24 August 2012

Coolest Town in Pennsylvania

Early morning, the best time of day to ride the steep trails of verdant Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, splashes streams of sunlight on the rocky banks of the Lehigh River. One of the hottest and driest summers on record has taken its toll—the river narrows as it slices through downtown, whitewater rafting outfitters lounge lazily on their overturned kayaks, stark evidence of the drought. The hills above town, however, belie the scorching summer weather. Awash in lush emerald greenery, Jim Thorpe's Swiss-like slopes appear cool and inviting.

You first notice that Jim Thorpe is special when driving there on  Route 476. The rolling hills of the Pocono Mountains grow greener, taller, deeper, prouder as you approach the town. You don't need a brochure or website to tell you that Jim Thorpe is the crown jewel of the tiny Poconos. While the rest of the area might be best known for kitsch—heart-shaped beds, coal festivals, day excursions for the fictional employees of Dunder-Miflin, NBC's soon-to-be canceled sitcom set in nearby Scranton—Jim Thorpe was recently named one of the coolest town in America by USA Today.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Jim Thorpe rivals far better known destinations like Marin County, California, and Sand Point, Idaho. Truthfully, Pennsylvania is atrocious when it comes to environmental concerns—fracking was invented here, recycling is not merely optional, it's actually discouraged, the governor is a republican—but Jim Thorpe manages to rise above its state's reluctance to care for its greatest asset. Jim Thorpe tends to its natural beauty, highlighting it with impeccable parks, immaculate streets and sustainable businesses.

Rent a bike in downtown Jim Thorpe, across the street from the train station, and head up on one of the 20 trailheads that begin right in the center of town. Gorge Trail loops 19 miles past waterfalls and steep canyon walls, great for hiking and biking. Swimmers and boaters can drive a few miles from downtown to Mauch Chunk Lake Park, which is home to a wide variety of wildlife and features rental cottages and camping facilities. Jim Thorpe's annual triathlon draws elite athletes from around the world.

Harry Packer Bed & Breakfast
If you're not into sports, there's still plenty to do in Jim Thorpe. Stroll up the first hill you see in town and tour the former home of Asa Packer, who was one of the five wealthiest men in the world during coal mining's halcyon days. The mansion, now a museum, offers a glimpse into the lives of the 19th century's super rich. After the museum tour, head over to the Harry Packer Mansion next door and enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail on the terrace as you gaze out over the town and its surrounding hills. Now a bed and breakfast that features murder mystery weekends, the Harry Packer Mansion was used as the model for the Haunted Mansion in Orlando's Disney World.

Jim Thorpe offers dozens of dining choices for all price ranges. I had a fantastic salad in Bear Appetite Cafe, just up the street from the Inn at Jim Thorpe. For the best room in town, choose the Harry Packer Mansion.

Formerly known as Mauch Chunk, Jim Thorpe was named for the athlete who competed collegiately in nearby Carlisle when Thorpe's widow sought a final resting place in a town that would honor her husband's legacy. I think Jim Thorpe would approve of the lovely town that bears his name.

17 August 2012

Top 10 Signs You're In a Redneck Town

Real rednecks are never, ever this handsome

  1. Radio stations air commercials for local retailer Gun Hippo, an emporium for buying handguns, rifles and automatic weapons for "personal" use. Gun Hippo's website flashes a photo of a tattooed woman holding guns in each hand, wearing a bikini that barely covers her enormous breasts.
  2. Motorcyclists, who in no way resemble Jax from "Sons of Anarchy," don't wear helmets.
  3. Fish and pay lakes, recreation featuring the proverbial shooting of fish in a barrel by locals who are too fat and lazy to participate in an actual sport, are considered an acceptable form of leisure activity.
  4. Teeth are considered a luxury.
  5. Policemen, smoking cigarettes, drive the wrong way down one-way streets.
  6. Bad grammar is not considered ironic.
  7. The local newspaper's Reader's Choice survey names Dunkin' Donuts the best coffee shop in the area even though actual coffee shops, featuring locally roasted free-trade coffee beans, exist.
  8. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, acknowledging the futility of introducing food items that fall under the category "healthy," wouldn't be caught dead within a 150-mile radius.
  9. Recycling is optional.
  10. People routinely ask you how much you paid for your mixed-breed rescue dog and if you'd be willing to sell him.

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08 August 2012

Travel Reading: The Adventures of Bindi Girl

Long before traveling to India became de rigueur for everyone who's ever taken a yoga class, Erin Reese had begun combing the entire subcontinent in her quest for a deeper, decidedly unWestern, experience of life. In her first book, The Adventures of Bindi Girl: Diving Deep Into the Heart of India,  Erin presents the full picture of longterm travel in a destination that is usually either glorified or vilified. Erin takes readers to the heights of India's attributes—the sights, smells, sounds, mountains, cities, islands, festivals, colors and colorful people—and also to the depths of the country's underbelly. Erin's accomplished storytelling is underscored by her voice—crisp, quirky, funny, often biting, always original.

During her years in India, Erin has spent the requisite time in ashrams, Vipassana centers and sitting at the feet of her Guru. She's also lived the life of an Indian beach bum, had love affairs and traveled by train and ship 3rd-class (which, trust me, requires serious kahunas). Erin's budget traveling style (generally, under $5 a day) comes with an enormous payoff for Erin and her readers. Instead of throwing money at India in an attempt to make her experience more comfortable, she finds a way to experience all of India for as few rupees as possible. Her resourcefulness leads to alternatively scary, disgusting, comical and truly heartwarming situations. I would bet few Westerners know India's geography, culture and people as well as Erin does.

Besides entertaining, The Adventures of Bindi Girl also enlightens. Readers travel along with Erin as she follows her intuition from Rishikesh (a Himalayan foothill mecca for Western travelers) to the beaches of South India. Readers get to know the eclectic group of fellow travelers who join Erin for stretches of her journey. And while spirituality plays a huge role in Erin's Indian discoveries, the book remains adventuresome in tone and experience.

Anyone—especially solo travelers—who has been to India will LOVE The Adventures of Bindi Girl. Finally, you'll have someone to laugh with over the billions of absurdities encountered daily in India. If you're planning a trip to India, you must read this book. It is the best book out there for getting a solid feel of the country.

Erin does things in a way I could not imagine doing them (her budget, her willingness to take overnight buses and trains from one end of the country to the other, her considerable time spent in Bombay and Calcutta, places I avoid completely). She has had the richest, sexiest, funniest experience of India that is available in book form.

The Adventures of Bindi Girl is available in paperback and for Kindle on Amazon.

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07 August 2012

Women's Gymnastics

Having just watched the conclusion of the Olympic gymnastics competition, I'm already beginning to feel the onset of Olympics withdrawal. NBC's internet coverage has made these Games my favorite since 1996, when Atlanta hosted and NBC broadcast the marquis events live during primetime. Internet coverage is less than ideal. B-team commentators occasionally punctuate enormous amounts of dead space, and in my apartment the coverage had an uncanny ability to freeze at the exact moments I most wanted to view—McKayla Maroney's perfect vault, Aliya Mustafina's bar routine. Still, I'm enormously grateful to NBC and the internet.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY/US Presswire
After the last two individual events in women's gymnastics—balance beam and floor exercise—I read on one of the news websites that Jordyn Wieber, the favorite to win all-around coming into the Games, "failed again" in her bid for an individual medal. The use of the word failed bothers me. Did Jordyn perform at her best during the Olympics? No. The level of talent, hard work, fearlessness, focus, strength and determination that lands a young girl in the Olympics is really incomprehensible for most of us. Jordyn Wieber didn't fail at these Olympics—she's part of the Gold medal winning team. But she didn't live up to her own standards. Because of that she gets to be a different kind of role model than the one she would have been had she nailed every routine.

Gymnastics is perhaps the most unforgiving sport. One-hundredth of a point can separate Gold and Silver medalists. One little bobble—a flexed foot, tiny wobble on the beam,  small step on a landing—and the chance of any medal can be lost. Unlike most other sports, gymnastics is inherently highly dangerous. Gymnasts are subject to the usual injuries all athletes risk—sprains, muscles tears, blown ACLs, damaged rotator cuffs—plus a good deal more. An orthopedist who treats Berkeley's football and gymnastics teams told me gymnastics is far more dangerous than football.

As badly as I feel for Jordyn Wieber that these Games didn't work out the way she'd hoped and the rest of the world expected, I question whether she would have beat Gabby Douglas in the all-around had she been able to compete in it. Gabby beat Jordyn during the Olympic trials and was the only member of Team USA to compete in all four events during the team finals. She's better at vaulting, bars and beam than Jordyn and her equal on the floor. When Jordyn won last year's Worlds, beating Russia's Viktoria Komova by one-hundredth of a point, it seemed like a scoring injustice. Wieber had stepped out of bounds on one of her tumbling passes on the floor; Komova bobbled a turn. Wieber's misstep seemed to me the more egregious of the two.

News websites are now posting that Jordyn Wieber may have come into these Olympics with a stress fractured leg. In gymnastics routines, timing is everything. One-hundredth of a second is the difference between perfection and disaster. In the life of a gymnast performing a sport to which the world pays attention only for two weeks every four years, timing can be cruel. A 15 year-old is too young to compete; at 19 that same gymnast may be too old. An athlete may go three years without a significant injury only to sustain a stress fracture one month before the Olympics.

As much as I would have liked to see a healthy Jordyn Wieber compete at her best during these Olympics, I'm still thrilled Gabby Douglas won the individual all-around. First African American woman to accomplish this. The charismatic 16-year-old, lithe and tiny at 4'11",  brought her best when it counted the most.

Note to Gabby and Jordyn: if you decide to retire and then decide to unretire, take lessons from Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and other gymnasts who've attempted a comeback too late. Give yourself at least two years to get in shape for Brazil 2016. I'd really love to see both of you there.

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