Friday, June 16, 2017

The Alleged Mexican Expedition: Prelude

  Tristan messaged me in mid-August. He and I had recently met during a mountaineering class in Washington, in which we climbed Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier together. He was inviting me to climb Pico de Orizaba in December. I was sitting in the passenger seat of Carlson’s car, on our way to pick up materials from my office. We were in the middle of building a giant “flying” selfie stick for the Red Bull Flugtag, which, at that point, was in five days. I was vaguely familiar with Pico de Orizaba, perhaps because Tristan mentioned it on Facebook and I subsequently googled it. At roughly 18,500 feet, Pico de Orizaba has several peak-bagging accolades: tallest peak in Mexico; tallest volcano in North America; and overall third tallest peak in North America. Tristan piqued my interest when he mentioned he was going unguided. We agreed to talk the following week, as I was currently preoccupied with being hurled off a 24-foot-tall pier into the Charles River on a home-made contraption which stood zero chance of flying (largely due to its lack of wings, but also because the physics of the situation were generally unfavorable).

  As the dust settled post-Flugtag, I found myself thinking about Pico de Orizaba more. The prospect was appealing, but the logistics of taking more time off were difficult. Less than two weeks later, however, I left my job and committed to the Mexico trip. I was, after all, trying to say yes to more interesting opportunities.

  Tristan roped in Craig, a long-time friend of his, and the three of us made some cursory plans. Sometime around Christmas, we’d head to Mexico. The trip would begin with an acclimatization hike on Sierra Negra, followed by a summit attempt on Pico de Orizaba, and conclude with a climb of Iztaccihuatl. We talked a few more times, and then I set about making other plans. September quickly rolled by. I booked a flight to Australia, a return flight from New Zealand, and then some flights to and from Mexico. October was consumed by engineering contract work to pay the bills, and soon enough, it was November.

  Since I worked all of October (despite allegedly taking a year off), I didn’t put much planning into my trips. It was my last night in Boston, and I stayed late for a company Halloween party. After all, who could refuse free Thai food and an opportunity to watch an industrial robot arm mill a bust of the CEO into a pumpkin? Eventually I left and spent the whole night winterizing my car and packing for the next two months. It finally came time to catch my 6 am train to New York. I hauled one hundred pounds of mountaineering, hiking, and camping gear (plus some other essentials) for the one mile walk to South Station and boarded a train, saying goodbye to Boston for the next ten weeks.

  The next six weeks were an experience worth recounting separately. To summarize though: minimally planned solo travel to unfamiliar countries leaves little time for additional planning.

     While waiting to board my seventh flight of the trip, from Auckland to Honolulu, I finally started feeling ill. Honestly, I was surprised it took so long, since I had spent 36 hours in tiny tubes of recirculating air over the previous five weeks, with cumulatively a thousand or two strangers, and then subjected my body to mentally and physically exhausting hikes, road trips, and logistical headaches. In preparation for the nine-hour red-eye ahead, I filled up my water bottles and relaxed so I could hopefully sleep away the sick. Unfortunately, this flight, like the six before it, included a screaming baby.

  I arrived in Hawaii, got through customs, and then called a very expensive cab (I forgot the currency in Hawaii is USD, not NZD) in an attempt to enjoy Honolulu for a few hours before catching a ten-hour flight to New York. Dressed for a cool Kiwi spring day, I was ill-prepared for my accidental nap in a sunny park by the beach. I awoke uncomfortably warm and remarkably tired, then began making my way back to the airport.

  The city bus was late, likely because of the Honolulu Marathon, and excessively air-conditioned. I spent the next thirty minutes shivering, cursing the driver’s climate preferences under my breath. After exiting the bus into 85F weather and continuing to shiver, I became aware that my slight cold, poor attire, and fatigued state probably contributed to a mild case of heat exhaustion. The next ten hours were spent shivering under a blanket, listening to yet another baby screaming, and hoping I’d feel ok before going to Mexico the following week.

  New York greeted me with a strangely welcoming cold, rainy December day. I made my way from JFK to New Jersey to visit family for a few days before departing again. I had exactly one week in the US, so I had exactly one week to figure out a Mexico game plan. Not much had been decided while I was away, so transportation and accommodations were completely up in the air. This was also our first unguided glaciated peak, so all the mountain-specific logistics needed to be resolved. We had to figure out who was bringing what gear; the route needed to be decided, plotted, and uploaded to GPS; our food and water strategy needed to be resolved; and we needed to figure out where to get camp fuel and maps on location. All of these unknowns, combined with family-and-friends time, meant I had very little time to rest and fight off whatever cold was ailing me.

  I spent the next week frantically buying more mountaineering gear, most of which turned out to be unnecessary. Of course, I had no way of knowing that, as I had done very little research on the specifics of our route. Perhaps the most important item, though, was a four-season tent which could house the three of us, seeing as all our accommodations were uncertain. We anticipated camping frequently, often at elevation, and probably on snow. Naturally, overnight shipping took three days and failed to be delivered. As always, UPS told me I could pick the tent up on Saturday at their distribution center. Sure enough, the employee at the distribution center told me I would have to wait until Monday, because the tent was on a truck and would require the whole crew to access. Unfortunately, I was going to be in Mexico on Monday. Since we had no alternative plan for shelter, my father and I drove an hour to New York City, where I picked up an equivalent tent while he circled the block.

  Sunday, my last full day in the US, quickly snuck up on me. I had spent all week reading gear reviews and guidebooks. Tristan, Craig, and I had decided to tackle some of the uncertainty by maintaining flexibility. We would rent a car and plan to spend most of our time camping instead of looking for hotels. Most sources told us driving in Mexico would be hell, but it seemed inter-city buses would require too much planning to be practical, particularly given our collective inability to speak any Spanish. I rented a car for remarkably little money and booked one night at a hotel in Mexico City (since I was arriving the day before Tristan and Craig).

  Shortly afterwards, I ate dinner, packed my gear, and headed back to JFK. My flight was first thing in the morning, so transit schedules forced me to arrive the night before. On the train to New York, I bought some mountaineering-friendly travel insurance and frantically booked hotels from my phone. Then I started reading another guidebook. Quickly realizing it was the most useful yet, I proceeded to expend my remaining energy on absorbing all the information within. After waiting a few hours for the ticketing counters to open, I got my boarding pass, waited for security to open, and ventured to my gate. My nerves had been bad all week, but at this point, they were making me nauseous. I was by myself, traveling to a country whose language I did not speak, without much of a plan. I was also sleep deprived and just getting over a cold. The clock had run out though, and there wasn’t much more preparation I could do. I got on the plane, listened to the ninth screaming baby for a few hours, and hoped for the best. The Alleged Mexican Expedition had begun.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Hat Mike's Council on Aging

I’ve been telling this story over and over lately, so perhaps it’s time to put it in writing. Honestly, this should have been done ages ago, but halfway through seems as good a time as any. At least this way I can ~record-scratch~ “You’re-probably-wondering-how-I-got-here” this situation.
I quit my job on September 1st last year. With an uncharacteristic use of foresight, I had reapplied to grad school some months earlier, thinking I’d hedge my bets in case the startup didn’t pan out. The hedging quickly felt irrelevant, so when decision time rolled around, I deferred my admission for a year. Really, that was just a way to kick the can down the road in my typical fashion. The startup had a lot of promise and I didn’t plan on leaving for several more years.
A few months later, when I realized I had been sitting on a lot of work-related anxiety and wanted to get out to do something else, I quit. It was rather sudden and unfolded over the course of a few days. One or two nights prior to the date of departure, I had a heart-to-heart with a friend who made me realize that leaving my job could be an opportunity, and not necessarily a failure. The prospect of doing anything but another job seemed unfathomable to me. The more I thought about it though, the more rational it seemed. With no additional effort on my part, I would be starting grad school one year later. Nobody would demand anything of me for the next year unless I wanted it. I had some savings. When else would I get such an opportunity?
In truth, I had been dreaming of such an opportunity without knowing it. Having recently become obsessed with mountaineering, I was constantly thinking about climbs I wanted to go on and scheming about finding the time to actually do them. This was the perfect set of circumstances to stop scheming and start doing.
Fast forward a few months, and the scheming-to-doing ratio has been all over the place. September was spent sorting out some neglected aspects of my life and October building up some financial reserves through engineering contract work. November through mid-January were some of the crazier months, taking me through Australia and New Zealand (with some short stops in China, the Philippines, and Hawaii), followed by a mountaineering adventure in Mexico. Those are stories worth telling another time.
Since then, however, scheming has been my modus operandi. From the start of this year-off, the plan has been to move into a van and travel the country, climbing mountains and visiting friends before heading to Europe for the summer. Yet, for reasons I cannot fully explain, January and February flew by with little substantial action. I picked up rock climbing in an attempt to round out as an alpinist, tried my hand at ice climbing and cross country skiing, saw friends, ran errands, experimented with cooking Indian food, and all sorts of other mildly fulfilling pursuits. It was a relaxing two months, which I probably needed, but I was getting more anxious with each passing day. My crazy plans were slowly becoming fantasy again.
At the end of February, I heeded some solid advice: “Don’t think. Just do.” I decided that all my worries about money and uncertainty needed to take a back seat to my worries of squandering an opportunity to fulfill a fantasy, and I started aggressively hunting for a van to turn into a home. Several hours of craigslisting, phone calls, and rental-car-driving-around-New-England later, I had seen a wide spectrum of potential vans: VW campers, Toyota-pickup based RVs, work vans, former Fox and ABC news vans, wheelchair vans, and even government research vehicles. Each vehicle seemed to have a more ridiculous story than the last. One vehicle stood out, though, and I knew when I saw it that I would be purchasing it. That vehicle was a 2006 Ford E350 Super Duty Cutaway Van, built out as a wheelchair bus for the Stoughton Council on Aging. After a call on February 28th, I decided to put down a deposit so the bus wouldn’t sell while I sorted out insurance and other routine vehicle purchasing bureaucracy. I quickly learned there is nothing routine about this vehicle.
The headaches began when phone calls to every major insurance company I knew revealed that regular private passenger insurance does not work for buses in Massachusetts. I spent hours on hold with the RMV, trying multiple avenues to get some clarity on the situation. I began calling local insurance brokers who could access specialty insurers. I quickly learned that insurance companies don’t like to sell insurance when they know you won’t hold it for more than a year, and brokers won’t get their commissions if you sell the vehicle too soon. I refined my telephone pitch with every step, after several forms of rejection.
“I don’t know… I’m just not interested. It’s too complicated,” said one insurance broker.
I simplified things for the next one.
Even still, nobody seemed to be able to find an insurance company that would write a policy. I called the people who inspect school buses for the state (incidentally, they don’t get very many calls and the phone rang about three dozen times before someone picked up), the titles department, the safety and compliance people, and many others to see if I could get the vehicle to be considered an RV instead of bus prior to the conversion. Not a chance. So I hunted for bus insurance, and after several redirects, reached one of three people who insure buses in Massachusetts.
“You’ve got yourself a catch-22. I can’t help you,” he said.
So after a week of no progress, I decided to do the rational thing: buy the bus anyway. I laundered some money through a friend, showed up with the remaining $3k in cash at the tractor trailer/equipment dealer, worked out a temporary storage agreement, and began working on Plan B.
(At this point, I made a quick trip to the RMV to have the title transferred into my name. I asked the person at the counter for clarification about having the vehicle re-titled once the conversion is complete, and she asked me to meet her at counter two. We walked around the entire floor on opposite sides of the counter and met again at counter two, where a familiar face was sitting, helping another individual. Pam, the familiar face, was very engaged with this gentleman, until her coworker approached her and asked, “Do you need to have a vehicle retitled after it is converted to an RV?”
Pam slowly peered around the man at her counter. Upon seeing me, her shoulders slumped and she exclaimed, “Ugh, not you again!”
Frankly, becoming a regular at the RMV was the least of my worries.)
Driving the bus without insurance and consequently no registration or license plates was not an option. I needed to find a place to store the bus for the duration of the conversion process. A week-and-a-half later, I managed to work out an agreement with a friend. After temporarily remobilizing my other stupid-vehicle-purchase (an old RX-7, which I vehemently insist was a fantastic purchase), we stashed my car at his office and freed up space for the conversion to happen. A few phone calls later, the people who sold me the bus coordinated a tow-truck delivery. They seemed amused by the project and offered to do more leg work than they usually would, which certainly saved me effort and probably money. Three weeks after putting down the deposit, my bus finally arrived.

I greeted the bus with enthusiasm, followed by a huge kick of doubt and uncertainty about my decision-making abilities. I probably bit off more than I can chew. Historically, though, the memories I am fondest of have all originated with a similar disregard for what is reasonable. Why should this time be any different?