were the two places to really see in Bozeman, so I decided to ride my bike downtown, get some lunch, and wait for my friend to join me.

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I was impressed by the downtown, particularly the bike parking.  After eating lunch at a Co-op (the kind of place that looks like a grocery store but sells fresh made lunch food to workers in downtown areas), I had some time to kill.  I was excited, getting kind of anxious, and my mind was active!  Maybe it was the 10 miles I had already ridden, enough to get my blood moving.  Maybe it was knowing what was to come.  Or, maybe it was the downtown, the vibrancy, and the unique-ness.

From book stores, to local shops, everywhere I went seemed to put me into an active process of deep thought.  For example, I saw a book.  It was titled “Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are incompatible.”  I thought to myself how ironic it is.  People become attracted to either Science or Religion, but usually do so due to the positive aspects of it; science and it’s intellectual curiosity, religion and the hope and purpose that it brings.  Yet, so many people, after choosing to love one or the other, spend more time focusing on the negative aspects of the other one, as opposed to the positive things that brought them to love either science or religion.

Just like that book, everything I saw brought me to some weird intellectual thought pattern.  I should go back to Bozeman sometime under different circumstances, and see if this is just the way the town works.  Is there something about the energy of this town that makes people just think in unique ways?

Many Montanans refer to Bozeman as “Boze-Angeles”.  In this part of the country, I am guessing this is not meant as a compliment.  That evening, after riding to Chico Hot Springs (more on that in my next post), a woman from Butte, MT would describe Bozeman as “pretentious”, and the place in Montana where one is most likely to be judged.  And, although I did not necessarily feel judged, I definitely sensed the pride here, consistent with what the cab driver, and others told me.  Still, I enjoyed the feeling of being adventurous, intellectual, and on the verge of a major adventure that would also be a major challenge, a major accomplishment, and open me up in a whole new way.