Dropping Buckets: Updates and Reflections from the Last Five Months

Call me Steph Curry, because I’ve been dropping buckets left and right.  However, I’m not talking about basketball.

What is one supposed to do if they accomplish most of their personal bucket list items before they’re 26 years old?  Well, of course there are always more things to accomplish.  There are also ways to expand upon current accomplishments.  Earlier in life, I had been lucky enough to accomplish some of my long term goals, such as graduate from Virginia Tech and work in a National Park.  More recently however, the transition between 2015 and 2016 has been filled with a lot of activity, and I’ve been fortunate to drop many things from my bucket list, and there seems to be no end in sight.  This post will (try to) cover the past five months in a way that is hopefully interesting and inspiring, rather than just a list.  But how is someone really supposed to cover 5 months in one post?

November

my last photo in Seattle
my last photo in Seattle

A surprise to some of my readers who may not know, I in fact moved out of Seattle.  My year in Seattle was phenomenal, but wasn’t without setbacks.  While I was having a good time and had great friends and a job I really liked, I ultimately decided three things:  Seattle was still “too big” of a city for me (I particularly dislike traffic), I HATE spending my income on rent, and I wanted to make a triumphant return to seasonal, outdoor recreation based work and having an apartment isn’t particularly conducive to that.  That’s not to discredit the amazing beauty that lies within Seattle, the surrounding areas, and the Pacific Northwest.  In fact, there’s a lot I miss from Seattle, including the incredible music scene and listening to KEXP, the plethora of fine museums to visit, my favorite beer spots including Reubens and Stoup breweries and the College Inn Pub, and my Saturday’s spent watching Tech football with fellow Hokies at Buckley’s Bar.  Don’t even get me started on the mountains.  There are also experiences that I did not accomplish in a year that Seattle would have provided phenomenal access to in the future, such as visiting Alaska and Hawaii, Vancouver and British Columbia in Canada, Mt. Hood, Crater Lake, the Columbia River Gorge and other wonders around Oregon, and Mt. Adams in Washington to name a few.  Sometimes missing out on certain opportunities means experiencing other opportunities, none of them being wrong or right/better or worse, they just happen to be whats available at the time.

For me, that meant ROAD TRIP!

Guadalupe Peak
Guadalupe Peak

From Seattle, I’d be headed back to Connecticut, in order to drop off some larger items at home that wouldn’t be useful for my return to housing provided seasonal work, but that I couldn’t exactly leave in Seattle.  This time, I’d be taking the long way home to experience some things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but also revisit favorite spots and old friends.  Long story short, I took over two weeks to travel from Seattle to Connecticut.  Highlights included lifetime firsts that had been on my bucket list for a long time:  visiting Missoula, MT, Zion National Park, UT, New Mexico, Austin, TX and New Orleans, LA.  One of my favorite moments from the trip was summiting Guadalupe Peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas.  It had been a goal of mine for a long time.  When I was younger, I had read that Guadalupe Mountains National Park was one of the least visited parks in the US, and since that moment I had wanted to go.  However, arriving late in the afternoon from Albuquerque, I didn’t know whether I would get any hiking in.  Despite a late start, early sunset, and a cloud covered peak with no chance of a view, I set out to quickly hike the 8.4 mile round trip peak.  On my way up, people advised against my ascent, telling me it takes a long time.  I knew I was going against my best judgement, heading into darkness alone.  However, I motored on, reaching the summit despite my own doubts, and descended safely in a total of about 3 hours, reaching the campground just after the onset of darkness.  It was cool to say I had stood on “The Top of Texas” even though it was rushed.  Total number of buckets dropped:  6

a visit to the legend, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Austin, TX
a visit to the legend, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Austin, TX

I was also fortunate enough to visit old faithful favorite places with great friends such as Helena, MT and Blacksburg, VA, Salt Lake City, UT and Atlanta, GA for a Virginia Tech-Georgia Tech football game.  I had the pleasure of celebrating the retirement of two the the National Park Service’s finest employees, Mike Meldrum and Mary Jo White of Great Smoky Mountains National Park at a retirement party that brought together many familiar faces.

As far the bucket list is concerned, it is amazing how many things I got to do on this trip.  However, it’s also amazing how much I had to skip in the name of getting home for Thanksgiving and not spending too much money.  I mean, I basically blew right by places such as the Grand Canyon and Big Bend National Park.  It is a true testament to how much the United States has to offer.  Overall a successful and safe trip, on which I got to hike in some capacity on about 7 or 8 days out of 16.

December

Freiburg, Germany
Freiburg, Germany

Almost as soon as Thanksgiving was over, I was off again, this time internationally.  This trip was my first international trip since Ireland four or five years prior.  The itinerary for this trip was Germany, with quick visits to France, Switzerland, and Ireland.  Do I have to even tell you why Germany has been on my bucket list?  Beer!  Germany is considered one of the mecca’s of brewing culture, and as great as it is to drink imported beer here in America, you have to go straight to the source.  But Germany is also a place of important history, excellent artwork, and current socio-enviro political leadership.  It just so happens that I am lucky enough to have a tremendous friend from college living there right now, and she was generous enough to host me.  What an excellent host she was.  Not only did she take me to local breweries to sip perfectly estery and phenolic hefeweizen and crystal clear pilsner, she took me to my first European soccer match, and to a place that has captured my imagination since my youth:  Grindelwald, Switzerland.  In particular, Grindelwald is hallowed ground for anyone interested in climbing, ice climbing, and mountaineering.  It is home to a mountain called The Eiger (or Ogre in English), and the Nordwand (or north face) is one of the the most challenging, inspiring, but also deadliest climbing faces in the world.  I have read countless accounts of attempts on the Nordwand in books such as Jon Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams and Eiger:  Wall of Death by Arthur Roth.  It has been immortalized in motion too, by movies such as “The North Face” and outdoor films like “The Swiss Machine” showing Ueli Steck’s record setting ascent of the face.  I truly don’t believe an ascent of The Eiger is in the cards for me, but to stand beneath it and revere it in the snow on a sunny day in Switzerland was beyond description.  I am incredibly grateful for the experience.

beneath The Eiger Nordwand
beneath The Eiger Nordwand

Reading is great and can open up the world to anyone, but I firmly believe it is important to match areas of interest with real life, in the flesh experience, if possible.  To me, drinking beer in Germany and standing beneath The Eiger in Switzerland were culminating moments in my life.  I was able to invest all of my senses into two of my major interests and geographical locations that I have read about my whole life.

Freiburg vs. Berlin
Freiburg vs. Berlin

However, buckets didn’t stop dropping with Germany and Switzerland.  I also was able to visit Dublin, Ireland and stay with a few friends.  I didn’t make it to Dublin on my last trip to Ireland, so a visit to the capital has been long awaited.  I was actually pleased to find that Ireland is also making phenomenal strides in the world of craft beer.  Also, visiting France and eating croissants is a cultural and gastronomical “must.”

Total number of buckets dropped:  5

January

Remember the epic return to outdoor recreation based seasonal work I had mentioned?  I had planned for it to start in January, in hopes of receiving a winter hut caretaker position with the Appalachian Mountain Club (an organization for whom I’ve already worked) and continuing into the spring and summer with National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).  Well, I got rejected by both in January…womp.  Talk about throwing all of my eggs and my main reason for leaving Seattle into two baskets.  I will admit, I was sorely disappointed and began questioning my skills as an outdoors person.  Being that my life was blown wide open in terms of timeline and employment, I started exploring other options.  Initially, I tried to move to Montana.  I could have done it, but things weren’t lining up how I hoped, and ultimately got frustrated with the process (probably prematurely) and bailed on the idea.  On the computer one day, I called my brother into the room and said, “screw it, let’s go to South or Central America.”

after a morning of surf, Playa Longosta
after a morning of surf, Playa Longosta

My brother, as you may know from People in the Outdoors – Owen DeMasi – July 2015, is a passionate surfer.  He is also a quite competent Spanish speaker and has a strong interest in Latin American history.  It has been a long time dream of ours to travel together to a south or central American country to experience the culture, and of course, the surf.  We threw out many ideas, including but not limited to Panama, Colombia, and Costa Rica.  Ultimately, Costa Rica was a no brainer.  First, my brother has already been there.  He knows the country quite well.  While it would have been cool for him to visit a new place, his familiarity allowed us to spend less time planning, more time doing, and use some of his active social connections in the country for housing and fun.  Additionally, while many other countries have great surf, few have such consistent, abundant, and accessible surf as Costa Rica.  We ended up getting some great surf for the first four days in and near Tamarindo, but got skunked in Samara, Jaco, and Playa Hermosa.  Despite the lack of waves in Jaco (a rare occurrence), the day was not lost, as we actually got to visit with Carton Villalobos, Costa Rica’s foremost surfboard shaper.  It was an absolute delight to watch him work, and watch as my brother, a surfboard shaper himself, talk about designs, techniques, and tools with Carton.  Surfboard shaping is a fascinating art, and watching Carton work was a beautiful experience.

my brother at Playa Negra. Photo courtesy of www.dreamseasurfcampcostarica.com
my brother at Playa Negra. Photo courtesy of http://www.dreamseasurfcampcostarica.com

The funny thing is, Costa Rica is a very mountainous country, with mountains that rise above 12,000 feet, including many scalable volcanoes.  Costa Rica also features numerous national parks.  So, how much hiking did I do?  None.  Initially we thought we might do some hiking and visit some of the parks, but sometimes things happen and opportunities lead you to other places.  The closest we spent to the mountains was our one night in the interior of the country, in a small town called Rio Piedras.  It is in fact one of the smallest towns in which I’ve ever been.  We spent the day swimming in Lake Arenal, under the shadow of the Arenal Volcano.  This location is in fact world renowned for wind surfing and kite surfing.  But that’s the closest we got to the mountains.  It’s okay, it was a phenomenal trip anyway, and sharing in the surf with my brother was an absolute treat.

Arenal Volcano in the clouds
Arenal Volcano in the clouds

While getting rejected by the AMC and NOLS was a huge bummer, it also opened up the door for a long desired brotherly trip to central America.  Had I gotten the jobs I wanted, I don’t know when or if this trip would have ever happened.  It was a truly special experience, and while I got to check it off the bucket list, it also inspired me to hopefully return to Costa Rica and central America for a bit more exploration, next time with a bit more hiking.  And while I’ve surfed now many times with my brother, I’ve yet to get him on a backpacking trip.   Soon…

Buckets dropped:  1

February

through El Yunque
through El Yunque

One month later, my thirst for hiking was sated in El Yunque Bosque Nacional (National Forest) in Puerto Rico.  On a rainy day at the end of a short family trip to Puerto Rico, my brother and Dad joined me on a few short hikes in this beautiful national forest, including Mt. Britton Tower and Juan Diego Falls.  Thankfully, the clouds cleared for a few moments on top of Mt. Britton to reveal glimpses of a grand view.  Another long story short, my dad actually ended up getting lost on the trail to Juan Diego Falls (we had separated briefly for my brother and I to explore one of the falls).  He ended up missing a critical turn, and going farther up the right side of the falls than intended.  After running up and down the trail with no signs of him, my brother and I began to get quite worried.  I continued farther and farther up the right side of the falls, and thankfully happened to catch a glimpse of his white Virginia Tech hat above the crest of a hill.  He had in fact ended up on the steeper and trailless left side of the falls and was in the process of a dangerous descent.  I got his attention and got him back on the right side of the falls, and we descended safely together on the proper trail.  Funny now, but at the time we legitimately thought he was lost.  Not to mention that a steep, slippery, and trailless descent is not a place for a 58 year old with bad knees, hip, and back.

Juan Diego Falls
Juan Diego Falls

Another highlight from the trip, was visiting Old San Juan, the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico.  The old city is walled in its entirety and features historic sites such as Castillo San Cristobal and Castillo San Felipe de Morro, two forts built by the Spanish the 1700’s that were continually active and added to throughout World War II.  Old San Juan is a bustling and colorful city, combining locals and tourists, historical preservation and contemporary trends, to create a wonderful environment for all.  It was a beautiful place to explore.

Castillo San Cristobal
Castillo San Cristobal

I can’t say Puerto Rico was exactly on my bucket list, but I was definitely grateful to visit, as I am generally interested in travel and other cultures.  However, it was cool to step foot on the island that one of my favorite bands, Cultura Profética, calls home.  I had also, for years, wanted to try mofongo, Puerto Rico’s unofficial national dish consisting mostly of fried and mashed green plantains.  Turns out, just as I expected, it’s delicious.  So for buckets dropped I’ll say 1 or 2 – ish.

(post continues below video)

March

my brother at Cane River Falls
my brother at Cane River Falls

Continuing with the tropical trend, I most recently returned from a week in Jamaica.  This trip was a long time coming.  My brother and I, along with a few other friends, have been avid reggae music fans since our youth.  I have very vivid memories of the first time I heard Bob Marley and the Wailers as a kid, and being introduced to Steel Pulse (not Jamaican, but English and Rastafarian) by my older cousin.  In high school, I was in a reggae focused band.  Visiting the very country where this powerful form of music was created has been a longtime dream.  My brother and I were able to rally three of our friends (mostly former band mates) to join us in this reggae pilgrimage.  In the planning stage of this trip, I was excited about the prospect of hiking Blue Mountain Peak, the tallest in Jamaica at 7,402 feet.  Naturally, just like Costa Rica, hiking never happened.  While I hardly blink at 14 miles, it’s hard to get other people that don’t necessarily define themselves as “hikers” to simply walk a strenuous 14 miles.  Not to mention the logistical challenge of reaching the trail head, given the fact that our Toyota Camry rental car couldn’t handle the unimproved dirt roads that require a 4×4 for safe travel in the Jamaican mountains.  However, despite missing out on the hike, Jamaica offers plenty of natural wonder that any avid hiker can revel in.  As for music lovers, history buffs, and food travelers, there’s something for you too.  Beautiful beaches and baby blue waterfalls make up most of the list, and some of the places we enjoyed were Cane River Falls (a place mentioned by Bob Marley in these lyrics from his song “Trench Town”:  “up a cane river to wash my dreads/upon a rock I rest my head”), Reach Falls, Blue Hole, Lime Cay, and Fern Gully.  For lovers of jerk chicken, make the trek to Boston Bay, home of the Boston Jerk Centre, the birthplace of jerking.  You’re likely to find jerk food you’ve never encountered anywhere else, such as jerk lobster or sausage.

Bob Marley at Cane River Falls
Bob Marley at Cane River Falls

 

my brother and Billy Wilmot
my brother and Billy Wilmot

But of course, what would be a trip with my brother without a little surf.  Jamaica isn’t as renowned for surf as places such as Hawaii, California, Costa Rica, or Indonesia, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any to be found.  In fact, Boston, the home of jerk, is well known for surf, as is Bull Bay.  It is in Bull Bay that we were lucky enough to stay with the Wilmot family, a group of folks whose name is synonymous with surf and reggae in Jamaica.  Billy Wilmot, the father, is a hard working advocate and developer of the sport of surfing in Jamaica, but was also the frontman of a band, The Mystic Revealers, that was mixing it up with the best in reggae music in the 80’s and 90’s.  Billy’s sons and daughter are also world recognized and sponsored surfers.  My brother hopped into the lineup alongside Billy and a few of Jamaica’s best surfers in Bull Bay, in some of the biggest waves we had both ever seen.  We also got to hang out with the Mystic Revealers’ bassist Leroy “Lion” Brown, and have a jam session with them on the night of our departure from Jamaica.  A fitting way to end an incredible trip.  Once again, another instance of bringing a main interest to life through travel.  We didn’t get to see as much live music as we would have liked, or visit any of the main recording studios of particular importance to the history of reggae, but we got to experience the land, the people, and even the food that has inspired and influenced reggae music throughout time.

playing a classic Jamaica game, Ludy
playing a classic Jamaican game, Ludy

Buckets dropped:  1 big one

Over the past five months, I’ve dropped 14 things from my bucket list.  Not bad.  I’ve spent just over 7 weeks traveling over the past 19 weeks.  That’s almost half, not bad.  You might think I live a charmed life.  You’re right, I do.  But between trips I’ve been working a lot, 60 hours a week give or take, to financially make up for all of my travels. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of flexibility.  I’ve been selling items on Craigslist like a madman too, in an attempt to focus my life less on stuff and more on experiences.  However, I’ve also abandoned the idea of a savings account at this point, and haven’t done any financial planning for the future, or any concrete resume building in the fields of outdoor recreation, land use planning and conservation.  Who knows if this will come back to bite me later.  For now though, I’m reveling in my recent experiences, and acknowledging how lucky I truly am.  As much as I thought I knew about places like Germany and Jamaica, I learned so much more by spending time there.

The world is isn’t perfect.  Sometimes the news makes the entire world seem like its in a state of utter chaos and destruction.  For some people, that is their world.  I am in no way under the impression that I have an all encompassing understanding of human existence on earth.  As a white, privileged, middle class male, I know I’ve seen the world through a lens of relative safety, ease, and leisure. But I believe the world beautiful, as seen through nature, smiles and laughter, music, and food.  I can’t believe how much of it I’ve been able to see in just 25 short years.  Seeing as I’ve knocked many things off my bucket list, maybe I’ll soon be content enough to settle into a permanent role in life, dedicating myself to a location and/or something greater than my self serving travels.  But for now, I’ve got more things planned.  BIG things.

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3 thoughts on “Dropping Buckets: Updates and Reflections from the Last Five Months

  1. I am SO pumped about your blog. You are inspiring and destined for big things. Savings accounts may come and go, but no one can take away your experiences. I try to live by the mantra “pay for experiences, not things” and your posts make me realize why. Keep that head up and something perfect will fall into place when it is time.

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