A moment in Da Nang

(Da Nang, Vietnam) — There is so much to say, and there is only so much time will allow me. If I only get to impart one sentence, let it be that every day has been completely different here, but each has been filled with something magical, something disappointing and something wonderfully reassuring. Maybe we play the fool, the hero and the jerk every day at home, too, but something about being on the road makes it so much more obvious to me. The emotions that come along with making a new friend, being duped or getting lost are heightened to a sometimes hilarious degree here.


I met this lady in Hoi An's old town. She never stopped smiling as far I could tell.

Anyway, I’m sitting in my hotel room in downtown Da Nang. I don’t have time to find out whether this big, busy, pungent city has a lot of charm, as I’m flying to Hanoi in a little more than an hour. Soon after, I’ll be off to the northern mountain town of Sapa, which is just a few kilometers from China. I can’t wait. I think what I’m most excited about is getting away from everything. Here or in Nha Trang or Ho Chi Minh, the moment you step outside any building, you feel like prey. Part of the challenge of being here is having literally hundreds of people a day come up to you wanting to steer you toward their restaurant, tailor shop or motorbike tour or whatever. You get to a place where you actually get wary of smiling faces and start to hate answering the inevitable question of where you’re from. You feel attacked from all angles, and you are. It reminds me of being in high school, actually, because the pressure is similarly never ending. You get a point where you realize that it will never change and so, instead, you must. I’m happy to report that I’ve said “no” more times this month than I probably have all year.

But God, please don’t think I’m having a bad time. I’m having the time of my life. Every day, I feel lucky to be here, challenges and all. My mind might be full of half-formed plans and I might spend about 23 hours of every day covered in layers of sweat, but part of me feels refreshed. I think it’s the part that has now been reminded that I can still surprise myself.

This is more of Hoi An, a small, touristy fishing village on Vietnam's coast. I just left it, and I already miss it.

This is more of Hoi An, a small, touristy fishing village on Vietnam's coast. I just left it, and I already miss it.

Anyway, there is much more to be said, but I’m about to hop on my plane. I know it sounds decadent, but the alternative is about 35 hours on buses, and while I can be insecure, but I’m not that masochistic.

I can’t wait to see what the north has in store.

Children and animals

This post is for my friend and Mountaineer columnist, Paul Viau. Before I left, he joked that I shouldn’t only take pictures of little kids and animals, as that’s kind of my thing at the paper where I work. The funny thing is that I feel even more of a desire to take photos of these subjects here. There’s some sort of familiar safety in making a baby smile for my camera, and I’ve been loving it. Pretty much everything else is new and challenging here, but little kids wanting their picture taken is one thing I understand.

So long, Nha Trang. It's been good to know you.

So long, Nha Trang. It's been good to know you.

I’m in Nha Trang right now, but I’m just about to head out to Hoi An on a “sleeper bus,” which will be an adventure in itself. The bus will consist of maybe 30 “beds” — seats that look like a hybrid of a plush bus seat and a poolside lounge chair. For about 10 hours, I’ll be almost completely horizontal, except for a slight incline against my back, and I’ll see the dark Vietnamese countryside go by until (hopefully) I squeeze in a couple hours of fitful sleep. I’ve chosen a bed on the upper level of the bus, which kind of adds to the excitement, especially since Vietnamese bus drivers seem to look at pot holes as more of a challenge than something to avoid.

In the last few days, I’ve had so many experiences, from being bitten by a dog (the rabies vaccine is surprisingly easy to come by in Nha Trang) to snorkeling in a murky section of the ocean, to drinking 45¢ beer with a lovely, young British couple. I don’t know how to distill all this, how to boil it down and come up with cool little anecdotes. Everything is happening so fast, and I’m constantly fearful that I’m not doing enough or that I’ll run out of time. There is so much to take in that I don’t know where to start, but I suppose trying to figure that out is part of the fun and challenge of being somewhere new. I love traveling, but it’s humbling and perhaps perfect to know that it’s not always easy for me. Not at all.


But, at least I know how to do one thing, and that’s snapping pictures of children and animals (well, as long as the latter don’t attack my ankles again).

Paul, these are for you.

Jessica's dad is Australian, and her mom is Vietnamese. I met her right before a fateful run in with a dog.

Jessica's dad is Australian, and her mom is Vietnamese. I met her right before a fateful run in with a dog.


I know ... this one's a little hard to take.

I know ... this one's a little hard to take.


At home in Saigon (5 a.m.)

Dear Readers,

I apologize, again, for dropping off the face of the earth after my last post months ago, but I have been in that sweet, comfortable normalcy that comes along with being somewhere that kind of suits you. It’s strange, being in one place for more than a year, and part of me has loved it, and another parts has been itching for adventure. Well, the later half of me recently won out. I’m writing from Ho Chi Minh City. I’ll be in Vietnam for three weeks.

Outside a Chinese pagoda, outside the center of Ho Chi Minh City.

Outside a Chinese pagoda, outside the center of Ho Chi Minh City.

Not much has happened yet, good or bad, but I have to say that just being out of my everyday routine is so sweet that I’ve been smiling like an idiot on my flights and taxi rides and even when I walk into my tiny yet clean hotel room (it’s a windowless cell — but it’s my windowless cell, and it even has cable). I am awakened by the beauty of being away, and more excited, overwhelmed and nervous than I can say.

This place is so awake with activity. Everywhere I go, I am surrounded by an absolute sensory overload. Within a couple feet of each other, kids are playing and a is rooster jumping on cars and various women are trying to sell you sunglasses from their portable stands. The traffic feels like absolute chaos, but I have a sense the locals somehow understand it’s random, aggressive flow. The motorbikes, taxis, buses and bicycles somehow coexist here, though when they whizz by one another, they usually leave a few inches to spare. The crush of motorbikes is particularly impressive, and at every stoplight, there’s an army waiting for the change to green. In the last 24 hours, I’ve seen three adults riding on one of those mopeds. I’ve seen moms hold babies on the back of those things, and I’ve seen drivers doing everything from smoking to talking on their cell phone as they navigate the motorized zoo. The lack of rules is scary and breathtaking in its audacity. I also kind of love it, and there’s not-so-small slice of me that’s jealous.

Today, I met a lovely Austalian lady and two friendly Kiwis, and we toured a few ornate Chinese pagodas a little ways from the city center. Later, we drank a few beers together. Sitting next to these three strangers, I was blown away by how lucky I felt. I don’t care if how many friends you have — to connect with someone, especially when you’re far away from home, never gets old. It elated me more than I can say, and I floated back to my budget hotel, and didn’t even get disturbed when I lost my a bit.

It’s hours later now, and lounging on my bed thin, slightly hard foam. I have no idea what tomorrow holds, but I’m excited to get up early and see what it might be. Just like that race I did a few months ago, this place has me awake. I’ve never been here, but something about the space I’m in now is familiar. I’m so far away from home, but I feel in my skin, and it feels wonderful.

Incense at a pagoda.

Incense at a pagoda.


This is Dave, one of the friendly travelers I met today. He's taking a look at a pagoda's intricate details.

This is Dave, one of the friendly travelers I met today. He's taking a look at a pagoda's intricate details.

I wasn't sure if I should even take this, but this is the reality for this kid — and many others. The poverty here is immense.

I wasn't sure if I should even take this, but this is the reality for this kid — and many others. The poverty here is immense.

Running through the void

(Note: I wrote this hot off a breakup. I feel like, perhaps, it would be wiser and at least more political in this small town, to keep it to myself. But, oh well, here we go.)

I know it’s not attractive for someone to admit his or her hunger, but I’m not going to whitewash the fog of loneliness I was in Friday night. All I wanted to do was break through it. For some people, I think camping or heavy drinking or adopting a kitten is the attempted solution, but for me running has nearly always been the best thing. I’ve been doing it since I was 9, and nothing gives me a sense of accomplishment and perspective like a good run does.

I went online and found that the Rhododendron 10K (6.2 miles) was slated for the next day in Bakersville. Never mind that it was more than 90 minutes away and started at 8:30 a.m and that I hadn’t run more than 3 miles in a shot in the last three years. It sounded perfect.

The next morning, I escaped my Waynesville reality around 6 a.m. and headed east, then north, following winding back roads, thick with trees. Even while only driving and listening to terribly addictive pop music, I already felt accomplished, having stepped off the grid of my own patterns and expectations, and heading toward something that felt right. Growing up, running was a huge part of my life, and my father and I would run together five days a week, pretty much without fail. We also did somewhere around 20 or so races, from 5 milers to half marathons. When I moved away from home, however, my running became spotty, and my speed (which was never much to shout home about, anyway), went downhill.

The Rhododendron Run was going to be my first race in six years.

-2By the time I arrived in Bakersville, a tiny place by the Tennessee border, I was feeling blindly confident. I chatted happily with the folks at the check-in and walked around the starting line area as I soaked in the pre-race excitement and jitters. In the midst of all the people stretching and generally psyching themselves up, I met a nice man, originally from Liberia, who was about to watch the race with his three little children. His wife, he explained, was running. We talked for a couple of minutes, and as I left, he told me they’d cheer for me too.

Shortly after, I was one of about 100 people lining up, listening to the race master’s instructions and bowing their heads for a prayer. A bullhorn sounded, and we were off.

Breathing heavily and trying like crazy not to tucker myself out prematurely, I smiled as I realized that I’d forgotten how humbling it is to have a flood of racers pass you. That day, the group included a boy who looked around 9 and a hunched-over woman who must have been in her late 70s. Try as I might, I never could catch her.

As I ran, a strange new reality settled into me. I realized that I had gone from being a slow runner to being an extremely slow runner. I’m used to doing about 10-minute miles, but my first mile was just shy of 12 minutes, and none of the following ones were any better. Often, I could pretend I was running the race, which circled through the small town and its surrounding hills, alone, as there were only three or four people chugging along behind me. When I did encounter other souls, such as the extremely friendly volunteers handing out water and giving times, they were unfailingly supportive. I even had fellow runners cheering me on as they ran past after reaching the turn-around point. I must have looked in a bad way, because they kept telling me that I was doing really well and that I shouldn’t give up.

What they didn’t know was that there was no way I was letting this race get the best of me. I was going to cross that finish line — having not walked a step — no matter how long it took.

Though I never became faster, the race did get easier toward the end. After five miles, I was feeling upbeat, actually, and even fancied trying to catch up with some of the runners in front of me. I managed to stave off the guy behind me, as every time I heard the sound of his snot rockets being expelled and his shoes hitting the pavement, my pride made me pick up speed. This little game kept me distracted until finally I was at the 6-mile marker.

A few seconds later, I saw that friendly man from earlier with his young family. They had waited long after his wife had finished to root for me.

It was right about then, with less than a quarter of a mile to go, that I broke down and cried. I was still moving forward, gulping for air, and tears were trickling down my face. I think it was due to that man’s surprising support, but also because I was amazed that I was about to finish something that I realized was so important to me. I’m sure the loneliness had something to do with it, too. I was overtaken with conflicting emotion — so much so that I missed the final turn toward the finish line.

Within a few minutes, I reached the end of a blocked-off road, where an old man stood directing traffic. I asked him where the finish was, but he couldn’t hear me. I started crying harder and he just stood there, smiling awkwardly and not knowing what to do. I ran around in circles for a moment and finally flagged down someone who had long-since finished the race. She directed me to the end, and suddenly I started running faster than I had in the last hour and 15 minutes. Finally, I felt free to give it my all. With what must have looked like a great gust of aggression, I sprinted past a running woman who was probably 30 feet from the end. Gasping and dry heaving, I pushed myself across the finish. I then promptly puked and crumpled to the ground. I hadn’t felt that vulnerable or that powerful in a long time.

A few hours after, I found myself at nearby Roan Mountain State Park, with its famous rhododendron gardens. As I perused the thousands of flowers, it began to rain heavily. It was one of those unrelenting, cinematic downpours, and as I ran the half mile or so back to my car, I became completely soaked. Strangely, perfectly, I felt like I was being baptized. I felt no hint of the loneliness I had started my day with, though I knew it would come back, as loneliness loves to do.

I was in such a moment of euphoria that I even saw the beauty in being lonesome, as I knew that was what had brought me out to run that day. I sat still in my car for a few minutes and tried to hold on to that clarity. I still am.


North Carolina and her girlish charms

(WAYNESVILLE, NC) — The longer I stay in Western North Carolina, the more its beauty tries to seduce me. Its small, country roads bat their eyelashes at me, and those pristine, babbling streams give me a come-hither look. On my ride to work, I see pastures and cornfields and lush mountainsides licked with fog. Constantly, I am lulled into a major sense of awe and a minor feeling of security.

It’s almost enough to make me forget that I’m pissed.

Of course, this isn’t a constant feeling. My anger hides in the back of my mind and waits until I see a Confederate flag or the newest lineup of terrible, popular movies at the local theater to spring into action. Then, the floodgates open. I retreat into my head. Maybe I call my dad or a friend. If I’m in the car, I turn up my music, sing along and pretend I’m somewhere else. The other day, this very feeling prompted me to buy a bumper sticker that reads “What Would Morrissey Do?” Even if I don’t say a word, in my mind I am complaining and complaining and complaining. In these moments, I do believe that I am an asshole.

I tell you all this because I’m trying to change it. People here are friendly and warm, and they deserve better. I can say my discontent is due to my low pay or my lack of understanding of the genteel South that surrounds me. But that might just be crap. I think I’m still simply having a hard time settling into normal life. I miss my trip. I miss being outside of everyday culture and being able to leave a town whenever I want. I know this sounds like complaining, and I sincerely invite anyone who wants to slap some sense into me to do just that. But my goal here is not to complain. I swear. It’s to ask a question.

How am I going to make my life work? How does anybody?

I want to commit to whatever that answer is. If it means staying here a long while, settling into the down-home atmosphere and writing stuff for the paper I can be proud of, OK. If it means going back to California and waiting tables until I figure out who I want to be, bring it on. If I let go of my fear and worry, I can actually get excited for a moment. Something is going to change soon. It has to. And it has to be new and invigorating enough to get my attention.

For now, here are some pictures of Austin, ones I took months ago. Maybe it seems random, but for some reason the segue works in my head. This is my favorite street in the city, a wooded, residential lane that runs parallel to South Congress Avenue. Even on the days I was terrible at my job, the beauty of this little area always woke me up. This street somehow made me feel like an artist.

OK, time once again to remind myself of the possibility in the world.