Monday, November 17, 2014

Best of the East Coast according to a Californian

Mark Twain's overly quoted saying that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts" is often the inspiration for a trip abroad. It exciting to cross international boundaries and confront one's own notions about a particular corner of the world. Less likely is it for a traveler to use the same inspiration to better understand his own country.

My first experiences in Maine...
As I was essentially raised on the West Coast of the United States, I had a previously misguided view of the East as being entirely flat, metropolitan and unimportant to a true adventurer. What could the East Coast possibly have on the Sierras, Cascades, Pacific Coast, southwest deserts and abundant national parks? The most profound part of the East that crossed it off my list for travel was that no mountain was greater than 7,000 feet. Those are just hills out here!

In a fortunate turn of events I spent my first summer after undergrad in Maine which rapidly deconstructed my idea of the East as nothing but cities and low hills. I liked it so much I went to graduate school in that state and spent the last three years exploring from here to the Gulf Coast and back. Now a firm believer of the importance of domestic travel, I'd like to share what I believe are the top places which dismantled my previously harsh view of this coast.

The Northern Appalachians
The Northern Appalachians

One of my first experiences with eastern ranges was a hike up Katahdin. Not seeing how a mile high mountain could ever be a challenge, I gauged this hike might take four hours. Those who've hiked the Appalachian Trail or anywhere in Baxter must be floored from that statement. It was a savage all-day affair, even for this Californian who's used to hiking 14ers. Somewhere in between the precipitous scramble along the Knife's Edge and the perfectly mirrored reflection of "The Great Mountain", I half-walked and half-limped my way towards a genuine reverence for this range.

The coast of Maine is something I'll always return to
The Coast of Maine

Part of my teenage years was spent leading canoeing and kayaking trips around the Channel Islands of Southern California. I've also spent time on Northern California's Lost Coast and kayaked through Alaska's Inside Passage. My first 100 mile expedition of the Maine Island Trail by kayak was equally adventurous but distinctly Atlantic. Maine has a "drowned coast" which means that across geologic time, rising sea levels have created innumerable archipelagos and rugged coastlines which sharply contrast the wide beaches further south. The islands number in the tens of thousands and the Maine Island Trail makes camping on a private island easy.  From Camden, across Penobscot Bay, through the island towns of Stonington. Vinalhaven and Isle au Haut, I fell deeply in love with the bold coast and returned year after year for expeditions. I frequently refer to it as a Northern Caribbean.

Near the summit of Mt Marcy
The Adirondacks

The difference between New York City and Upstate New York are drastic. For an eastern state, New York is massive and includes a great degree of cultural difference as one moves north or west from the city. Adirondack Park contain an area greater than any western national park. The Park is nearly 3 times larger than Yellowstone and larger than some eastern states. It is a historical landmark in the United State's push for publicly accessible wilderness and has equal standing with Yosemite. My own exploration of the park was quite miserable when 3 feet of snow fell over what was supposed to be a nice Memorial Day Weekend backpacking trip. I walked out with new respect for New York. Later I returned for a kayaking trip along Lake Champlain and a splendid wilderness hike to Mt Marcy.
Ohiopyle, PA

Pennsylvania Mountain Biking Trails

The number of mountain biking trails in Pennsylvania expands every year. The state is already well know for producing some excellent cross-country road biking but the technical singletracks of the state are just as good. Ohiopyle is right in the heart of the Allegheny Trail and whitewater country. I didn't have the time nor resources to undertake a legitimate rafting trip but my mountain bike was recently tuned up and ready to go. The Baughman, Sugarloaf and McCune Trails were extremely technical but I managed to survive and discovered yet another Mountain Biking Mecca. Ohiopyle is the type of place I could spend a month in and never do the same activity twice. Hopefully that happens in the future.

West Virginia might challenge the assumption that there's only one Grand Canyon

West Virginia

I actually knew much more about West Virginia's natural appeal long before I ever was near it. The New River Gorge is an obvious candidate for one of the best known natural features of Appalachia and seeing it in person was surreal. Sure the Grand Canyon is wider and deeper but the New River is the oldest river on the continent, slowly carving its way over 325 million years (over 4 times older than the Colorado River). The sheer remoteness of Seneca Rocks, Spruce Knob and Canaan Valley along with the hidden beauty of Pocahontas are just the tip of the iceberg for the mountaineer's state. I haven't had the extensive travel experiences here as I have in New England but I left with an encyclopedia-length list of things I'd return for. 

The Black Mountains near Asheville
Asheville, North Carolina

Asheville exemplifies Appalachian chic. Its a city that's elegant but so accessible to anyone and the locals are quite friendly. Its also large enough and historical enough to have developed its own culture while supporting a thriving 20/30-something scene. I suppose its a lot like Denver in that respect (and the nearby Black Mountain is like Boulder). Perhaps it was just the crowd I was running with, but it seemed like everything revolved around nature and outdoors. There wasn't an off-season, just different outdoor sports to enjoy while the weather was perfect for them. My favorite adventures here were the Black Mountain hiking traverse and mountain biking the nearby Brevard Dupont State Forest.

Kentucky Mountains
Eastern Kentucky/Western Virginia

I put this here for two reasons. The first is the same as every other place on this list; this is an area of abundant natural beauty. The rugged ridge and valley areas around Wise, Norton and Big Stone Gap look like waves frozen in time. The rugged semi-alpine summits of eastern Kentucky are frequently overlooked for more popular summits in North Carolina. However the magnificence of the mountains contrasts the significant degree of rural poverty that permeates the region. Appalachia has some of the most persistent poverty in this country and it is frequently overlooked. As a family practice student in rural Maine, I was no stranger to situations such as these but my heart went out to this area. I hope that I can continue to be involved in advocacy for the rural poor even though I'm now in the big city.

Charleston is a perfect balance of outdoor adventure and urban exploration
Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston is a more coastal version of Asheville which exhibits the same opulent but surprisingly accessible Southern elegance. When I was young in North Carolina, my family used to vacation to Myrtle Beach but after spending a week in Charleston, we discovered a new favorite on the Atlantic Coast. It had been nearly 15 years since I was last here but the city still evoked warm memories of summer vacation. One of the more delightful part of Charleston is that it remains accessible for nearly everyone. Downtown Charleston had the full range of restaurants, historical sites and bright southern architecture. Even a wilderness-loving guy like me found enjoyment among the tourists. James Island and Folly Island had very affordable accomidations and a great beach for 20/30-somethings while Kiawah Island was a millionaire's paradise (nevertheless, there's a great public beach on the island where you can wander one of the country's best shorelines). Kayaking through marshes full of dolphins and under all the Palmettos and Spanish Moss almost made me not miss the coast of California.


Talladega National Forest
Little River Canyon and Talladega National Forest, Alabama

I had thought that I wouldn't be seeing much after leaving the Appalachians of Northern Georgia. The mountains do extend deep in to Alabama but don't have quite the elevation that they do as the rise in the Central and Northern ranges. Nevertheless, no trip through the south would be complete without seeing its Grand Canyon. The Little River Canyon drives straight through the plateau of Lookout Mountain and carves an 800 foot gorge that would impress anyone. There's a substantial amount of unexplored rock climbing and river running through the area too which has no crowds. Further southwest, the Talladega National Forest protects the tallest mountains of the state. Mt Cheaha is a relatively short mountain but has some epic vistas which reminded me of something out of the Northern California foothills. Lastly there's Oak Mountain State Park which is one of only 50-something best mountain biking destinations named by the International Mountain Biking Association.  

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Mississippi is a pretty flat state for the most part but there's still plenty of natural and historical sites worth seeing. I drove down the beautiful Natchez Trace Parkway which is probably better biked than driven. This road follows a historical route though the state and follows along rivers and marshes that are as pretty as any mountain. Something which shouldn't be missed in Mississippi is Vicksburg National Military Park. This park is as well preserved as Gettysburg and hold about as much historical significance. Vicksburg is built on the Mississippi River bluffs and was a perfect military base in the Civil War. It was a strategic stronghold that anchored the Mississippi River to the Confederate States. The lengthy trench warfare and siege was some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Once captured, Vicksburg divided Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas from the rest of the South and was instrumental in ending the war. The battlefield is meticulously preserved with monuments for every state that was involved in the battle.

View from Mt Magazine, Arkansas
Arkansas/Missouri Ozarks and Ouachitas

The Ouachitas and Ozarks are a nice break in the otherwise flat lowlands and piedmont of the lower Midwest. Both mountain ranges are distant ancestors of the once Himalayan-like Appalachian Mountains. Although not rising greater than 3,000 feet, the mountains feel much larger when looking down onto the great plains. The Talimena Scenic Byway runs along a stark ridgeline that feels somewhat like driving the Blue Ridge Parkway or Million-Dollar Highway. Mt Magazine has a very posh lodge along with some rustic cabins which are cooler oasis during the summer months.

After having found a deep respect and appreciation for all things East, I have hope that I can discover the Midwest in a similar way. The thought of spending 3 years away from California was daunting at the time. The East seemed so stagnant and urban compared to what I was used to on the other coast. Clearly this was misguided. Now I have the same feeling towards starting my career off here in the Midwest. My assumptions are similar- its flat, boring and uninspiring. I hope that with time, I'll come to appreciate the Midwest like I love the East, despite my previous beliefs.