Over lunch recently my good friend John Flinn and I were comparing notes about backpacking trails in California’s Sierra Nevada because we both wanted to get back to the mountains. I was planning my first mountain backpacking trip with my two daughters aged 10 and 8 and intended to take them up a trail my wife and I used to love—before the children arrived, of course. John knew the trail, starting at the Lyons Creek Trailhead off Highway 50 just past Kyburz.

“It’s flat all the way to Lake Sylvia,” he recalled.

“That’s what I remember, too,” I said, “but I found my old topo map last night and it shows a 1500-foot climb over five miles to Sylvia.”


I nodded. I couldn’t believe it either. My memory was that the trail to Lake Sylvia was essentially flat, but if you wanted to go up to Lyons Lake, which Paula and I always used to do, it was a torturous climb straight up for a half mile at the end. Continue reading »

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It had been a long time since I’d taken a train trip in the U.S. The last one I remember had to have been at least 25 years ago, from Seattle to Minneapolis. But these days Amtrak is getting a serious look as an option for travelers in withdrawal from sky-high airline ticket prices and the staggering cost of filling the gas tank. Then I read Catherine Watson’s story in the San Francisco Chronicle about riding Amtrak from Minnesota to New Mexico and I began to get the itch myself.

When I mentioned our annual summer visit to Grandma’s house in Minnesota at the dinner table, my 10-year-old daughter said she wanted to take the train. Huh? Was she channeling me? I love trains, but my two daughters’ experience with railways is in Europe, not the U.S., unless you count the Caltrain commuter train from San Francisco down the peninsula to San Jose. No, they wanted to sleep on the train, something we’d never done in France or Switzerland, and that dinner conversation was full of earnest requests. How could I say no? Continue reading »

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The lost red balloon

Have you ever see the French film The Red Balloon? It’s a classic from the 1950’s and well worth a viewing—it’s on Netflix. Anyway, it takes place in the 20th arrondissement of Ménilmontant.  Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement, an area, quartier, in Paris, near where I am staying at my friend’s apartment, reminds me so of this film. I took a walk in the hilly district, heading towards the Musee de Montmartre, I was curious about the Absinthe and Music Hall culture of this infamous area. It’s a great walking district, full of ancient staircases, (like those featured in the film) stunning views and, alas, too many tourists. I stumbled across a small urban vineyard and OF COURSE some well known Cabaret/Music Hall spots made famous by the Bohemian crowd of the 19th and 20th century including Toulouse L’Autrec. The day was humid, with bursts of sunlight, Paris living up to it’s nickname as ‘The City of Light’. I stopped for a $5 coffee at the base of the majestic Sacre Coeur having negotiated the gauntlet of Africans selling Eiffel Tower key chains and trinkets. Oddly enough for the first time in my life I actually do want to buy one for my boys who are so entranced by the structure (I couldn’t bring myself to part with the nearly $10 they were asking for a 32-inch high rendition of the tower). I descended further and was asked by an old lady to help her open her door. It must be said French doors, locks, keys, entrances are quite challenging. She was a bit disoriented, but of course I would help her with her shopping and the door. It was a classic scene, sad really, trying to stay living independently as she always has. Continue reading »

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La ville est plus belle a velo—The city is more beautiful by bike—VELIB in Paris

I studied here in college, married a French guy and lived here for a few years; I feel I know Paris pretty well—OK well that was mostly in the 20th century. Some things are so the same… the familiar smell of the metro, the dog poo on the cobblestone streets, the near ghost town in August as all Parisians high tail it to the coast or country or abroad–heck even hospitals close but not the Pigalle red light district! Cities evolve, populations morph, culture mutates.. Here are a few brief observations: Continue reading »

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It has been a while, two kids, a mortgage and voila my travel went from regular travel abroad for work and pleasure to periodic travel mostly to visit the grandparents. When a childhood friend asked me to be with her in Paris for major surgery, I went online to find my flight. There were very few direct, nonstop flights from San Francisco and I decided to go with Air France. A 10 hour flight was important, particularly given I was cutting it close, and that the last minute the surgery was moved up to accommodate the French August vacation schedule, the hospital was closing for the end of August—vive la France. Not the best time of year to travel to France but eager to be there for my friend, nearly $2000 later I was on my way…. Continue reading »

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A friend of mine says his favorite part of any trip is when the aircraft doors close. That’s the moment he can no longer control what happens and he’s forced to sit back and take what comes. No more planning, no more checking lists or making sure he’s remembered his Swiss army knife or money belt. Now it’s time to give himself up to the travel gods and head into the unknown where new people, cultures, and experiences wait. And that’s when the anticipation begins, the real wonder about what he’ll encounter and how it’ll change him, because travel always changes us. We’re never the same person we were before we left home.

Here at “Cleared for Takeoff” we’re hoping to give you the same sort of anticipation my friend gets when he fastens his seat belt. We’ll talk about the joys and wonders and challenges of travel in today’s world. We’ll point you to the odd and quirky, the exalted and flamboyant, the strange and mysterious and transcendent experiences our planet has to offer, and we hope you’ll tell us about your travels, too. Because as we all know, the stories we live while traveling aren’t nearly as much fun if we can’t tell them to someone. So welcome aboard. Let’s all enjoy the ride.

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