Wild by Nature by Sarah Marquis

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I remember reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed a few years ago, and how I felt so in awe of her experience on the Pacific Crest Trail as well as her personal transformation over the course of her journey. I was inspired on so many different levels, and I remember researching the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail at the time. I remember that I thought I wanted to attempt one of them, at least until I realized I was already working full-time at that point and probably wouldn’t be able to support myself for so long without income. I like to think that because I’m a hiker and avid about the outdoors my inspiration was on a deeper level than the women portrayed on the Gilmore Girls revival A Year in the Life, but who knows. I’ve accepted the fact now that I probably won’t be doing any thru-hikes in my lifetime, and I’m okay with that. But the feeling of awe never really went away, and since then I’ve been drawn to books and memoirs by and about other PCT hikers, and Appalachian Trail hikers too (see my On Trails post here). When I stumbled upon Wild by Nature in the bookstore this past December, though, I think I was in shock.

It was one thing to spend a few months or a summer hiking a trail in one’s native country. It is a completely other (and in my opinion more monumental) thing to spend three years walking through some of the world’s most desolate landscapes in a journey that encompasses two continents! Not to mention the dangers that inhabit each of the countries Sarah Marquis wandered through, and the fact that this was all a completely solo expedition! She takes her love of the outdoors, and Earth overall, to a level that I had never encountered before. I couldn’t wait to dive into this book.

I started reading Wild by Nature on a plane on my way to Texas for a work trip. I was traveling with a male coworker who is in his sixties, and he noticed the book and asked to look at it. I handed it over, and he looked at the cover and glanced through some of the photos before giving it back. “Wow,” was his only comment. If you knew this man personally, you would understand that this is actually one of the highest compliments he can possibly bestow on anyone.

Marquis’ journey is incredible. She faced so many hardships throughout the expedition, but despite everything she remained positive and happy and so grateful about the experience. She walked through sub-zero temperatures and scorching heat, she faced down thieves on horseback and drug dealers, she battled dengue fever and tropic ringworm and a severe tooth abscess, and yet she continued her trek with an amazingly positive attitude. The distance and length of the expedition is awe-inspiring enough without the rough spots; she crossed over 10,000 miles on foot over the course of three years!

While reading the book, I think I was most inspired by her positive attitude, and I can’t say that enough. Many of the sections ended with Marquis offering up a grateful “Thank you, thank you…”. It provided me with a much better perspective on things in my own life. If she was able to continue the expedition and stay positive after dealing with some of the obstacles she faced, then I think it’s time I adopt a similar attitude for situations (not as intense) in my personal life.

I think when I started this book I was expecting more of an adventure story. While it does chronicle Marquis’ solo trek through the wilderness (which is indeed adventurous), I think I was more drawn to the spiritual and philosophical aspects of her journey. Marquis stressed the importance of a simple life tied to nature, and I think this book was a gentle reminder that I need a little more balance in my own life. Things have been crazy lately; I feel like I’m constantly jumping from one thing to another and it’s definitely been taking a toll. At one point in the book, Marquis talked about how your body knows what it needs and gives you signs to signal those needs; all you have to do is listen. I can’t help but draw parallels to my own life right now. I’ve been running, and admittedly stressing, almost nonstop since the holiday season. I kept saying that I needed to start slowing down and taking care of myself, but for January and most of this month I continued to ignore my own advice. So what did my body do? It threw a sinus infection and tendonitis at me, quite literally forcing me to take it easy and rest. And as odd as this may sound given my current condition, I actually do feel better!

As I’m reflecting on it now, I’m grateful that I read this book. It wasn’t quite what I expected but it was what I needed at this point in my life. Sarah Marquis is without a doubt an amazing individual, and I am truly inspired by her story. I’m looking forward to following her story on any future expeditions she challenges herself to.

 

 

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Love With a Chance of Drowning

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To be perfectly honest (and petty), I’m immensely jealous of Torre DeRoche after reading her memoir. Actually, if I’m going to be really honest I’ll say that I was immensely jealous about twenty pages in, and my envy only grew throughout the remainder of the book. I mean, she walks into a bar, approaches an attractive guy that just so happens to be a sexy Argentinean man, and not only does their drunken hook-up turn into a real, meaningful relationship but she ends up sailing halfway around the world with him! For me, personally, I would be completely and totally happy with about one of the above, let alone all of them! Torre DeRoche is one lucky woman, and I would do anything for her to show me her ways!

Okay, but all silliness and pettiness aside, I was very inspired by her story. And not just in the I-would-love-to-quit-my-job-and-travel-the-world way. Much of “Love With a Chance of Drowning” was about overcoming fears, or at the very least learning to live with them. And it was a very good examination of relationships, and how sometimes it’s not easy to reconcile the long term goals and dreams of two different people. Also, I think it was a good lesson on how to determine when you’re ready- for a move, for a job change, for whatever.

So in this book, Torre DeRoche tells the story of how she ended up sailing across the Pacific Ocean with her boyfriend, Ivan. Not only is this incredible by itself, but it’s made more incredible by the fact that Torre was very afraid of deep water. That’s right- a woman who was afraid of water spent two years sailing on the ocean! If that’s not the definition of overcoming fears, I don’t know what is. For Torre, the one thing holding her back was herself and her own trepidations. She talked a lot about how her experience was something she would tell her grandchildren about. Basically, she was presented with an opportunity of a lifetime, and she could either take advantage of it or turn it down because she was afraid. Obviously, she chose to embrace the adventure. But her fears didn’t end with her decision to go; her anxiety and stress were present throughout the book. Sailing across the Pacific Ocean sounds glamorous, but in reality it can be very dangerous. Over and over again Torre found ways to face down her fear and enjoy their adventure together, despite the risks. I think that was one of my favorite takeaways: you don’t have to be fearless to go on an adventure, you just have to be brave one day at a time.

Tied into Torre’s fears about the trip were her feelings for Ivan, her boyfriend. The relationship seemed to move at lightning speed: they met, then they were dating, within months they were living together, and almost within a year they were sailing the open seas together. I’ve had some experience being in a relationship that moves at hyper-speed, and in my case it didn’t work out. I had jumped in with both feet before I was ready to accept that his dreams were vastly different from mine. In my situation, he broke up with me because he was afraid that I wouldn’t be happy in the long run. It was brutal at the time, but looking back on the experience I think it was the right thing. I think I would have become miserable a few years in, and would have caused a lot more pain for everyone if it had continued. In a sense, Torre’s experience started out the same way. She committed to the trip knowing that Ivan had dreams of spending his life on the ocean. By comparison, she was a city girl with ties to civilization and people, and had plans to live out her life in Australia, her homeland. This dichotomy between the two of them was apparent throughout the book, and in some ways contributed to Torre’s stress and anxiety. It was proof that relationships aren’t easy, and that they often require sacrifice from both parties. This true story of a couple’s experience was evidence that love isn’t the fairytale that fiction pretends it is.

Aside from lessons on fear and relationships, I was most impressed with how and when Torre and Ivan knew it was time to let go and begin their journey. They had spent months living in the sailboat as it was docked in Los Angeles, and doing everything possible to prepare for their trip. For Torre, that meant learning how to sail as well as helping Ivan improve the boat so it was in its best condition. They received some frightening “advice” from some of the people they encountered. Sometimes they were told they would die at sea. Other times people said they were crazy and inexperienced, and it was too dangerous. But one woman told them that if they kept trying to prepare for the journey, then they would never leave. She said that it was impossible to ever be ready for such a trip, and it was just a matter of waking up and deciding to go. This stuck with me. It reminded me of a John Green quote from Paper Towns, which I’ll try to loosely quote here: “Leaving is the hardest thing to do, until you go. Then it’s the easiest damn thing in the world.” This quote, and Torre and Ivan’s experience, shows that we’re never really ready for what’s coming. There is no way to ever be completely prepared for what’s ahead. It’s just a matter of making a decision and sticking to it, and figuring it out along the way.

I wasn’t really expecting all of these important life lessons when I started reading this book. I was expecting it to be a light and comical read, without the philosophy lessons. However, I’m happy that these messages were there along with the humor. In a way, this was just what I needed to read at this point in my life, and I’m pleased that I had the notion to pick it up one day.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

I love Harry Potter. I really do.  I could probably go into detail and devote a whole post to why it’s my favorite and what it’s meant to me over the past 17ish years, but instead I’ll try to stick to just one topic: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

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I first heard of the play during what I would consider an emotionally charged time. It was almost a year ago, and I had just gotten back from a spontaneous trip to Germany for Oktoberfest.  I was still coming to terms with a rough break-up (the reason why I booked said spontaneous trip to Germany), I had recently moved to a new neighborhood and was still adjusting, and I was dealing with some serious post-travel blues.  To me, traveling is a double-edged sword.  The feeling I get when I’m experiencing something new in a place I’ve never been is exhilarating, it’s addicting.  But each vacation exposes me to people and places that inspire even more trips, and I end up coming home with a bucket list that’s much longer than when I left.  It can feel a bit discouraging when you start thinking about time and work and money, and how you’ll probably never cross off everything on your list.  So that was my state of mind when I saw a post on Facebook that J.K. Rowling had co-written a play that was a sequel to the Harry Potter series, and it was going to premiere in London the following summer.  I talked to my friend Michelle who I hadn’t seen in a while, she jumped on board to go with me, and then all of a sudden I was waking up at 5:00 AM eastern time to participate in the pre-sale, and then I got the email confirmation for the tickets and that was how the base of our London & Iceland trip was planned.

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On the way to the Hogwarts Express!

 

Flash forward ten months to about one month ago, and we were on our way to London! We had planned the trip so that the play was on our last day, so we had lots of time to explore the city.  There’s a lot to do and see in London, and I think we checked off pretty much all of the major stuff.  We saw the Tower of London, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Platform 9 ¾, Abbey Road, the Globe Theatre, and a lot more.  We even managed to squeeze in a day trip to Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Oxford.  There is so much history in London (and in England in general), and I’ve added quite a few books to my reading list.  Since the trip I’ve been binge-watching The Tudors on Netflix, but I want to read about that time period too.  I’m also interested in the British monarchy in general.  And after this trip, I definitely want to clear the dust off my Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes collections.

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Palace Theatre

But then came the day of the play! I was super excited to see it.  I had bought the book when it came out, but I had decided not to read it until after watching the play.  My theory was that it was created to be watched, not read.  And since we ended up spending a lot of money on the tickets and trip, I wanted to experience it in the element it was intended to be.  We picked up the tickets in the morning, and there was an almost-crisis when I didn’t realize the tickets had fallen out of my bag.  Thankfully there was a very kind woman who saw it happen and picked them up for us so we were in the clear (Dear God, please bless this woman and her family).  We ate lunch in Chinatown (where I successfully ate fried rice with chopsticks) and then it was play time!

I’m not going to give anything away here, but I have to say that the play was amazing! The special effects alone were incredible; I honestly don’t know how they did it.  The music was perfect, too, it helped to really create the right atmosphere.  If you’ve read the book, you know that there is at least one scene with dementors, and I have to admit that I was legitimately (though only slightly) afraid during that part.  But overall I thought the acting was incredible, and that’s what really brought the story together.  The cast was so talented, and they did a great job of bringing these much-loved and well-known characters to life in a different format.  For me personally, the star of the show wasn’t Jamie Parker or Sam Clemmett (who play Harry and Albus respectively), but it was Anthony Boyle (who played Scorpius) that stole my heart.  He brought a lot of personality to the role, and looking back on the experience I have to say that he helped to make Scorpius my favorite character in Cursed Child.

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When it comes to the book itself, most of my friends had read it as soon as it was released, so they knew the story before I did. When I talked to a few of them about it, the general consensus was one of slight disappointment.  Some of the best things about the original Harry Potter series are the background descriptions and character insights, things that are lost in a screenplay.  I think they felt that it was hard to really get into the story because for the most part they were only reading the dialogue.  I read the book after I got back from my trip, and I have to admit I understand where they’re coming from.  I found myself drawing on my memories of the play when I needed help visualizing a scene, and I could see how it would be difficult to become absorbed in the story without having seen it performed first.

Regardless, I loved Cursed Child, though in a different way from the original Harry Potter series. It’s bittersweet to admit it, but I think it was a fitting end to the Harry Potter story.  Mostly, though, I’m just grateful that I had the opportunity to see the play performed live.  It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience, and it formed the base of what is now one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.  This is definitely something that I’ll be talking about for years to come.

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Including this because it’s one of my favorite pictures ever!

 

The Saga of the Volsungs

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It’s amazing how time can get away from you! It seems like just yesterday I sat down to create my summer reading list, but it also feels as if it’s been much longer than two months since my last post! There has been a lot going on in my life, and I’m kind of amazed at how much I’ve packed into these last two months. I’ve been on a trip to Philadelphia to visit a friend, a trip to Cleveland for work, two separate trips to visit my brother in upstate New York, I’ve celebrated the 4th of July here at home, celebrated a friend’s birthday, celebrated the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup, started rowing practice again, I sprained my wrist while hiking, attended a few retirement parties, watched as my company sold the division that I work in, congratulated three different couples on their pregnancy announcements, planned my own birthday celebration (taking place later today!), and throughout it all I’ve been finalizing details for my upcoming trip to London and Iceland. So, yeah, life has been a little crazy lately. I’ve definitely been feeling a little overwhelmed, but looking at my calendar things should slow down after my vacation, which is only two weeks away!

This trip has been in the works for almost a year, so there’s a lot of pent up excitement. I’ll be traveling with a friend to London for five days, and then to Iceland for five days. It’s funny thinking about it now, because a year ago today I was making an impromptu decision to go to Oktoberfest in Munich by myself, and that trip set the ball rolling for this upcoming vacation. Basically, I came back from Munich in the beginning of October last year and was feeling the inevitable post-travel blues. Soon after I got back, the announcement about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child came out, and since I was missing Europe like crazy I came up with the idea to see the play live in London. I enlisted my friend, Michelle, to join me, even though it had been a year since we had seen each other. She also loves to travel, and is a huge Harry Potter fan too. We bought the play tickets last October, and suddenly our “just a few days in London” turned into traveling around more and deciding to go to Iceland because it’s off the beaten track and neither of us have been there. Ten months later, here we are.

In Iceland, we’ll be renting a car and driving along the southern coast of the island. Since we know next to nothing about tourism there, I bought a guidebook a few months ago to figure out a general plan of where we should stay, what we should do, and all that fun stuff. I bought the Rough Guides to Iceland, and I think it has been generally helpful in planning, but we can’t really put it to the test until we get there. As I was flipping through the book, though, I noticed a section at the very end called “Books and Sagas.” As a reader, my interest was piqued. It provided reading recommendations for books on Icelandic history, modern literature, travel and wildlife, and the sagas.

I’ve never heard of the Icelandic sagas before. According to my guidebook, they were written anonymously between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. They cover a wide range of subjects; some are biographies of individuals, others serve as histories of the early Commonwealth, and often contain elements of folklore, Norse kings, and Viking-era adventures. In preparation for my upcoming trip, I decided to read two or three of these sagas to try to get a flavor of the culture and history of the country I’ll be visiting.

I started with The Saga of the Volsungs. According to my guidebook, this saga is said to have inspired The Lord of the Rings (which I’m a fan of) and Wagner’s Ring Cycle (which I don’t think I’ve ever heard). The description said that it more or less follows the adventures of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer, and contains elements of unrequited love, greed, and vengeance. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to read this.

To be honest, I’ve never read anything quite like this before. The beginning of the saga describes Sigurd’s genealogy. He was a descendant of Odin, the Norse god of war and wisdom, and the first few chapters describe the battles and adventures of his forefathers. Then the saga goes into Sigurd’s own brave adventures: how he avenged his father’s death, slayed the dragon Fafnir, and obtained more treasure than any other man. Following this section, the saga becomes less mythical as it describes the marriages and alliances (and ultimate betrayal) of Sigurd, his wife, Gudrun, her brothers, and Brynhild, a wise and beautiful queen.

One of the things that struck me about The Saga of the Volsungs was that the prose was straight to the point. There weren’t many metaphors or overly poetic lines, and the scenes describing battles were very blunt. I realize that part of this could be due to the translation into English, but I think the overall bluntness is just one of the aspects of the sagas. While I was reading, in my mind I kept picturing Viking-era men sitting around a fire and telling this story aloud. I like that image, and if the prose was different I don’t think I would get the same picture.

Throughout the saga, I definitely picked up on elements that could have inspired Tolkien. The most obvious was a cursed ring that would bring doom to all who had it. Some names also looked familiar, and I wonder if some of the characters in The Lord of the Rings were inspired in part by Sigurd and his contemporaries. There were also a few things that reminded me of A Song of Ice and Fire, and I would be willing to bet that George R.R. Martin has read this saga as well. Namely, a pair of incestuous twins brought Jaime and Cersei Lannister to mind. Also, Iceland is often referred to as the land of ice and fire, and that was in the back of my mind as well. Overall, the themes and battles described in this saga were similar The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire, and I’m tempted to re-read both series (even though that would set me way back on my reading list).

This was my first saga reading experience, and I’m glad I managed to fit it in before my trip. I’m hoping to finish a second one (Laxdaela Saga) as well, but I don’t know if I’ll have enough time. I’m glad I got a taste of the sagas, though, and the parallels between this and other fantasy series are obvious. I would recommend this to anyone who is into those types of books, or anyone who is interested in Norse mythology or Viking-era tales in general.

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

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What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman (aka My Life Goals)

Reading this memoir was an inspiring yet terrifying experience. As a single 25-year-old female who loves to travel, I identified with Kristin. It was something about the way she wanted to do her own thing and see the world, but at the same time she wanted to find love (because that’s normal and what we’re supposed to do, right?!). In so many ways I felt like I was reading the memoir of some sort of alternate-universe version of myself, with the main difference being that Kristin is hilarious and I can only dream of being as funny as she is.

I felt the connection in the first chapter. “The first time I blew off steam internationally was not born of carpe diem. It was born of deep despair.” Add in the fact that Kristin’s deep despair was caused by a rough break-up and at that point in time she was only one year older than myself right now… well, it sounded eerily familiar. Her first international escape was with a friend, the friend’s boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s friend to Paris and Amsterdam. She spent an extra few days in Paris by herself, trying to be the Girl Who Has Fun Alone and, ultimately, she admitted that those days didn’t go as well as planned.

It was like reading a twisted version of my own journal. My first solo international experience was also born out of a break-up and the combination of a need to get away and the desire to be independent. Instead of just taking a trip to visit good friends in New York or Philadelphia (which probably would have been the sensible thing to do), I booked a solo flight to Munich for Oktoberfest. Why Munich? Because my friend’s Italian coworker was working there for a few months and had mentioned at one point that if any of us were in Germany we should let him know. I took that as a sign that I should go.  I had visions of myself breezing through the streets of Munich, sipping coffee and eating pretzels outside some gorgeous café, drinking liters of beer with attractive single foreigners from all over the world. You probably aren’t surprised that the trip didn’t live up to my expectations: I really struggled communicating in German, I found it difficult to meet people, I felt unsafe navigating through a bunch of drunk people by myself, and felt generally alone for a bigger chunk of time than I’d like to admit. However, I did manage to get a few things right: there was lots of great beer and good food, a hot Swedish guy made an appearance, I met some really cool people from Australia, and most importantly, I made it through an international trip all by myself and had an overall good time. Mission accomplished.

 

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Marienplatz in Munich, Germany

I drew all these parallels between my life and Kristin’s, and it was only the first chapter! As I continued reading, and learned about her adventures in Russia, Argentina, Australia, and more, I felt so inspired. I kept thinking to myself, this is what I’m going to do with my life. This is how I want to live. I started telling people that traveling was the most important thing, that I wanted to see the world, that I didn’t want to settle down, that I wanted to enjoy being single. (I didn’t tell them that I was almost quoting from a memoir that I was reading.) Kristin matured throughout the book; she became more self-confident and carefree when she was traveling. I kept picturing a future version of myself that was right there with her, just going with the flow and enjoying life, living each moment abroad to the fullest, not afraid of being judged. For the first time, I felt capable of achieving all of my lofty travel goals. If Kristin could do it, then so can I.

The last few chapters sobered me up a bit, though. Suddenly, the amazing and confident Kristin was in her late thirties, and afraid that she missed her chance at love because of all her adventures. The woman I had come to identify somewhat as a heroine was dealing with life questions that I can’t possibly understand at 25, and as I read her thoughts I realized I was afraid of the possibility of encountering the same problems. What if I traveled so much and focused on myself so much that I miss other opportunities? What if the adventures that I’m planning at 25 turn me into a crazy cat lady at 35? The last few chapters left me feeling nervous rather than adventurous, cautious rather than bold. By being honest about her thoughts and her life, Kristin presented the opportunity cost of being so independent and well traveled. But at the same time, she kept traveling and doing her own thing, which I found inspiring.

After finishing the book and letting it sink in for the past few days, I realize that I’m still inspired by Kristin’s life. She knew what she wanted and she went out to get it, and even though there were tough spots along the way she kept going, and along the way she met some amazing people and racked up countless stories to share. And in the end she regretted nothing, which to me is the most important thing.