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Often I am taken back to the one and only backpacking trip I organized.

My friend May and I had this idea, and, naturally, as soon as we had it, we decided that we must realize it. The idea was simple: take a few of our closest friends for a three-day backpacking trip to King’s Canyon National Park. So, we started calling and talking, and it soon became clear that some of our closest friends were dubious of our plans, having never done anything like this before. We revised our call list and started reaching out further, to old friends from high school, to people who were only loosely called acquaintances. Eventually, we pieced together our team: an old buddy from high school whom we hadn’t seen or talked to in several years, a city-dwelling SoCal friend from LA whose idea of being out in nature was grilling burgers in the back yard, an outdoorsy, socially-awkward gothic pyromaniac in a complicated friendship with my sister Liza, the said sister, May’s good friend Lei, athletic and energetic and willing to give us the benefit of the doubt for a couple of days, May and I.

In our group, there was not a single person who knew all of the other people.

May and I tried to think of everything that we might need on the trip. Before our departure, I helicoptered around each participant, making sure they had their sleeping bags, tooth brushes, warm socks, water canteens, and floss. We also had to avoid any aromatic soap or lotion, because there were bears in those parts of the Sierra Nevadas, and bears like smelly things. By the time we packed in the cars and headed towards the mountains, it seemed we were set.

The first night, after throwing all of our sleeping gear into the one large tent and sitting around the fire, soaking in the last bit of warmth before the deep and cold high-elevation night descended upon us, we discovered what was missing. In all of the hustle, I had forgotten my own sleeping bag. Following the groans and all inevitable remarks, we had to come up with a solution. The only thing we came up with, besides abandoning the trip altogether, was for me to sleep together with Liza in her bag. We could only fit into the bag if we both lay sideways, so Liza climbed in first, I squeezed myself next to her and then we had to zip the bag up. For this, we had to take in a deep breath and not exhale until it was zipped. On the count of three, we would inhale sharply, Liza would command, “Zip!” and I would try to pull up on the zipper. We figured out that actually, we take up less space with our lungs empty, so then we would exhale and Zip! It was very funny, shouting Zip! in the dark. We also had a few other commands worked out, like “Flip!” and “Rotate!”

The fact that eventually our whole group was giggling and snorting didn’t help our dire situation. Surprisingly, eventually we managed to encapsulate ourselves and actually fall asleep.

The first full day of backpacking was mostly uneventful. We stopped by the Visitors Center and picked up several large, brown barrels where we were to store all of our food items to protect them from the bears. This was mandatory for everyone entering the park for back-country camping. Despite the minor anxiety over the scratches and teeth marks on the barrels, morale was overall high and the adventurers were mostly normal. Towards night, we broke camp on a gorgeous outcropping overlooking the rugged valley of the park, with steeps peaks snow-capped in the distance, and a gurgling creek terminating in a spectacular waterfall 20 feet from our tent. We joked around about not sleep walking on this cliff, and attempted to settle for the night.

Well, more Zipit! silliness ensued, followed by complaints that we set the tent up on quite a steep incline, as a result of which, at every movement, the people uphill slid towards the people downhill. The tent wasn’t that big in the first place, and with seven of us already packed in like sardines, people started slipping on top of each other. At one point in the night Liza and I woke up after another failed iteration of “flip!”, and found the other five campers piled on top of us, all bunched up together in the lowest part of the tent, snoring and sighing in their sleep. Shoving sleeping people in the dark up the hill of our tent floor was another adventure altogether.

Later that night, when everyone was back to wheezing peacefully, a piercing “Die, vermin, die!!!!!” jolted us awake. The pyromaniac goth, with his uncharacteristic expression of emotion, jumped out of his sleeping bag and rushed outside. The sleepy sister, who crawled out a bit later to inquire, found him sitting on the edge of the cliff, a lighter in one hand and a tick in the other. Apparently, the tick had nuzzled into his back during the night, and now it was time for sweet revenge.

The following morning, as we packed up and headed further along the trail hugging the cliffs, I could sense a sort of unraveling happening. May and Lei were perfectly happy and oblivious, while our friend from high school and our friend from LA were showing the first symptoms of civilization withdrawal. They were anxious about toilet paper and surprised that the only thing on our agenda for the day was to walk some more and enjoy mother nature. After his explosion during the night, the goth friend was back to his sullen self, but more withdrawn than usual, Liza was suffering from deep mis-communications and drama that was mostly in her head, and I was concerned about the bears.

Another eventful night and the next day brought an end to our exotic adventure. I think we were all more than a little relieved. Looking back, though, memories tint the trip many different colors. I took away the breathtaking grandeur of Kings Canyon and the wonder of how people we seemingly know can be transformed in unfamiliar settings. May remembers the silliness. Liza remembers the turmoil and brands the experience as the worst backpacking trip of her life. Jason remembers the interesting guy from my high school and how his legs hurt after hiking for five hours straight with a backpack. I don’t know what the guy from high school remembers, because we never saw him again. The pyromaniac we saw many times, and Liza kept in touch with him over the many years that elapsed. But what he thought about the trip will go down to the grave with him, because he isn’t much of a talker.

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Paris(Recently I returned from an adventure in Europe. The next few posts will be dedicated to that trip.)

We ride the escalator into Paris . The Place de Republique looked so navigable on a map drawing down in the metro. Now it’s honking, whizzing, brimming to the rim with people and vespas and cars and other two-axle vehicles. Completely disoriented but optimistic, we roll our luggage past a stage being erected under Marianne’s elbow while she, the perfect symbol of the French Republic, looks on with gusto. A shirtless, muscular man climbs a pole protruding up, binds it to horizontal rods, while two others fasten the ends to the rest of the framework. Backstage skeleton bits coming together as we treck past, bobbing up and down cheerfully in this sea of clanking, barking instructions, motors, sirens. We stay in Paris for only a week, yet this is long enough to feel the eighth notes trilling the heartbeat of city life.

On Tuesdays and Fridays the empty alley on Blvd. Voltaire fills with farmers, butchers, and creamers selling produce. Sun-kissed, cracked hands weigh and package greens, handing neat sacks into milky white fingers. The rhythm of the city pulses and we are in it too – stray syncopated notes, unexpected but miraculously integrated.

In the mornings people are focused, people are few. They must be working, or something. By four or five the metro stops are full again, the brasseries start maxing out their capacity. By 8 or 9pm all of the coffee shops, restaurants, eateries and drinkeries are bursting at the seams with what appear to be the Parisians themselves. Nobody’s rushing to home and hearth. Why bother, when you can sit packed like sardines at an outside table squeezed next to another table and another table, drinking wine and smoke? Awash in human voices and odors, people are drawn to the brasseries even as the streets become more empty at night.

By eleven the sun sets. Youth en masse flood the banks of the Seine, sitting side-by-side with strangers, four, five rows deep. Why the exodus towards the water? Why the choice to spend the evening surrounded by people when you’ve already been surrounded by people the whole day at work? Could all Parisians be extroverts?

We walk and the city breathes, exhaling hot air through the grates under our feet. Trap doors in the walls blow underground wind and train noises over us. When we ourselves descend below, into the innards of Paris, other smells creep in: ureah plus a thousand digestive stenches from people and machines. Arterial tunnels coil and uncoil, expanding in all directions from the central nodes of human traffic. Cold air licks us from high-end boutiques, cabbage and brie smells tickle us from their stands.

Especially on Saturday, life continues deep into the night. This time we ride up to Place de Republique to the thumping low frequencies and high guitar squeals of a concert. The stage that we first saw being assembled now stands complete, a band plays, the whole square is teeming with people. They bounce, they sing along, they skate-board along the sharp edges of the architecture. They belt out their conversations. We escape the deafening wall of sound and duck into Rue Malte. Though the beat continues, it’s tolerable now – it’s as if we’ve bypassed the throbbing heart and are now somewhere in the sinews of this living, gurgling, breathing creature. We still hear it, know it, but are not damaged by it.

The festivities go on for a long time, but by two or three people are finally settling down. You can tell by the infrequency of the sirens, their doppler-effected wails – a final lullaby. Sunday morning it is quiet: nobody on the streets, the shops are closed, only beer cans rattle down steps and wrappers slither across open spaces. Even during the day life stirs lethargically, never gaining full momentum. So the sun sets on another week in Paris – an insignificant tally mark in the age of this city. Years will go by and it will stand unperturbed. People will weave in and out of its colorful tapestry without it ever noticing. So we too depart, missing it more than it will ever miss us.

Palace Square 2

Palace Square, St.Petersburg

When I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg last month, I saw more people in a span of a week than I did in a span of a year here in the States. While most folks who live in large cities groan at the thought of navigating through throngs of human bodies on the way to and from work and accept as a necessary evil the crowded living conditions in Russia’s two largest cities, I was relishing the experience of being there among them.

In Moscow I stayed with family friends who lived in an apartment on the 18th floor of a giant 25-story cement block, hundreds of which proliferate on the outskirts of the capital. My friend bemoaned his living situation, comparing the residents of the building to ants living in an anthill: small, cramped, impersonal, insignificant. But I was warmed by the thought of being surrounded by other people, hearing them living out their lives all around us, above us – clanking of the pipes (someone fixing his faucet), next to us – doors opening and shutting (a mother bringing in groceries and her baby). In the morning if the shower water suddenly ran cold, I knew I was battling over it with the gal across the hall whose bathroom was just on the other side of the wall. It was heartwarming and silly to think, “Ah, bet you’re just waking up too, getting ready to go to work…or maybe to school…” After a few more spurts of HOT!! and COLD!!, I’d turn off the shower, thinking happily, “Well, I’m on vacation and I don’t need to shower that badly anyway. You can have the hot water…”

Riding on the metro was quite an adventure as well. During post-work evening hours we’d pile into the train cars so tightly that when the car would take off with a jerk, we wouldn’t even need to steady ourselves by holding on. There was literally no place to sway, much less to fall. I thought that it was nice that people here were getting a lot of human contact – the whole thing contrasted sharply to life in America, where you can easily go a whole day without touching anyone, without seeing them or smelling them. And yet, even through my giddiness I understood that physical proximity did not warrant emotional closeness. In fact, as I’d try to read the many blank expressions of faces inches away from my own on that train, quite the opposite seemed true.

In St. Petersburg another friend took me and my grandma for a ride through town. As they chatted in the front seat, I mostly listened and soaked in the sights. Looking out, I felt a tug of curiosity and a sense of kinship luring me outside to explore the streets, to paint them, to stroll along them and discover half-abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated squares, warm, inviting cafes and lots and lots of people. There was that tug, but there was also a feeling strangeness, foreignness, hostility, almost. Or at least of an oppressive sort of indifference. People bustled down the streets, in cars and trams, crammed in those same metro cars where they stood like jellied sardines packed into one big mass, but totally isolated from each other.

It turned out that because people were forced into physical proximity, they made a deliberate effort to not connect, to ignore each other, to not meet another person’s eye, certainly not to smile. Maybe it was for their own protection, after all, engaging with hundreds of people every day is fatiguing. Maybe it was because they had grown so accustomed to the crowds, that they perceived them not as individual people in a group, but as part of the city-scape, as integral and inanimate as an obelisk, a lamppost, a bridge.

Whatever the reason, each person weaving in and out of the crowded street was moving through his own, personal space where no one else existed. If their destination was a meeting with another person (date with a girlfriend in a coffee shop, father picking up his kids from school), they still moved through that personal space and there was no chance that this route, this parallel universe, would intersect with any other. There was no chance for serendipitous encounters, unexpected conversations with strangers, random acts of kindness. As such, the city I beheld from inside the car seemed a lonely place.

Perhaps this is characteristic of all large cities. But I felt it particularly strongly in Russia.

We drive through golden, sun-washed hills dotted with thick dabs of green – vineyard, orange trees, olives and corn. This is what Italy must look like, I murmur in awe…either that or the African savanna. Outcroppings of rock add more texture to this lush landscape. But as we ooh and aahh at the scenery unfolding around every turn, there is a quiet anticipation between us of something yet unseen. Soon we are to reach the great sequoias, the biggest and oldest living creatures on Earth, yet nothing in our view even hints at the presence of these gentle giants.

As we pass through the entrance to Sequoia National Park and start the steep climb up the Sierra Nevadas, our puzzlement mounts with every 100 feet. How can the giant, thousand-old trees be living anywhere near here, when there is not a single conifer in sight, and the vegetation hugs the contours of the earth. We climb to 3000 feet, then to 4000. And then right around another bend in the road the low-lying shrubbery gives way to a thick, pine-green forest, with firs and cedars scratching the clouds, and prehistoric ferns carpeting the forest floor. I half expect to see a brontosaurs strolling through.

Instead we see the monarch sequoia. Its trunk is like a woolly mammoth leg walking in a meadow (which is the wood). The size of its trunk cannot be overestimated – it is colossal. But it is also elegant and almost refined. While the bark of other coniferous trees is hard and cracked, the bark of this creature is fuzzy, furry. It hangs in reddish-ochre strands around the circumference of the tree, all 100 feet of it, and crawls up the trunk 200-250 feet, where the crown decorates the top. At some point we park and take a trolley the rest of the way up. The bus negotiates an impossibly curvy road, we look out the window and see the trunks of various trees flashing by. But every time we pass a sequoia, its size takes up the entire window, almost the whole stretch of the bus.

As we come out and are able to finally approach the trees themselves, we realize that the closer you get, the more suspicious you feel about the thing in front of you being a tree. Within arms reach, we find that we can comfortably nuzzle in the nooks and crannies of its bark, walk easily through trees cracked at the bottom, and take a five-minute stroll around the trunk. Greg, with his 6’8” frame, is visibly dwarfed by the dimensions of the tree. Now he is officially a lilliput. Another step – and he is an ant.

Curiously, nature has chosen a very modest cone to house the tiny seeds which contain the genetic code for the monarch sequoia. Greg alludes to the size of the tree and jokingly wonders how so much genetic information can fit into such a small seed. I reply that there doesn’t have to be much – there needs to be only one bit of genetic instruction, from seedling to giant: grow. Grow. And grow.

The giant sequoia grows constantly, annually adding the total mass of a large-sized tree. Its baby-fist sized cones fall to the ground and sometimes lay dormant ten to twenty years. Regular controlled fires performed all across Sequoia National Park create a fertile ash soil and force the cones to open up sooner, thereby filling the ground with seeds and speeding up the reproductive cycle of the sequoia. As a friend enthusiastically explained to us before we set out to the park, these prescribed fires do not harm the giants. Their bark is so thick that the fire burns itself out before doing any real damage. In the same way, drought does not threaten them, nor bark-eating insects, nor anything else, for that matter. Left to their own devices, these trees live to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old.

This fact is perhaps even more astounding than the size. Imagine, as the tree stands in a sunlit meadow, the Roman empire blossoms, Jesus Christ is born, killed, resurrected, the barbaric wars take thousands of lives and the tree just looks on. As a sped-up video life unfolds all around: generations come and go, native tribes roam the forests, the Dark Ages consume Europe, the Arabic revival follows in its wake. Leonardo paints the Virgin of the Rocks, an apple falls on Isaac Newton’s head, Cabrillo sails up along the Pacific Coast discovering California while the giant sequoia lazily stretches its limbs. Greg tells me of a science fiction story where earthlings land on a seemingly uninhabited planet and find only two gigantic statues made of a strange, soft substance. Later they discover that these “sculptures” are actually living beings whose speed of life is just much slower. So slow, in fact, that to a human eye it is unperceptable. I remember this story as I look up at the trees, and wonder what else they’ll see in their life, long after my children’s children are back in the ground where they came from…

(All photographs by Gregory Khasin)

While most adventurous types are gearing up for a summer full of camping trips, kayaking expeditions and long day-hikes in the park, here in Eastern Texas the adventuring season is coming to an end. And by the time Memorial Day rolls around and folks in other parts of the country pull out their dusty coolers and head to the great outdoors, we Hustonians will be bunkered down in our airconditioned homes for the long, merciless summer ahead. Because here, it’ll be just too durn hot outside.

In this part of the country, I was surprised to find that camping season starts in late February, peaks in late March – early April, and tapers off by the end of May. I learned this the hard way when, thinking I was going to outsmart everyone and take the kids camping in March, I started calling around and found out all campgrounds within a 3-hour vicinity were booked for the next few weeks.

Oops.

But we stole the one remaining camp spot left on Easter day, took a deep breath and headed into the Hill Country.

On our way to our first destination we made several stops in the dazzling, blooming flower fields that expanded into the horizon on either side of the highway, threatening to consume it. We weren’t the only ones either. Dozens of cars were stopping, pulling out their dressed-up munchkins and Cannon 5D cameras, and rushing into the fields to take pictures.  The kids were sort of over that before I was, so to express my gratitude I took a small detour.

Driving by Brenham, I recalled that there was a BlueBell ice-cream factory somewhere around. I didn’t remember where, but when we were passed by three 18-wheelers proudly sporting the BlueBell logo, the kids yelled, “Follow that truck!” And we did. Since it was Good Friday the factory itself was closed for tours, but the ice-cream parlor was open, and that was good ’nuff. We filled up on German chocolate and home-made vanilla deliciousness, clambered in the car and drove on. By the way, I loved their slogan: “We eat what we can, and sell the rest.”

Our first major destination, where we ended up almost by accident, was Pedernales Falls State Park. We arrived there, SO ready to be out of the car, at around 5pm. What a heavenly place. The fields of flowers here were studded with fresh, succulent cacti in full bloom. There were butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, and all sorts of buzzing activity above the flowers. The Earth breathed in and out, deep, warm. As we made our way down the winding road through the juniper forest and towards the river, the dark green tones gave way to rolling hills of grasses reaching above our heads. We walked through like lilliputs in a land of giants, turning our heads here and there, exclaiming “Oooh!” and “Wow!” and “Hey look over here!”. The sun shone over our heads and the cool, lazy river beckoned us.

We floated down the Pedernales River in our inner tubes and the water was just perfect – cool, clean, loving. Since usually we swim in either chlorinated pools or the salty ocean, this was an incredibly welcoming change. Tamarack and larch lined the banks, their roots picturesque in the golden hour sunlight. Oh, it was lovely. We could have stayed there for a very long time.

But it was getting dark, so after lazing in the sand, looking at clouds drifting overhead, and watching the flower shadows crawl up rocks and tree trunks, we packed up. Before leaving the park we stopped by the actual “falls” – which weren’t falls at all. Took the last few pictures of the day, and drove off in search of lodging for the night.

The next morning we headed to Wild Seed Farms . This is a huge area covered by fields of different types of wild flowers – bluebonnets, red poppies, pink and white poppies, petunias, larkspur, etc. People come here mostly to stimulate their senses, take photographs, and shop in the large central market replete with gardening knick-nacks of all caliber. We followed their lead, took pictures and gawked at pretty things.  The colors of the flowers were so intense and unusual that you could literally feel parts of your brain firing wildly – RED!!! FUCHSIA!!! AQUAMARINE!!! Ahhh!!! COLOR!!! Ding ding ding!

Vierra picked out a gift for herself – it was a small butterfly and insect house which she proceeded to fill with catepillars. We studied and discussed their habitat and life cycle with the kids for the next two weeks and just this morning our very first moth hatched from one of the cocoons!

After the farm we drove south towards San Antonio and Natural Bridge Caverns . We had gone to see Inner Space Caverns by Austin last autumn, and the kids were thoroughly fascinated by the fact that we were under the ground. They talked about it often since then, and so I thought they would enjoy these caves, which are supposed to be bigger and longer. And they didn’t disappoint. This was evidenced by the lack of whining during the entire hour and a half tour. So yes – if you’re in that part of central Texas, definitely go there. See them.

This was the day I had managed to snag a campsite reservation, so after the caverns we packed back into our van and drove the hour or so to Guadalupe River State Park. Again I marveled at the sprawling fields of unabashed glorious colors flanking the highway. And again I was impressed by how unexpectedly and vibrantly the landscape changes as you traverse it. Guadalupe River State Park seemed to be in a drier, more arid micro-climate. The trees were lower, there were copper soil deposits and more cacti along the way. But there was also a lot of green, and the camp sites themselves were pleasantly nestled in another forest of juniper and low-growing conifers. We got there towards evening, leasurely set up our tent, had dinner, crawled into our cozy portable home and were asleep almost instantaneously. Some racoons woke me up in the middle of the night – they had found the one container with cookies that I forgot to put back in the car. After that I could not fall asleep for a while, listening to the night forest rustling, hooting and jittering all around us. The kids tossed and turned and I had to stuff them back into their sleeping bags several times because the night air was chilly.

The following morning we were in no rush to get anywhere. We took our time, had breakfast, caught caterpillars. The kids played in the trees while I managed to read half an article and have some “alone time”. After intensely communicating with the kids for the past two days, even half an hour of uninterrupted time was much welcomed. Eventually we packed up and headed to the Guadalupe River. Apparently, everyone from central Texas had gathered there, baking in the sun (it was hotter that day), grilling, frying, splashing, swimming, yelping, giggling, and doing everything else that humans do outdoors. Here the river was embellished by a dramatic bank rising a good 100 feet vertically up from the other shore. We swam, drifted down with the current on our inner tube and noodles, chillaxed beneath the fresh green firs. At some point in the afternoon I felt like we had had about as much relaxing as we could handle, and since we still had a three hour drive home ahead of us, we started getting ready to go.

We got home in the evening – the kids fully recovered after a three-hour nap in the car, me pretty exhausted after the drive and all of the excitement of the long weekend. Overall, it was an incredibly fulfilling, packed trip. I’m sure we will be back to explore some more, and I highly recommend going to all of the places that we went. Just do it before the summer kicks in.

(My photographs are shown in the order that they were taken and in the order that I described our adventure. Click on the first one to get the slideshow.)

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