Monday, March 30, 2015

Travel Cash Best and Worst

The new MasterCard Cash Passport brings out the best and worst in changing money overseas.

The best:

For $9.95, you get a chip-and-pin MasterCard that can get you foreign cash at ATMs all over the world. And if the card is lost or stolen, it will be replaced (along with your money) within 48 hours.

The worst: The fees are outrageous.

Seems to me, this option is best for trekkers, hostelers and round-the-world travelers who are willing to pay a premium to take the guesswork out of budgeting for long trips. It may be the ideal travel money solution for people heading into the backcountry who need to leave their valuables behind on portions of an overseas trip. 

When I first heard about the cash passport, I thought: American Express Traveler's Cheques for the 21st Century! Cool! Finally, I'll have a chip-and-pin card for those pesky Euro card readers that won't take anything else. Even better: this card comes pre-loaded and practically identity-theft-proof; it's not attached to any of my personal accounts. My money's secure no matter what happens. If the card is lost or stolen and I'm on the move, I'll have a backup loaded after a single phone call. I'll be able to top up my passport online, from my US bank account, just like I do with my Oyster card. Plus, I'll be able to withdraw my money for free at those sneaky Travelex machines that pose as ATMs all over Europe.

Apparently not.

Travelex has sold its cash passport business, and with it went the online banking. No more free withdrawals at Travelex machines; you'll pay 2-10 Euros, like every other schlep, to take $500 or more out of an ATM in Berlin. No more backup cards issued at point of sale. If you lose the card, stay put: you'll spend the next day looking for a forex affiliate who will give your money back.

Ah, the good old days!

I didn't learn any of this until after I bought my cash passport at Dulles airport the other day at a sky-high exchange rate. I had no choice. If you want to pick up and register a card in person, you have to be escorted past security to the B gates to buy one. Bring your passport. Crazy system.

The manager assured me on two different days beforehand that the "product-plus" Travelex features I had researched on the Internet (online banking, backup card and free withdrawals) were still in force.

Nope. Not any more.

When I got home and read the fine print, I was livid. I rang the London-based customer support team. They apologized and added EUR 10 to my passport, to ensure free withdrawal of the cash I had loaded to pay for my apartment keys on a weekend arrival in Paris. They asked if I wanted to lodge a complaint. I thanked them for the 10 euros and decided to write this post.

Ice? Not so nice.

I'll test the card on my upcoming trip. Bottom line: it lets you buy foreign currency now, lock in your exchange rate, load money in five currencies on the same chip-and-pin card, and it secures your cash.

I have definitely experienced European ATM hell. Cards have been eaten; machines have broken; systems have crashed for days on end; cards have been hacked. If this happens to you with a cash passport, all you've lost is a piece of silicon-chipped plastic. You haven't lost your lifeline to cash. And maybe that's worth a premium, after all. I paid about 10% in exchanges and fees to load money onto a new cash passport. Ouch!

I've only had the thing a couple days and already my advice is: caveat emptor.

The user guide warns you not to use the cash passport for big purchases like rental cars and hotel rooms, since vendors will hold reserves against your case the same way they hold reserves against your credit cards. So it's a credit card--but don't use it like a credit card? I guess they mean stick to street vendors and gondoliers with chip card readers.

The multi-currency cash passport allows you to buy and secure foreign cash you cannot afford to lose or spend rashly. And reports confirm that you can use it to buy train tickets on deserted railway platforms in the dead of night.

So film noir.

If this sounds like your idea of the perfect evening, you'll sleep soundly anywhere in the world knowing that nobody can steal your money--as long as you've got it on plastic in the five currencies supported by MasterCard.

Happy trails!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

My AT hike turns 25!

Happy New Year!

The dawn of 2015 over Lake Saint Clair
in my home town of Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
More about this fantastic image and its creator, Mark Graf at,
here at (c) Mark Graf. Used by permission.

2015 will mark the 25th anniversary of my year on the Appalachian Trail.

On my birthday in late April of 1991, my dog Ben and I ate our last home-cooked breakfast, packed our gear at Locust Hill Farm in Leesburg, hitched a ride to Harper's Ferry from Burdette and Suzie Wright, checked in at the Appalachian Trail Conference HQ and set out heading south from the midpoint of the AT. The goal: to walk all 2,184 miles of the white blazed footpath in one season.

It had been a cold winter with big storms, and the ATC volunteers told me that the word from the near-starved northbound hikers was that lots of people had dropped out since taking their first steps on the AT at Springer Mountain, Georgia.

My first hump up the hill was hell in an overweighted pack, and all I remember about those first few days was a hundred blowdowns that it took hours to get under, over and around. The going was slow from the start. Fifteen miles and 6,000 feet of climbing was a big day for me back then under those 50 lb. pack weights. I don't think I met anyone in my first two weeks on the trail, similar to the tale told by The Kitchen Sink Couple. It rained 25 days in a row for the next 500 miles. Virginia was a slog. Even with Ben for company--always hilarious--I had trouble getting up and getting motivated in the morning. But I stuck to it.

Along the way, I met and read logbook entries of northbounders whom I keep track of and caught up with, later, at the base of their journey's end atop Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine.

I interviewed them for the film I was making, climbed Katahdin with them, then kept walking south.

Suzanne and trail dog Ben at Trail Days 1991.
Your hair grows two shades darker
under the big green canopy for months at a time.

By Thanksgiving, Ben and I had accomplished all but a few hundred miles of the AT. I got off the trail in Vermont, took a break, and completed the journey (re-covering much of the territory) in 1992.

Imagine my surprise on Christmas day when one of my thru-hiking pals, trail name weathercarrot, posted the 1992 documentary I made of that trek here on YouTube.

Most of the articulate, insightful people you meet and see in this video--like photographer Dave Fleischman and weathercarrot, whose stunning AT and PCT photography projects include this history of ALDHA, the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association and "yearbook" videos for thru-hikers that span every section of the Pacific Crest Trail--have since gone on to bigger and better long-distance hikes; long term commitments to selfless service as trail maintainers; and satisfying artistic careers as nature photographers. It is with real humility that I share their work and their stories with you now, because the amateurish quality of my own work (all still images!) will definitely strike you as low-tech.

Back in 1991, our heavy analog camera equipment probably took up two or three liters of space in our packs! And it weighted a ton. Our music players played cassette tapes. Short of a National Geographic production, there was no way to bring a film crew along on your thru hike. Still photography, sketches, words on paper, and the occasional voice recordings made when a sound recordist could meet us in a shelter near a trailhead...these things were all we had to make artistic sense of our adventures.

Thanks, weathercarrot, for the most thoughtful Christmas present ever. Without your patience and persistence, people would not be able to share our story.

Trail Days 1992 with Suzanne selling copies of Bill Irwin's "Blind Courage"
and STI tapes from her car in Damascus, VA. Photo: weathercarrot.

Sometime after Trail Days in 1992, my distributor's barn caught fire in Vermont, destroying every VHS copy I didn't have on hand. I never bothered to transfer the 3/4 inch master tape to DVD, because by then, the music rights had long run out under the terms of the very generous permissions I had been granted to produce the project as a not-for-profit work of art.

Trail Days 1992. Photo: weathercarrot.

A few years ago, I was contacted by some folks who wanted a copy for a hikers hostel in Pennsylvania. It was a flattering request, and today I am even more flattered to see that STICKING TO IT still seems to warm a few wild hearts.

I hope to have more for you from the AT class of '91 in the months to come. What did I read? you wonder. Possession by A.S. Byatt, word by gorgeous addictive word, using yesterday's devoured pages for today's loo paper as I went along. What did Ben eat? Mostly my supper, supplemented by the doggy GU of the day, liver powder in his water bowl, courtesy of an eccentric Virginia dogsledder (???) who ran a place called The Sled Dog Store, as I recall, which supplied us out of Roanoke. On the seven months that Ben and I slept together that year, he clearly became much more like a person (very courteously waiting before he ate the remains of my supper) and I think I became a bit more like a dog. Which I've never regretted for a moment. Amore!

I wish you a happy new year, with white blazes as far as you can see. Follow your bliss.

Trail Days 1991. Photo: weathercarrrot.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Post trip

Creative use of the hotel room balcony
After a few days powering down the spectacular Minong ridge on Isle Royale, I'm resting and refueling at Lake Bemidji, the headwaters of the Mississippi, grateful for everything in my pack (especially my trekking poles, critical on that quarter mile, one-plank "river crossing").

I hope the NPS will find time to recheck the mileage along that route. I met only eight people in three days along a thirty-plus mile footpath, all of them seasoned, and we all agreed that every mile felt like two--and very likely was closer to one and a half.

So much of the rocky, root-studded trail is hidden by armpit-high foliage this time of year that the hike turned into 38 miles of one deliberate step after another. The section where the ridge is exposed and slabby, between Little Todd Harbor junction and Lake Desor, would be unsafe (if even passible) when wet or foggy. Take heed and pack extra food for the rest day it would take to dry the rock or for the marine layer to lift.

Josh Knox and I admiring the view across Lake Superior to the Sleeping Giant

Don't forget to write up your trip report. After recording the weather, the route conditions, what was in flower and what was ripe enough to eat along the way (blueberries and raspberries were everywhere around me but alas, unripe), jot down what you needed (extra fuel and mosquito repellent!) and what you could have left behind (power brick for my iPhone). Take time to alert the rangers to any issues along your route. Your post trip checklist should also include a full day for laundry and air-drying a clean tent.

Don't let wet, dirty gear languish in hot cars where condensation can contribute to mold growth.

Once you get home, check to see if anything needs repair before shelving it.

See you out there next time. 

Signing off with the sunset view (minus the symphony of loon calls) of Todd Harbor, one of the loveliest nights I've spent in a tent in years. It's got everything a girl needs including a dock! 

Seaplane, anyone?

Group Site 1 at Todd Harbor has level tent platforms, a dock for your seaplane and your morning dip, a picnic table, this view at cocktail hour and a fire ring for tall tales, wolf songs and northern lights after dark.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Prius power

Adore your Prius and its 50-plus MPG?  This setup schleps extra gear on long trips with very little impact on your daily fuel efficiency. Just take the cargo basket off when you don't need it. And get out there!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Modern Poncho

Climb high and dry in Patagonia's Post Foamback
Cagoule. Plus it's got that cool William-of-Baskerville
look in The Name of the Rose
AT, CDT and PCT thru-hikers, check it out! Barbour people, this compares favorably:

Patagonia has sent their limited edition, retro classic Cagoule (a long, pullover rain shell) to the Dillon outlet store. Prices have been slashed by a third, and soon there won't be any more left. Who knows if they will ever make this amazing piece again?

GoreTex Packlite provides waterproof/breathability over a wide temperature range with a soft, quiet hand. Perfect for walking in the rain all day with very little else worn beneath. The jacket folds into its own pocket (you can clip it to your harness). In driving rain, for grace under pressure, pull the long skirt down over your knees and sit out the storm.

I started coveting this elusive garment as a student learning to navigate icefall on the Roosevelt Glacier on Mt. Baker, years ago. I awoke on Day 2 to rain pissing down at 36 degrees Fahrenheit, and it never stopped for the rest of the week.

My instructor, on the star-spangled team at the American Alpine Institute (the best climbing school there is, in my view, which puts me in agreement with Jon Krakauer for once!), spent the week shouting encouragement at the base of various seracs, totally dry under an umbrella in a Scottish cagoule from the 1960s or something, and I've never been so jealous. He just rolled it up and cinched the drawcord waist when he needed to tie in. Today's Patagonia version even has side zips for kangaroo access.

Expensive, but worth every penny.

If there's only one gift you ever give the long distance hiker in your life, this is it.  But hurry, because they'll soon be only just a dream once again.

Sideways: check. Climbing? Not. This is an ass-kicking
17th century downpour from
Brotherhood of the Wolf.
The Patagonia Cagoule protects from these, too.

How Many Packs?

Springtime in Virginia: almost time for my annual service project in memory of my childhood friend, Lolly Winans, who was murdered in Shendandoah National Park on Memorial Day weekend back in in 1996, four years after I spent my year on the trail. Time to pack the overnight gear, shoulder the burden and head up to the Appalachian Trail to commune with this year's crop of thru hikers on their way north from Springer Mountain, Georgia. They'll be hungry; it has been a very cold spring.

Photo: Chad, trailname "Stick,"
Like most outdoorsy types, I've got a few rucksacks. People ask how many. Here's what I carry on my back and what they're for.

Just remember that, as with clothes and shoes, packs are designed with model users in mind, and not all packs fit everyone well. Torso length, back breadth and the cut of the shoulder straps are the three main fit issues in backpacks.

Sometimes you have to rule out an entire manufacturer. Doesn't mean they don't produce tricked-out, high quality soft goods. Cold Cold World make some terrific alpine rucksacks, for instance, but they don't fit my body. Same with the super rugged crag packs by Mountain HardWear and Marmot. Obsessed with ultralight, I carried big heavy winter loads with an ultralight MontBell pack for a few years until I simply got fed up with the poor fit. I remember the day I had to give away my expensive, off-the-rack McHale Dyneema pack because it had been hell to carry on a couple trips in the Sierras. (Custom is the only way to go with acclaimed McHale, who are superb craftsmen, just like Feathered Friends who have the happy hand with custom down bags and apparel, and so I look forward to trying out a McHale rucksack again someday.)

Other times, certain lines just don't' feel right, while others fit like a glove. I've had this issue with both Patagonia and Black Diamond. So there's no substitute for trying on a fully weighted pack (loaded with your own gear) before you buy. And since this is such a hassle, just accept that you'll make a few mistakes before you settle on the perfect rucksack.

Packs and their uses are best laid out by size. Back when I trekked the Appalachian Trail, the standard volume measurement was cubic inches. The world has switched to liters now:

9 L Black Diamond Flash
The Patagonia Ascenionist
ready for Chamonix.
I bought the light grey
version because I like to
see what's inside.
Choose bright colors for
alpine routes. 
Basically an adventure racing or trail running pack. Barely enough room for water, snacks, essentials and a windbreaker or safety blanket. Light as a feather and disappears into your travel luggage. Great for running up the Sky Meadow blue blaze to the AT, cycling around the Mall, half days along the Hudson or rollerblading in Santa Monica.

20 L Black Diamond Bullet 
The breed standard climber's pack, this goes inside my crag pack or approach pack on rock and ice climbs. It has two haul loops, a whistle on the sternum strap, works with a water bladder and carries everything you need for a long day. Rugged, reliable, intuitive enough to give to your partner, stripped down. A bottomless pit. Can never work out why trad leaders need the bigger size.

32 L Black Diamond Sphinx 
My crag pack. Carries a full rack, rock & ice gear, helmet and a rope to the bottom of your route in addition to all your personal gear (stuffed inside the 20 L lead pack). The stiff lower back pad anchors the heavy 45 lb loads you'll carry in winter. 

35 L Patagonia Ascensionist 
The new kid on the block. Perfect for fast approaches, warm weather overnights or winter day trips where you keep moving. Ice tools attach easily but there are no haul loops, no floating lid and not even a place to secure your keys: this is a seriously minimalist design aesthetic. Flexible fabric suspension, tensioned by a light aircraft aluminum grade rod, moves with you and the shoulder straps/hip pads are comfortable. Don't overload it, and this will be an ultralight joy to carry.

The Osprey Variant 52 and a paddle
gets you to your route in Norway.
52 L Osprey Variant
Short winter alpine trips are no problem for this lightweight, full-featured workhorse. I can pull a sled from the gear loops on the waist belt (no harness needed), carry skis, haul the pack, and lug all the climbing and camping gear I need for a couple days in the backcountry. Side pockets accommodate pickets and wands. Has a similar suspension system to the Ascensionist's, only this one is burlier, extending through the lumbar  pad. Also features my favorite detail: a whistle on the sternum strap. (Dude, no not separate from your pack when you are cold, injured and lost!) Easy and secure ice tool attachment system. I love the dedicated med kit pocket in front of the shovel pocket. Everyone on your trip can get to it in an emergency. Plus this pack fits me like a glove and carries great even without back stays. (BTW, I've noticed Ospreys dominate on the Appalachian Trail. Great mix of quality, value and intelligent design.)

The Astra 62 by Canadian
quality masters, ArcTeryx.
Hi tech with thoughtful details
like helmet compatibility
and a jointed hip belt.
The color is tasteful enough
for trekking.
62 L ArcTeryx Astra
People say it's over designed and maybe it is. I take this on trips of 3-5 days, on shoulder season trips when I need a warm bulky sleeping bag, and on all deluxe backpacking trips where extras like big tents, chairs, lanterns, wine, whiskey, camp shoes, cooked breakfast and French Press coffee are non-negotiables. Friends tell me it's the best trekking pack they've ever owned, with a horseshoe zipper that makes it easier to play Town & Country. It's not the lightest, at just over 4 pounds, but it organizes and carries 50 lb. loads like nothing else. If you've ever had to play superhero, camp with kids or haul somebody else's gear off the mountain, you know what those bulky, unexpected loads can feel like. The hip belt is jointed at the lumbar attachment point--a bit high tech (requiring silicon lubrication)--but the pack moves with you, and you feel very agile under the weight. Beautifully designed down to the last detail, although the side water bladder pocket is a bit skimpy; only big enough for a 2 liter platypus bladder.

115 L Dana Designs Astralplane
Old faithful. Highly customized fit. Most reparable in the field. Very useful for field medicine and search and rescue: side zips allow you to carry out a sick or injured person in this pack. Alaskans and military types swear by this thing. Carried one in winter on my 1991 AT hike after my trusty old Mountainsmith blew out. For hunters and white gas stove people fearing leaks, the separate fuel pockets are worth the weight. NOLS people: this is the kinda thing you want for those trips. Big enough to pack the kitchen sink. Heavy at like 8 pounds but carries 60-100 lb. loads like a porter. (Some smartass on the internet writes, "if you have to ask how heavy that is, you won't be able to pick it up." Not true. There's a trick to it.) Dana Designs are now manufactured by Mystery Ranch in Bozeman, Montana.

These packs keep their place in my gear loft because they all add to the pleasures of self-sufficiency off the grid. So experiment with rucksacks of different styles and volumes and get out there!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Poetry in Motion

Got home last night from another Death Valley moto trip. Settled in with one of my favorite poets, C.P. Cavafy. The Alexandrian adventures of the anglo Greek modern master might have seemed tame after a few days of twisties at 5,000 RPM.

But the sweep of a glance is as gorgeous as the sweep of a long desert curve. Or even the sweep of the hour before sunset.

"What is life?" asked a Blackfoot chief. "It is the flash of a firefly in the night."

It's never the same old landscape if you can always see it differently. As the Blackfoot people so wisely noted, "there are many paths to a meaningful sense of the natural world."

So get out there and try some poetry.

Here's one of my motorcycling poems set in Death Valley posted on my author site, . And here's a likeness of C.P Cavafy looking more like Proust than Woody Allen. And a Blackfoot chief with his own trusty steed.

Chief of the Blackfoot nation