One Small Thing That Makes Air Travel So Much Better

Like so many of us, I don’t particularly like flying. At best, it’s a necessary evil made bearable with a novel, a glass of wine, and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. At worst, it’s utter misery, as evidenced by stories like these.

But, really, when you think about it, flying is actually pretty amazing. Remember Louis C. K.’s epic rant? “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky,” he exclaims. Indeed, we are many miles in the air, traveling to another state, another country, or halfway around the world in mere hours. And we get to see some amazing things from up there. I’m always surprised when people in the window seat draw the shade, never to open it again. Why miss out on the sunrises and sunsets? The landscape of the place you’re leaving or the place you’re going?

One of my favorite things is to fly in and out of my hometown of Charlottesville. One flight path takes you right over Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Once, I was able to find my house. Sometimes, I try to pick out certain mansions that I know only by their imposing gates and fancy-schmancy names. For the few minutes it takes to take off or land, I am both creeping on and savoring my town with every ounce of my being.

But many times, I don’t know much about the places I’m traveling in and out of. Or flying over. So, the experience is made so much more interesting and meaningful when I’m told what the heck I’m looking at.

Where was this? Wish I’d known!

I recently flew from Fresno to Phoenix on a cloudless day at a fairly low altitude. For much of the flight, what I saw out the window was otherworldly. Brown and barren yet incredibly dramatic, with very few roads. But every so often, I’d see a lone house, or something vaguely industrial, or something that might qualify as a town in the middle of all the nothingness. What was it? Where was I? I guessed Nevada or very eastern California, but I would have loved to have known for sure.

Yesterday, on the other hand, I flew from Charlotte to L.A., and before we even took off, the pilot told us, “Today we’ll be flying over the Great Smoky Mountains (where we might hit a couple of bumps), then into Kansas (just south of Wichita), then over the southern part of Colorado, where you’ll start to see the Rockies. Those on the left will see the Grand Canyon as we get closer to the end of the flight.”

I count three natural wonders in that announcement (four if you count Wichita). Three chances to glimpse what people center entire vacations around, in the space of five hours. Given this, should we be so quick to conclude that flying sucks?

The Grand Canyon

As a further courtesy, this pilot (who I’ve decided loves his job and is just all-around awesome) would pop onto the P.A. every now and then to tell us to look out the window. “Those on the right can see Lake Tahoe right now, and those on the left can see the Grand Canyon,” he said, pulling my eye from my novel to the landscape below. A bit later, he was back: “Right now, those on the left will see Palm Springs and the Salton Sea,” he said, as we started our descent into LAX. I have to go to Palm Springs in a few days, so it was especially interesting to glimpse it from above, and I was grateful to be oriented to where we were.

If I had my way, these announcements would be a requirement on every flight (those lucky souls who can sleep on planes may disagree with me).

Is your pilot not sharing? Then maybe you’re lucky enough to have a built-in seat screen with a map option, so you can click away from your 25th viewing of The Notebook for quick checks of where you are in time and space. I recently had one of these on a SAS flight to Copenhagen, and even though much of the flight was spent over the Atlantic, way too high up to see anything, it still added to my experience to be able to tell myself, “Wow, I’m flying over Newfoundland right now.”

Even better: there’s a new app called Flyover Country, which uses GPS technology (not wi-fi) to tell you exactly what you’re flying over. It also links to related Wikipedia articles if you want to learn more. You need to be at a relatively low altitude and cloud cover must be minimal, of course, for you to be able to see and for the app to function optimally, but still – very cool. I hope to try it out on my way home next weekend!

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The World’s Best Bagels…and So Much More

“Arriving in Charlottesville from the lush, rural Virginia countryside, you almost feel like you’ve stepped back into ancient Rome.” – The New York Times

“Just two hours from Washington DC, C-ville (as the locals call it) offers quiet country retreats and horseback rides in nearby Shenandoah National Park, the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge mountains, as well as a wealth of history that includes the homes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Its array of restaurants offer exceptional gastronomic variety.” – The Guardian

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Photo: static1.squarespace.com

Not to brag or anything, but my adopted hometown of Charlottesville regularly tops all the charts: “Healthiest small towns.” “Best college towns.” “Top places to retire.” “Best tennis towns.” “Best places for book lovers.” And even “America’s happiest city.”

Locals outwardly scoff and grumble about how each new accolade will bring even more people and more traffic to our ever-expanding town. But, deep down, I think we all like knowing that we’re spending our lives in a place that doesn’t suck. Hey, if Southern Living, Travel and Leisure, CNN Traveler, and so many others think my town is the greatest, I’ll happily use that knowledge to validate my life choices.

But it’s more than just validation I seek; it’s appreciation. Because as I sit in traffic, buy my groceries, and navigate my to-do lists, it’s so easy to forget that I live in a special place. So, for all of the cynicism that might accompany them, our “best-of” lists can really serve as a nice reminder of what we have going for us.

Just now, as I did my morning Facebook scroll, I came across yet another Charlottesville superlative. “The best bagels in the world are in Charlottesville, Virginia,” the piece began. True or not, I was reminded of how lucky I am to live within walking distance of some pretty spectacular carb-bombs.

I also love reading other people’s impressions of the area, for example, this piece from the Packed Suitcase blog. It’s fun to think, “People come to my hometown for their vacation.”

Need other reminders of Charlottesville’s awesomeness? For just a few, check out:

Now all this place really needs is a Wegman’s. Oh, but wait!

The Pepsi 10K, one year later.

Late last summer, my angry low lumbar spine was soaking up the sweet, sweet goodness of a series of epidural steroid shots. I was told that the benefits, if any, would be gradual, but I woke up the day after my first shot feeling fresh and new and pain-free for the first time in years. Gone was my morning hobble and its accompanying grumpiness. Gone was the pain that shot down my right leg after driving for more than 10 minutes, which left a series of doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists baffled. 

This was great, but how would running be? Tentatively, I went out to try the Pepsi 10K, a local favorite that benefits Special Olympics. It was one year ago this week. 12047030_10102333139441666_3143013651970462020_n

Mile 1 was downhill and adrenaline-charged. Hard to gauge what was happening. But by mile 2 and 3, I was sure: the pain was gone! I welled up. Running had suddenly been transformed from a painful slog (yet a habit I stubbornly refused to give up) into a source of joy again. I was ecstatic. It was like Christmas.

I did not run my best race that day. But my love of running was back. My optimism was back. And I was so grateful.

And my next few weeks of running remained full of gratitude. I kept expecting the pain to return, as these spinal shots don’t work their mysterious magic forever, so I thought of each run as a gift. My back was like Charlie’s brain in Flowers for Algernon: Enjoy it while you can! But…the pain never did return. So I kept running. And added in some other good stuff like planks and squats and a foam roller. And I kept getting faster. I broke 1:45 in a half marathon in Richmond in November. I ran a 5K PR (22:28) the next month. I broke 80 minutes in the Ten Miler in March and 1:42 at the Park to Park half in April. Sub-8 minute miles no longer felt like an all-out sprint but like something I could sustain for over an hour.

Then, simply because it lined up with my travel schedule, I dared to sign up for the Stockholm Marathon in June. I ran a 3 minute PR there in June (3:45), no wall-hitting, no death wishes. Just some backlogged podcasts and then the Hamilton soundtrack, plus sun, sea, smiles, and Swedes. What was happening?!  13307481_10208563860747915_5672304648203809910_n

I was proud and feeling quite the badass. But somewhere in all of these successes, my gratitude for the simple act of running started playing second fiddle to my competitive nature, while basking in my pain-free glory was supplanted by concern for new, minor aches and pains (Achilles, feet, blah blah, boring).

Anyway, today, I ran the Pepsi 10K again, and was suddenly reminded of the wonder and appreciation I felt a year ago, as well as all of the progress I’ve made since. (And, ok, I ran a PR, too: 46:56.)  I didn’t feel that teary, awed gratitude nearly as deeply this time – maybe that would be impossible – but the rolling hills of Owensville Road were a strong reminder. It’s so easy to forget what a gift running is, you guys. And what a gift the steroid shot can be, too.

I highly recommend both.

Charlottesville: 10 Ways to Put a Ring on It

After almost two months of traveling around Europe, I picked up a new book on my last rainy weekend here in Budapest. It’s called This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, by a fellow transplanted Virginian, Melody Warnick.

The initial draw was that I wanted some inspiration for my final book chapter (“how to craft a great staycation”). But This Is Where You Belong immediately hit a nerve on a much deeper and more personal level. Because I miss home. I’m romanticizing home. Want proof? I went on and on about it just the other day!

I want to be more engaged, to make home feel like HOME. Like, where the heart is. So I ended that post with a challenge: “What are you going to do about it?” Honestly, my fear is: Nothing. Nada. I’ll fall back into my old habits as soon as the joy of being home again dissipates.

So, to help move me from big talk to action, I thought I’d apply Warnick’s 10 place attachment behaviors to help me zero in on what, specifically, I might be able to do more of to build my attachment to Charlottesville. I even gave myself a report card.

Let’s break it down. The 10 behaviors are:

  1. The wonders of walking Charlottesville in spring

    The wonders of walking Charlottesville in spring

    Walk more. I’m very fortunate to live in one of the most walkable parts of Charlottesville. On a scale from 0-100, North Downtown gets a Walk Score of 85 (Charlottesville in general is a 58). 85 translates to “very walkable. Most errands can be accomplished on foot.” Yep. I’m three blocks from the Downtown Mall. I can walk to countless bars and restaurants, my gym, a small grocery store, a great wine shop, the post office, the library, four theatres, an arts center, two weekly farmers markets, and more. Walking just makes sense; driving does not. (And FWIW, I usually rock my 10,000 steps-per-day Fitbit goal.) Certainly, I cannot walk to work, but on days I don’t drive to Harrisonburg, I usually get in my car only if I need to go to Trader Joe’s. GRADE: A- . But this brings me to…


  2. Buy local. I love my Trader Joe’s. I love my Target. Lululemon. Anthropologie. BAY-SIC! Why do I love these generic chain stores? Fear of awkward interactions. While many people seem to be deterred from buying local because they equate “local” with “expensive,” my problem is that I fear the social interactions that can occur when people care. I can go into Target, look around, and buy nothing (err, hypothetically). The clerk doesn’t take it personally! The clerk doesn’t give a rip! It takes the pressure off. But in a local business, where I could easily be interacting with the person who carefully selected and artfully arranged the merchandise, to me it feels hugely insulting to walk out without buying something. Like, I’m entering someone’s home, sizing it up with impunity, and saying to their face, “No, I really don’t like what you’ve done with the place.” I’m probably overthinking it. I realize that Charlottesville has some amazing local businesses (I mean, hello!) and I do need to get over this weird thought process and start patronizing them more. GRADE: C

  3. Get to know my neighbors. This one is always high on my list of How to Make My Life Better. I know it would make a huge difference. And, maybe because the opportunity exists every single day, it’s something I can easily put off until tomorrow. Plus, for all of its walkability and easy contact, I swear, my neighborhood is just not social. Even the people in the five other units in my house are strangers to me. Except for the nice couple next door, no one says hello, smiles, or talks to one another. I truly don’t know why. Is it me? I need a burst of motivation here. Or something to facilitate contact. A neighborhood block party? A puppy? GRADE: D

  4. Do fun stuff. Here, I’m pretty good. Local theatre, Fridays After Five, local races, the occasional Tom Sox game. I could always do more – maybe taking advantage of all the stuff popping up at IX – but I have my share of fun. Walkability helps, for sure. GRADE: B
    Wine and music at Jefferson Vineyards.

    Wine and music at Jefferson Vineyards. Fun stuff.


  5. Explore nature. Within the immediate Charlottesville/Albemarle area, I’m getting out there. Running on the Rivanna Trail, walking the Monticello Trail, SUPing on Beaver Creek Lake, biking around the county (although less so lately; I’ve gotten scared of cars). Even yoga on Carter’s Mountain a couple of times. My commute takes me over Afton Mountain, where I get a scenic view of the Rockfish Valley. BUT: the nearby Shenandoah National Park and trails off the Blue Ridge Parkway are virtually uncharted territory for me, wonderful as they are. Yet another thing on my list that is always being put off until later. GRADE: B

  6. Volunteer. I know this research and I’ve felt the good-feels during and after volunteering. I have the time to do it. But I don’t do it nearly enough. Why? There’s the confidence problem – what could I bring to an organization? Plus, I’m often unsure how to start getting involved. Given all of that, it’s far too easy to just do nothing. These are lame excuses. (And I’d say that musical theatre is technically volunteer work, but – let’s face it – I pretty much do that for myself.)¬† GRADE: D

  7. Eat local. I eat out a lot and at chain restaurants very infrequently. I preemptively pine for img_5991certain Charlottesville dishes and restaurants even in advance of a trip, and I’m already agonizing over what my first meal back will be. But I can’t take too much credit: eating local in Charlottesville is easy. Toss an heirloom tomato in any direction and you’ll hit some locally-sourced something-or-other. (Now, if drink local is in this category, my grade is bumped up significantly. Local wineries are one of my favorite places to spend an afternoon and brewpubs are a close second.) I do love my Trader Joe’s standbys and I could go to the farmers markets more often and buy more local food to cook at home. But sometimes you just need your Cookie Butter and Three Buck Chuck. GRADE: B+

  8. Become more political. I vote in all the elections. I watch the local news a few times a week. I went to see Obama when he was here a few years ago. That’s about it. My politics mesh well with the majority of Charlottesvillians. I have no major gripes, apart from the notable absence of water fountains at Riverview Park. (Right?) Until something (volunteer work?) shakes me from my blissful ignorance, I’m not sure this one will change anytime soon. #notproud¬† GRADE: D

  9. Create something new. I have friends who create and innovate: Staff and volunteers at arts organizations. Tireless fundraisers. Small business owners. Architects. Can I bask in their glory on this one? No? Fine. The closest I’ve come is working to create a local musical theatre production or concert. And I’ve created new courses and research projects at work, but that’s an hour away, not in my immediate community. This counts for something. But without kids, and knowing that generativity (passing something on for the future; leaving a legacy) is a primary challenge of middle adulthood, this is one worth thinking about. GRADE: C

  10. Stay loyal through hard times. To my knowledge, Charlottesville hasn’t really had hard times since I’ve arrived. I mean, there’s been stuff. But it’s mostly a wonderful place to live. See this, this, and this. So, I’m happy to say I have no data on this one! GRADE – ??

Looking at this list, I see some themes: I’m very tied to the physical and material aspects of home. Nature. Activities. Food and wine. But, my overall engagement-GPA sucks. Why? Several major deficits jump out, and they all have to do with people. I don’t know my neighbors. I don’t volunteer. I’m not involved in politics, and I seldom collaborate to create something new. Why? Honestly? Introversion. Okay, mild social anxiety. Saying hi to neighbors is kinda scary. Asking “how can I help?” might result in the realization that…I really can’t help: I have no useful skills. Awkward! It’s not time, energy, or lack of interest holding me back; it’s just straight up fear that keeps me from building a greater bond with home. A pretty useful realization, actually. Something I can work with.

I’ve lived in four states on two coasts. After grad school, I felt pulled back to Charlottesville even while living in two decidedly fantastic places, Santa Monica, CA and Portland, OR. And now I choose to live an hour from my job just so I can be there. Time to get over myself and start making the most of it!

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The Little Things You Miss.

Today marks Day 45 of a 52-day European adventure. It’s been mostly great. I love the walkability of European cities. I love that most places aren’t overly air-conditioned. I love having a minuscule wardrobe. And here in my Budapest neighborhood, I love how even the most mundane apartment or convenience store is housed in something old and ornately detailed. I love how you can walk down the street openly drinking a really inexpensive beer, but there’s a zero-tolerance policy for drunk driving. I love that my adorable Airbnb is two minutes from Parliament and the Danube, yet completely protected from street noise by a courtyard. Most importantly, I love where I am mentally, writing with focus, seeing my book’s end draw near just ahead of my July 31st deadline.

But there are so many things I’m looking forward to getting back to. Small things. Silly things. In no particular order:

  • conversations. About anything. I spoke briefly to someone today on my English-speaking tour of Parliament, and my voice sounded straight-up weird. Since being on my own this past week, I’m not sure I’ve had a single conversation. Speaking is rare and comes in bursts of six syllables or fewer, “Americano, please?” “Do you have a bathroom?” and my favorite travel phrase, “Oops, sorry. Excuse me.” Let’s frame this as an intense period of vocal rest. Good for the cords.
  • the quiet comforts of home and the pieces of my morning routines: a fuzzy robe, coffee brewing, a stretch, a run, a Shakeology smoothie with ice and berries (not the sad clumpy version I’ve been making abroad).
  • humidity aside, Charlottesville’s running community and my well-worn running routes.
  • abundant produce. A good honeycrisp apple. Butternut squash and kale.¬† And even baby carrots, which seldom excite me, which often go bad before I can eat them all.
  • The Sunday New York Times and the crossword, which I pretend to be good at but I really just sit there while Joe does it. I occasionally answer questions about Broadway musicals.
  • the quiet of UVA’s Corner and the Lawn in summer.
  • driving over Afton Mountain on a clear day.
  • paddleboarding at Beaver Creek
  • my favorite wineries: Pippin Hill, King Family, Veritas, Jefferson…
  • and my favorite Charlottesville eats: Dr. Ho’s, Lampo, MarieBette, Bodos…
  • even Trader Joe’s. Crazy, crowded Trader Joe’s. Fine, and Target.

And then there are, inevitably, those things I miss and realize I don’t take nearly enough advantage of:

  • the Downtown Mall coffeeshops, just three blocks away.
  • ACAC’s many offerings, especially that weekly yin yoga class, which I went to for an unprecedented three weeks in a row before leaving on this trip.
  • hiking in the Blue Ridge.
  • farmers markets.
  • the opportunity to cook in my own (tiny) kitchen.

And don’t get me started on all the friends and acquaintances I see far too infrequently.

The question that follows is, “Ok, so what are you going to do about it?” Can I start walking more? Actually get myself to the gym, the market, and out to the Blue Ridge? When will the window of motivation close and old habits take over?

Of all the benefits of travel, renewed appreciation for the small joys of home might just top my list.

From Book to Blog

I start this blog on a meaningful day: April 17th, the day I submitted 50% of my forthcoming book, The Happy Traveler, to my editor.

Back in January, I started this project with a swell of excitement like one I hadn’t felt in ages, but also with a bit of apprehension. The looming deadline, writing while attending to all the other things I care about (teaching, relationships, fitness, tidiness), and the fact that people will actually read the book created a perfect storm of worry.

Then, a godsend: snow. Lots of snow. Housebound, with nothing to do but lie around in jammies, I took out the computer and started putting down ideas, and that was the start. It wasn’t always easy or fun, but it was always easier and much more fun than I imagined it would be.

And now, I have five chapters chock full of – I think – useful and surprising advice on how we might all make better travel decisions.

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To celebrate this milestone, I took my stand-up paddleboard out to Beaver Creek Reservoir today. It’s about 20 minutes west of me, in Crozet, yet a world away. I saw a blue heron, a flock of scary geese (am I alone here?), and turtles who plopped into the water one by one as I approached. I felt both gleeful and guilty watching this unfold. You really can be a traveler in your own hometown!

I plan to use this blog to get you as excited as I am about The Happy Traveler, while also keep you informed of my own happy travels.