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Amid the wedding-planning mayhem this summer we took a long July 4 weekend to camp in the Catskills — specifically, Devil’s Tombstone. It wasn’t easy to find a relatively last-minute place to pitch a tent on a holiday weekend.

Getting there was an adventure. M. got stuck in Albany for work — with the car. I was in Brooklyn — with all the gear. So I overstuffed my pack and, leaning precariously on Subway train walls and poles, made my way to Grand Central to catch the Metro North to Poughkeepsie. Me with hiking clothes, crazy stuffed Osprey with boots and sleeping bags dangling off, and a train full of Manhattanites with lap-dogs bound for Catskill summer homes.

M. borrowed from friends in Albany what I couldn’t carry on the train, and picked me up at the station.

We rolled into the campground right at 9 p.m., right when the park office closes.
But the duo who run the campground stay open an extra 15 minutes on summer weekends just in case city-folk like us get stuck in traffic, or some such.

The guy running the place was rugged and muscular, with about 20 years on us and looking like he could still out-outdoors us in every way. Our campsite was on a small clearing overlooking the road, surrounded by trees — and no light. Knowing we’d have to set-up in the dark, he came to check on us. He couldn’t have been nicer. The tent couldn’t have been more uncooperative. (A lesson we know well, but clearly needed to relearn — kids, never attempt to set up a new tent for the first time in the dark.)

We gave up and slept in the car. Our Mountain Man friend was clearly disappointed in us, but we were far too tired to care. We know from experience that us plus dog fit very comfortably with the seats down.

Day dawned, and we explored. Devil’s Tombstone is a small, primitive campground, with a bathroom and not much else. But it was quit, blissfully so. No electricity meant no RVs, or radios, or much other noise but the occasional (very, very occasional) car on the road below.

Because it’s so small, state parks and rec granted us access to the massive North-South Lake Campground — as noisy and packed as our campground was serene. We strolled around the lakes on the Loop trail. Sirus, lured by a passel of ducks, actually swam.

A map of the area from the NSL office showed a more rugged route starting just before the formal park entrance, and so we had a second-day adventure along the Catskill Escarpment above Kaaterskill Clove.

(We thought about hiking up to the popular Kaaterskill Falls — I had never been. But the weekend crowds dodging traffic to the trail entrance quickly dissuaded us. On the escarpment trail, we met perhaps a handful of people.)

The trail took us up up up, around the backside of a small peak, and to the front again. Rain had come hard that week, so while the sun broke for us, the footing remained muddy. This isn’t a trail for the unsure of foot, and frankly, I’m not sure I’d tackle it again with the dog. On the far side, the trail narrowed precipitously with a steep drop to our right, nothing but a few scant inches of grass between my right pinky toe and things I’d rather not think about.  Sirus kept wanted to pass to our right. I yelled at her more than I should have, out of nervousness.

Our payoff — two overlooks, slightly cleared openings around granite outcroppings, with views to Connecticut and down the Hudson Valley.

I got a notice for another new travel Website seeking submissions. The guidelines page made no mention of payment – which means there isn’t any.

I take issue with that.

Starting out, you need writing samples and exposure. I get it. It’s competitive out there, and paying gigs can be hard to come by – impossible without something concrete to show editors. And yet, someone out there is profiting in some way by the writer’s largess. Writing is time consuming, and can be mentally draining. It is work, and work should be paid. Roofers don’t offer free flashing for the sake of earning a few new customers – why should writers be expected to do the same?

I won’t mention the new Website I saw, because it does seem interesting, I support their mission and I don’t want to seem like I’m unfairly singling them out.

But I do think that writers are clearly being taken advantage of, especially with travel-oriented online publications. I saw one Web site run by a hugely successful author with a couple of best-selling travel titles, several television appearances, and a really glossy Web site with plenty of advertising – and some pretty great writing. But the latter, reading their guidelines, was clearly submitted by folks who did so merely for the chance to maybe score some free stuff or press passes, if they were lucky.

I wish a union of freelancers banded together and forced publications, even small ones, to give some kind of token to writers. It will never happen – to many aspirants will see it as their chance to sneak past the picket lines.

That’s why I salute WorldHum. Not only is the writing fantastic, but they’ve found a way to pay contributors. The checks won’t cover rent, but at least it pays for groceries (according to the guidelines).

Sometimes we travel for sad reasons. My grandmother passed away last week – she of the Bubby’s Mandlebrot fame. It was a long, lonely drive to Baltimore. My mother and I agree that it wasn’t tragic, though. She was almost 96, lived all but her last 24 hours in her own apartment (never needing assisted living) and basically went to sleep in a hospital bed with her daughter and her two best friends beside her.

Leaving Baltimore was tough. I found myself dawdling at Panera, finding an excuse to check email one more time, procrastinating getting on the road. Bubby was the last of her generation still in Baltimore. Everyone else lives in the suburbs or Florida now. The city was such a part of family lore. My first car trips as a child were to her apartment. We weren’t natives, but we weren’t tourists either. Now that’s Bubby’s not there to visit anymore, does that change our status?

Bubby took me on my first overseas trip – Israel when I was 15. She always wondered where I got my journalism skills from – despite knowing everyone in Jewish Baltimore and writing copious letters to everyone who was ever related to anyone she knew. She even started keeping journals and memoirs nine years ago. We found some dozen notebooks. I’ll transcribe them this summer, I hope. I know there’s a lovely essay in all of this, probably more than one.

I’ll post more thoughts as they come.

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.

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.

I’m packing. I’m leaving the apartment building that’s been my home for five years for a free townhouse three blocks away. After a few months there, we plan to move to New York City. A new journey begins, and it starts by boxing up my books. Sometimes packing is monotonous, but sometimes a cover made me pause. This time, two – Alexander Hamilton: A Life, by William Stern Randall and The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto.

I don’t read many biographies, but the book came free, and I had long been curious about Hamilton. Turns out he lived in my Albany neighborhood. He married a local girl – I could walk to her family’s mansion (he also cheated with her sister, but I’ll leave that to the book). They lived locally too, with his law practice down the street. He strolled through the space that is now Washington Park. I walk through the park almost daily.

While reading the book I imagining the horses and cravats, the creation of a nation, and my footsteps in theirs. A handful of brownstones in my neighborhood still date to then, same with the layout of streets. I wonder how familiar the city would look to him today. I loved the book because Hamilton is such a brilliant yet tragic American figure. I loved it even more because the book made me a traveler in my own neighborhood, seeing the streets with new eyes. (A caveat: some say Randall stretched the truth too far in this book. Other Hamilton biographies have better reviews. But again, the book was free.).

The Island at the Center of the World
covers the early history of New York City – specifically, the development from New Amsterdam into a world capital through a handful of decisive colonial choices.

The first page placed the author, and the reader, in the state library on Madison Avenue. In good weather I run the giant steps outside the archivists’ offices. The author describes paging through rare documents recently translated from the Old Dutch. From those translations he plucked the story of a rising star in the new Colony and his political battles. It’s an exemplary piece of historical genre writing.

The author sprinkles the book with tidbits that stuck in my head. The young hero bought land to farm north of Manhattan. In the old language a young gentleman is a Jonker. Hence Yonkers, the town immediately north of Manhattan. He describes the rivers that ran through what is now Upper Manhattan and the swamps of the Bronx.

Every time I take the train south to the city I look at the office parks, highways and apartment buildings, and imagine the homesteads that once stood.

This is why I love reading books with such strong senses of place. They offer new contexts for viewing a small slice of the world. It’s why I travel – it’s why I read.

Travelzoo has a great deal on a new inter-city bus company, Megabus – so good the company’s site has crashed. Free seats. Or come June, $1 seats. I can’t get to the site, and I’m not surprised. From the brief Travelzoo mention, apparently this is a  Scottish discount bus company making a go of the U.S. and Canadian markets. From the picture, the bus looks like a nice charter, and Travelzoo said they hope to put WiFi on the buses soon.

UK opinion on the service is pretty mixed. The biggest complaint seems to be a lack of customer service, long waits, and penny pinching – but the buses aren’t bad and the service is cheap. A typical overview.

In other news, the Atlantic skies are opening (and the Pacific too, but I’ve got an East Coast bias). Easing air restrictions means more inter-continental flights – and hopefully cheaper tickets, thanks to the competition. This has been coming for a while, but the New York Times travel section updates the information.

One fun note: the possibility of RyanAir’s American debut (my Web design professors would have conniptions over the site design, consider yourself warned). The cheap airline – forget merely “low cost” – offers tickets starting at 10 pounds (that’s about $25, give or take) from London across Europe. The UK Telegraph in December reported that RyanAir plans to start $16 r/t tickets across The Pond (again estimating from the Pounds quote in the story). Like other cheap travel offerings, RyanAir works because they offer no frills, ask passengers to put up with delays and other issues, and charge through the nose for every little extra – expect that $16 to balloon after fees for luggage, children (even when seated on their parents’ laps), misplaced passes, and so on. Still, that’s far less than a British Airlines flight, and who wants to pay an extra $300 just for the tea and clotted cream? (Which, by the way, is awesome and almost a reason for flying BA across the Atlantic. Almost).

The changes won’t start until next year. But the really fun bit is the end of the Telegraph story – the possibility of more low-cost flights to India and the Middle East.

Cashing in Frequent Flier miles is all about the stuff they don’t tell you. Most airline Web sites detail how many miles you need to fly where, and how to earn miles. But actually using them can change the game.

For example, I booked my flight to Auckland on American Airlines. Travelers can have one stop-over per continent on their route, for up to a year. I had three options for New Zealand. I could fly Quantas, which stops in Sydney, Air Pacific, which stops in Fiji, or Air Tahiti Nui. I chose the latter, so I get five days in Tahiti, essentially gratis.

A few years ago I looked into using miles to Europe from Texas, to visit friends in London and Warsaw. I could have listed Warsaw as my final destination, and stopped in London, saving the extra cost of a flight to Warsaw. I could have also stopped in Baltimore on the way over or back to visit my folks. I found a great price on a flight to London, so I saved the miles (and boy am I glad!). But I loved the options.

When booking a trip with miles, American holds the seats for two weeks as a reservation before printing the actual ticket. The reservation can change unlimited times, and every change extends the two weeks. When I initially booked my current trip at the beginning of March, my only options had me leaving near the end of June. I called back the day before the reservation expired, and enough other people had changed their minds that I got the dates I wanted – and I have until March 31 to change again.

I’ve always used American and had great luck. The miles link to my credit card, so as long as I spend at least $1 every two years, my account stays current (trust me, that’s not a problem. A little too much of “not a problem.”)

I had Delta miles once. They expired. An entire domestic flight. I’ll never sign up with them again.

One more stopover note: you can’t book a round-the-world ticket on a standard award. So I couldn’t fly to Auckland via London and Dubai, or some such. You have to pick either an Atlantic or Pacific route, whichever is closest, and return the same way. Trust me, I tried.