Thursday, January 23, 2014

10 Most Beautiful Places I've Been

Looking through some really old photos on Facebook this evening, it struck me like a subway car that I've been to some really freaking beautiful places. It's always a bittersweet experience looking through photos like that, because while some of even the most beautiful places I've been were really part of experiences that overall were pretty traumatic, most of them are connected to times in my life that I look back at wistfully. Some of those places are fading to distant memories in my mind, and even worse, many of the people I shared them with. So, it's hard. As I started to think through the most beautiful places I've ever been, though, I realized while quite a number of them are fading memories, a good number are experiences I had just in the past year. That gives me a little hope.

At any rate, I was inspired to write a post about these places. A better post, of course, would be about the people, but that's far beyond my ability as a writer––and probably my emotional strength. So a list of beautiful places it is.

Lists like this are always arbitrary. I guess a lot of what makes places––as opposed to people––beautiful in my mind is what Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky called "the feeling you get in the presence of infinite things." Or something like that. So if my list is biased toward places that give a feeling of infinity that's why. It's my list though, so I guess bias is okay. And I did include at least one place that's sort of pleasantly claustrophobic at times. Enough though. Here goes:

10. Venice, Italy.

Venice doesn't deserve to be in 10th place. In truth, it should probably be in the top three. I put it here strategically though. To get you hooked or something like that.

Venice is Unique in that it's one of the only places on this list I've been to more than once. It was where I went the first weekend of my first extended travel experience, and I spent many a weekend there after. That was during the semester I spent over there when I was 19, and whether it was a class trip with presentation in hand, Carnevale, or just going there to party in a hotel room after our other plans completely and miserably fell through, Venice was there. And it never disappointed.

9. The Grand Tetons, Wyoming  

Grand Teton is one of the several recent additions to this hither-to-now only in my head list. After my friend Josh invited me on a spur-of-the-moment 8,000 road trip this past July, we spent three days driving through that part of the country they call the Midwest. I thought it would never end. And then we got to Wyoming, and it ended. These Buffalo came just to tell me that. 

8. Some Lake in the Adirondack State Park, New York  

My brief tenure as an Adirondack Mountain climber was littered with misadventures, stressful situations and painful experiences. But if nothing else, it was always beautiful too. The trip I took this photo on was all of those things. And in some way I think it reflects all of them. 

7. Beiteddine, Lebanon 

When foreign heads of state visit Lebanon, Beiteddine is where they bring them. Thus, it is also the terminus of the only properly paved road in the entire nation, but that's beside the point. Beiteddine is a palace in the truest sense of the word. I'm in no mood to look up the history of it right now, and you can do that for yourself if you're interested anyway. My host family was awesome enough to invite me on their "weekend adventure" to the place, and it was fantastic. If, in the unlikely event you ever find yourself in Lebanon with a Saturday afternoon to kill (poor choice of words I suppose), I'd heartily recommend it. 

6. The Grand Canyon North Rim, Arizona

This one was inevitable. Inevitable that my friend and I stop there this past summer. Inevitable that I post it now. And so worthy of being inevitable.

5. Petra, Jordan

Imagine something kind of like the Grand Canyon, only on the other side of the world. Now imagine miles of ancient palaces, forts, temples and mausoleums chiseled into it on a massive scale. That's more or less Petra. Founded by the Nabateans, designed to be impenetrable from attack, and destroyed by a shift in trade routes, Petra is amazing. I'd wanted to see it ever since I watched a Moody Science video on Bible prophecy as a little kid, and even now I feel amazingly blessed that I got to. At the time actually, it just felt like the cap stone on one of the most amazing weeks of my life, but a great capstone it was. 

4. The Aegean Sea/Greek Isles

One of the other best weeks of my life was spring break of the previously mentioned semester I spent in Italy. Where do you go on vacation to when you're already in Italy? Greece, of course! We toured Athens (this was before all the unhappiness with their economy and the demise of public transport and all that) and then hopped on a ferry for Naxos. I think standing on that ferry was one of my favorite things ever. And then getting to spend time on a real Greek Isle was almost more than I could have asked for. It was like the Black Stallion, less the Stallion. Which is really fine by me. The wind. The sun. You can almost taste the history in the water, and I probably wouldn't have blinked if Odysseus came sailing around a rock on the horizon. 

3. Piazza del Michelangelo, Florence, Italy

Back in Italy, for a fine arts class we had to go to Florence and Rome. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Florence, and while I wasn't against going, I kind of viewed it as just a pitstop on the way to The Eternal City. Looking back though, I think Florence was likely my favorite city in the entire country. Not knowing that at the time though, and having done no research about it, I did what I did pretty constantly that semester and attached myself to some other students who seemed like they knew what was up. Either I got tremendously lucky, or my sense of "who knew what was up" had become very developed by that time, because after following them across the river and past some old fortifications, we ended up atop a hill at Piazza del Michelangelo just in time to watch the sun sink behind the Palazzo de Medici and Santa Maria del Fiore. It was, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

2. Sunrift Gorge, Glacier Park, Montana

Sometimes real life looks like a painting. For a few seconds at the top of Sunrift Gorge pass (at least as close as you could get to the top for the ice shelves) it did. I'd never even heard of it before, and we only went on a last minute recommendation from the park ranger we checked in with at the campsite. If you're ever in Glacier, hike it. 

1. Tashea, Lebanon

Toward the end of the summer I spent in Beirut, I had the amazing opportunity/challenge to backpack the northern half of the LMT with an international group of hikers. It was a two week endeavor, full of some of the most amazing sights I've ever seen. The one that stands out to me right now though is from the very first day. The van had dropped us at a monastery in Qbaiyat the afternoon before where my room mates and I'd spent a sleepless night getting our blood sucked out by hundreds of mosquitos. That morning when we started, everyone had that awful first day feeling, where you're not quite broken in and wondering if you can really do it. Add to all that, the 20k trail that skirted so close the border at points I got a "Welcome To Syria! For information on data plan transferability text to...." message on my phone, was entirely up hill, and about four times harder than anyone had anticipated. More of goat path than a trail really. By the time we reached the top of the ridge we'd been winding our way up all day long, every muscle in my body was aching, and I'd been in "just one more step" mode for longer than I could remember. Then I turned around, and it was all worth it. To the East was the last few hundred feet of ridge separating us from Syria, and all the unhappiness there. Looking back to the West though, where a plunging drop down to Tripoli and the Mediterranean beyond should have been, there was just a sea of golden clouds that looked like you could walk out onto it stretching to infinity. As the sun sank lower it just got better, till we reached our final decent down to the little Village of Tashea––and our guest house. Right before that I took the above photo. To give you some perspective, the little protrusion in the middle is the minaret of a mosque. It was the most beautiful place I've ever seen. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Friday Afternoons & Saturday Mornings

A few months ago, a large stack of satellite image poster maps of the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier area mysteriously showed up on what is typically my desk in what is typically my cubicle in Corning. They were covered in red and blue stickers with meticulously hand drawn legends along the margins denoting their representation of values in millions and tens of millions of dollars in investment money in different zoning areas. If you are somewhat curious as to what this means, then I can completely relate, because I was curious too. Unfortunately, I have no idea who put them there, or what they mean, and their only relevance to this story is that they were still sitting there last Friday afternoon when I somehow knocked a cup of coffee over on my desk.

The initial three nanoseconds of slow-motion horror at what I had done turned to relief when I realized 1. the cup had fallen away from my computer and 2. the lid had remained on, greatly reducing the amount of coffee spilled. Then back to horror when 3. I realized the cup had instead landed on the above mentioned satellite image maps, and 4. in the same instant the lid completely popped off letting the entire volume of black coffee inside spill out.


Rushing to the kitchenette––while attempting to look like I wasn't in any hurry at all––I grabbed a roll of paper towels, nonchalantly sprinted all-out in an inconspicuous manner back across the office and placed one between each layer of coffee soaked map attempting to draw the hot, acidic liquid back out. But the damage was done. Upstate New York now has a new Great Lake.

After leaving the office, and apologizing to the office manager/receptionist who assured me that it was no big deal, I drove 25 miles south to my other cough, mumble something about the weather, sort-of job, in the kitchen of the local up-scale dining establishment.

Now, it was something of a point of amazement to me that in the dozens of 6 hour shifts I'd spent there over the past couple months, and the thousands and thousands of dishes I'd populated with food, washed or stacked, I hadn't broken one. That night though, on the very last tray brought in from the dining area around 10pm, it happened. I chipped a martini glass. Sure, no one saw it. Sure, it was one in two and a half months. But still.

Streak broken.

Right about then, a friend/co-worker unexpectedly invited me to her birthday party that night. If life were a movie, this would probably be one of those obvious moments where, based on the day to that point, you'd be yelling at the screen: "Don't do it!" "Don't go into that dark room by yourself!" "Don't turn your back on the vampire!" "Don't marry that heart-beat!" Life is not a movie though, and two hours later into the night, instead of being home, asleep, where my potential to destroy things was limited, I was driving to a house in a town I'd barely been in before, with a bunch of other people I'd barely met before.

Over the course of the night, which went till the wee hours of the morning, I drove over a hammock, spilled more things, knocked over a ladder or something, and nearly set my host's kitchen on fire. Now, I was by no means the only person who spilled or knocked something over, and everyone, I think, understandably blamed it all on my by then, relatively affected condition. The truth though, I think had more to do with the natural continuation of the day I was having.

Fortunately, nothing really bad happened. I woke up around 7 curled up on an overstuffed living room chair with the blue glow of a TV screen that had long since run out of anything to play staring me in the face across a room now strangely vacant except for someone else sprawled on another couch. I quickly ran through the mental inventory I long ago developed for such situations: Am I alone? Check. Am I fully clothed? Check. No tastes in my mouth that I cannot readily account for? Check.

Satisfied, I arose and slipped, triumphantly, out the door to my car––which was no longer on the hammock. On the way home I stopped for a leisurely Saturday morning bagel at Dunkin' Donuts, triumphantly, and then arrived back, at my own living room around 8am, where I sat down on my couch, triumphantly, with the chemistry textbook I've been working through for the past three weeks. And then I realized:

I'd forgot my jacket.