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Reunited in California

Joining the Peace Corps we received warnings that this would be “the toughest job we’ve ever loved.” We mentally prepared ourselves to live without toilet paper, to try strange foods like the odorous durian fruit, and to adjust to new customs, like singing karaoke in a foreign language. But in fulfilling our two years of service we also created lifelong bonds both within our communities and among our fellow Peace Corps volunteers. And there are no other friends like Peace Corps friends!

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Clockwise from back left: Drew, John, Loren, and SJ on the beach in Santa Cruz Thanksgiving 2017. The water was frigid!

Over Thanksgiving this year John and I flew out to California and were reunited with my batchmates Loren and Drew. They even greeted us in the airport wearing our Romblon Crew basketball jerseys.

Our 5-day excursion included Thanksgiving dinner complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, and stuffing and almost more pies than people. We may have dominated the dinner table conversation with Loren’s tales of killing her own turkey in the Philippines and cooking a duck the year following. Thanks Loren for making all the food in 2015!

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Our 25-person Thanksgiving dinner table

Zack’s family Thanksgiving traditions include a post-meal, pre-dessert walk and games in the park. Our Thanksgiving spikeball battle was just as fierce as games at Binocot Beach in the Philippines.

On Black Friday, we opted outside for a 5-mile hike at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where I kissed a banana slug for good luck and we stood inside a redwood tree!

Our trip also included whale watching at the beach, a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a tour of UC Santa Cruz, an NFL football game, and a tour of Alcatraz Island prison.

We even sat down for a Filipino meal at the local Filipino restaurant Tapsilog Bistro. Calamansi juice, longsilog, tortang talong, and Red Horse beer on tap.

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In an amazing coincidence, our trip to California aligned with our batchmate Paloma’s return to America. Paloma chose to extend her service for a third year and arrived fresh off the plane from the Philippines to a stateside reunion with her fellow volunteers. Welcome Back Paloma!

After 5 days in San Jose, I am convinced that we should move to California in the future (mostly for the amazing bike lanes).

Mag-ingat sa mga kaibigan!

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Home Sweet Home

Buying a home is a major life milestone. While we crossed “getting married” off our life achievements list this year, we are not quite to “buying a home” yet. However, moving into our new 3 bedroom 2 bath duplex rental felt like a milestone in itself.

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Our new duplex home in Wilmington, NC

After nearly 10 years of sharing a room or living out of a suitcase this new place feels huge! But, with the help of family and friends our living space has started to look like home.

Don’t venture upstairs though; we have an entire level that we haven’t bothered to use yet. Although, somehow John managed to fit our 11 ft paddleboard up the stairs and into the spare bedroom.

The bookcase in the corner was a homemade weekend project (clearly our home library has space to grow). Next on the list is building a bike rack for indoor storage.

With our long term future still uncertain, renting a home was the best decision. Furthermore, I was pleased to find that GOBankingRates.com’s annual survey of state-by-state costs of renting versus buying a home supported our decision: in North Carolina it is generally cheaper to rent than buy. To find more info about your own state click on their link below:

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GOBankingRates Owning vs. Renting

Belated Happy Halloween and Early Happy Thanksgiving from SJ and John Larkins!

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Solar Eclipse from Above the Clouds

With the sun shining bright overhead, I boarded an airplane departing from Wilmington, North Carolina at one in the afternoon on August 21st, 2017. Our objective was to chase ‘totality,’ the path of total darkness where the moon’s position has aligned to obscure the light from the sun. I tested out my solar eclipse glasses while we flew south.

2:36pm The sun was just a small sliver of light with the round dark moon blocking most of it out, however it was amazing how light the sky still was.

2:40pm The sky turned to dusk and then dark as the moon moved across to block out the face of the sun. On either side we could see a bright horizon, but our plane was directly beneath the moon’s shadow. Looking down we could see pinpoints of light from the city below. A mini night had descended upon us in the mid afternoon and we were chasing it from 26,000ft in the air.

2:46pm Light had returned and we could only see trails of the darkness ahead of us.

The Great American Eclipse of 2017 was an incredible phenomenon!

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From This Day Forward

Sarah Jean Larkins is now official.

On Thursday, June 22nd, 2017 John and I visited the Wilmington courthouse to exchange vows for a wedding day that was simple, spontaneous, and filled with adventure.

Nearly a year after our engagement and the day before John’s birthday, our wedding day fulfilled my personal dreams. We met at the courthouse for a simple, stress-free marriage ceremony performed by the local magistrate. Then, we had a celebratory lunch along the Cape Fear River while sharing the exciting news with family and friends that “Surprise! We got married!”

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If exchanging vows hadn’t triggered enough adrenaline for the day, after lunch we had another adventure planned: flying lessons at the Brunswick Air School!

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Three hours married and I was seated in the back seat of an N3030E 1978 Cessna 172N airplane with John in the pilot’s seat.

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We let the certified pilot handle the takeoff and landing, but while we were in the air John had full control. He practiced climbs, turns and descents while steering us down the North Carolina coastline. After a 30 minute ride, we taxied back to the Brunswick Air terminal for my turn.

I slid into the pilot’s seat and craned my neck up to see over the control panel. With a turn of the key, the engine came back to life. My first task was taxiing down the runway for takeoff. While on the ground, the aircraft is controlled by a left and right foot pedal that turn the plane. With a little practice, I was able to keep her headed down the center strip before the pilot radioed in our flight plan and got the ok for take off. A handful of clouds had rolled in since our first flight so I got to try steering up over, down under, and right through the middle of them. After cruising over Bald Head island and circling around the 300-year-old lighthouse, we made it back safely to the terminal.

John and I won the best dressed award for new pilots and received a logbook documenting our first successful flights.

Simple. Spontaneous. Adventurous.

When I think about how I want to live my life, these three words certainly make the list.

As John and I now begin our future together I hope that we continue to tread simply on a planet which needs more minimalists; be spontaneous in our daily lives and our willingness to embrace change; and seek adventures that challenge our comfort zone and ensure that we never stop learning.

Bike Trip Day 6: Leesburg to Washington D.C.

After 6 days of riding, 337 total miles, one new bike, one flat tire, a bottle of ibuprofen, one trail closure, and a ferry ride we made it from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington D.C. by bicycle.

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I managed to snap an action photo of all 3 of us! Most photos posted for this trip involved holding my glove in my mouth so I could operate my phone.

Today’s ride started on the Washington & Old Dominion paved trail which ran right behind our Comfort Suites to Alexandria, VA. Despite being a well traveled route it was still an eventful morning.

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Can you spot the W&OD Trail sign?

That tree fell just 30 minutes before we arrived.

Later, just 4 miles from the end of the trail I caught a tiny carpet tack in my tire and got a flat; changing a tire in cloudy, overcast weather was much preferred over yesterday’s rain.

But after the tree and the tire incidents we cruised into D.C., past the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the White House.

Our last challenge of the day was finding mike marker 0 for the C&O Canal Towpath, a more difficult task than it sounds. The post was hidden behind the Thompson boathouse by the Potomac river.

Success!! During our celebratory lunch at Farmer Fisher Baker restaurant near mile 0 we resolved to make a bike trip an annual tradition. Comment if you have suggestions for future routes.

Daily mileage: 46 miles
Total mileage: 337 miles

Bike Ride Day 5: Harper’s Ferry to D.C. (not quite!)

“We are gonna make it. We traveled all this way I just want to finish this dang thing,” my dad said as we peeled off layers of soaking wet clothing, covered in muck and grime, 35.5 miles from D.C.

The weather forecast for today had never looked good: 70% chance of rain at 7am and 70-80% rain for the rest of the day. So at 6am this morning just as the sun rose we departed from Harper’s Ferry, WV.

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It’s dawn and we are already on our bikes. No rain yet!

For the first 15 miles we were flying, but at 6:59am I felt the first few drops of rain. A few moments after it was pouring.

The trail turned to muck beneath us and my small, lightweight bike was skidding everywhere. My pants and gloves were soaked through, glasses foggy, and fingers frozen. Both my dad and Dave were wishing they had my shoes covers so water didn’t squelch out of their shoes with every pedal.

After a few more brutal miles we reached a road crossing and took shelter at the Historic White’s Ferry Grille. We had made it 25 miles to Leesburg, VA, just 35.5 miles from D.C.

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Feeling dejected as we waited for breakfast at the White Ferry Grille

I had no desire to continue riding in the pouring rain, mud, and cold. It looked like we were going to call the trip. But, after talking through the should of’s and the what if’s, we hatched a new plan.

We loaded our bikes onto the Historic White’s Ferry and headed to Comfort Suites in Leesburg for a fifth night stay with the promise of a break in the rain and a paved bike trail to D.C. (along the Washington & Old Dominion Rail Trail) in the morning.

My day which started with drinking muddy tail spray from Dave’s bike as we fought to keep pedaling through the mud ended with a trip to the movie theater and bike shop in Leesburg. And tomorrow we will finish this dang thing.

Daily mileage: 25 miles

Bike Ride Day 4: Hancock to Harper’s Ferry

Our bodies were feeling the 200 miles of our first 3 days when we woke up this morning. Breakfast was a game of mental preparation.

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Luckily the trail had dried out so mud was no longer much of an issue. We seemed to make a few more photo stops today, mostly to get out of the saddle for our sore butts.

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My dad also took advantage of Dave’s muscle strength at each stop. Dave rubbed out my dad’s sore shoulder every 10 miles or so with the reward of an open invitation to join any future bike trip.

Mid-ride today a falling rock detour that took us through a neighborhood for a few miles. The paved road was a nice break but it also added a few hundred feet to our max elevation for the day.

Around 3pm we had nearly made it to our destination for the night. Staying in Harper’s Ferry meant carrying our bikes up a large spiral staircase in Maryland, across a bridge, and into West Virginia. The historic town of Harper’s Ferry, WV sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers and is nearly the midpoint of the Appalachian Trail.

Turns out everything in this historic town closes around 6pm. We had to order our dinner quickly because even the restaurants were closing shop. With no television or sports bar to watch the Penguin’s hockey game we opted for an evening stroll.

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Tonight I will sleep at Town’s Inn which was built in 1840. Unfortunately, there are 3 flights of stairs to get to my room. I’m about to hobble to bed now.

Daily mileage: 66 miles

Bike Ride Day 3: Cumberland to Hancock

Riding along the C&O Towpath took a significant amount of mental focus to avoid rocks, roots, and mud holes. Unlike the smooth, wide GAP trail from Pitt to Cumberland, the C&O Towpath features many surprises. Every so often one of use would let out an “arghhh” from an unavoidable mud hole that was deeper than expected giving a loud thud upon landing or a large, unnoticed branch that caught us at the wrong angle.

By far the best strategy for unavoidable mud is to charge through the puddles head on with significant speed. While this does splatter mud in all directions it also ensures that your bike stays upright.

What non-essential piece of gear am I very glad I packed? Shoe covers! Light-weight, waterproof booties to slide over my bike shoes with small holes in the bottom so my shoes can still clip onto my pedals but prevent my feet from getting wet. (You can easily unclip your shoe from the pedal by twisting your heel away from the bike.) My shoe covers took a beating, but my socks stayed dry.

Despite the rough terrain this segment may have been the most beautiful! Sunning turtles, turkeys, groundhogs, lilypads and beautiful flowers with. Today’s ride ran along a canal with a series of locks and even one canal tunnel.

While my dad and Dave de-mounted and walked through the Paw Paw tunnel which featured the water canal on our left with a narrow walkway on the right separated by a wood guardrail, I proceeded to bike behind them snapping pictures.

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After surviving Paw Paw and several additional mud holes we took advantage of the Western Maryland Rail Trail, a paved bikeway that paralleled our C&O trail. That smooth ground felt wonderful as we coasted our last 10 miles into Hancock around 3pm.

Both the River Run B&B and Buddy Lou’s restaurant are highly recommended for others passing this way.

Daily mileage: 60 miles

Bike Ride Day 2: Ohiopyle to Cumberland

Luckily I did not view our day’s elevation profile before we started the ride. I felt like we were cruising on a flat trail with fairly ideal conditions given our clear sunny skies. That is until we reached the summit and I saw this elevation map:

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Notice the red arrow on the map. That marks the summit after we climbed up to that peak from right to left. Next up was the 20 mile descent shown by the sharp drop on the left of the map.

Today featured a 1,414 ft climb over 50 miles followed by a 20 mile 1,787 ft descent. My dad and cousin, weighed down by heavier saddle bags, did take notice, but we all made it up to the top. Then, flying down the final leg of our ride at 18-20 mph into Cumberland was our reward.

Throughout our day I made use of my adventure photography skills for some riding action shots.

We rode over the Salisbury Viaduct, which offered amazing views of the countryside, a passing train, and huge windmills. We also traveled through several tunnels including the Big Savage tunnel, which is the longest tunnel on the trip at 3,300 ft. Finally, we crossed the Mason-Dixon Line.

I keep my iPhone handy while riding for playing pump up music and taking selfies from the saddle.

I’ve heard that more people die annually while taking selfies than from shark attacks. Luckily my riding selfie skills served me well today and our biggest scare was a partially fallen tree that literally made a loud crack as we passed underneath. We got out of there fast!

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Notice the broken tree above threatening to fall any moment.

After 5 hrs and 22 mins in the saddle, we made it to Cumberland.

Daily mileage: 72 miles

Ride the GAP: Day 1

On Sunday morning May 7th, while over 14,000 runners laced up their shoes for the Pittsburgh Marathon, my dad, my cousin Dave and I pumped our tires and clipped on our helmets for an odyssey of our own: a 335-mile bike ride from Pittsburgh, PA to Washington D.C. along The Great Allegheny Passage (www.GAPtrail.org) and The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath trails.

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Day 1 of 5: Pittsburgh to Ohiopyle

At 10am this morning we gathered at The Waterfront (the trail starts from downtown Pittsburgh but we started slightly south due to marathon road closures). After a few warm up laps and pre-departure photos we started our journey.

A tail-wind carried us out of Pittsburgh over a paved trail at about 15-18mph before the trail switched to crushed limestone for speeds of 10-15mph. And that’s when my problems started.

As with any adventure there is always some unforeseen challenge. Mine were tire treads designed to give my road bike more traction but which fit so closely to the frame of my bike that this soft limestone sand would get stuck on the bike making it difficult for the wheels to spin. Psheee, psheee, psheee…we could hear my front tire make every turn. We also encountered a few fallen trees that meant carrying our bikes over and through.

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Still we kept pedaling, past waterfalls, over bridges and old train stations. The newly budding forest was a beautiful bright green and the Monongahela river raged along the trail side. But after multiple stops to clear sand from my tire and the promise of muddier trails on our days to come we made a pit stop at Bikes Unlimited in Connellsville. (The photo below shows my road bike on the left where mud would get stuck and our pit stop switchover on the right.)

On my new trek hybrid we cruised the last few miles into Ohiopyle to stay overnight at the Yough Plaza Motel.

Daily mileage: 67 miles