Nervous American

Trying New Things. Reluctantly.

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Arequipa’s nun city

This sounds like it wouldn’t be fun at all, but if you find yourself in Arequipa, Peru, go check out the monastery. 

At its height, Santa Catalina was a city within a city. A couple hundred cloistered nuns literally walled themselves off from the outside world, fashioning a tiny town of streets and little homes within it (monastic life was much less communal in those days). And, as many of these women were wealthy, they usually had a servant or two in there to help out — so about 400 to 450 women lived right in the center of the city, but completely removed from it.

Now most of it is open for visitors, but a portion is still set aside for the 17 or so nuns who live there yet. Its population has obviously diminished in recent decades, but back when Santa Catalina was thriving, women’s options in life were somewhat more circumscribed. They could 1) marry 2) be a nun or 3) do nothing and be a drain on their family. Many women went with option No. 2.


A “street” in the city - each door was a nun’s house, which was usually just a room or two.


That is not a real nun — just a mannequin that demonstrates how these nuns prayed. I think they also want to creep people out. If so: success.


Speaking of creepy: When a nun died, they’d lay her out here for a few days. Those paintings on the wall are of the dead nuns — a painter would come in to take a snapshot of them, so to speak, as they lay in their coffins. In the pictures, their eyes are closed and their faces rigid. (We weren’t allowed to get closer, and I foolishly failed to get a close-up of those pics).


They look like this, except … you know, not alive.


One of the kitchens, which was shared between two nuns. 


A typical room. The beds are all in arched alcoves, which is safer in case of earthquakes.


A walkway in the novices’ quarter


These murals are from the… 18th century, if I recall? They’re right outside, but are marvelously well-preserved. Our guide told us the dry mountain air really keeps this stuff fresh forever.image

The laundry. 


A little alleyway in nuntown.

Widowed and single, wealthy and less-wealthy, a lot of women chose this life, which involved praying pretty much constantly. Some of them raised orphans in here, too, and you’ve got to wonder what life would have been like here for a kid. Servants were allowed to come and go, and occasionally a doctor would have been allowed in to treat a patient, but otherwise, the doors stayed closed. 

It’s a pretty nice little town, really. Simple, but nice. A girl could do a lot worse.

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The white city of Arequipa

Like the white city of Minas Tirith, but with more traffic


The Jesuit Church

I’d never heard of Arequipa, even though it’s the second-largest city in Peru. It’s in the southern mountains, surrounded by three volcanos — climb to any rooftop in the city, and you’ll see them.



The city center has a core of gorgeous, elaborately carved buildings made out of white volcanic stone. They truly are something to behold — unfortunately, the whole place is threaded through with streetfulls of honking, aggressive cars, which I found stressful. Picture a river of ancient, rattling cabs, all of which want to kill you, and you’ll get the idea.

And the lovely center quickly turns into rickety-looking buildings, some of which are outright eyesores. 

Still though — the things that have been maintained are very, very pretty.


The Plaza de Armas. See that cathedral tower? An earthquake knocked it down in 2001. They just plonked another one back up there; historically speaking, they’re used to such things. This country has seen a lot of earthquakes.


The Cathedral 


Cathedral gates at sundown. 


Inside the Jesuit church. It was not much different than most Spanish-style churches you’ll see, but the blazing sunlight of this place lights up the white stone beautifully


This was a colonial mansion. Now it’s a bank, but you can still wander in and check out a few rooms.


Courtyard next to the Jesuit church; now it’s full of shops. 


I was crazy about those pillars. I want them on my house. 


Close-up detail of a facade


I forget which church this was. I’m assuming it was a church, though. Feels like a safe bet.


The Cathedral tower, up close. When you go on a tour of the church, they let you up on the roof.

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What I Learned on Vacation: How to Chew Coca Leaves

Coca leaves are the raw material for cocaine. They’re illegal in the U.S., of course, but in Peru you can buy a bag of the stuff for about 30 cents and chew wads of it until your face goes numb.

I am on record as being anti-cocaine, but I’m pro-coca. It’s really useful stuff.

This is how you chew it: You take a chaw of leaves, like so….


Stuff the bunch in your mouth, like a plug of chewing tobacco, along with a bite of this solid, ashy material to help get the juices flowing.


And then:


You feel great! Like drinking a cup of coffee, except with bonus altitude-endurance powers.

What I felt: The taste of mushy, slightly bitter leaves, a not-unpleasant numbness, and a little burst of energy and optimism.

What I did not feel: high. It takes many kilos of coca, along with other key ingredients, to actually make hard drugs. (In the interest of research, I Googled “how to make cocaine,” which… may have been a mistake. The NSA or the DEA are probably all over my online activity right now. I hope they enjoy my recent Internet video searches “baby afraid of nose blowing” and “techno cats”). 

But more importantly, I did not feel altitude-sick — which is the whole point of chewing the stuff. It helps speed oxygen to your blood, so high altitudes don’t bowl you over quite so hard. Coca leaves also suppress appetite, they aid digestion, and they’re even high in calcium. I saw a few Andean mummies on the trip, and, yep, they had remarkably strong chompers (it’s pretty easy to notice their teeth, given that they don’t have much by way of face skin anymore.)

Alongside those mummies, archaeologists have found many little human figurines made of gold. These are simple, tiny shapes, with few features except the requisite nose, eyes, mouth — and, in these cases, a noticeable lump in the sides of their golden faces. A wad of coca leaves. It’s the same type of wad that campesinos in the high plains have sticking out of their faces. We stopped by the roadside once to photograph a herd of llamas, and when we gave a coin to the shepherdess for her trouble, she had a giant goose-egg wad in her cheek. The more time you spend in the mountains, the more coca you need to feel the effects.

I’ve heard about how the U.S. government has been eradicating coca farms in South America, but in Peru coca is obviously farmed somewhere, at least.Airplanes can’t be crop-dusting all the plants with herbicide, because coca leaves are very accessible. It’s certainly not illicit; at every cafe and restaurant in Cuzco, you can sip tea with coca leaves floating in it. 

When I landed in Miami’s airport on my way back home, I realized my messenger bag must reek of coca leaves and wondered briefly whether I’d have a sniffer dog get all War on Drugs on me. Blessedly, no — but that bag definitely still smells.

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Cuzco: Many shades of brown

Cuzco was so… brown. The dry season had rendered everything very dusty. And when we arrived there, after our sleepless redeye flight, I blearily realized that I’d forgotten what Latin America is like. Every place is different, of course, but the working-class areas have a few things in common: The gritty, blocky building exteriors, the casual litter, the many stray dogs. The presence of corrugated metal as a common building material. That guy over there, peeing against the wall of a school like it’s no big deal. Stuff like that.

But don’t get me wrong: Cuzco definitely has its own personality.

First, there’s the altitude. At more than 11,000 feet, the air was noticeably thin and sharp, and the light had a strange quality — in full daylight, it’s blown-out and intense. It burns gringos like us to a crisp, so buying sunscreen is a top priority.


Tourism is clearly a big deal here, and it’s the industry that dominates the main Plaza de Armas and surrounding warren of alleyways. The streets are full of locals who hassle the Obvious Tourists any time we walk down the street: “Shoeshine, lady, shoeshine?” "You want necklace, 10 soles?" ”You want massaje?” You just get used repeating, “no, gracias" every dozen steps or so.

We originally wondered if the massage offers were entirely legit, but it turns out massages really are a thing there — with so many backpackers hiking everywhere, muscles get sore. Still, we declined.

And Inca artifacts? Oh boy, they’ve got Inca stuff lying around. The Inca empire was pretty huge (I’d forgotten about how big it was — it stretched into six South American countries!), and Cuzco was its capital, full of important religious and civic buildings. All of which got savaged by the Spanish, of course.

European diseases had beat the actual Europeans’ arrival here by a few months — I guess those sicknesses made their way overland from the east. What’s more, two princes had drawn the empire into a bloody civil war just prior to Spanish arrival — they had only recently resolved things, so the place was actually fairly ripe for the plucking. The Spanish destroyed the old city and remade it in their own image, and the Spanish empire’s gold-extraction machine kicked into high gear. 

Still: Cuzco has its own, distinctly South American flavor. The intriguing little flourishes on the buildings are different, and the place has a more rugged feel. It seems like a stern place, but with a rough beauty to it.


The pillar of the Cathedral at the Plaza de Armas


Elaborately carved wooden balconies are everywhere


It’s a rather hilly town - the narrow streets reminded me of Santorini in Greece, except with a mustard-and-brown palette


An Inca statue on the Plaza de Armas, facing the ruins of Saksaywaman


A close-up of the Compania de Jesus church in the Plaza de Armas


The view as you walk up to Saksaywaman


The Compania de Jesus

Under the colonial layout, you can see the bones of the Inca culture (and you can also see the bones of the Inca themselves, but that’s another post), but it’s aggravating to think of how much got destroyed. 

For example, the old fortress on the hill above town, Saksaywaman, was once a giant, complex structure — and once, it was the site of a bloody Inca last stand against the invaders. (The Siege of Cuzco lasted for 10 months but was, of course, ultimately unsuccessful). Spaniards used its stones to build their houses down below, and now only the big boulders remain. Still, you can see the famous Inca building skill at work.


It’s a popular spot for school field trips. Obviously.


So many angles! and that’s just a random example

Still to come: Coca leaves, eating fluffy animals, mummies and more.

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Peruvian Honeymoon: Romance, Adventure, and Deep-Fried Guinea Pigs

"This trip, like Peru itself, has had its ups and downs." — Geoff

Why I picked Peru for our honeymoon:

1) Hadn’t been to Latin America in forever

2) Heard it was nice.

So, Peru. Why not?

Peru has a crazy variety of landscape. We couldn’t hit it all — we skipped the deep jungle and the coast and made straight for the mountains. Cuzco, Machu Piccu, the white city of Arequipa, Lake Titicaca. Driving to ear-popping altitudes, hiking up extremely steep hills, undergoing startlingly frequent changes in weather. Feeling kinda sick sometimes, losing our laundry at one point… Ups and downs, as the man said.

It’s also quite a pretty place. I’m a so-so photographer with only a smartphone to snap photos, but this place makes it ridiculously easy:



Terraces on the hillsides. I’d read about terraces in my sixth-grade social studies class, so I was pleased to find them looking just as my textbook indicated.


A distant Machu Piccu


A storm rolling in on the Altiplano. I snapped this one from the window of our tourist van. 

Why did my husband go along with this plan? Because he is extremely laid-back. However, I have married a man, who — under his calm exterior — is a bit of a nervous one, himself. Nervous times two! 




There were itineraries, there were print-outs, there were reservation numbers. I arrived in the country loaded down with drugs: drugs for altitude sickness, for pain/fever, for dizziness, and obviously, for traveler’s … um, digestive troubles. I’d heard a lot of food poisoning stories from Peru, and I was taking no chances.

I have lots to say about Peru — more to come in future posts!

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How to bungee jump: A guide for nervous people

The 1990s was a very unforgiving time for nervous children. Pop culture was constantly encouraging you to be as X-TREME as possible. Skateboarders and BMXers were having a big cultural moment. Mountain Dew was encouraging people to go to very high places and then jump off of them. People walked around wearing “No Fear” T-shirts. 

Then I guess, like, YouTube happened and we all saw videos of what it looks like to shatter a leg bone, and our ardor for extreme sports cooled. At least that is what happened to me — I was never X-treme, obviously, but I did actively make fun of kids who wore bike helmets, and I jumped quite irresponsibly on those big trampolines, even though one of the many Jennifers in my class messed up her knee really bad on one and had to wear a brace for like a year. But I hadn’t SEEN it, so it made no impression on me.

Anyway, somewhere between being a stupid teenager and a grumpy adult, I developed phobias involving bones poking out where they shouldn’t/dying in a really stupid way. But it was too late: I had already promised myself that I would someday bungee jump.

I blame MTV

This is the fault of “Road Rules,” the MTV “Real World” derivative, where they made stock-character 20-somethings live in an RV together and do extreme things. Like, again, go to high places and jump off of them. It felt like every season had a bungee jump episode, which I watched with fascination. What would I do, in that situation? Would I be like the cool kids and just jump? Or would I be like the lame girl (it was always a girl) who froze up and freaked out and didn’t want to do it?

I was secretly concerned I’d be one of the latter. But when I went to Costa Rica a few years back, I’d decided “Yeah, I’m going to do this.” There are tons of bridges from which to jump in Costa Rica, as it is a haven for adventure tourists, so it was the perfect place. I felt I owed it to my 14-year-old self, who was rooting for me, somewhere back in the mists of the past.

I convinced an unwilling friend to accompany me. We booked a ride with Tropical Bungee (motto: “100% Adrenaline!”) and got in a van with a bunch of enthused backpackers, and found ourselves on a bridge in the forest. It was dense green tropical forest, and peaceful. The river, far below, was flowing gently. We felt like vomiting.

To do this, you step into a harness thing that has thick cords hanging loosely around your ankles. When it is your turn, they hook you into the bungee cord. You walk to the edge of the bridge and jump off. 

"Easy as pie," my friend and I said to each other as we watched the other backpackers giddily leap into the abyss. "Simple."

How to bungee jump 

The trick to bungee jumping, of course, is not to think about it. Don’t think about anything. If you stop at the edge and look down and consider things rationally, you probably will not jump. Or at least, I wouldn’t jump. So, there on the bridge, I embarked in an aggressive form of meditation. I made a fist with my brain, and beat out every thought in there. I pummeled my higher-order thinking until I was down to just the lizard core. Then it was my turn. Blankly, I climbed the platform. Numbly, I watched them hook up my harness. Woodenly, I walked to the edge of the platform and let myself tip off the edge — just let my face greet the river below, and the rest of me followed.

Then I was just a torpedo of meat, heading for the ground. The white ribbon of river, and the green of the banks, zoomed toward me and I could hear my own short, panicked breaths. Then, still a comfortable distance away from terra firma, I felt the cord lightly squeeze my ankles and then I was rushing backwards and up, only to be snapped like a human towel-snappy by the bouncing cord. I made a “chuff!” sound that only I could hear, being as there was no one around, and eventually found myself just swinging upside down above the river. 

Step two: Continue to not panic

Then, in order to not consider your position — that you are dangling like a fish on a line, high above the ground — you must concentrate on getting back up. If I remember aright, you wait until the operators send you a line that you snap onto your harness, and it brings you back up. So you must grab it, latch it onto the correct latch, and let it bring you to a sitting position. It draws you up like a kitten in a bucket.

They pulled me back onto the platform and I once more felt the ground under my feet. My 14-year-old self, back in the mists of time — wearing plaid and badly in need of an eyebrow wax — was beaming at me through her braces. I had comported myself with all the dignity I could muster. I gave her a thumbs up.

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Really, why don’t Americans travel abroad?


The Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain. If you want to see it in person, you must leave America.

Why so little foreign travel, Americans?

I am assuming you are well aware that 1) Relative to the rest of the developed world, Americans travel abroad much less and 2) This is usually blamed on Americans being insular or ignorant, whichever you prefer to think. Also, that we’re fearful of small hotel rooms and strange toilets and weird food.

There is truth to that stereotype. When I got back from Spain, I was surprised at how many Americans greeted me with, “Welcome back to the good old USA!” in tones that implied they were relieved on my behalf. Which, yeah, sometimes that year I had missed 24-hour convenience shops. I had also found certain things to be maddening. But hey, Spain is awesome. I was feeling bummed about leaving, which is why it was weird to have people congratulating me on safely making it back.


A ruin in Edinburgh, Scotland. Also not visible from America.

So yes, a percentage of our population is truly quite happy to stay put. But a lot more of us would travel if we had the dang vacation time.

It makes sense — America is huge. It takes a lot of money for us to fly overseas. Why spend a grand on a plane ticket when you’re just going to have to turn around and come home in a few days? Two or three weeks’ vacation isn’t enough. If we had six weeks, I have faith that my countrymen would put together the cash to get out and about more often.

But our meager vacation allotment is only a symptom of the deeper cause — that we value work above all else, including travel. Example: In high school, I went on a three-week, supervised European tour with a group of classmates. Our young German guide, Claudia, chatted about her gap year with us, after she explained what a gap year actually was. It blew our minds when she said she’d traveled around Asia and South America for a year. And this was quite common, she said. Everybody who could afford it, did it.

We were shocked. We didn’t know anyone — not sibling, older cousin, neighbor, anyone — who hadn’t just graduated high school and gone on to work, or who hadn’t just worked a summer job, then gone straight to college and worked their way through that. After college graduation came more work, and that was that.

So yes, a lot of this is about culture, but it’s about the “work comes first” American ideal as much as it is about the “other places seem lame and sort of exhausting” mindset. And that’s unlikely to change any time soon, so if anybody has any great career advice for how we sorry workaholics can finagle more vacation time, I’m all ears.


A Paul Bunyan statue in Bangor, Maine. This one = in America! Yeah!

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How to drink like a Spaniard

My year in Spain left me richer as a person in many ways (except the part where it made me poorer, which was in my bank account). One key lesson: When it comes to alcohol, quit being such a snob.

Lesson 1: Mixing soda pop in your wine is A-OK.

Spaniards love to drink red wine mixed with lemon fanta. It’s called “tinto de verano,” or “red (wine) of summer” which sounds much better than “wine spritzer.” 

This makes perfect sense. Spain is mostly a warm-weather country; Spain is a country that produces an abundance of red wine; red wine is not at all refreshing on hot days. You can fix this by making sangria, but who has the time? Just mix half lemon Fanta (or sprite) and half wine into a bottle, and go drink in the park. Problem solved.

This was a big switch for me, as I always thought wine spritzers were tacky. I think I got this idea from watching sitcoms in the ’90s, when I was too young to know what a “wine spritzer” was, but knew that shows like “Just Shoot Me” had a low opinion of them.

Spain broke me of that habit, and for that I am grateful. 

#2: Sometimes, crappy lager is the best possible thing.

Spaniards also love light beers. It comes as a surprise when you first show up in Spain, but very few people are drinking wines in those outdoor cafes in Madrid — they’re drinking Mahou, the local lager. I didn’t understand this at all, until it got really hot out in the late spring. Suddenly, Mahou was all I wanted. I was compelled to drink it. Couldn’t get enough of it. Every Mediterranean country has its own crappy lager, and in every place I visited on a hot day, that’s what I ordered and gratefully drank.

#3. That soda/wine thing? It doesn’t work with Coke.

Another classic wine drink from Spain is the kalimotxo (pronounced “calimocho”). It’s Basque — note the “tx” in the word, which is just a super Basque way to spell something — and it’s half cheap red wine, half Coke. I really like Basque’s culinary scene (who doesn’t?) but this booze is not for me. It tastes like Coke’s evil twin. Like, it looks like coke, but tastes vaguely sinister. The Coke flavor actually enhances the taste of the alcohol in the wine, somehow.

#4. When possible, add fruit to your alcohol.  

I now do this with my gin & tonics. Chop up ripe fruit and let it hang out in there. This isn’t strictly a Spanish thing (sangria notwithstanding), but I picked up the habit there and now love it.

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Visiting Boston’s Dead: Fancy Cemetery Edition


Lots of dead people are underfoot in Boston. For starters, every tourist who comes to this town will pass by cemeteries from Colonial and Revolutionary days, like the Granary Burial Ground just off Boston Common.

The Granary has 2,300 markers but probably twice as many bodies. In 2009, a tourist on a walk there discovered one unmarked grave by falling into it. She put her foot on just the right spot, where a broken slate slab had finally given way, and found herself hip-deep in a stairwell leading down to the tomb. The lady never identified herself to the press, which is a shame — I would have loved to read that interview.

Another of my favorite things about the Granary Burial Ground: After paying your respects to Samuel Adams, you can walk across Tremont Street, enter the Beantown Pub, and order a Sam Adams. Sometimes Boston is just fun like that. 

At places like the Granary and at Copp’s Hill in the North End (both begun in the 17th century) the gravestones are now just thin grey shards that lean and sink into the earth, but at least they are identifiable as graveyards. Other skeletons didn’t get that kind of ceremony — according to one historian, a couple dozen British soldiers probably lie underneath homeowners’ gardens in Charlestown, not far from Bunker Hill. Nobody knows for sure.

Sorry to ramble — that stuff is all just pretty awesome. I could talk about graveyards all day! But I write today not to discuss humble churchyards; no, I want next-level graveyards. I want Victorians.



Forest Hills Cemetery and Mt. Auburn Cemetery

I’m surprised by how many locals haven’t visited the Forest Hills in Jamaica Plain or Mt. Auburn in Cambridge. Rich Bostonians went nuts with obelisks and tombstones, even above-ground, walk-in tombs of the sort I imagined were only used for undead French people in movies. 

Mt. Auburn was supposedly the first “garden cemetery,” where monuments were arrayed artfully among hills and trees.


Behold! I have finally gotten an Instagram account. #sometimesIneedfilters


Prime real estate for Mr. Tufts here. #forgottoaddafilter


#shouldhavehadafilter? #probably

Mt. Auburn’s big draw is the tower right in its center, from which you can perfectly view the Boston skyline. The zoom on my smartphone camera isn’t great, so you’ll just have to trust me on that.


#yep,filter #AmIUsinghashtagscorrectly? #IDontReallyCare

But that’s just Mt. Auburn — Forest Hills came along slightly later, and is more grandiose and quirkier, and therefore my favorite. I go every year in the autumn, which is why these photos look so autumnal:


Forest Hills seems to be the place where people asked themselves: “But no, seriously, which type of tombstone really reflects me, as an individual?” There are huge examples self-aggrandizement and monuments to military badassery, as well as moments of genuine pathos. I mean, look at this stuff:


Little stone sculptures of children’s empty beds. In a cemetery full of children’s and infant’s graves. I mean, good God.

The place is dotted with sculpture as well: It’s an outdoor museum, impeccably landscaped. The perfect place to walk on an October day. When it’s cold and misty, it’s like being in an Edward Gorey sketch. When it’s sunny, it’s just gorgeous. 


Pottery shard obelisk.


Why are these tiny houses carved into the rock the walls off this path? I don’t know, but I love it.

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Maine: Acadia National Park and my craven, abject fear of heights

Hey, do you have a problem with heights? No? Well I sure do! I don’t like ‘em. Not one bit.

This may shock you, but I am a lady of easily unsettled nerves. I also am pretty clumsy, and I don’t always have the best balance. So hey, here’s an idea: Let’s put me on the side of a mountain and see how that goes.


The Beehive Trail at Acadia. That ledge seems a lot narrower when you’re as panicked as a horse in a burning barn. Credit: Garden State Hiker/Flickr

I didn’t take the above picture; it’s tough to calmly snap photos when spikes of dread keep stabbing you in the brain and melting your leg muscles into jelly. At that point on the trail, I was focused on keeping my eyes resolutely away from the gorgeous views and lack of safety apparatus.

Or…perhaps I should give myself more credit. I did, after all, successfully climb the thing. Not to brag, but I didn’t even cry. Someone else hiking the trail did start crying at one point — I could hear her on the next ledge up above me, all trembling and tearful. Was she a small child of about six years old? Maybe. (Yes, she definitely was.)

Maine’s Acadia, a vast park of mountain and pine, is full of sweeping vistas, woodsy walks, crashing waves, and yes, the exciting Beehive and Precipice trails. These two trails have exposed rock ledges, so iron ladder rungs are built strategically into the rock to help you scramble up. Without them, the trail gets quite dangerous.

But with them in place, it’s a slightly scary but (for most outdoorsy people) do-able trail. Elementary-school kids were scrambling up, as I mentioned, and my mother-in-law had taken her sons on the trail when they were about five and six.

Everywhere you walk or drive in the park, the views are spectacular — especially Cadillac Mountain, the East Coast’s tallest oceanside peak. For much of the year it’s the first place in North America to see the sunrise.

Acadia is small, as national parks go (74 square miles. For reference, Yellowstone is about 3,500 square miles). Still, lots of trails upon which to scramble in the afternoon sun, or biking paths to cruise along. Even a beach, if you don’t mind New England’s freezing ocean water (Which, I very much do. I stuck to the trails).




I will say this: Now that I’m safely down, I’m glad I went up. I spend most of my life walking on flat concrete or climbing stairs, and my sense of balance and my upper-body strength are rarely called into action. Once I got used to using them on our hikes, I realized they weren’t as faulty as I’d thought.

I’m also glad the only person to witness my terror was my husband. This man lives with me. He knows I am not a dignified human, and has accepted it.


Filed under maine acadia hikes mountains