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The Best-Laid Plans

“In battle, what cannot be predicted is the enemy’s reaction; in exploration, what cannot be predicted is what is around the next bend in the river or on the other side of the hill.  The planning process, therefore, is as much guesswork as it is intelligent forecasting of the physical needs of the expedition.  It tends to be frustrating, because the planner carries with him a nagging sense that he is making some simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage, but may cause a dead loss when the mistake is discovered midway through the voyage.”

—Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

 

The journeys I take are not Voyages of Discovery, and they do notDCP_2966 involve dozens of men for several year.  Yet, I feel some sympathy for Ambrose’s description of Meriwether Lewis’s struggles in planning for the unknown.  Though it can sometimes be stressful, I deny that it is in fact frustrating – at least not during the planning phase itself.  I actually get a certain energy from the planning, spending much more time on it than necessary, and getting more excited for the trip ahead with every moment.

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I love reading a map – planning the route of a road trip is one of the best parts.  Deciding which personal effects to pack for a journey helps me realize my priorities.  Determining meals for a backpacking trip makes me examine my true needs.

However, it is true that I usually pack too much.  Maybe I am afraid of those “simple mistakes that could be easily corrected in the planning stage.”  Of course, I’m sure most of you can attest that bringing along unnecessary items can be as big an error as omitting a useful tool!

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The frustrating part for me is when the journey is not an adventure.  Making hotel and plane reservations do indeed try my patience.  I prefer to travel in a way that does not require advanced planning for every step of the way.  Yet, even planning the complicated logistics of a longer trip or one with multiple participants or specific objectives to accomplish can stimulate me.  In that case, it may be less excitement that I am feeling, and more a positive type of stress.  It is that feeling that I imagine Captain Lewis to have had while planning his famous journey to discover what would become the western two-thirds of the United States.

What about you?  Do you find planning and packing to be exhilarating or frustrating?  Do you have tups to make the process go more smoothly?  What is your favorite part about planning for a journey?

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The photos on this page document the packing portion of a research project that I worked with in Chile, ten years ago.  We not only had to pack our personal items, but also quite a bit of our food for four months, as well as materials for the project, including fence construction.  These photos show us packing the gear once in Santiago, then bringing it to the boat yard in Valparaiso, where it was loaded into crates for its journey to our island destination.  That was, indeed, a frustrating project!  And yes, we packed many things that we never used, and not enough of some items we couldn’t do without!  Luckily, we were not in uncharted waters, and were able to make things turn out alright in the end.

 

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A Human Pace

The second reason that Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is so fascinating to me, is its theme.  As an Anthropology major many years ago, I have a lasting appreciation of cultural exploration. I have also been particularly interested in hominid evolution since interning at the Field Museum of Natural History back in 1999.  At the time, I was involved in a project to create a computer-based “field trip” touring students through human evolution.  Technology-wise, our efforts were laughable in the face of what is commonplace today.  In fact, the Out of Eden project itself has a program to bring classroom students along for the walk, as it were.  It looks really neat – I wish I were a teacher or homeschooling parent and could sign my students up!

But I digress…

My particular interest in hominid evolution and expansion has focused on the linguistic repercussions.  I have always wondered if it would be possible to track expansion out of Africa based on the similarities of languages… and for now I am left to keep wondering!  Mr. Salopek is a journalist – his trip isn’t intended for scientific research, or to bring new facts to light for the world community.  Instead, he is documenting the way life is now in each of these places, with reflection on the first humans to have walked before him.  His intent is to slow down his speed of observation to a walking pace, to get to know the locals on his trek, and to bring that experience to the rest of us.  He has chosen to travel in a mode that humans – and one might add only humans – have always had at their disposal: our two feet.  In doing so, with all the added support and conveniences of modern life apart from transportation, he showcases the tremendous effort it must have taken those first humans, the drive they must have had to reach new lands.  Along the way, he records the struggles and ambitions of modern people along his route, in conversations and interactions that point out our universal human similarities, as well as our large cultural differences.

This is what travel is always about, for me.  I can find similarities and difference a couple of towns over – and not more or less of either on the other side of the world!  I may not get to walk around the globe, or the country, or even this state, but whenever I reach a new destination, I am full of curiosity about the people who live there.  I do get out of my car, off the bus or train, and just walk, through neighborhoods, fields, skyscrapers, or backcountry trails.  I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Salopek that you can’t see the world of people unless you are moving at a human pace.

Walk Around the World

IMG_0184Since I can’t do much of anything myself right now, I am living vicariously through others to get my adventure fix.  I recently read a months-old issue of National Geographic magazine, and found this article on one man’s plan to walk around the world, following the path of human expansion out of Africa and eventually into the Americas.  I find it fascinating on many levels!

For one, I have long had an interest in walking across the country.  This will never happen, largely because I think my weak joints would fall apart if I attempted it, but it is fun to think about.  In 2000, while hiking and walking regularly along Rattlesnake Creek in Missoula, Montana, I concocted a plan.  At the time, I imagined asking random strangers along my route for lodging – a spot to pitch a tent in a yard, or a couch to sleep on.  I would let word of mouth follow me ahead, and I would build a network of generous folks willing to help out their fellow travelers.  I would maintain a list of those willing to offer a couch, and screen potential travelers.  There might even be a place in all this for the internet, I thought.  Remember, this was at a time when we had just begun making our own plane reservations via online sites, before craigslist had spread out of the Bay Area, before Facebook (Friendster, now that’s a different story…).  Most people did not have cell phones, there wasn’t even decent infrastructure for cell phones and internet across the nation.  It is both humorous and overwhelming how much things have changed in such a short time!

In his around-the world trip, Paul Salopek seems to be doing an excellent job of integrating 21st-century technology into his primitive mode of transport.  The website for the project includes a wonderful array of information: “dispatches from the field,” “milestones,” and “map room” showcase these remarkable well.

 

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There was one more experience from the Torino Olympics that I wanted to share – the time that I saw Apolo Anton Ohno skate to a gold medal, complete with one of those weird moments of drama that seem to only happen in the Olympic Games.  However, life inserted a pause in my blogging, and in the meantime I came across a few references to some of the less traditional athletes in the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.  These are the ones who are competing for a country that they have only a tenuous relationship to, whether due to a relative’s birth status, timely marriage, or financial incentive.  The BBC did a fun job of summing them up for us here (along with a couple athletes who are competing with genuine passion for their home countries that also happen to lack facilities (i.e. snow) for winter sport training).

Among these, perhaps the weirdest is the Dominican cross-country ski team.  I say “perhaps” because a new strange fact could easily emerge about any of the others, but this couple seems to be winning so far… though they didn’t come anywhere near a podium, we are all still talking about them – and who here can name the actual gold medalist in that event (what event, even?)?

Gary di Silvestri and Angela Morone are US residents who skied for the small island nation nation of Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) in Sochi.  When I say “skied” I mean “signed up to ski” – neither of them finished their races (only one even started).  Deadspin has a long and involved analysis of their citizenship, past exploits, and athletic prowess here.  Is this tale of scamming the system true?  I can’t know, but even if only the most basic details, available to every one of us, is factual, this husband and wife clearly don’t get what the Olympics is really about.

What are the Games about?  This afternoon I finally got around to listening to a podcast from the crew at Pop Culture Happy Hour wherein these critics had a go at the whole concept of watching sports.  They made some good observations, but I would say that they missed some of the most important points in the function of the Olympics.  Is the system corrupt, the event over-commercialized?  Do we spend too much time talking about the back story on the athletes versus showing the competition?  Yes, yes, and yes.  However, this is also the only time, every four years, that these high-level athletes get to show off their skills, and we get to watch this extreme athleticism.

Everyone wants to know the star of the football team, has opinions on their MLB team’s manager, lists their favorite basketball stars.  How many of you could have named a skier, luger, or skater one month ago?  These athletes work and train hard their entire lives.  They go through a rigorous competition season of local, regional, and international races, culminating in a World Cup circuit of some sort.  Every four years, they get a chance to compete in events that the whole world is watching, a place where one run, race, or performance will determine whether they get a big chunk of metal to hang around their necks.  They get to skate under the flag of their country, alongside their teammates who may have been rivals just weeks before.  In some ways, it may make no difference in their overall standings in their World Cup or equivalent – it is a huge celebration of athletics and sportsmanship that is a break from their usual routine.  On the other hand, they may have only one shot at the Olympic Games, and their performances there could make a huge difference in sponsorships and other income, which could in turn determine whether they are able to continue their athletic careers.  When folks make up an athletic past, buy a place on an Olympic team, and then fail to even try to complete a race, they not only mock those individuals who have worked incredibly hard to get there, but they take the spotlight away from them as well, perhaps at what could have been fifteen minutes of well-deserved fame.

Ahn Hyun-Soo, dejected, stands next to Apolo Anton Ohno after his gold medal win in Torino, Italy

Ahn Hyun-Soo, dejected, stands next to Apolo Anton Ohno after his gold medal win in Torino, Italy

Of course, some of the athletes are competing under flags other than their native ones, for completely different reasons.  One that was left out of the BBC’s list above, presumably because it has been so high-profile, is the case of Viktor Ahn, formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo.  This guy was the top medalist in both Torino and Vancouver, for South Korea. However, he was injured last season, and was unable to compete in events which served as qualifiers for the Korean Olympic team.  So, he decided to move to Russia, gain citizenship there, and compete as a Russian.  This is also known as defecting.  Some fans lowered their opinion of Ahn as a result, but that didn’t stop him from medaling in Sochi, too.  Personally, I got a little tired of hearing his story over and over.

I saw Ahn compete in Torino, saw him come in second to Apolo

On the starting line in Torino '06

On the starting line in Torino ’06

Anton Ohno in the men’s 500 meter, and lead South Korea’s relay team to gold.  There were 7 initial heats in the competition, followed by 4 quarterfinals, 2 semifinals, and 2 final runs (one for 1st through 5th place, and one for 6th and 7th).  The semifinals and finals took place the day I was there.  In addition, the Men’s 5000 meter relay was also competed that day.  The relay looks pretty confusing on television, or even at some points in person.  However, once you get a handle on what you’re looking at, it is a beautiful sight, and remarkable that more skaters don’t get injured!  What a great experience to see these races in person.  I keep meaning to go to one of our local Midwestern tracks (such as the Petit Center in Milwaukee) to watch some short-track speed skating.

Skaters give each other a push...

Skaters give each other a push…

... during the men's 5000m relay in the Torino Olympics

… during the men’s 5000m relay in the Torino Olympics

The Koreans were great, but the personality and athleticism of Ohno won the day for me.  Seeing his passion when he won the finals of the 500 m was amazing, and witnessing his emotion during the medal ceremony was something I will never forget.  I am not usually a particularly patriotic person, but I even got a little choked up as I watched our flag rise to the strains of the Star-Spangled Banner, in that packed stadium.

Drama... this guy thought he deserved to parade his South Korean flag around the stadium... but it turned out that he had been disqualified, so Ohno carried the US flag around, instead!

Drama… this guy thought he deserved to parade his South Korean flag around the stadium… but it turned out that he had been disqualified, so Ohno carried the US flag around, instead!

 

Apolo Anton Ohno after skating to victory in the Men's 500 m, Torino 2006

Apolo Anton Ohno after skating to victory in the Men’s 500 m, Torino 2006

Medal ceremony of the Men's 500 m short track event, Torino '06 Olympic Games

Medal ceremony of the Men’s 500 m short track event, Torino ’06 Olympic Games

 

 

Weekend in Sweden

It has been a long time since I’ve posted an entry here, and I have a backlog of adventures to tell you all about!  But first, I thought I’d share this letter my mother wrote me about a weekend adventure to Sweden!  Yes, that’s right – flew all the way to Sweden for the weekend – it is a great sneak peek at the country and the culture, enticing me to try to visit it for myself one of these days.

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We did a crazy fun thing: we went to Sweden for a long weekend.  In the middle of winter (it was -10 C) with lots of snow.  The adventure began when Jeff bought a car from Volvo and learned that Volvo would pick up travel costs for a round trip if we bought according to a particular program and actually laid hands on said Volvo at the Swedish factory in Gothenburg.  So we did.

The new Volvo... test-driven in Sweden, scheduled to arrive in Chicago in a little over a month.

The new Volvo… test-driven in Sweden, scheduled to arrive in Chicago in a little over a month.

During a bout of insomnia  just before leaving I stayed up most of the night reading a book on Nordic Art.  My interest in Sweden blossomed once I saw these beautiful paintings illuminated by winter light.

What we did in 4 days:

Flew over, picked up at airport by Volvo driver and transported to Radisson in downtown Gothenburg

Visited Volvo factory and test drove car

Then off to Gothenburg to see the FABULOUS art museum

Late afternoon cocoa in one of the many many coffee and cocoa houses. Everyone seems to be in one or another in the late afternoon.  People walk in for cocoa carrying cross country skis or their brief cases or their shopping bags.

Dinner in a wonderful fish restaurant.

(Gothenburg was laid out by the Dutch in the 1600’s and has lots of splendid canals, a port, and plenty of fish.)

On the way to Gotheburg Train Station, pale blue winter light at 8 am.

On the way to Gotheburg Train Station, pale blue winter light at 8 am.

Train the next morning across all of southern Sweden from Gothenburg (west coast) to Stockholm (east coast.  Again we were in a city built on many islands, blessed with good public transportation and very expensive taxis.

Swedish Academy

Swedish Academy

Wandered the old city called Gamla Stan on foot where we took in the Swedish Academy, seat of the Nobel prize, the King’s palace (freezing looking guard standing outdoors like at Buckingham Palace.  Brrr.), lots of cute shops and old buildings (mainly 17th and 18th centuries), and then to the modern downtown area on the next island which we accessed by walking over a charming bridge.

Dinner at a pub called Kvarnen which was featured in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Highly recommended by us due to the ambiance, good Swedish meatballs, and the drunks singing a capella with incredibly good harmony.

Night-time in a truly charming and eccentric hotel (the Lady Hamilton) on Gamla Stan.

View from the hotel in Stockholm

View from the hotel in Stockholm

Then 4—count ‘em, 4—museums all in one day.  We began with Fotografiska, a photography only museum, then took the tram to another island called Djurgarden—gorgeous place of parks and woods and mansions.  A princely playground. The museums there were the Thielska, Prince Eugen’s home and

Prince Eugen's Palace

Prince Eugen’s Palace

gallery (highly recommended) and then the Vasa.

While the previous two were paintings primarily, the Vasa is a boat.  What a boat.  This is the Swedish Titanic built in the 1600s.  As it was leaving the port of Stockholm on its maiden voyage it sank in the harbor.  Raided over 400 years later and housed in this building, the Vasa Museum.  This is what I imagine is a pirate’s dream ship and it certainly seems to be the model for the ones we’ve seen in every swashbuckling film ever.  The ship is amazing, covered with refined carvings everywhere on the exterior.  While visitors don’t go on board, we walk up different floors of the building alongside the boat with explanations in side galleries.  Well worth the visit.

Vasa Museum

Vasa Museum

Then we dragged back to the hotel, and walked down the street to a little restaurant where we ate reindeer with lingonberries—yummy.

Bedtime, then up in the morning and raced to the plane home.

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Anyone who has more in-depth knowledge of Sweden and what it has to offer, I’d love to get some recommendations from you!