We have a friend who is currently solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. If you’ve not heard of it, the trail is a 6 month, 2,650-mile trek from the Mojave Desert to the Cascades, it is a never-ending snake trailing up the spine of the central west.

His journey is the kind of adventure that terrifies me. Yet, sitting at my desk in Brooklyn, I can see its appeal. Years ago, early on in our relationship, Jeremy and I spent months camping in the wilderness, hitch-hiking and trekking through sections of the emptier parts of America.

It was a time before we had a business and, as much as we adore the life we have now, we both miss that sense of undiluted freedom.

So, with that in mind, we decided to go hiking this weekend. Not exactly backpacking across the country, but a start at least.

We packed a few bottles of water, some granola bars, a bag of dried cherries, a couple bagels and set off for Bear Mountain. Just over an hour from the city, it offered a long drive past a smattering of mirror-smooth lakes, the promise of a few hours of lush hiking and the treat of a post-workout swim. The perfect city escape on a steamy weekend.

The car park was packed when we arrived and the lawns were strewn with families picnicking. We picked up a bare-bones map from the visitor’s centre and started out on a 6 mile loop. We were almost disappointed. We had come to escape the city crowds and yet, with all those cars, we expected that there would be only one or two trails littered with eager hikers.

We quickly realized that we were wrong. We saw 5 people in the first two hours and none after that. And there were hundreds of trails, crisscrossing each other across the lush forest, with only the occasional dollop of a paint marking to lead the way. We lost our trail and then picked it up again, or thought we did. We lost our way on the map, carried on walking for miles and then thought we found it again. Neither of us had even been lost on a hike before. Starting in New York seemed unlikely, embarrassing even.

Then we ran out of water. We had hiked for close to 10 miles and had no idea where we were. Our map only showed one trail, one trail which we had ventured far, far off. Our phones had intermittent reception. We started tripping over rocks. We told jokes, cursed when we lost the paint markers, looked at our watches and ate the last of our granola bars.

Finally, we ran into a guide, one of those efficient types with iodine tablets at the ready and a GPS unit strapped to his backpack. He shook his head at us, told us off for being so foolish. Then he feed and watered us and sent us on our way again, with the warning, “Take the red and white makers down this trail and then, when you see a blue maker, follow it to the right. The blue is hard to see but don’t miss it. If you miss it, you’ll go even further into the woods and then, you’ll be shit out of luck.”

Shit out of luck, is not the kind of phrase that you ignore. It is the kind of phrase that makes you certain to scour every tree for a goddamn blue marker. Luckily, 6 hours after we had set off, we got back to our car, sweaty, scratched and aching after an unexpectedly grueling 15 mile hike.

I’ll admit that it was a tad scary, and we were more than a tad foolish, but it was good to know that we could get lost an hour from the city. It was comforting to remember that nature still makes the rules, and that, for all the urban chaos of the city, there is still wilderness on our doorstep.

From New York City to Motor City

What would you do if you were stuck at Detroit airport with a five hour flight delay?

With a biblical storm licking across the country the planes were grounded and we weren’t going anywhere quickly so we decided to postpone the joy of airport security lines and body scanners. We grabbed a rented car and zoomed out of the parking lot to catch a glimpse of Motor City.


There was the Detroit that I had read about – the project of city planners and artists and the setting for the award-winning book Middlesex. I had heard a lot about the place. I thought I was well prepared to see the city.

I had read about the mass exodus from the city but I had also heard stories of hope, of vacant lots turned into urban farm land, of the burgeoning food scene, of the money poured into downtown.

And all of that was true but it missed the utter emptiness of Detroit, the ghostly lack of people. Coasting down the city’s potted streets, the history of the place was visceral. The city threw a party, it erected some stunning architecture and soaring skyscrapers. The population swelled and then it burst. I wasn’t prepared for the eeriness of the shell it left behind.

It is a haunting place to be and yet it is also clear that the city is fighting. It has a life and an energy that peaks up between the cracks. Eminem’s super bowl video has a lot of truth behind it and there are many people who still believe that Detroit has a future.

As we drove through Midtown we saw new galleries and crepe shops dotting the streets between boarded up shops and we swept past the gleaming, imposing façade of the art institute and the public library.

We didn’t have long, our flight was set to take off in three hours so we swung back through the ghost streets of downtown and back towards the airport through Corktown. In the towering shadow of the abandoned Michigan Central Station, Slows Bar BQ looked intriguing with its salvaged wood exterior and line of customers snaking out the door. Inside the pulsing restaurant the city’s lifeline seems stronger than ever. Hipsters squeezed in next to old-timers to scoff down the tender pulled pork and beef brisket.

Driving back to the airport all I could see was the colour of Detroit – the painted murals on the side of buildings, a concert happening by the side of the road and green grass growing between the houses. From an urban planning perspective it is fascinating. How do you resurrect a crumbling city like Detroit? It is a place where people are willing to try anything to make that happen.

But that is all still just potential. In the very brief time I spent there it was a difficult place to be. A sad place with pockets of hope.

Humans were not designed for flight

In two days I am about to travel halfway across the country.

It is nothing remarkable and far from newsworthy but I am already having the occasional night sweat.

My speech is more shattered than normal as the nervous energy jumps across my body.

Irrational as it may be, I am embarrassed to say that I am vaguely afraid of flying.

It is not the sort of impressive fear that results in screaming hysterics and sobbing fits at the sight of overhead lockers and smell of re-circulated air. No, my fear is a quieter more pathetic beast. I pretend that I like nothing more than hanging mid-air in a metal box and start making rabid conversation with anyone in earshot. I eat whatever food is put in front of me, make lame jokes, stare manically at my book and try not to imagine what it would sound like if the engine suddenly stopped.

I had done a pretty impressive job of putting the fear resolutely out of my mind until I read this article this morning. You can imagine my joy. Someone pass the Valium.

The strange piece is that I used to love flying. At 12 years old I was set on a career as a commercial jet pilot. At 16 I was well on my way, taking flying lessons every weekend in a Cessna powered only by a spinning propeller. At 21 I was high over Kenya looking down at the Great Rift Valley from the cockpit of a 6 person plane listening to Dylan sing ‘Hurricane’ at the top of his lungs.

Then one day someone took off my rose tinted glasses and unkindly stepped on them.

As a child I assumed that everyone’s parents flew separately. I cheerily accepted the news that mum and dad got on separate flights when they were going on a trip without me ‘just incase one of them goes down’. Today I all too clearly see their orphaned child worries for what they were.

Luckily my fear of flying is neatly balanced by a need to travel. My compulsion to go to new places, meet new people and periodically get back to England to spend a night with old friends in the pub, forces me to buckle up and pray.

It seems like I’m not alone. A friend of mine recently told me that she phones her friends and family before a flight ‘just incase’. So, I shall follow in her happy footsteps, stop writing and get on the phone right now…

Once upon a time flying was glamourous and relaxing. Could someone bring back those easy days please?

New York, New York: Sinatra had it right

Spring has finally come to the big apple and it is time to forgive the city anything.

Brooklyn New York

When Jeremy and I first arrived on New Year’s Eve, we had sublet a beautiful but miniscule space in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. The snow had formed 4-foot walls down the semi-ploughed roads and we were paying three times our old rent in Chicago. It was a baptism of fire and there were times when we questioned our sanity. New York had been a dream, an east coast adventure and a chance to live in the pulsing heart of the publishing and business world. As we hibernated in our apartment and gave up on any sort of privacy we wondered if the city was too much for us, too expensive, too gritty.

Last Tuesday, teaching my first class on public speaking (here is the next one), I played a spontaneous speaking game with my students. In their own way each of them told us a story about their New York, the city they called home, good or bad. One hated and loved Times Square in equal measure, one told us about a crazy saxophonist on the subway with questionable personal hygiene and one told us about her apartment nightmare living with a dominatrix housemate.

This city is like marmite, you love it or hate it, and sometimes you do both at the same time, but once it gets under your skin it is hard to shake off. Today, sitting in our apartment with the sun shining through my window, I love it. I love the beauty of my neighborhood, the old Italian men who sit on their stoops every day, the morning coffee at my local café, the bookseller down the road who has used tomes scaling the walls and spilling out on to the sidewalk.

Central Park New York

Of all the cities I have been to, nowhere has the sheer diversity of New York. It is hard to beat the experience of all that variation than from the back of the bike. Brooklyn and Queens have great bike rides that I will tell you about some other time, but my New York story, the New York journey that I love the most is the one that takes me from our place in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, to the best bagel I have ever eaten on 107th st on the Upper West side of Manhattan. It is not a short bike ride but it is an ideal way to spend a Sunday in the city.

The rush of adrenaline as cars screech past me on midtown Manhattan’s 6th Ave, the intense gaze at each parked car for fear of a door flying out into my path, the joy ride up central park, the in-line skaters, the table tennis players in Tompkins Square Park, the mysterious Chinese gamblers in Columbus Park. On top of it all is the food. In my mind, cycling 15 city miles entitles me to some treats on the way. There are hundreds of places on route but here are a few favorites:

1. Ted and Honey – fueling up with a breakfast sandwich and an iced coffee in Carroll Gardens.

Ted and honey

Image: Cobble Hill Blog

2. Grabbing a few biscotti from a cart here in Little Italy after rolling over the Brooklyn Bridge.

3. The Pickle Guys – if you like pickles, my favorite is the somewhat controversial pickled pineapple but you’re never short of choice. If you’re not so into pickles and prefer your treats a touch sweeter, check out the lower east side location of the Doughnut Plant across the street.

Pickle guys

Image: Robbie Virus

Doughnut plant

Moishe’s bake shop – anything is good for a pastry picnic in Tompkins Square Park.

Moishe's bake shop

The grand finale of them all is the best bagel I have ever tasted. I realize that some people are partial to H&H but we were introduced to Absolute Bagel by a friend and I think my loyalty may already have been forged. An everything bagel, hot out of the oven, with a thick layer of white fish spread…it gets me on my bike every Sunday.

Absolute bagel

Image: Carnivore and Vegetarian

Tell me a story…do you have a favorite New York place, food mecca or journey?