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Clean is a relative word on the road.

A baby wipe can feel like a spa on a plane or in the woods.

But I’d feel an embarrassed, grimy mess showering with nothing but on the way to class.

At Eastern Mountain Sports last summer, the kids heading to camp didn’t care about the soap, while their moms fretted about never getting the smell of the great outdoors out of the kids.

The solution: Dr. Bronner’s. It’s an all natural soap sold at camping stores. At home, I probably use a half dozen soaps to clean my hair, face, dishes and clothes, but Dr. Bronner’s claims to do it all. How this works I don’t know, but somehow it does. And it sells, despite a label with terrible design (two colors, all text). Being all natural means it’s acceptable for environmentally delicate areas, such as state and national parks.

I’ve shopped our local coop for years, but just learned they carry Dr. Bronner’s in pump jugs for wholesale refills.

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Guidebooks are good for planning where to go, and when if its just about the weather. But every now and then I stumble on something that I wished someone had warned me about but seems to fall between the guidebook spines in terms of practical information. Like tree pollen.

For example, I am mind-bendingly allergic to eucalyptus trees in bloom (or whatever you call it when the pollen flies). I know this because on a trip to San Fran a few years back, a friend near Berkley took me hiking. We drove north on Highway 1, pushing her little “I think I can” to its best Lexus commercial imitation. We planned to walk a few miles near the shoreline, through the trees, starting by the water.

I don’t think I made it half a mile. My chest squeezed. My nose ran. My eyes watered like I wasn’t just cutting onions but grinding my eyes with freshly-cut halves.

We turned back. I showered, napped, and still felt like a cold the size of the entire state had taken residence in my sinuses. Back in the city, I felt a little better, but it didn’t disappear entirely until I was somewhere 40,000 feet over Illinois.

It happened this weekend back home too, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The pollen was epic. Within an hour of pulling into the driveway Michael’s gray car was yellow. The air held a yellow tint. Really. It was a particle fog coloring our view across the street.

They don’t talk about that in the guidebooks.

I used to have a night in Albany where I knew everyone in the pub. The bartender refused to let us pay, so we overtipped him handsomely. Now law and med students have taken over. The owners forces the bartender out after a few too many free pints. It’s not the same.

I feel for those San Fransiscans losing a part of their city. In their honor, I encourage everyone everywhere to seek out a neighborhood joint instead of the trendy spot and say hey. Where’s the best places we should support in your town? I’m ready!

Thursday night after class I drove to Brooklyn. I’m still working out the best route – and taking suggestions, in anyone has them, for Albany to the far side of Prospect Park. Mapquest suggests cutting through lower Manhattan, but I get so lost it takes an extra half hour at least. I tried another route, through the Battery Park tunnel – except not, because the tunnel was closed late night, I wound up on the FDR heading north, panicked, but eventually managed to take the Manhattan Bridge (after a few illegal U-turns on and around Canal).

I hate NYC driving.

One moment of grace. Before the tunnel closed – before I got all turned around – I landed on the West Side Highway shortly after midnight. WFUV played something like modern lounge music, lilting and jazzy, tinkly and floating, like music out of Lost in Translation but softer and soaring. The lights bounced around the river. The apartment buildings crammed with people fled by, all around me millions of people going about their nights, the warmth of their lives beaming through the illuminated windows. The city was mine, the highway a silent rocket to the future, and the music lifted me above it all. It was a lovely moment, the kind that only comes alone, when a city quiets and you have a chance to appreciate the humanity it offers. Lovely.

Hot Damn. The legal max for bumping passengers just bumped itself to $800. The Dallas Morning News has a snippet

I love working the system. I always knew that airlines had to pay people they bumped from flights for overcrowding. Shortly after college I learned you could volunteer. For every flight, I approached the counter and asked how full the flight was. If they said very, I’d ask if they were taking volunteers to be bumped. Flight attendants cull from the volunteer list before they make a general announcement. 

When I lived in San Antonio, I flew Delta home to Baltimore through Atlanta. The Texas to Georgia leg never had enough seats. On Sunday nights, Delta flew three evening planes – a 7:30, 9:30 and 11:30. The 7:30 was always overbooked, but the 11:30 always had room. So I’d book the early one, volunteer to be bumped, take the voucher, and still get home in time to work the next morning.

My vouchers paid for all but $200 of a flight from Texas to Madrid, and an entire vacation flying into Baltimore and out of Boston.

I’ve never been that lucky before or since. In Tel Aviv two years ago, I flew home the weekend before Pesach with, I swear, every American Yeshiva boy in the entire country. My flight was one of the last before the actual holiday. Ben Gurion? Ayza Balagan! Of course, I volunteered – El Al bumpees get a free flight to any El Al destination within a year. But no dice. I was the last to board the plane. I’ll just have to try again next year.

 

I love listening to radio on long-distance drives. Cars can be so isolating, long drives geographically dislocated. Highways look the same, it’s just the names that change. Night is worse. Flickering radio static  gives a concrete sense of space passing. Sometimes luck shines, and a locally owned and produced station offers a glimpse of color. At home I get WEQX in Vermont, where they toss in Phish a few times a week, because that’s what Vermonters do. From East Texas to New Orleans in the pitch of night every station was gospel or country. I’ve never driven the Jersey Turnpike and not heard Springsteen and Billy Joel. There’s a pretty good local station in north Jersey that plays indie rock and alt-country and yes, The Boss, but it peters out around Cherry Hill. That’s almost Delaware anyhow, close to home and the isolation of the Eastern Shore. 

 

I forgot the photos!

 

Meet Sirus. 

She’s our baby. 

A 6-year-old Weimaraner

She went to the vet this weekend for her just-in-time for summer checkup. She’s better protected than we are. Monthly flea and tic treatments. Kennel cough vaccination, also a good idea for dogs who hike during the summer. 

Hike? Boy, does she. 

She’s even got her own pack. 

Apparently there’s some debate over doggie backpacks. But I agree with the folks who say larger working dogs do just fine. Sirus has her own saddle pack, and carries her food and water on weekend camping trips. The key is to balance the weight evenly on either side. She also takes her backpack very seriously. This is clearly a job for her, with no time for dilly-dallying among the underbrush like she would without the pack. 

Mountainsmith human bags – hip packs, duffels, car organizers – hold up amazingly well, and have great suspension and extras, like pockets just wear you need them. They make a doggie pack too. I haven’t seem them, but judging from their other bags, and this review, it’s probably a safe bet. 

Other brands make them too. Sirus’s is burried in packing boxes, or I’d mention hers. She’s had it a few years. A cautionary note: they aren’t easy to find. Some Petcos have them, I think. Some REIs do. Amazon has Kelty packs (also probably a good bet), but the Mountainsmith are out of stock. Small online dog-based stores might be the best bet, or a local speciality store. 

We’ll be there on Friday. In honor, here’s the top things I’m charmed by in Charm City:

1. Water. I live in Albany, the Hudson doesn’t count.

2. Water taxis. Not even Boston’s are as convenient to motoring around downtown on a summer day. They really do act like public transportation (a little touristy, but still).

3. Camden Yards. Most beautiful stadium ever. I brook no arguments on this.

4. Hon. It’s what all the locals call everyone. It’s homey, unpretentious, down to earth, and totally local.

5. Lexington Market. As a kid I had my first real roasted peanuts here, straight from the roaster. Arguably the best crab cakes around. A bit off the tourist track, so you have to know to go. Sadly closes at 6:30pm.

6. Fells Point. Super-cute bar and restaurant nabe. Possibly too popular, but still fun. We had a birthday for my grandmother there one year, my mom made a cake, and the manager flipped out over it and practically tackled her for the recipe. My mom’s that good, and the Fells Point folks were that nice.

7. Fried baloney wrapped kosher hotdogs and French Fries with apple cider vinegar.

8. The celebrities. They’re wacky, weird, retro, throwbacks who march to their own drummer. John Waters. Duff from “Ace of Cakes”. David Simon, who created “Homicide” and “The Wire”. H.L. Mencken. Edgar Allan Poe, for God’s sake!

8a. Speaking of Poe, there’s a guy who lays a rose and bottle of booze on Poe’s grave site every year. He was a huge mystery and a city legend. He finally reveled himself last year, but I refuse to encourage that. I liked the mystery.

8b. Cal freakin’ Ripken, Jr and Sr. (he stands alone above them all)

9. Bubby’ s Mandelbrot. My grandmother lives near Reisterstown Road, still speaks Yiddish, and makes the best Jewish version of biscotti. Ever.

10. In Little Italy they project movies on the brick wall of a restaurant. It’s bring your own chairs, al fresco, every Friday night in summer on the sidewalks in the middle of the neighborhood.

National Geographic Adventure rated the Gregory Triconi 60 number one for long-haul packs in their just-out May summer travel issue (so new I can’t even link to it on the Web site yet). Gregory packs are highly rated industry-wide: Outside, for one, and Backpacker magazine.

But here’s the rub, quite literally – they don’t fit me.

Packs should fit a back like good shoes fit feet. I have funny feet, and I have an unusually flat back. That means the small of my back doesn’t curve as much as the average woman. I sorely wanted a Gregory Deva – until I tried it, and quickly realized I would be just plain sore. The Deva’s comfortably padded back was too much padding for my back, the pack sat too high and pushed in the wrong lower-back places, and it just wasn’t comfortable. So I went with the equally stellar Osprey (see: previous post), which had the ever-important benefit of being comfortable.

All of this is to not to discourage anyone from buying a Gregory pack, but to say that gear rankings aren’t one-size-fits all. It’s good to have an idea of two or three packs you might like, and then try them all. And it’s not just about the money, but about a healthy back and shoulders – the kind that don’t want to give up after the first mile.