Category Archives: Challenge

The Underground Table: America’s Camino

2010. Being a practical nation, Americans turn to pilgrimage to seek salvation of their bodies. Freedom not from sin, but from antibiotics, pesticides, and the absurdity of the Industrial Diet. Instead of walking church to church, pilgrims walk from sustainable farm to farm.

In return for a donation, pilgrims receive a place to sleep or to stake their tent, a shower and toilet, a dinner and breakfast (either prepared or something they can cook themselves). For now, a small tent and camping stove are recommended.

It’s unclear whether the pilgrimage has an endpoint or not. Most often it’s self-defined by time constraints, often circular. The waypoints are non-linear, just a smattering of farms across the country. The route is formed by making 20 or 50 phone calls before heading out, asking and explaining. Bring your own map, leave markers if you’re so inclined. Where you choose to walk is up to you.

For now, pilgrims have to accept large stretches of road walking. The upside is raised awareness of the fact that you don’t need much.

At times, the pilgrimage has a work-trade element built in. Farmers budget tasks and funds for anticipated pilgrims — painting, cleaning, stacking, and so forth. It’s a good idea to ask in advance. The issues of work legality, taxes, and insurance coverage are beyond me — ideas?

Americans are always looking for the next best weight loss and/or fitness program. This is it, but it’s also so much more.

Photo by ilovebutter via Flickr.

No room in the inn


Ashish the Seatmate’s recommended Hotel Sharma (“with a huge sign on top”) never materialized, so I ended up booking a room at Hotel Samrat, whose rooftop sign I can see from my current address.

I didn’t choose it so much as walk into a decent-looking lobby on railroad flophouse row, find out there weren’t any rooms, ask about Hotel Sharma, get sloppy directions, and ask the burly checking-in Kerala man with the bright yellow Polo, “Could you just come point it out to me?” The linebacker and I walked twenty meters down the street and for once the touts stayed silent.

The hotel didn’t have a sign (in English), so I went in, said the token room melega?, followed the houseboy to the top floor up turret stairs, glanced at the room, dingy but with a big enough bed and a lock on the door, and went back down to try for a good price.

Took the room for a couple dollars, threw my stuff down, and only then noticed the crunched-up chips in the bed, the pan wrappers and cigarette butts behind the headboard, and the likely presence of bugs and seed throughout the mattress. In response, I hit the streets in search of Lucknow’s famous dried-fruit ice cream.

Found the ice cream — lassi, actually — and got force-fed further sweets by a curious sweet dealer.

Returned to Samrat to find a crowd in the lobby awaiting my arrival. “I don’t serve to foreigners,” the owner said. “You must leave.” Right now, fast. Half of the crowd seemed to be representatives of another hotel which had agreed to take me in.

Went upstairs with the houseboy who monitored the  re-packing of the mosquito net and soap bar. I locked the door at one point which he immediately protested — he had more fear than I did, I guess.

The clerk returned my rent and tried to point me to the other hotel, but, “Nah, you guys are kicking me out. I’ll take it from here, thanks.”

Sought information from the cook at the thali joint across the street, who dispatched a 12 year-old boy to guide me to the originally intended Hotel Sharma. No luck — “This hotel not for you. You go to Mohan Hotel.”

The clerk drew a crude map and I set off via rickshaw, too tired to insist in Hindi that the ride would be worth only 11 cents, not 22.

I found and skipped the Mohan — amenities overkill — and continued up the road on foot. Just beyond, found a hotel recommended by the sweet dealer — Hotel Indore Regency. A guard, a cramped but air conditioned lobby, a bed (also top floor, last door), a bathroom with a lightbulb — I’ll take it. Negotiated a 15% discount and filled out carbon copy forms.

Freddie Mercury carried my bag to the room. I tipped him five rupees, popped a heartburn pill, took a cold shower and collapsed.

The fruits of falling behind

I’ve been falling behind lately, battling inertia like lots of other people.

I’m not going to describe the malaise — it’s the same as yours. Not going to submit any remedies or prescriptions for shutting it down.

However, one of Chris Guillebeau’s suggestions in that last link is to carry a notepad everywhere you go. Hm — I just snapped the picture above on my desk here in Bethlehem, PA. Wanted you to see the fruits of keeping a pad in your pocket, but not stopping to look in the rearview mirror.

Writing it down doesn’t cut it, you have to take the time to type it all in. Which I haven’t. Yet. But I like to think there might be a couple blog posts in there…

Doing something 80% of the way is more frustrating than doing nothing.

Here’s to a productive 2010!


UPDATE: Check out Ben Casnocha’s recent post Keepers of Private Notebooks.

UPDATE 1/5: Notebooks almost all in. I’m happy with the word count. And here’s a link to skip straight to Joan Didion’s essay On Keeping a Notebook.

What if you don’t get the inner journey?

It was the perfect recipe for transformation: A month-long trek around a clump of stupendous mountains. An ancient pilgrim path. A motorcycle through the jungle. A summer of scraping by with a baritone sax.

So what happens when you finally reread your journals and realize the pages are filled with mental dandruff? Quick shots of confusion, desire, doubt, anxiety, concern, what ifs, hilarity, hot temper, the list goes on. You might ask, “What was I thinking?” or, “How could I have been concerned with this crap?”

But really–does this mean you didn’t get the inner journey? Does the absence of fully-formed ah-ha’s devalue the experience?

I’d urge you to take heart. The writing doesn’t make sense because you were working overtime to make sense. What were obvious associations at the time now require lucky reverse engineering to comprehend, if they can be pieced together at all. Or maybe the snippets point elsewhere–clues are often hard to find, frustrating, and ambiguous.

You had the time and freedom to drop down the rabbit holes, far down. It’s no wonder that, in the flat light of the familiar, what you brought back seems cracked. But these aren’t the words of an incoherent stranger–they’re yours. Although the surface might look like so much debris, a veritable landslide at times, there’s no mistaking that it’s the work of seismic shifts.

To put it another way, you brought home an entire river–now comes the challenge of panning for gold.

Photo by Tapse via Flickr.

Travel Self vs. Home Self


Do you play by different rules at home and on the road? When surrounded by the familiar versus overwhelmed by the new?

It’s a massive challenge to merge the travel self and the home self. To approach the world with open intensity no matter what part of the planet happens to be underfoot.

Do any of the following divides sound familiar?

Work / No work
Save / Spend
Established friends and family / Meeting new people
Cooking / Buying meals
Car or bike / Buses, taxis, etc.
Clutter / Essentials
Presentable / Grungy
Scheduled / Improvised
Routine bites of busy / Big wide life-changing experiences

What Didn’t Go Down in Bethlehem, PA

I took a walk today trying to catch the fall colors with a camera. Didn’t stop in a cafe or bar, didn’t even grab a slice of pizza. The root reason being that I’m saving for travel.

Crossed paths with some strangers:

The green-sweatered man behind the counter at Pat’s News Stand, tired of watching browsers leave fingerprints on the covers of his magazines.

Two homeless guys tossing crumpled cans off the Fahy Bridge.

A waitress sitting in the sculpture garden drinking out of an oversized Styrofoam cup.

Kids popping noisemakers in front of the corner bagel shop.

A church caretaker sweeping the steps.

There were a few words exchanged with some of these folks, sure. But not enough–the curiosity mechanism is still bugging me about each of them: Where would it have gone?

These are the people I’d have talked to if I were traveling.

Got a long way to go.

Photo by Frabuleuse

Thinking About the Camino de Santiago?


Just posted my Camino journal here. If you’re thinking of making the pilgrimage, I hope it gives you an idea of the thoughts and concerns the walk is liable to catalyze in your consciousness.

If you’ve walked the Camino before, I hope it takes you back.

Most importantly, if you have any questions about the Camino–any–I’d love to take a shot at them. Especially if you’re struggling with that classic biggie, “I want to do this, but I have no idea how I can make it happen.” (And if I can’t answer your question, maybe I can pass it on to someone who can.)

Get in touch by emailing me at stateofplace -at- gmail. Cheers.

PS — The permanent link is right up there on the header bar next to the Innkeeper’s Guide.

Photo by Shaorang.

Can Work and Travel Coexist? A Lesson from Funk.


When it comes to work and travel, the groove sets up the payoff.

Consider Funk. A bass lick is all the more nasty when the bass has been hanging in the pocket, keeping a low profile. When after seven or maybe 15 bars of solid groove, it pops.

Drops all constraints, steps forward, goes deeper, and realizes its core identity of BASS. In doing so, it opens up a new horizon, or tweaks the accepted perspective, or builds on someone else’s idea. These recurring low-end contributions deliver to The Listener what can only be called inspiration.

Yeah, the groove sets up the payoff.

Bassists don’t only play licks, drummers don’t only play fills. Most of the time, they just groove. The groove has to fit, of course. Sometimes it might be a little cheesy, but that’s OK. It’ll step into something new and overwhelming (if only briefly) soon enough.

Taking the bass lick example to the level of the ensemble, the track below demonstrates what I’m talking about. Enjoy.

Latin Like by Maceo Parker from Dial Maceo (2000)

Photo of the baaaad Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis by via Flickr

Like it? The newest and best live Maceo is Roots & Grooves. Yes, that’s an affiliate link, and no, you will not be disappointed. Feat. Skeet Curtis (bass) and Dennis Chambers (drums) embodying the work/travel interplay. Recorded in Cologne, Germany with the local WDR Big Band. Highly explosive.

Does Travel Lead to Service?

Nick Kristof released the winners of the “Half the Sky” competition last Friday, selected from over 700 submissions of positive work going on around the world, right now. He writes,

“…one of the things that struck me was how often the intercultural engagement involved Westerners who were as much beneficiaries of the process as the local people.”

In other words, Travelers! I know you want to gain Experiences, but seriously, you can give without being miserable!

It’s a backhanded challenge to Westerners whose travels add little to the local quality of life. (Straight cash infusion doesn’t count.) We receive so much from the people whose countries we visit, and so seldom return the favor.

It’s not a condemnation, but a reminder. This adventuresome breed of travel which we spend so much time blogging about, sharing stories of, preparing and sacrificing and saving for, anticipating and attempting to explain to our friends–it’s just a stepping stone: Continue reading Does Travel Lead to Service?

Anybody Seen a Boxcar of Hobos?

Freight train on the canal path in Bethlehem, PA

While walking by this slow freight train the other day, I wondered what would happen if a boxcar of hobos passed and yelled, “Jump on!” Really animated hobos–flapping the sleeves of their flannel shirts, waving their bindles and whatnot.

What will happen when you get the chance to plug a stick of dynamite up the posterior of your current existence? This day, this minute. Choose. Especially if you really like the way things are going right now. Gotta choose.

Look up at the sky. This is what the sky looks like when you have the chance to switch tracks. I have the feeling that, sooner or later, each of us will be put on the spot. The boxcar of hobos is going to roll by. Could be good, could be bad. Only one way to find out. Maybe you’ve already seen it? Or maybe it slides by more often than we realize?

(And yes, it is a freight train–so if we don’t see it, are we in the dark? If we don’t hear it, are we submerged? If we don’t feel it rumbling, are we floating through space?)

Do You Hold Back Your Stories?

The other day I happened on a concert in the back of a jeans boutique. Right there in the waiting-for-the-bathroom hallway. A solo guitarist with princely hair, tight white jeans, cowboy boots and a scorpion belt buckle.

He introduced his song with, “This one’s called Wildwood. I wrote it after I had an experience there.”

What do you think of when you hear Wildwood New Jersey? I’ve never been there, and have only heard of it in passing. Never heard a wild or woody story, though the name tempts me to believe either could be acquired.

In a world of travel tale saturation (guilty as charged), it was refreshing that he didn’t ramble through a song-introducing story. By just saying “I had an experience,” he told us all we needed to know. He let us fill in the blanks and imagine the wildness. He forced us to work for it.

Hm…this is a place that’s inspired at least one songwriter. Might be a place to check out.

I missed the chance to check it out this summer, but these clips from the 1994 documentary Wildwood N.J. take you there pretty fast.

(by Carol Weaks/Cassidy and Ruth Leitman, Ruthless Films)

Do you hold back your stories? If so, how much?

Where Will a Walk Take You?

george washington bridge photo walk walking travel

Have you walked across your city? Have you witnessed the bell curve of its development? Would you take the same route you’d use to drive? Or would you seek out some sort of alternate, foot-friendly route?

Yesterday I read about a back-up plan that many Bihari peasants keep in mind: Make the month-long walk to Calcutta and look for work or beg. After walking the Camino de Santiago, if Burgos and Leon come up together, the immediate thought is twelve days across the meseta… Some of the most fascinating imagery in Stephen King’s The Stand is of walks across a demolished America, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road only intensifies the scenario.

Think of where you drive most often in the 5, 10, 15, and 30 minute ranges. Consider your nearest big city (especially if you’re in one right now). How long it would take to walk to these places?

Bethlehem, PA, is an hour and a half of crumbling interstate west of New York City. But to walk along back roads and sidewalks until the eventual crossing of the George Washington Bridge and coda stroll down to Central Park–sounds like an adventure. 83.2 miles, according to Google Maps. Four good days.

Four good days is a guess. I have no idea what that walk demands. Don’t know what I’m a day’s or a week’s walk from. To know this place, I think I should.

Sure, the scenery in the Lehigh Valley is a notch or two below the Annapurnas, but it’s strange to have a better conception of the various routes from Pokhara to Muktinath than of the footpaths between my town and its immediate neighbors, not to mention the neighbors I’d have to ask for water along the way.

What about you? Had any good walks lately?

Photo claiming to have three mistakes by Sidereal.

Want To Travel? Start Walking.

Not knowing my car’s transmission would soon be dead, I recently wrote something in praise of walking. Backhandedly, about the negatives of cars and even bicycles. Here it is:

Given the choice of any mode of transportation, I prefer my feet. I don’t have to lock them to a streetlamp before I go into the cafe. They don’t suck down gasoline, oil, rubber donuts, antifreeze, or Windex. I don’t need a ticket to take my feet, and I’ve never gotten ticketed for leaving them in the wrong place. Though they can leave me tired, the next day I’m the opposite of lagged. I don’t have to watch a speed limit, only my blisters and joints. Feet simplify the process of  hm, let me take a closer look. They demand I haul only the essentials. Their convertible top is a hat. My feet aren’t capable of crushing toddlers on tricycles. In fact, when I run into someone, it’s a good thing. All my feet need from the gas station is a Christmas tree air freshener.

Then the car trouble showed up (as payback for a wandering eye?). As I waited for the diagnosis, I went from toying with the walking idea to feeling at the mercy of fate. To staring down a drastic lifestyle change. If the car’s kaput, how am I ever going to (fill in the blank)?

Not having a car is a position many Westerners (whose cities still lack quality public transportation) are put in only while traveling with a certain gusto. It’s no wonder that the prospect of living without a car carries the same what might happen? adrenal vulnerability as heading abroad with improvisation as the only plan.

If you’re looking for a way to prepare for travel (or to get your travel fix while home), try ignoring your car for a couple days. You can catch rides, use finicky buses, or just get out and walk the two miles to the grocery store. If you want a larger dose, a six to ten hour wander packs plenty of surprises.

More on that soon…

Took forever to find a photo for this one — thanks, Looking Glass.

Go to the Best Hotel in Town for Free

By the end of this post, you’ll know how.

The Hotel Bethlehem used to be the go-to spot for all facets of tycoons hoping to cut deals with Bethlehem Steel.

Today, it still has the white-gloved doormen, martini bar, and 20 foot-high red neon sign on the roof begging for a superhero fight scene.

And it still has that ambiance of no questions asked, unless you look like you don’t belong here. To be welcome, all you have to do is look like you belong.

Now like any top hotel, the clientele is unpredictable. Anyone could be a steel heir, or just dumb enough to go into debt for a few nights’ stay. To be warmly received at the Hotel Bethlehem (or your establishment of choice), clothes are a negligible 5% of the charade.

It’s all about walking in the front door and breezing past the desk like you’re finally home.

And that’s what’s best about the free stays here–having to force yourself into believing that you’re on the road, staying in the penthouse, and sorry, can’t talk now, I’m mini-bar bound. So what that your visit will just be a quick trip to the lobby bathroom (hidden on the second floor next to the restaurant). It’s a journey.

Plus, drying your hands on fluffy Ralph Lauren towels adds nicely to the illusion. Try it and let me know what you think.

Photo by Marty.FM via Flickr. Hotel Bethlehem — Bethlehem, PA.