First Impressions: Chincoteague, Virginia

 

If you are female and grew up in the United States in the ‘70s/80’s, there’s a good chance you read Misty of Chincoteague. (It’s possible boys read this beloved novel as well, but I have yet to meet a gentleman who will admit to it.) This children’s novel* is set in the small community of Chincoteague, Virginia, and depicts the trials and tribulations of a family raising a filly (young horse) born to a wild horse. I don’t recall what about the book resonated with me, but something did and I read all of Marguerite Henry’s books in the ‘Misty’ series.

In a passing conversation with Mr. Os about B&Bs and cabins last year, it was brought to my attention that Washington, DC is comparatively close to Chincoteague Island.  In fact, it’s about a 3-hour straight shot by car. A visit to see the horses Misty is based on instantly appealed to me and the spot landed smack on my 2015 2015 Summer Bucket List. It was such a great visit that I decided to revisit the quiet island for some much needed stress relief.

After two trips to Chincoteague Island, along Virginia’s scenic Eastern Shore, one of the more important influences on a visitor’s first impressions is the time and season you are visiting the island.

“The season,” (essentially the summer months June, July and August) is the time of year when the sun is out, temperature is hot and being on an island offers ocean breezes; a wonderful respite from the land-locked scorch of DC humidity. If you are here during “the season” you’ll observe islanders in typical island attire (shorts, t-shirts and sandals) with a business as usual attitude. Souvenir shops are open and almost too plentiful in some spots, the boat tours are running (and worth it) and ice cream or coffee bar is churning out everyone’s favorite treat. It’s one part quaint, one part relaxing, and just invitingly frozen-in-time enough to make a perfect getaway.

Make no mistake, this is the kind of sleepy small town where no matter how much you might try to blend, islanders will instantly peg you as visiting. It’s a tight-knit, but friendly community (population under 3,000 per the 2010 census). You’ll be treated in a courteous manner, but don’t expect to be making new friends of locals at Chattie’s for happy hour. Nod, be polite and pass through.

If you grew up in a similar town or community, you know exactly what I mean. If you didn’t, it’s difficult to explain. Small, tight-knit communities are just that. Visitors move on, that’s the way it goes. It takes a long time to prove to these folks that you are worth an investment of their time.

But, you aren’t necessarily on Chincoteague to make new friends. If you made the trip, you are hear to see the famous ponies, relax, (over)eat seafood and enjoy the scenery, beautiful beaches and vibrant wildlife.

2015-08-18 15.32.37
The ponies of Assateague Island.

 

A visit in shoulder months surrounding “the season,” either late May, or early November, is a drastically different experience. Beach weather varies depending on the year, but it’s likely going to be overcast and chilly. More importantly, unlike “the season” when there are a series of festivals and things to do from Thursday through Sunday, people are left to their own devices.  Shops aren’t open during the week; some not at all. Visitor foot traffic just doesn’t warrant it and can’t support it.

Without the sunny skies the island feels tired, maybe a little forgotten. You get the feeling it’s a bit like time bypasses Chincoteague until it’s time to expect visitors. Cinco de Mayo is not much more than a passing thought—even at the local taco stand. When we recently visited it was more about the upcoming Mayoral election.

IMG_2356
Even grey days on Chincoteague Island are lovely.

Interestingly, I found islanders to be more welcoming in the off-season. While I don’t read much into it, I do believe it takes a special kind of traveler to visit Chincoteague outside the normal dates. The type of person who can appreciate when weather is grey and wet. Maybe it’s the kind of traveler who’s visited before and appreciates  quiet time to refresh and recharge. Maybe locals can sense this and are happy to oblige. Maybe they just appreciate a little extra off-tourism income.

Either way, a visit to Chincoteague is worth the time. Before you go, consider the type of experience you want and book accordingly.

*Yes, the novel launched a life long love of horses, which was sadly stifled short by an off-the-chart allergies to grass, hay…and (wait for it)…horses.

Author’s note: My personal travel philosophy is never to write while I’m away. I do keep notes in a journal. Observations help me to remember my impressions and experiences for your (and really my) enjoyment. To me, travel is about being in the moment, not spending the moment on a computer.

 

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

How to Pack for Kilimanjaro

Let me start with a few confessions.

Confession #1: I love a good capsule wardrobe for travel.

Confession #2: I admire people who can put 3 weeks of clothing into one carryon bag.

Confession #3: While I’m hardly “fashion forward” I do try to look my best at home and when I travel.

However, when I’m climbing a mountain, I’m all about comfort and safety so the above confessions are pretty much tossed out the window.

Whew, now that’s out of the way…Once you’ve committed to Kilimanjaro, you are going to get two things in abundance: advice and packing lists. Even the most well intentioned friends will have you over packed for this journey. Trust me when I say: Don’t. Do. It.

Before you run for the hills in tears, allow me to offer some advice. Do read the packing list from your trip organizer. Think about what you need, what you can borrow, etc. (Not so shameless plug: review my beg, buy or borrow post for ideas). Take a deep breath.

The best way, IMO, to tackle your packing list is to break it into two parts. The first is what your porter carries. While this is a godsend come day three, porters are only allowed to carry so much. Spend a few minutes deciding what you really need versus what’s a safety net.

2015-03-28 05.16.31
In case you thought I was joking. Our Porter and Guide doing the required gear “weigh-in” before we started climbing.

The second list is what you want in your own day pack. You don’t have a weight restriction for your own pack. But, you’ll enjoy your climb A LOT more if you don’t burden yourself with unnecessary items.

2015-03-22 11.59.38
All ready to be packed! A mix of Kilimanjaro items from pack list #1 and #2

Kilimanjaro Pack List #1. (Again, this is what your porter carries for you. Modify the quantity of items based on the duration of your climb. I did the Rongai Route, which is six days. Other routes are shorter so you’ll need less clothing.)

  • 6 pairs socks. Invest in heavy-duty running or hiking socks so your heels and toes have some “cushion.”
  • 3 dry weave type shirts, short sleeve
  • 2 dry weave type shirts, long sleeve
  • 1 pair of hiking pants (converter style that double as shorts are best—in a fabric that dries out fast)
  • 1 pair extra thick, wool socks*
  • 2-3 pairs long underwear/base layers (top and bottom)*
  • 1 pair of heavy duty down pants, ideally wind/water proof (think ski pants)*
  • 1 all weather down jacket*
  • Winter hat*
  • Gloves*
  • Neck warmer, scarf*
  • Hand/foot warmers*
  • Select toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, travel size deodorant, bug repellant, sunscreen. That’s all you need. This is a hike, not a beauty pageant.)
  • 1 Headlamp and one small flashlight—invest in a good, light LED headlamp, you’ll thank yourself later.
  • 1 Sleeping bag (Depending on how much your sleeping bag weighs, these may have to in your backpack)
  • 1 Sleeping bag insert/sheet

* items are for the final climb to Uhuru Peak. What’s odd about packing for Kilimanjaro is that half your gear is for the final 12 hours of the climb.

Kilimanjaro Personal Pack List #2. (What you carry up the mountain)

  • Water bottle—Insulated is best but a regular bottle will work
  • Camera
  • Book or journal if you use them
  • Rain jacket
  • Rain poncho
  • Warm fleece jacket or “outer layer”
  • Sunglasses
  • Sun screen and/or hat
  • Passport, ID and cash. (There is nothing to buy on Kilimanjaro so you really don’t “need” cash. But, if you bring cash on your climb its best to keep it on your person)
  • Hard candy (bring it, if you don’t use it the porters will HAPPILY accept it)
  • Starbucks Via packets (what can I say, I need my caffeine)

Put these items in a Ziploc or dry bag inside your own pack:

  • Band-Aids and moleskin
  • Sandwich bags (if you forget to water proof your boots, or the water proofing fails, put fresh socks on, add bags and get back on the trail. Thank MacGyver)
  • 1 pair of clean socks
  • Travel pack of kleenex
  • Any meds that you take regularly
  • Hand sanitzer, wet wipes

Not referenced: dry bags. Invest in some dry bags for your clothes. Don’t be a smarty and think your stuff won’t get wet. After getting soaked on the Inka Trail, I own several different try bags. My favorite were from a now closed local store, Hudson Trail Outfitters. REI, LLBean, etc., have decent ones. When purchasing dry bags, make sure the item has  a very tight seal, otherwise its worthless.

Pro tip: Put everything in your dry bags and weigh them before you depart. Bags often add unplanned weight to your items. Depending on the final weight or your gear, you may need to shuffle and repack so your porter isn’t breaking any park rules.

Two items I packed that, in hindsight, weren’t needed: mosquito spray and after bite (think: itch reliever). There are pretty much zero mosquitos on Kilimanjaro.

The final word goes to cameras. My preferred camera is a larger, multi-lens digital camera. Because of space and weight, I decided to bring the small “point and shoot” seen above. I was worried about the quality of photos but that was wasted energy.

Most camera battery’s (and iPhone’s) freeze half way to Uhuru Peak. Your best bet to capture those YOLO images is to bring an extra battery and keep it and your camera tucked inside your jacket. The warmth is usually enough to keep the battery from draining.

Happy packing (and climbing)!

2015-03-28 05.57.03.jpg
The start of the Rongai Route, Mt Kilimanjaro, Africa.

Facts (and Fictions) about Climbing Kilimanjaro

If climbing Kilimanjaro is on your “bucket list” you’ll find plenty of information about the climb. Complete strangers will transform into smiling, well-intentioned people who offer you counsel. Some of it is sage advice, some not so much.

Annually, about 25,000 people attempt to climb what is the highest free standing mountain in Africa. Of those visitors, estimated success rates according to Kilimanjaro National Park are less than thirty-percent for five-day routes.

Less than half reach Uhuru Peak (the Summit) doing the six-day route I climbed. An eight-day route promises the best chance for success. That’s because it provides the best amount of time to become acclimatized. Although I had horrible altitude sickness, I did summit Kilimanjaro, and offer a little “myth busting” for fellow travelers.

Fact. Your guide checks your oxygen and pulse rate each night.
It’s a painless process that tracks your overall health during the climb. Guides are monitoring your body’s ability to adjust to the thinning atmosphere. An oxygen rate below 60 will, however, will result in you being sent down to lower altitudes.

2015-03-31 17.39.14 HDR
My pre-Summit oxygen check. Why do I look distressed? Because my oxygen levels went from a stellar 99-97% to 88%. In retrospect, a sign of a long, tough night ahead.

Fiction. Guides will turn you back at the slightest hint of a problem.
Guides are there to help to ensure you reach Uhuru. Safely. Be open and honest about everything you are feeling. Got a headache? Feet hurt? Speak up.

I was very open that I have asthma, and cannot stress the importance of that to my ultimate success. Guides kept an extra close eye on my breathing and slowed my pace considerably at lower altitudes. While I H-A-T-E-D being stuck at the end of the line, I needed all that extra stored strength and energy.

Fact &Fiction. You are going to puke.
Not everyone will but it is not uncommon for even the fittest hikers to vomit on the way up to Uhuru Peak. Stomach upset is commonly brought on by a combination of fatigue and altitude sickness. Be prepared to set your jaw, and get right with it. Then keep climbing.

Fiction. Porters can carry everything you pack.
Not even close, because they’re lugging food, stoves and tents. Each person is allowed to pack a maximum of 30lbs of gear for your porter to carry. Anything else is on you. Literally. I try to Pack light, and pack smart. I carry rain gear, snacks, sunglasses, Cottonelle wipes, an extra layer, hat, camera and water, and personal medication/sunblock.

Fact. The most successful climbs to the Summit have a 1:1 or 2:1 guide-to traveler ratio on Summit day.
My tour had the same amount of guides as climbers for our climb to the Summit, allowing for personalized attention, motivation and medical care (if necessary). Worst-case scenario, a sick traveler can return to lower altitudes without disrupting other climbers. In this case, I was the sick traveler

Fiction. Summiting is all about physical preparation. Being physically prepared is critical, but only half the battle. You have to be emotionally ready and mentally resolved. While training, put yourself in situations that are mentally exhausting, boring and uncomfortable. Because come Summit night, you will be mentally exhausted on top of dealing with a host of potential discomforts. For me, getting to the top meant struggling through asthma, and overcoming altitude sickness. That  had everything to do with mental willpower and resolve.

Fact. Your guide knows all.
Don’t second-guess your guide, Kilimanjaro is his office. Get input on your gear before you take off for Kilimanjaro National Park. Chances are you over-packed and they are an invaluable resource for sorting out what is useful vs. what is weight.

2015-03-31 05.40.17
Our second guide, “G-Man” who decided it was time for me to rest and have a snack. Who needs snacks when you can take selfies?

Fiction. Guides travel with Oxygen, to dispense if someone is having difficulty during the climb.
Yes, guides do travel with oxygen. No, oxygen is not prophylactic. That’s a combination red flag/white flag. Once you require oxygen, your climb is done, and your hike returning down to lower altitudes has begun.

Fact. Guides and porters liked to be thanked.
If you think your guide and porters did a great job getting you to Uhuru Peak, don’t be shy. Tell them. It’s a source of pride for them. Trinkets like high quality wool socks are also appreciated. But, pro-tip, if you really enjoyed your trip and want to do something unique, offer to get them a banana beer on the way back down the mountain. It’s an acquired taste but a not-to-be missed experience.

 

Planning for a Trip to Kilimanjaro

Exactly one year ago, I completed the number-one item on my bucket list; traveling to Tanzania, and summiting Kilimanjaro.

Anyone preparing to climb Kilimanjaro (“Kili” as it’s called) can find an abundance of information on the Internet. In fact, there is so much information it’s overwhelming.

Add to that friends, family and strangers who’ve never climbed a hill offering their best intentioned “helpful suggestions” about what they’ve heard about what to pack, proper physical preparedness, and who knows what all and your eyes may very well cross.

I listened to it all because, frankly I was a little intimidated. I’ve hiked Nepal, Colorado, New Hampshire, the Inca Trail, etc. Still, I knew enough to know to take it seriously.

I was right.

Among the “challenging” vacations I’ve taken, Kili was by far the most physically demanding. Psychologically, it rates third, but this is not a trip to take on a whim.

Unless, of course, whim is the usual way you approach things. For others visiting Tanzania for the first time, I jotted down a few insights from my experience. I winnowed it down to the things and tips I found valuable.

But first, let me set the stage. To view Kili from the right perspective—consider it’s the same perspective as viewed out of a Boeing’s window.

IMG_0907
This is the view of Moshi and surrounding areas roughly half way up Kilimanjaro. Breathtaking (literally and figuratively)!

If it’s not the view out of an airplane window, sooner or later something about Kilimanjaro’s landscape will remind you of somewhere else you’ve been. Because climbing it means traveling through a little bit of everywhere, and a series of climates from sea level along the way up to 19,800 feet.

Beginning at the equator, ascending through lush rainforest, then on to grasslands, then alpine deserts, and finally arctic summit. Temperature variation ranges from hot and humid, to “I can’t feel my face or my legs…we have to go back down?”

With that in mind, the few things I found most important when climbing Kili are:

1.     Plan your trip at least six months in advance. As mentioned, this is not a “last minute” trip, unless you already have everything you need, and maintain a very active lifestyle. I started researching tour companies, gear, training, vaccinations, visa, medical documentation—those little things take big chunks of time. I maintain you need six months to get it everything done and train sufficiently (mentally and physically).

My favorite resource for training is the book Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro . It’s an easy read that is direct, and accurate. I customized my training based on what the authors did. Helpful Hint: Do cardio wearing your daypack to help your body adjust to this added weight, feel and wear before you climb. I also urge adding yoga, stretching and weight training.

2.     Bring used gear to the climb. Allow time to break in gear, and to get comfortable with it. Take time to organize and test all gear in as many types of weather as you can find. Pick the coldest day to walk in your Summit down jacket, wearing a properly weighted (35lbs) daypack. Or walks in rain gear, adding a rain poncho to keep everything dry. This also helps to mentally prepare for what’s ahead.

I believe there is a psychology behind packing (and over packing). The more gear is used before a climb, the more confidence there is in it, and the less one needs—or wants. Superfluous items are just added weight.

3.     Choose your travel companions wisely. Your success and safety directly relate to the tour company you select and your climbing guide.

Our guide estimated there are about 300 tour company’s operating in Tanzania. Anything over ten requires good old-fashioned “elbow grease.” The website Kili Adventures has lots of traveler reviews on the different outfitters, look at Trip Advisor and network your friends for recommendations.

Specifically examine: were travelers satisfied with their experience, the service and search for those intangible things especially important to you. I decided to travel with a company that provided jobs to Tanzanians. I also wanted a team that had worked together. Finally, I was interested in being exposed to local customs and culture.

Before booking, here are a few questions to ask the operator:

·      How large can I expect our group to be?

·      How many guides climb the Summit with travelers?

·      How many times has your guide summited?

·      If you have a specific a medical condition, asthma let’s say, ask if the operator has experience in and is comfortable dealing with that issue.

We had three different conference calls with our travel operator to review the above, and travel insurance. Don’t be bashful.

4.     Shyness will be overcome, or it will do you in. I’ll put it this way. Altitude sickness cannot be described. To experience it, as I did, is an entirely different perspective. You shift from livin’ the dream, to waking up in a nightmare. Symptoms can include sleeplessness, dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Of all of these, at 16,000 feet, the last symptom is the most miserable. I’m not saying that I experienced it (because that would be embarrassing) but modesty goes out the window and over the side. Not generally life threatening, altitude sickness is serious because it can mean not summiting. Listen to your guide, listen to your body, and then listen to your guide again.

5.     Be thorough and thoughtful about what you pack. You’ll receive packing lists from your tour provider in addition to opinions about what to bring.

The onus is yours to determine what you need. I prefer traveling light so I have room to pick up souvenirs. Of all the things we were told to bring, the five I most appreciated were:

·      Wet Wipes. If you are staying at a hut, you have access to a shower of numbingly cold water. Wipes are a great way to clean up and for emergencies (I’ve been told), so consider wipes appropriate for private parts. A few ten packs are better than a family-sized container.

·      Tent lights. These small, light-weight lights can be found at any outdoor or recreational store. If you are sharing a tent, these help because you don’t have to use your headlamp, and can avoid blinding your tent mate. Also useful for late-night nature visits.

·      (Extra) Camera battery. Cold drains camera batteries. Bring an extra one, or a portable iPhone battery. You don’t want your device to die before Summit night.

·      Electrolyte tablets. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this last-minute addition to my bag. Be it Gatorade tablets, goop or generic electrolytes, helps avoid dehydration and provides extra energy for Summit night. My tablets were climb saving, and helped prevent even more serious issues of altitude sickness.

Kilimanjaro is truly the adventure of a lifetime. Despite my “extremely mild, nothing to see here, don’t worry about me, I’ll catch up” altitude sickness, summiting was a very proud moment. I’m so glad I did it and recognize my next journey has a tough act to follow.

DSCF3025
Kibo Hut: Base Camp before you start the final climb.

If you plan to climb Kili, I wish you tenacity, perseverance and happiness as you reach Uhuru. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions. I’m not an expert, but I love to talk travel, and collect stamps on my passport.

HomeTown Tourist: WONDER

 

Washington DC will never be a mecca for what’s on point in fashion, sports or art. But, the Smithsonian is working overtime to at least put us in the conversation.  (Thank you, Smithsonian!) Exhibit A: 2014’s American Cool at The National Portrait Gallery.

After two years of renovations, The Renwick Gallery reopened at the end of  2015 and is the latest proof point that we are not a city full of stodgy politicians and presidents who don’t live up to the hype.

The current exhibit, entitled WONDER, is delightfully just that. (Yes, I used the word delightful.)  The gallery lends its space to nine contemporary artists who created “site-specific” installations. In English, each exhibit is customized to the room, hallway or ceiling that serves as host to the finished masterpiece.

What results is unique series of massive works of art that are simply beautiful. You can wander through each room, walking around or, in the case of Patrick Dougherty’s exhibit (below), through enormous pods of willows and saplings.

2016-02-26 14.20.55

To truly enjoy WONDER, don’t rush from room-to-room. Slow down. Stand on your tip toes to peak down the center of the reconstructed hemlock. Circle through rubber tires a few times. Stand in the corner to marvel at the “wallpaper” Jennifer Angus created. And, lay down in the grand salon to really marvel at the waves Janet Echelman installed. (Trust me fellow, germaphobes, put your jacket up over your head and lay down.)

PROTIP: Thanks to press like this, WONDER is P-A-C-K-E-D on the weekends. To miss the worst of the crowds, take a lunch break or leave work early. Make sure your camera or iPhone is charged. Photos are encouraged and you are going to want to photograph the heck out of WONDER.

The Renwick is open daily from  10:00 – 5:30 pm. The first floor installations will be on exhibit through May 8, 2016. The second floor installations will be on display through July 10, 2016.

2016-02-26 14.10.06

In Search Of: Inspiration

If you’ve stopped by, you probably noticed my outdated and semi-abandoned blog. I’ve sorely neglected my little slice of cyber real estate.

Why disregard something that made me happy? I lost my inspiration and I just haven’t been able to find it.

inspire

If we could press the rewind button on life for a moment…In April, I returned from Kilimanjaro where I obtained the number one missing stamp in my passport. I was eager to share my adventures. I was so eager to share my adventures I made arrangements to do some guest writing. I wrote two excellent stories –totally biased but they were GOOD- about preparing for Kilimanjaro and what’s like to climb the highest free standing mountain in Africa. I submitted them, eager for some affirmation of the work, eager to know when they would be published and how many photos were needed to accompany the each story.

I waited. I waited some more. I followed-up. And then I waited…and waited…and honestly, I’m still waiting nine months later.

Okay, I’m not literally waiting any more. I totally gave up.

At first my ‘never accept no for answer’ mentality kicked. I looked around for other opportunities. Nothing seemed like the fit or the bloggers said they weren’t interested in guest content.

While I was looking around for other opportunities, I started to notice how much sponsored content exists in world of travel. Honestly, I think it’s everywhere. We just tend to notice things more when it’s a topic or subject we are passionate about. The one that sent me off into the deep end was a travel post about avocados. Yes, the Avocado Board of Mexico wanted you to share your favorite travel stories over recipes that include avocados.

I really try to abide by a philosophy where I respect another person’s feelings, right to earn a living and have their own views, even if I might personally disagree. And on this, I disagreed. I couldn’t see the passion, the joy, or frankly the connection to travel. That ‘take no prisoners’ mentality that was just at my fingertips suddenly slipped. Now it was an arms length away and moving further as the days passed.

Then, life happened. First, there were family health woes. Stressful, but everyone survived and is great. Then there was work. It just wasn’t materializing the way clients committed. Then, my amazing canine companion passed away. He came into my life when he was three and we had some fantastic adventures. Caring for him in his twilight years was an ongoing joy and total pain in the ass. But saying goodbye was horrible. I’m still very sad and feel ridiculous sharing with people. And, in case you were wondering, losing someone (human or animal companion) does wonders when it comes to inspiring your writing. That’s sarcasm, by the way. The hits kept coming, too, that but those stories aren’t mine to share yet. Suffice to say, I had to step up to the plate big time in a caretaker capacity.

knock
Is that you knocking, inspiration?

After months of waiting for the something… hello?…inspiration fairy?…I still have nothing. And in the interim all the little things that were just annoying are suddenly 10-foot high hurdles: I hate the design of my blog, why can’t I find a design that matches the vision in my head? How do you write about travel when you are marooned in one location? Can you be credible? How do you write when it’s your own experience, not paid content? I don’t have the answer but it’s easy to see how sometimes, the mind is a terrible thing to be alone with.

This probably begs the question: why exactly am I hear being all ‘woe is me’?

In January I swapped my annual goals for Three Words. (The idea came from Chris Brogan and you can read about it 3 Words.) Goals were still too scary and overwhelming. But three words to guide me seemed a little more my speed this year. One of my words is write.

I’m still figuring out how to make this work when I feel lackluster and uninspired. I don’t have the answer. But, if you stuck with me this long, maybe you’ll stick around to see what’s next?

 

Kilimanjaro: A Mystic Welcome

Kili National Park
No matter what route you decide take when climbing Kilimanjaro, your trek starts here. You (or your guide) have to register and obtain park permits at the Kilimanjaro National Park’s main gate. The fog when we arrived created a bit of a mystic pre-trek feeling. Photo circa: March 2015.