US of A Road Trip

Sep 09

Traffic Jam – Yellowstone Style

Among all the new creatures that Gina was introduced to on our lap around The States, I think these guys might be Gina’s favorite.

Sep 09

Heading Back East

We left Amy and Adam in the Teton’s National Park yesterday morning. A wonderful week with them in the mountains. In the 6 days there we went up 3 peaks, each over 11,000 ft, went on another long day hike, and had a (short) afternoon of bouldering. The Teton mountains are all about “straight up and down” climbers’ trails. Adam, who works in the Park’s trail building crew, joked about the stark contrast between the well maintained, and comfortably graded “tourist trails”, and the climbers trails which shoot straight up the mountain’s steep slope. Each peak took roughly 8 hours up and back, and by the end of the descent my knees were ready to be done. I rediscovered the wonder of hiking poles for steep approaches and descents. And also my fear of steep snow slope descents. Well, moving to the Alps I”m going to need to get better at that!

It was great to have a more extended visit with Amy, whom I haven’t spent more than 3 consecutive days with since Jeff and I met. You know how it is, living in different towns, life getting in the way. I used to joke that we would have to actually give up work to have enough time for visiting all our scattered friends and family. And now here we are…

So now we’re back on the road, heading East. We just hit a grouse a few minutes ago. Messy business. I don’t recommend it to anyone. Jeff very kindly cleaned it up, while I sat in the car pretending nothing had happened, and doing my best to avoid looking at the limp bird (which I swear was nodding his head at me in the wind.) Poor thing.

There are some weird places out here. Picture it: driving through desolate open land as far as the eye can see. Barren desert-like terrain. No buildings, no features blocking the expansive horizon. You stop at an isolated and deserted petrol station. In the Middle of Nowhere. And there’s some guy sitting there on his lonesome. Twiddling his thumbs. Staring at the wall. You wonder when his last customer was, where he lives, and what on earth he does in this place to stop himself going insane! Aaaagggghhh!!! For those Irish readers; imagine all those thoughts that go through your head driving through the Irish midlands and multiply it by 100.

We will be home soon. A few spare days for family, friends and packing (again), and then off to India (via LA and dinner with Claire :-), where we will join my big bro Matthew. Happy days…

Sep 09

Back in the mountains

Writing from my sister-in-law Amy’s cabin doorstep, in Tetons National Park. Chilly toes and nose, but the morning sun is starting to rise high enough to reach me, so soon I should thaw. We are back in the mountains, beautiful big mountains. It has come as a wonderful relief. We arrived 2 nights ago, and rose early our first morning to head up Buck mountain. Nothing technically difficult, but a steep rise of over 5500ft, and a beautiful, exposed ridge climb/scramble. It has been over a year and a half since we last climbed regularly. We have been officially “taking a break”. It had become tiresome driving multiple hours to crags, and spending every weekend away from our home, most of our friends, and the beautiful hills/mountains surrounding Blacksburg (in which we could reach mountain biking trails by bike from our doorstep). We simply weren’t excited enough about it to be bothered. Over the past few months the need has slowly been growing inside me. And this brief taste of being up high, the early morning rise with cool mountain air, the exposure, and the buzz of it all, has us both so excited for our move to the Italian Alps next February. This route was a particularly nice welcome back, as we had the mountain totally to ourselves, apart from the bear and countless pikas that we met along the way.

Buck Mtn.


It’s such a pleasure to be here with Amy and her boyfriend Adam. I look forward to a week hanging out with them in these beautiful surroundings. We have our tent set up in the woods behind their park cabin, from where we can hear the elk calling to each other as we lay down to sleep. Such a high pitched cry, it’s hard to imagine it coming from such a stocky animal.

Since our last blog entry we’ve spent a week in Missoula, Montana with friends who used to live in Blacksburg with us. It was a week of eating, drinking, catching up with friends and mountain biking in the beautiful mountains surrounding Missoula. Highlights for me included riding the long sweeping bike trails, flashing through the trees and out into high mountain meadows filled with tall grasses. A much smoother ride than in Blacksburg, with serpent-like trails weaving back and forth down the mountain. And hours of floating down the river lounging on old car wheel inner tubes. Tired mountain-biking-legs dangling in the water. And extended dinners with friends, when too many cooks managed not to spoil the broth.

Very nice trails

Zoom zoom

Gina learning how to ride Mike’s motorbike.


On our way from Missoula to the Tetons we spent a weekend in Yellowstone National park, where we rapidly suffered from geyser and tourist overload. I wonder how the world is not completely saturated with photos of geysers and buffalo, with the rate that they were being taken by so many people. It’s funny how people enter a tourist zone, such as a state park, and immediately lose their brain, metamorphosing into a “touron”. Emergency stops in the middle of a busy road, to watch a deer in the woods, suddenly seem the right thing to do. Driving the wrong direction down one way roads, is okey dokey. Everybody turns into the next David Attenborough, approaching dangerous wild animals as if they were puppy dogs waiting for a treat.


Lower Yellowstone Falls


Don’t get me wrong, Yellowstone is amazing. So beautiful and surreal, in a “we’ve just stepped into a prehistoric land” type way. Bubbling and exploding geysers all over the place, vibrantly coloured colonies of microorganisms covering the ground, magnificent waterfalls, and buffalo strolling along as if they own the joint (which of course they do). But Jeff and I were relieved to leave the herd of “tourons” behind, and head for the relative refuge of the Tetons.

Ahh, take a deep breath of that mountain air…

See more photos >

Aug 09

Smells like pine and sunshine

I love the western united states. I love the mountains, I love the dry heat and I especially love the infinite possibility that the overwhelmingly vast emptiness bestows. Ever since we turned west from New York City every mile that passed beneath our wheels has been bringing us closer to that dry air and that never ending sky. After many hundreds of miles of pancake flat corn fields and cross winds that threatened to rip the bikes clean off the roof of the car – the mountains that we were slowly closing in on didn’t rise out of the horizon but sunk beneath it, a horizon line giving way to spectacularly eroded earth beyond. We had reached the Badlands.

The flat prairie had fallen away into bizarre formations of dirt and soft, porous stone. Sharp peaks and deep gashes of colorfully banded earth were everywhere. We slept a few hundred yards from the place, nine years ago, I camped with thirty of my high school classmates on Coast to Coast. We hiked through the wild formations, buffeted by the prairie winds, pausing here and there to watch deer, who stood their ground, curiously staring back at us. And, on our way out of the park, we stopped to watch the prairie dogs digging and barking, keeping watch and socializing.

Prairie Dog

But, it was in the Black Hills that the unmistakable “out west” feeling finally took over. The drive between the Badlands and the Black Hills is a scant 60 miles, but it is in those miles that the mountains finally begin to rear up – faint, almost transparent, blue teeth clinging to the horizon, growing steadily in the windshield and becoming more opaque, more real with every passing minute. The prairie, which had resumed again past the oddity that is the Badlands, gave way to Ponderosa pine forests and we climbed out of the heat and the wind, into a world of stark primary colors. Clear blue sky, unbroken by clouds; deep green and brown of the dense evergreen forests and the unmistakable grey ramparts of granite high above. The place reminded both of us of Yosemite: The smell of pine and sunshine was everywhere (as were the buffalo – something definitely lacking in Yosemite) and we rejoiced in the cool mountain air and quickly set about getting our fill.

One (very steep) mountain bike ride and one unintentionally long hike (I’ll give you two guesses who the idea of a lengthy hike belonged to) and two very lovely nights snuggled warmly in sleeping bags (instead of laying, sweating on top of them) and we’re eight hours into a twelve hour drive towards Missoula, Montana; and a little knot of former Blacksburg residents…

Aug 09

Living in their shoes

One of the wonderful things about traveling to visit friends/family is the chance to get a glimpse of a new place through the eyes of a local. Walk a short while in their shoes. You have the benefit of all their knowledge and experience of a place when arriving somewhere for the first time: The tips they have picked up along their journey, the favoured spots to see, or cafes to sip your tea.

It is in this way, over the past week and a bit, that J and I have had short but sweet glimpses of life along the Jersey coast, right by the Atlantic ocean (yes, I was watching for unlikely glimpses of the land on the other side), life as a NYC “Glamour” magazine diva living in the bustle of Manhattan, and life in small town Chatham Ontario, surrounded by the flattest and most beautiful expanses of cornfields I’ve ever seen. Thanks so much to our wonderful hosts and “tourguides”, Olivia, Jordan and Trudy. There will be a bed awaiting you in  ‘Casa Smyth-Gardner’ in Italy, when such a place exists…

New York City is crazier than I ever imagined. The overload of the senses. Constant movement, people streaming back and forth on the side walk, like a giant colony of ants, and the streets alive with flashes of yellow. The homeless lady dancing in the water fountain, being ignored, while her breasts show through her white cotton top. She’s ill they say. Hairstyles and fashions statements of every extreme. Car horns, cell phones, people talking and yelling, music blaring from shop fronts, road workers drilling…And the smells; heat on the sidewalk, every kind of food you could ever desire, trash piles at the end of the day…I think I can feel my brain melting.

And I loved it all.

Initially I was struck by the anonymity of it all. The feeling that I could do anything and no-one would blink an eye, which is both a liberating and extraordinarily lonely thought. Whatever you do, don’t catch someone’s eye, especially not in the subway. It doesn’t seem to be the done thing. J reminds me- “stop staring”. I’m like a child who doesn’t know the rules. and I think -“how do people live like this”. However, this is where the benefits of living with a local comes in. Speaking with her and her friend, and watching other locals around town I realise that even in the bustle of NYC people find their niche and make a nest. I start to notice people greeting in cafes and around Central park. Is it possible that you could bump into someone you know in such a large and busy city. Apparently so. Routine makes supposed “chance” encounters likely. After realising this the city becomes a less fearsome beast…

NYC for us, was a wonderful and exciting place to visit. For others it is home. When all is said and done, I’m happy to leave it that way.

Jersey Shore

Lawn chairs in Times Square, yup.

Central Park

NYC Abstract

Niagara Falls

4 Mile Creek State Park

We are now coming to the end of a few lovely days in Chatham with my Aunt and Godmother, Trudy. She has spoiled me all my life, and has kept up this trend over the past few days. She reminds me of how little I know about my extended family. Hopefully in the early days in Italy when I am still without work I can start to gather and record some of the family stories. Dad, let this be 6 months notice for you.

Lake Erie shore

View more photos >

Aug 09

Smith Mountain Lake

Lovely few days at the lake. I suppose the pictures speak for themselves. Good times with good friends.

And the house in the trees…

More photos on Flicker