Travel

It’s Jewish! It’s Nostalgic: It’s Camp!

As if on cue, the first camper I meet is a guy named Josh: a nice, 27-year-old Jewish boy with kind eyes, a subtle smile and the same name as my husband, another nice Jewish boy, back home.

“Do you know where Malbec is?” asks this Josh, Josh Blake, rolling his eyes, and then his suitcase, over a wide dirt path flanked by rickety cabins that have been renamed for the weekend. (Malbec and Cabernet, for the men; Pinot Grigio and Rosé for the women; Raisins for all.) “I don’t want to walk all the way over there, if it’s back there …” he says, sounding not unlike Woody Allen.

I don’t blame him. The camp is desert-hot and dusty. And he’s ultimately here, he later admits over bagels, because his parents paid the all-inclusive $525 for him to be. They met on this very land, albeit half a mile away. “Talk about pressure!” he says, laughing.

Ilana Rosenberg, 31, sitting nearby, agrees. “My mother said, ‘Have fun! Go meet your Jewish husband!’ My sister was like, ‘Mom, she could find a Jewish wife, too, you know’.”

American Jewish University owns these 2,800 acres in Southern California’s Simi Valley, which is home to rolling hills and herds of cows, the university’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus and Camp Alonim. Over the next three nights and four days, this 66-year-old summer camp for Jewish kids has been commandeered by a new kind of summer camp — Trybal Gatherings, for Jewish adults.

Trybal Gatherings was founded by Carine Warsawski, 34, a buoyant, Boston-bred M.B.A., with the goal of fostering lasting community among Jews in their 20s and 30s, and, ahem, a few in their 40s.

She held her first Gathering at Camp Eisner in the Berkshires in 2017, roping in mostly friends of friends. Over Labor Day weekend, it sold out, with 125 campers and a wait-list dozens’ deep. Last year, she added Wisconsin; next summer Atlanta, and has plans to expand from Seattle to Austin to Toronto.

Whereas traditions like Birthright Israel offer free trips to the homeland, Ms. Warsawski’s aim is to offer an immersive, low-commitment experience closer to home — one rooted not in Zionism or religious doctrine, but in the shared nostalgia of a Jewish-American rite of passage, complete with archery and horseback riding, and a roster that reads like it’s from the Old Testament. (At one point, I’d forgotten my name-necklace. “That’s O.K.!” someone joked. “It’s probably either Sarah or Rachel.”)

Also, adult campers have careers, though no one talks about them. Web developers and screenwriters, wedding planners and wardrobe stylists. And yes, a few doctors and lawyers. The majority came solo; others hand-in-hand and interfaith or happily married in matching outfits, like Emily and Rachel Leavitt — my Secret Santa, er, Mystery Moses.

It’s a mix of die-hard camp people reliving their glory days, once-homesick campers redoing their awkward years, and first-timers wondering what all the fuss is about. “My parents were immigrants from Iran! They didn’t know about camp!” says Baha Aghajani, 30. Neither did Saraf Shmutz, 39, who moved from Tel Aviv to San Diego. “My summers were ‘go play soccer and bug off.’”

No Abe Weissman rompers were seen.
CreditBeth Coller for The New York Times

As a writer who hasn’t been back to her camp, Young Judaea, in New Hampshire, in 25 years, I signed up to learn what’s moving Jews to opt for uncomfortable bunk beds and kosher-style mess halls, in lieu of a real vacation.

Trybal isn’t the only over-21 camp cropping up these days. Nor is it the only Jewish one. Camp Nai Nai Naiwhich also operates on both coasts, and attracts a post-college, more conservative crowd. And “55+” Orthodox Jews have been davening at summer retreats for decades at places like Isabella Freedman where campers crochet kippahs and take day trips to Tanglewood, in the Berkshires.

Trybal is arguably the only camp, though, that starts the day with an “Abe Weissman Workout,” a calisthenics routine straight out of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” (Tomato juice refreshers included, but no rompers.)

It’s also, explains Ms. Warsawski, “a place for people who are more -ish than Jew.” Like Molly Shapiro, 28, of Berkeley. ““This is my jam!” she says. “Synagogues today aren’t really designed for us. We want something less traditional, more affordable, more fun. I mean, playing cornhole isn’t Jewish, but we’re playing cornhole together!”

Togetherness is what Trybal is all about. The schedule is packed from early morning to midnight with get-to-know-you-games and group activities like partner massage and mah-jongg, pickling and pool time.

 “Will 20 loaves be enough for all 60 of us tonight,” some worried during challah baking class.
CreditBeth Coller for The New York Times

The next morning, I pass up dreamcatcher-making for challah baking. “Oh yeah, this is what I’m here for,” says Abel Horwitz, a young Robert Downey Jr., kneading dough we’ll later braid and adorn with toppings beyond the traditional sesame. Rainbow sprinkles. Peaches. Jalapeños. “Will 20 loaves be enough for all 60 of us tonight,” some Jews worry.

Next, it’s a tossup between the relationship workshop and the ropes course. I decide I like humans more than heights and head over to hear what the visiting Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, has to say. She reads a passage from the 20th-century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and tells us to partner up. A 26-year-old named Sam and I stare into each other’s faces for a full five minutes. “Sit with the discomfort,” the rabbi urges. Reluctantly, I do. I smile. He winks. I wiggle, examining his wrinkle-free forehead and bushy eyebrows bound to grow bushier in old age, until my awkwardness turns to calm. I’m overwhelmed by a deep feeling of curiosity and compassion for this man, for myself, for humanity.

“That was a good reminder,” Ms. Aghajani says afterward. “To give people more of a chance. To not swipe so fast.”

After a grilled cheese buffet, there’s solar art and yoga and Slip-n-Slide kickball. I head for the hammocks, where a guy with long red hair is lounging in a tie-dyed Helvetica T-shirt that reads “Falafel & Sabich & Hummus & Schwarma.” It’s his third Trybal. He is the camp guitarist, and a rocket scientist in real life.

“I come to be a kid again,” Jeremy Hollander, 34, says. He pauses. “And to, you know, be with my people.” In real life, he doesn’t bring up the fact he’s Jewish. “‘Hollander’ isn’t ‘Schwartzenbaum’. People see me and usually think I’m Scottish or something.” He feels safer that way. Especially today, he says, with rising anti-Semitism. “The flame is being fanned. You never know who has what opinions. Here, I can let my hair down.” (Although, technically, it’s in a ponytail.)

“The only one thing I have to worry about at camp,” he says, “is when am I going to squeeze in a shower?”

Still, before sundown, we all emerge from our bunks neat and clean and dressed in white. “Can you believe I got this for $2.99 at Saks Off Fifth!” exclaims Lauren Katz, a volunteer staffer wearing lace. (We can’t.)

Picture time. “Say Cheese!” the camp photographer instructs. “But we’re lactose intolerant!” someone cries from the crowd.

We gather in a stone-lined grove, to sing and sway and cheek-kiss “Shabbat Shalom,” before making our way to the dining hall for a sit-down dinner of roast chicken. And, of course, plenty of challah.

I agree with what he said earlier. There is something easy and assuring about spending a summer weekend like I used to (albeit for eight whole weeks): with my people. Or, at least with people who remind me of my people. New friends bonded by old memories.

 

Trybal is like a modern millennial shtetl, where gesundheits fly. And “Hava Nagila” plays at a Hawaiian luau. And campfire stories include, “How I Became a ‘Nice Jewish Guys’ Calendar Model.”

It’s an alternate, insular universe where I find myself running through a field, streaked in war paint, chanting: “We have spirit, because we’re Blues! We have spirit because we’re Jews!”

It’s a world where conversation flows from the Netflix show “Shtisel” to the lack of Jews in Santa Barbara to the universal disdain for online dating (despite the fact that Trybal is sponsored by JSwipe), to whether Ms. Rosenberg indeed met her future husband.

“We’ll see,” she says, smiling. She did make-out at Arts & Crafts with the Trybal barista: a boy she barely remembers being at her bat mitzvah.On the last night, I slip quietly out of the luau, where the D.J. is rocking “Lean On Me.” I leave the Leavitt ladies in their twin Hawaiian shirts and my Rosé bunkmates dancing the macarena. Mr. Shmutz and the Cabernets are making reunion plans. Mr. Blake is flirting with one of his crushes.

I have an early flight to catch. Back to my husband and kids and, in a way, the future. In the morning, I’ll miss the friendship bracelets and the compliment circle and, like a true last day of camp: tears. For a moment I have FOMO. And then I realize, it’s fine. Sometimes an Irish goodbye is just as good as a Jewish one.

Help! There’s a Bear in My Airbnb

Ann Bryant’s phone rings all season long. She has four phones, actually, in her Homewood, Calif., home office, and they ring 24 hours a day. “Sometimes all at once,” says the executive director of the Bear League, a community-based nonprofit that aims to educate the human public about their animal neighbors. Its tagline: “People living in harmony with bears.”

The thing is, though, people and bears are living not so harmoniously these days — which is why Bryant is busy. She operates what is basically a 911 service for people’s bear-related emergencies.

And in Lake Tahoe, people have a lot of bear-related emergencies. Home to some 300 bears in the summer months, the popular vacation area swells with second-homeowners and car-campers and Airbnb-ers, many of whom do not always understand the proper protocol for visiting bear country.

“Fifty percent of the time we coach idiots,” says Bryant. “I could tell you crazy stories all day.”

There was the guy who left a trail of cookies in his yard, leading into his living room, because he thought it would be fun to get a picture of a bear eating cookies on his couch watching TV. We had a father at a campground who put peanut butter on his child’s face then stood him next to a dumpster filled with food, and waited for a bear to come and lick it off so he could get a photograph of the bear “kissing” his kid. That sent us reeling. Another father, of an 8-year-old, put food in his daughter’s hand, then filmed her feeding a bear, like it was a dog. Bears are not dogs.

Shockingly no, but the parents should have gone to jail for endangering a child, and a bear. We don’t want people to get hurt, but we also don’t want bears to get hurt.

People don’t understand. They have a city mentality; they’ve grown so out of touch with the natural world. They come up here and they think it’s a controlled environment. Like a zoo. I’ve gotten calls from tourists asking: “What time do the bears come out?” Or, “Where can we go to see the bears?” Or they’ll say, “I just saw a bear in the woods behind our rental cabin. You need to come get it, and put it back in its crate.” I have to tell them: These are wild bears, and they’ve lived here long before we did. This is their home, too.

People leave dinner on the deck and trash cans in the driveway. So the bears come. Then those people leave, but the bear keeps coming back, because the previous guests fed him for the last four days! People come here to hike and water ski and have fun and they just don’t think about it. They go off to the beach and leave the door ajar, or a window open, and then they come home — or wake up — to a bear eating everything in the kitchen. They might remember to put the garbage in the bear bin, but then they’ll forget to lock their car. We had a big rampage recently of bears getting into unlocked cars. All it takes is a pack of gum in the console. A bear can open a door, like a human. Then the wind blows it shut, the bear gets stuck inside, and the car gets destroyed. Visitors might learn by the end of the week, but then they go home, and the new renters arrive. It’s an endless cycle of ignorance.

Bird feeders are the biggest culprits. Get rid of the bird feeder. If you feed the birds, you’re feeding the bears. A lot of older cabins are nothing more than cardboard boxes with single-pane windows. You need double-pane windows, solid doors, electric doormats — otherwise known as “unwelcome mats.”

It gets busier every summer. When I first started the Bear League 20 years ago, we’d get about five calls a day. Today, we get about 200 calls a day. People panicking — “A bear keeps coming into my backyard!” — and they don’t know what to do.

Or they’ll hear noises in their house and think it’s a bear. Or sometimes they’re upstairs sleeping and don’t realize until morning that a bear broke in. Bears break in to homes around the Tahoe Basin every single night.

I’ll head right over and check out the scene. If we get a case where there’s a bear on the premises and it won’t leave, it’s usually because it’s a mama with cubs. I’ll go and get everyone away, so she can get her cubs down from the tree safely. If there’s a bear under a deck, I’ll crawl under there to see what’s going on. Sometimes I’ll use a paintball gun to scare them off.

No, it’s the bears who are scared. I can read a bear’s mood, its body language and facial expressions. I know what a bear is thinking. I was a wildlife rehabber. I’ve dealt with all kinds of wildlife. Raccoons, squirrels, whatever animals are native. An injured pregnant porcupine once needed my help. I’ve raised Maude (pictured), since birth. She was born in my living room.

I can’t be everywhere! I have people, wildlife lovers all around the lake, who are trained to help. But if you see a bear on your deck, or hear noises and think there’s one in your house, just stomp and yell and bang. As soon as you do, the bear usually leaves. Black bears are big chickens. They’re really easy to chase off — just don’t get in their way.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.


Rachel Levin is a contributor to the Travel section and the author of “LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds.”

A Big Change in Little Cottonwood Canyon

When Cassie Dippo’s family moved from the city of New York to the slopes of Alta, Utah, in 1965, she was 9 years old. The snow was dry and white and famously light and often so deep it reached well past her (and her father’s) waist.

There were four chairlifts. Lift tickets were $4.50. And lining the road up Little Cottonwood Canyon were five simple, family-run, ski-in/ski-out lodges, all opened between 1939 and 1962. All of which, a lifetime later, have remained essentially the same, in aesthetic and spirit and “modified American” meal plans.

“Honestly, not much has changed here since I was a kid,” said Ms. Dippo, now 63, who remains an owner of the TV-free Alta Lodge, her family’s property.

Until now. Fresh off a $50 million overhaul, the Snowpine Lodge reopens this week as Alta’s first-ever true luxury hotel. It appears to have everything any luxury ski hotel anywhere has — and a lot of things Alta, a world-class mountain with a $116 lift ticket and a whopping six chairlifts, intentionally, has never had.

Many of its 77 accommodations (including 19 dorm-style bunks) come with balconies, because unlike other lodges in the area, the Snowpine will be open year-round. There is a heated pool and full spa; an indoor “grotto” and outdoor hot tubs; and firepits, of course. And contrary to tradition, both the Gulch Pub, which will serve standard après-ski fare (wings, burgers, $14 cocktails) and Swen’s fine-dining restaurant, with a $42 Wagyu zabuton steak with duck fat potatoes, will be open to the public.

Snowpine’s opening winter rate for a standard king is $569 for two, and $780 with breakfast and dinner; Alta Lodge’s regular season rate is $500 for two, including meals.

Night life at Alta — about 25 miles from Salt Lake City and not much else — has always meant books and board games (or, after a day hiking Devil’s Castle, bed), but the new Snowpine brings activities: arcade games like Skee-Ball and 2-Minute Drill, karaoke and big-screen movies. Also, an oxygen bar.

 

The final touch: A new chairlift and ski valet to welcome home guests at the end of the day. “We’re offering a Deer Valley-type of lodging at Alta,” explained Robin Cohen, Snowpine’s longtime reservations manager. That statement alone is sure to make die-hard skiers like Alta loyalists, who refer to themselves as “Altaholics,” cringe.

Ms. Cohen admits she has mixed feelings about her new digs. “I’m old-fashioned; people should just ski so hard they eat and crash. I get it: with the world in such chaos, things that don’t change are comforting. But it was time,” she said. “I mean, we have elevators! And bellmen! I’m never going to have to carry luggage up all those stairs again.”

What had been the oldest, quirkiest, squattest structure in Alta (22 awkward rooms, warm cookies, rope tow) is now its newest, swankiest and tallest: six stories towering 25 feet above the road, the maximum permitted by local zoning regulations. The only things taller are the mountain peaks.

 “It’s massive. More massive than anyone anticipated,” said Tom Pollard, general manager of the Rustler, which previously laid claim to being Alta’s most luxurious lodge, with its heated pool and dining room with a wall of windows framing the mountain.(He used the word “massive,” or its synonyms, at least 10 times. Ms. Dippo used only one word to describe her first impression: “Whoa.”)

“It went from being a quaint little lodge to a massive Restoration Hardware,” said Mr. Pollard, who moved to Alta in 1981. “My wife says it looks just like every building in Vail.” As former mayor of Alta, he oversaw the Snowpine’s planning approval process. “I’ve been getting a lot of ‘How did you let this happen?’” he said.

“We’re still about fostering a communal vibe, that feeling of making friends that last a lifetime. What would really be drastic, would be if Vail Resorts came in and bought up Alta,” countered Ms. Cohen, nodding to the seemingly inexorable, industrywide trend of big corporations commandeering privately owned ski resorts, like Alta. “That’s what we’re all hoping to avoid.”

At a time when almost every mountain is building a mall-like village at its base, many say change like this was bound to happen, and that it is healthy for the long-term viability of the resort, which remains one of three in the U.S. to not allow snowboarders on its slopes. “The lodges have been resting on their laurels: their 60, 70, 80 percent return-rates,” said Connie Marshall, who ran Alta’s press office for a quarter-century before retiring last year. “This is a gauntlet thrown.”

She went on: “Millennials like my kids are looking for authenticity as much as older generations, but they also have expectations of, you know, getting a drink at a bar.”Image

Middle-aged skiers have expectations, too. “You’re talking to a 46-year-old guy who slept in a van last ski weekend,” said Brent Thill of Mill Valley, Calif. A fan of the old Snowpine, he and his family are excited about the new one. “I mean, no one wants Aspen at Alta,” he said, “but it’s smart to stay with the times. Hopefully they can preserve the charm without bringing the one-piece Bogners,” referring to the expensive ski suits popular at flashier mountains.

Every winter, Anne Williams, from Boston, stays at the Rustler with the same group of women. It costs about the same per night as the Snowpine. (Snowpine said its pricing is intentionally on par with the Rustler this season.) Still, she has no interest in cheating on her lodge. “Swank is my choice for a spa retreat, but when it comes to skiing, I’m a traditionalist. Maybe it was all those Warren Miller films, but I want wall-to-wall carpeting, too much brown, a circular fireplace,” she said. And great service, which the Rustler prides itself on.

“A ski getaway should give you a cozy-sweater feel that a shiny new hotel doesn’t,” added Ms. Williams. “But — I may sneak out to the karaoke bar.”

What every Altaholic wants — no matter where they choose to sleep — is for Alta to, always, remain Alta.

“Am I excited about the new Snowpine? No. But there’s a happy grittiness to people who go to Alta. A fancy hotel can’t break that,” said Troy Rothwell, who proposed to his wife at Alta and even named his dog Alta.

“No one goes to be seen,” he said. They go to ski. “You’re never going to get the people with fur around their collars.”

A 77,000-acre National Park Off the Tourist Path

Somewhere on the long, lonely, blissfully open road between Salt Lake City, and Baker, Nev. — a tiny town that is the entry point for Great Basin National Park — I texted the one friend I have who had been there.

Lisa’s mother hailed from the small town of Delta, 100 miles east, where we stopped for a quick shop. It was the last chance for our San Francisco family to buy lunchtime essentials like organic crunchy peanut butter and tangerine-flavored La Croix.

“It’s so quiet and peaceful,” Lisa texted wistfully of Great Basin, one of America’s least-visited national parks. “Also, you will probably run over some rabbits on the way. This is normal in these parts. Don’t freak out.”

We didn’t hit a rabbit, but we almost hit a sheep. A fluffy, cute, seemingly lost black sheep. It leapt onto Route 50 and right in front of our rental car. My husband honked and the poor thing scurried away, but I couldn’t help but consider it a fitting start to our long weekend.

Here on the Utah-Nevada border, Great Basin could be called the black sheep of the region’s national park family. Bryce, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, even Capitol Reef, get all the attention — and annual visitors (Zion got a record 4.5 million visitors in 2017, to Great Basin’s 168,000, also a record). But, I soon realized, Great Basin gets something arguably better: anonymity.

“I’d never even heard of it,” said Megan Neemann of Salt Lake City, who I met in Baker and then again, amazingly, on the trail — even though, at some 77,000 acres, Great Basin has more than 60 miles of them. She was on a babymoon with her husband, Erik. Great Basin was his idea for a last-minute Memorial Weekend; it wasn’t exactly Plan B — more like Plan F. “I tried everywhere — Zion, Bryce, Arches — they were all crazy,” he said. “But I was able to get a room here just two weeks ago!”

And Baker — population 68, as of the last census — doesn’t have very many rooms.

Or very much of anything at all. There’s one store selling marshmallows, Lunchables and mousetraps. An espresso cart, the Baker’s Bean, is tucked away on a grassy corner (“If anyone else tried to offer lattes around here, it’d be a hot button-issue,” said Cheri Phillips, the barista and an owner.) And two restaurants: one that appeared to be closed but apparently wasn’t, and Kerouac’s, which was really good (something restaurants in or near national parks almost never are).

A sophisticated pizza and burger place, Kerouac’s was opened last year by Kate Claeys and Jake Cerese, ex-New Yorkers who moved to Baker on a whim. They designed and renovated the circa-1905 miners’ saloon, aided by artisans who worked with ponderosa pine, spruce and steel. Kerouac’s has all the urban accouterments, including seasonal, local ingredients and a fully stocked bar. We ate six meals there in three days.

And not just because it was across the road. Our home base was the Stargazer Inn, also owned and upgraded by Ms. Claeys and Mr. Cerese. For $98 a night, we had wood paneling, carpet, a mini-fridge and toaster and, most important, a shower. It was five minutes from the park and felt kind of like camping, which we had considered, but with a flight and two little kids in the mix, reconsidered.

Last summer, we took a family trip to Yosemite, and it was a zoo. We’d arrived at our cruise ship-size resort armed with a vivid mental list of Yosemite’s iconic sites — El Cap, Yosemite Falls, Half Dome — then spent the trip surrounded by fellow tourists likewise checking them off. We left feeling Californian and patriotic and like good parents. We’d shown our children the American West, in all its glory.

In Great Basin, though, we were like slacker parents: totally winging it. We pulled in Friday evening with no plan, no must-sees, no mental picture of the place whatsoever. It’s a rarity when traveling anywhere these days. And it felt freeing.

It was also freeAs in, no entrance fee. No welcome gate. No traffic backup. Just a simple green-and-white roadside sign that read Great Basin National Park, which we cruised right past. We soon saw a smaller sign, for Baker Creek, and hung a left down a dusty dirt road. Creek sounded nice and my husband, Josh, had his fishing rod.

Remoteness aside, I realized that a big reason so few people come to Great Basin is because without an image of it etched in their minds, no one thinks to. People have no preconception of this national park, in part because it hasn’t been one for very long. Declared a national monument in 1922, it was only anointed national park status in 1986. (No wonder it held no childhood lore for me.) Yellowstone has Old Faithful. Banff has electric-turquoise Lake Louise. The Grand Canyon has, well, the Grand Canyon.And Great Basin, the vast, mountainous “cold desert” between the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Range, has … the Lehman Caves? It doesn’t have quite the same ring.

We set out on the Timber Creek-Baker Creek Loop trail, a 5.1-mile trek that starts at 8,000 feet and climbs another 1,600 or so — perhaps an error in judgment given that we were toting two kids under 10. They got their first blisters, kicked off their hiking boots and walked the rest of the way barefoot. (That’s not advisable in rattlesnake country — and I say this as the author of a book on the subject — but I’m also a slacker parent who just wanted to get back before dark.)

Once the whining subsided, we experienced true tranquillity. We picnicked creek-side in a meadow below snowcapped 11,926-foot Pyramid Peak. Josh cast futilely for native Bonneville cutthroat and I fell asleep to the sound of warblers — eventually awakened not by my children, but by a wild turkey. We wandered over boardwalks and mossy rocks, past bright-yellow balsamroot and through aspens shimmering green, their bark whittled with names dating back decades. It was rare proof that other hikers have, in fact, been here. We did not see a soul.

Come dinnertime, though, everyone is at Kerouac’s. Ms. Claeys welcomed us back and regaled us with tales of an enormous but innocuous snake she had discovered outside Room 5 earlier that day in mid-digestion of a bird.We say hello to the Neemanns, who had another great day: Erik climbed 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak; Megan, being pregnant, hung back.

My 6-year-old son, Oren, made fast friends with 30-year-old Sam Schneidman, who was “on his way” (sort of) to a wedding in Washington, D.C. He was initially bummed that he didn’t make it to Capitol ReefNational Park in south-central Utah as planned, but his geologist buddy from Reno had heard of Great Basin and dragged him here instead. Mr. Schneidman was glad he did, as were we. “This place just feels so unexpected, almost forbidden,” he said.

Ben Wong, a van-lifer from Brooklyn, rolled into the park in his Mercedes-Benz Sprinter after rock climbing with his fiancée a few hours away. They’d been living like nomads in their van for the last nine months. “We just looked at the map and said, ‘Hey, there’s some national park nearby, let’s go check it out!’” He glanced around. “We’re the only Asian people here,” he added, laughing.

It appeared to be true. Travelers from Asia, in fact, may be the fastest-growing segment of visitors to U.S. National Parks, increasing by 13 percent in 2016 from the previous year, and accounting for one in six of foreign visitors in 2016, according to a report from Visa. But Great Basin isn’t on the international tourist circuit.

Unlike in the big-name national parks, almost everyone we met was from Utah or Nevada; as Californians, we felt almost exotic. Our neighbor at the Stargazer, Monty Ashton, grew up nearby in Ely, Nev. His family came to scatter his uncle’s ashes up by Baker Lake. He and his 84-year-old mother, Shirley Ashton, have been coming to Great Basin long before it became a national park. And they were happy it did. To Ms. Ashton, a National Park Service designation means crowds and cafeterias. They haven’t showed up yet. “It just means people can’t ruin it now,” she said.

Lehman Caves, a limestone and marble underworld, though, is the park’s main attraction, and popular enough that the hourlong, 20-person tours often book up a month or so ahead. Still, we showed up at the Lehman Visitor Center the next morning around 8 and had our pick of time slots. Dripping with stalactites and bats and a rich history that includes Prohibition parties, the cave is pretty cool (literally and figuratively).

But a cave alone won’t woo me 600 miles from home. Stars, on the other hand, would. One of the least populated areas in the lower 48 — at 10,000 feet no less — Great Basin became an official International Dark Sky Parkin 2016. This is a collection of some 100 destinations — from Warrumbungle National Park in Australia to Hortobagy National Park in Hungary — recognized by the leading anti-light pollution organization for their nocturnal environment and exceptionally starry nights. It’s a designation of rising importance in our country, which is increasingly aglow.

“Half the park is after dark,” as one ranger put it. Unfortunately, the weekend we were there, the night sky was a mix of clouds and bright moonlight. We certainly saw a super-clear Big Dipper, but not the Milky Way or the meteors or the supposedly mind-blowing intergalactic show of stars darting across the sprawling sky. We did, though, get to ogle Jupiter and its red racing stripes through the high-tech telescopes that astronomer-rangers set up outside Lehman Visitor Center on Saturday nights.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t what was overhead or underground that made Great Basin worth the journey.

It wasn’t Wheeler, the tallest peak in the park, as looming and humbling as it was. Or the big, fat marmot we saw squatting on the side of the road, looking at us like a hopeful hitchhiker.

It wasn’t even the 4,000- to 5,000-year-old bristlecone pines — a stark, surreal grove of gnarled, ancient wonders that have withstood all that this cold, harsh world has thrown at them.

What made the trip to Great Basin worth it was the affirmation that an empty national park is better than an epic one — in part, at least, because you feel less like a lemming and a more like a pioneer. (Of course, the Native Americans who lived here thousands of years ago were the real pioneers.) Plus, there’s something bonding about going where so few fanny pack-clad tourists have gone before; a camaraderie that comes from being in an isolated place together.

For our secular, urban clan, the trek was a true pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere. “How far into the middle of nowhere?” a ranger named Becky Gillette had said earlier. “All the way.”

On our last day, amid stalemates and whines of “I’m tired,” we slipped and slid over late spring’s snowfields. The hike was three rigorous, arguably treacherous miles, at 11,000 feet, under the threat of thunderstorms. Good parents would turn back, I thought. But soon, the first bristlecones came into sight. Weathered, wise and weary, but still standing. “I want to touch the oldest living things on the planet!” said my 9-year-old daughter, Hazel. She broke into a sprint, her little brother trudging behind, slowly but surely. Blisters be damned.

Rachel Levin is the San Francisco restaurant critic for Eater and the author of “Look Big: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds” (Ten Speed Press).

Running with the Rhinos

THE NIGHT before the race, I started to freak out. A few nerves are normal, I know, but this was different. In my past as a very amateur competitive runner, I’d climb into bed on the eve of a race and fret about whether I’d set the alarm for p.m., not a.m.; whether it would even go off; where I’d go for breakfast after the run. But here I was, lying on a cot in a canvas tent in northern Kenya, hours before the start of a half marathon, worrying about lions. As in: being eaten by one.

Last summer, my husband, four friends and I had traveled from San Francisco via Frankfurt, arriving late in Nairobi to spend the night before flying out the next morning in a little plane to land at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. In other words, we were not in tiptop marathon shape—even half-marathon shape. And this was not your average, or easiest, course. Rather, it’s said to be one of the world’s toughest. At 5,500-feet elevation, Lewa was hot, dry and dusty. It suddenly dawned on me: Maybe I should have trained for this.

Team Gazelle—as we’d optimistically christened ourselves—had come to take part in the Safaricom Marathon, a meticulously orchestrated event co-hosted by Lewa, in partnership with the nonprofit Tusk, to raise funds for wildlife conservation, education and community development across Kenya. A 55,000-acre preserve, Lewa is home to 137 rhinos, 182 giraffes, 1,160 zebras, some 500 migrating elephants, 26 lions and—I was promised before committing to this harebrained idea—140 armed guards standing watch in case there’s any trouble. (In the marathon’s almost two-decade existence, though, there hasn’t been.)

Still, as I lay in the dark listening to screeching baboons, the possibility felt palpable. A few hours earlier, we’d gone out on a game drive and seen scores of wildlife: Cape buffalo, hyenas, black rhinos, white rhinos, so many rhinos. We even chased a cheetah. In the Land Cruiser, mind you, not on foot. For 364 days a year, safari guests aren’t allowed to roam free, but race day is a different beast.

I awoke before sunrise to Kenyan pop music blaring over speakers, thumping through camp, a communal call to rise. Then came the whoosh of helicopters, revving up to ready the course. Manned by Mike Watson, longtime CEO of Lewa and a rugged bushman if ever there was one, and his colleagues, the helicopters crisscrossed the landscape, hovering overhead, gently flushing the wildlife away for the day—making way for Lewa’s rarest species: humans.

Fourteen hundred runners from 20 countries—the majority from Kenya—come together for one morning every June, in the name of conservation and inspiration. Most people opt for the half, but a hardy 200 or so, including top Kenyan runners like 2016 Olympic gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge go for the full, which double-backs along the same route. There’s a 5K kids race just before it, too. Local school kids train all year in hopes of winning vouchers to the supermarket, goody bags filled with socks, pens, paper and chocolate, and to the first-place finisher: a phone.

For 364 days a year, safari guests aren’t allowed to roam free. Race day is a different beast.

 

Fueled up on bananas and coffee and what felt like a reservoir’s worth of bottled water, we laced up our sneakers and drifted down a dirt road toward the starting line, where we met up with one more member of Team Gazelle: Jacob Kanake, a Lewa driver who had worked on the preserve for years, but had never run the race before. “I’m ready!” he said. We group-hugged. A muffled voice over the speaker beckoned everyone to the start line. The Kenyan flag waved and we were off. It was a human stampede, 1,400 runners of varying levels charging the line, a simple banner propped up by two branches, revealing a dirt path no wider than a fire-road. We squeezed onto the soft, stone-strewn path—flanked by uneven ground and prickly grasses, ensuring we didn’t stray too far—and took off en masse: a scrum of sinewy Kenyans, brawny Kenyans and some barefooted Kenyans, as well as fully outfitted super-fit foreigners in dry-wick tees emblazoned with company logos, and not-as-fit foreigners, no offense to my fellow Gazelles.

And then the adrenaline-fueled din subsided into a collective quiet, everyone instantly awed—or was it daunted?—by the vastness surrounding us, by the quest before us. Behind me was a mini-platoon of rangers running in full garb with their rifles. A helicopter hovered above keeping tabs on everyone’s whereabouts—like an overly concerned parent. Soon the throngs started to split. I found my rhythm, relaxed and realized: Nothing was going to maul me.

I ran. And ran. Past the odd acacia tree and lone ostrich and pair of giraffes in the distance, rising from the ground like elegant, blinking sculptures. Spectators were sparse—a handful at the homemade spritz station; a smattering outside Kirafu, one of five lodges on the preserve. Uniformed, apron-clad staff waving, cheering. It might be Lewa’s biggest day of the year, but the Boston Marathon this is not.

I picked up speed, crested a small hill, and continued through a canopy of acacias. Soon, I found myself in lockstep with a muscular Kenyan man. We sprinted toward the finish line. We crossed together, then high-fived. I finished with a respectable 1:56:28, by no stretch the fastest woman—that went to local Betty Karambu, at 1:14:28. Soon enough, in strode lanky superhero Philemon Baaru, completing the full 26.2 miles in 2:22:18—before my fellow Gazelles even finished the half.

For the rest of the trip, we were on a standard safari—tracking leopards; marveling at lions’ manes and elephant herds; aww-ing at rhino babies—bumping through the bush in the back of the Land Cruiser. And all along, I was itching to get out. safaricommarathon.com

America’s Answer to the African Safari: The Great Bear Rainforest

It’s well into Day Two, and people are wet and cold and starting to worry. “I’m concerned,” says Carol, crinkling her nose.

We’ve spent the past three hours floating quietly on a small Zodiac raft in the salmon-filled Kinoyuk Inlet, then bushwhacking in borrowed gumboots beneath hemlock trees heavy with moss. All of it in the rain. And still: no bears.

“What if we don’t see any?” says Carol, clearly annoyed it’s taking this long.

She’s been everywhere from Iran to Gabon to “all the –stans,” and now she’s here, on a sailboat in remote northern British Columbia, in the Great Bear Rainforest, wearing a waterproof cape, for one reason: bears. Black bears, brown bears, and in particular, the Spirit Bear: an extremely rare, elusive white-furred black bear found only on this remote archipelago of mostly uninhabited islands.

Marci and Marc’s spirits have yet to be dampened. They have saved five years for this trip of a lifetime. They also have matching M&M tattoos (“like the candy”) and camera lenses the size of telescopes. “Marc is always hoping to see bears on any hike we take,” says Marci. “Booking this trip almost guarantees seeing them!” adds Marc. “When I was younger, I admired bears’ beauty, size, ferociousness,” he says. “Now, I look at bears as one of the smartest creatures on earth. They don’t get caught up in life’s trivial things like we do. They’re all about survival, nurturing their young, teaching them to take care of themselves, that’s it. They live a simple life.”

And this week, so do we. Here, biding our time among fjords and estuaries and islands. At 21 million acres, Great Bear is the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world, alive with 1,000-year-old western cedars and 4,000-foot waterfalls, a scattering of First Nations communities who’ve lived here for 9,000 years—and more wildlife than annual visitors. An unspoiled swath of our otherwise increasingly spoiled planet, accessible only by boat or float plane.

Consider this British Columbia’s answer to the African safari, only with grizzlies in lieu of elephants and humpbacks instead of hippos.

*

The night before, our first aboard the Maple Leaf, all eight of us squeezed thigh-to-thigh around the galley’s mahogany table, drinking wine and dining on almond-encrusted Coho salmon as the ship’s captain, Greg Shea, asked us to share our “wildlife expectations.” Apart from a penchant for nature photography and zip-off pants, this motley crew—ranging in age from 32 to 82, from Seattle to Switzerland to both coasts of Canada—has little in common other than a desire to commune with bears.

These nice but clearly crazy people I’m with for the next 192 hours or so want to see them all. All day. Every day. Up close. A pack of coastal wolves, they all agree, would be super cool, too.

They’re certainly in the right place. In 2016, legislation was finally passed to protect 85 percent of this 6.4 million-hectare old-growth forest from logging. And on November 30 of last year—thanks to the work of conservationists and the indigenous First Nations communities—the state of British Columbia completely banned trophy hunting of grizzly bears. The First Nations had already banned trophy hunting back in 2012 in their traditional rainforest lands, and our captain explains that means more bears. Lots of bears.

Plus, they’re less skittish than they used to be, now that they’ve learned people aren’t out to kill them. “Bear-watching has been better than ever!” beams Captain Greg, his blond curls spilling out of a faded Maple Leaf cap that reads “Small Ship, Big Adventure.” Expectedly ruddy, with a genuine perma-grin, capable hands, and a calm, confident demeanor, he is for sure the kind of guy I want to be with if —when?—I do see a bear.

 *

The Great Bear Rainforest isn’t exactly on the honeymoon circuit. And with a bunkroom for eight, two small “heads” (ship speak for toilets), and one shower per person—all weekneither is the Maple Leaf.

It is, however, one of the most beautiful old wooden boats you’ve ever seen. The 1904 schooner used to haul halibut, before it was spiffed up for eco-tourism trips. It’s the kind of ship you’d find inside a bottle, a masterpiece of Douglas fir and yellow cedar. Wifi? Nope. Nine whole days without it.

But there are two walking Wikipedias on board: Captain Greg and naturalist Brandon Harvey, who know everything there is to know about the Great Bear Rainforest—its crannies and its creatures.

There’s also a hardworking crew ready to hoist sails and pour coffee and replenish TP as needed, as well as a talented chef who cooks four meals a day from scratch, including not one, but two breakfasts (7a.m., granola, muffins; 9a.m., frittatas, French toast); steamy bowls of lentil stew or beef chili for lunch; two hardy midday snacks; and a three-course supper.

There’s no casino, no lounge show, no midnight buffet. Bedtime follows soon after dessert. It’s up-anchor by 6am, after all.

The cabin is tighter quarters than a freshman dorm room, with as much privacy as a rock band’s tour bus. Only a curtain separates each of the four double bunks, which means, despite the provided earplugs, you get to know the nighttime noises of people you just met. I learn that Marc, a hulk of a man, snores like Fred Flintstone. And that Carol calls out in her sleep. And that Doug and Jean, a sweet, silver-haired couple who’ve been married for 56 years, whisper to each other in French before kissing goodnight.

Still, a trip aboard the Maple Leaf is supposed to be about observing wildlife, not fellow passengers. We just have to be patient, the captain reminds everyone. This is nature, not a zoo.

*

Before arriving here, I assumed that everyone—other than the lunatic profiled in Werner Herzog’s 2005 film, Grizzly Man—was afraid that a 900-pound carnivore might maul them to death. When I booked this bear watching trip, I kind of hoped it would be from the deck of our boat, with, like, really good binoculars.

Not exactly what the Maple Leaf has in mind.

We would be landing on terra firma, walking on shore, along the banks, even, at times, through the woods. Be quiet, we were told. Walk slowly, as a group—no straggling behind! We look bigger together than we do alone, Captain Greg explained. All food stays back on the boat, of course.

After that brief training, I felt (sort of) prepared to meet a towering, hungry bruin on its home turf. I also felt a surge of excitement (mixed with sheer fear), the first time we stepped into the inflatable Zodiac and motored toward shore. But since then, things have slowed down.

Wildlife isn’t something you can just summon On Demand, like Planet Earth II. In this age of Google Express and Amazon One-Hour Delivery, a world where everything from filet mignon to organic marijuana to a personal masseuse can arrive at our doorstep with a single swipe, it’s no surprise we’ve become a society of virtual Veruca Salts. We want what we want and we want it now. Instant gratification has grown so expected that when our favorite podcast pauses to buffer or Uber cites “12 minutes until arrival,” it’s cause for distress. Twelve minutes! An eternity!

It’s sad, but true: We’ve forgotten how to wait. Especially, god forbid, without an iPhone in our hands to keep us occupied. Yet here in the Great Bear, wait times, I find, are on a scale of hours and days, not minutes.

*

When not cruising the inlets on a futile hunt for bears, we roam aimlessly around the ship, from the wheelhouse to the galley to the head to our bed, as we wait—for the rain to stop; for a whale to breach; for the anchor to drop; for the sugar cookies to come out of the oven.

As we make our way further north to Mussel Bay, the rain does stop for a spell, and I start to realize that maybe just hanging around waiting—for something, anything, to happen—isn’t so bad.

Not when you’re cruising slowly through serene waters, gazing up at granite walls carved out by glaciers 12,000 years ago and bald eagles presiding from treetops, and waterfalls cascading into the sea. Which, I notice, is a soft gray today, almost indistinct from the sky. There’s also not a single boat, let alone another sign of civilization, in sight.

*

Just before supper on Day 3, we give it another go. We climb down the boat’s wooden steps and pile back into the Zodiac. We zoom out to the estuary, where we crouch in our gumboots and wait on the grassy, wet bank. We don’t make a sound. We listen and look, hoping to hear the crack of a tree branch or spy a movement in the brush. Time passes. Eventually, not one—but freaking four—grizzlies wander down to the water.

I whisper Oh My #@&%ing God and inch closer to Captain Greg. And watch: They’re only cubs, but they’re massive; ambling on all fours through the shallow water, searching for supper. My visit happens to fall in September, prime salmon time, so they find it, no problem. They prowl the shoreline—then pounce, tearing into the pink flesh of the belly as blood and guts plop back into the water. Then they go back for more.

Somehow two hours pass, and at some point I start to relax. A little. I’m captivated. You can’t really get bored watching bears, because, you know, you’ve got to stay alert. They eat and wade through the waist-deep water, they inch closer to our side of the bank—until we’re standing less than 20 feet from them, snapping photos like paparazzi. And yet they barely register our existence. Apparently all they want is fish. Phew.

*

The next afternoon, we head out on the Zodiac and quietly clamber out as Greg points to a big brown furry mound on a grassy slope: four bears napping, a mama and her three cubs. We sit on the bank in our supposedly rainproof pants, watching bears sleep for almost an hour.

My butt is getting damp, my hands are getting cold, and I’m getting ready to head back to the Maple Leaf for a glass of wine. But Captain Greg is engrossed. He has no idea what’s about to happen, but he’s well-versed in the ways of the wild—he knows what we eventually come to learn: that if you wait long enough, something will.

And something does. All of a sudden, mama bear’s mammoth body starts to move. She lumbers onto her back, nipples up, torso outstretched like a limo, and props herself on her elbows (if bears have elbows?). Her three cubs nuzzle close. At first it looks like they’re just cuddling, until we realize, wait, no— they’re suckling. It hits us that we are sitting in the mud in the middle of nowhere, WATCHING A MOTHER GRIZZLY NURSE HER CUBS. Even Captain Greg is gawking at our good luck. Despite a decade observing bears, this is a first for him, too. We’re mesmerized, even a little embarrassed to witness such an intimate, primal moment.

But like any forthright feminist, mama doesn’t mind. This is what we do, she seems to say. The cubs pull off. Milk dripping from their snouts, they look right at us then saunter off into the trees.

What if we’d bailed before the bears woke up? Proof, people, that patience pays off.

*

In the days that follow, the fog parts and the sun shines. Beneath cloudless, electric-blue skies, we cruise up Princess Royal Channel—alongside breaching whales and dancing dolphins, barking sea lions and swimming deer (what? yeah).

We scatter ourselves around the deck, reading, journaling, talking, not talking, leaping up whenever Brandon spies a whale spouting in the distance—and we wait, cameras poised, ready to capture the perfect whale tail. Or two. “It’s a double breach!” Sara, a self-proclaimed whale fanatic, squeals in her thick Swiss-German accent. Once the whale action subsides, we resume our lazy positions and watch the screensaver-worthy landscape roll by.

Every so often, someone in a sun hat wanders by on their way to the bow or the stern and can’t help but say: “It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” Because it is.

In between kayaking around estuaries and soaking in hidden hot springs, jumping off the bowsprit into BC’s ice-cold sea and barbecuing pork loin over a sunset bonfire on a deserted beach, we zip around in the Zodiac in search of bears.

We find them almost too easily now: Bears chasing fish. Bears chomping fish. Bears sloshing through a marsh. Brother bears wrestling like little boys. Bears standing on their hind legs, arms around each other, like two best friends posing for a picture.

*

Day 5, we unload at Gribbell island, home to the sacred spirit bear—or at least a handful of the only 100 or so estimated to be in existence. We follow a man named Garnet, of the Gitga’at Nation, to a small wooden platform tucked in the trees, a few feet above a rocky river. Along the way, chef Tom picks angel wing mushrooms to cook up later for dinner.

“My last group waited 11 hours,” warns Captain Greg. “We can stay as long as it takes.” It’s 7:30 a.m. We could be here until dinnertime, he says, and still never see one. Bring it on, I say to myself.

We peer upriver. We peer downriver. Then upriver again. Then downriver again. Kingfishers flutter above. Salmon flutter below. A jet-black bear wanders by and bats at some breakfast.

A good three hours pass before we spy him: a ginormous, cream-colored marshmallow slowly making his way up river: a spirit bear. Not just any spirit bear, apparently, but “Big Boss,” as dubbed by Garnet.

As he gets closer, I wonder if he knows he’s an anomaly. The fringe benefit of his rare mutation: Salmon can’t see white bears as well as they can black or browns. That probably explains his healthy bulk. I wonder if he knows we’ve been waiting all morning for him, all week for him. Heck, Carol’s been waiting her whole life for a glimpse of him. He has no sense of his celebrity. He eats his lunch, then moseys up river.

Spirit bear sighting box checked, we could easily leave, head back to the boat. But why? We know better by now. We wait.

And indeed, a few hours later, Big Boss comes back. He sees a black bear fishing on his turf and he isn’t happy. Next thing we know, it’s a full-on bear fight—right beneath our feet. The white bear rams over the mossy rocks, like a Mac truck on the loose, coming at the black bear from behind—and slamming him so hard we can hear their bodies crash above the rushing river. They huff and grunt and push and shove, water splashing, until eventually, true to his nickname, Big Boss triumphs.

It’s like the Nature Channel come to life, and in a matter of minutes, the show’s over as quickly as it began. Apparently, an IMAX crew has been hanging around Great Bear for weeks hoping to catch this kind of action, boasts Greg. And we just happen to see it in the flesh—after a mere five-hour wait.

Toward the end of the trip, I decide to skip the morning safari and take a kayak out for a solo morning paddle instead. After a week on a motor-powered sailboat, I need a little human-powered movement. I need a little alone time.

Until I look ahead and see my fellow passengers sitting in the Zodiac staring at a spit of land. They’ve been sitting perfectly still for at least a half-hour. Curious, of course, I quietly move toward them—and then I hear it, too: the howling of wolves in the wild. It’s haunting. And humbling.

Back at the boat, at second breakfast, the rest of the party is giddy: They actually saw the coastal wolf. A rare sighting, rarer than even the spirit bear. Brandon feels elated after a lifetime spent looking. Carol announces she sure got her money’s worth. Marc gives Captain Greg a big bear hug. And me? I feel like I missed out. I was impatient. I paddled away too soon.

But then I realize: Aren’t we always missing it? The wolves and the whales, the bears and the birds, all living their lives in the wilderness while—a world away—we live ours?

Tomorrow, I’ll say goodbye to the bears and Big Boss, to the sunsets and stars. .I’ll be heading back to laptops and Netflix, to traffic and take-out Thai food. I’ll leave the Maple Leaf bobbing by the dock and catch a ride to the tiny airport in Bella Bella. I’ll take a seat in the one-room terminal, and wait.

And wait. And wait. “Flight’s been delayed,” the man next to me will say. I will look around: at the unstaffed counter selling nothing but coffee. At the two fishermen chatting in their plastic chairs. At the little boy slumped beside his mom.

I will try my best to be in the moment, to be the wilderness sage I’ve become, and wait patiently for whatever’s next.

Which, unfortunately, will not be my plane. And then, like the typical 21st century human I still am, I’ll reach for my iPhone, and hope the Wifi works. I will want to send my family photos of Big Boss and the wrestling brothers and the nursing cubs—knowing full well that a picture won’t do them justice.

 

Getting Here

A trip to the Great Bear Rainforest aboard the Maple Leaf ($3,450 for 8 nights in spring, $5,250 for 7 nights in fall; mapleleafadventures.com) begins and disembarks in Bella Bella, BC, a short flight from Vancouver. The cost includes all meals, wine or beer, accommodations, gumboots, and guiding. Trips to see the spirit bears only take place in September and October, and they often sell out months in advance—so if you want to see one of the 100-or-so spirit bears on planet earth, and watch grizzlies munching on fish during the autumn salmon runs, best to lock in an autumn trip soon. Maple Leaf Adventures also runs a boat called the MV Swell, a gorgeous restored tugboat, and this season, has added a third boat to its fleet: the Cascadia, a luxury catamaran.

Rachel Levin is the author of LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds, published by Ten Speed this month.

Pastrami in Hong Kong, But No Dr. Brown’s

You know you’re not in New York anymore when a restaurant website has a page with the line “What is a delicatessen?” up top.

Manhattan may be losing one of its top pastrami palaces when the Carnegie Deli closes, but Hong Kong recently welcomed Morty’s, which opened in April in the bustling Central district, on the ground floor of Jardine House. The office tower is home to mostly lawyers, financiers and dentists, a clientele that in New York would probably be familiar with lox, bagels, smoked meats and the like. But this is Asia.

A Chinese businessman, standing in a long weekday lunch line recently, said he had not visited New York but had become a regular at Morty’s. He ordered the Reuben. Why? He had seen one on “Seinfeld” and thought it looked good.

Even 8,000 miles and an ocean away from Manhattan, it is good, if flanked by a flaccid pickle and a tad light on the Thousand Island dressing. But the pastrami Reuben (heretically, not stuffed with corned beef) is tender, sweet and smoky, with the perfect hint of pepper. It’s hand-sliced — not too thick, not too thin — and served on soft house-baked rye, with Swiss and sauerkraut.

The space is slim and sleek, perhaps a little too sleek to feel like a true deli; the ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles sit on marble counters, and the menu lacks staples like egg creams and chopped liver. (No Dr. Brown’s either, but there is a full bar.)

The founder, Gerald Li, is Chinese, but he grew up in Toronto eating Reubens regularly and wanted to bring deli culture to Hong Kong. He teamed up with his friend Brian Tock, grandson of Morty Tock, who immigrated in 1920 from Europe to New York, where he learned to smoke meat. Morty’s pastrami recipe lives on at his Hong Kong namesake, where a 45-day aging process calls for 20 days of curing and 24 hours of cooking, followed by smoking with American hickory. (Morty’s smokes its own chicken, turkey and duck, too.) To help ease the wait, strangers — Australians, Britons, Chinese, Filipinos — are often seated in booths together.

At this particular lunch there was not a New Yorker in sight, though according to our server, “they seem to like it O.K.” Their only complaint? Even the large sandwich isn’t big enough.

Check In: The Olema

Rates

From $200.

Basics

There aren’t many hotel options on the Point Reyes Peninsula, Northern California’s national seashore, but in September 2015, West Marin County welcomed back one more: The Olema. Built in 1876, the historic property had operated as an inn (upstairs) and a restaurant (downstairs) for most of its existence, but when its new owners, Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong, took over in 2013, they painted the fusty bright-white Victorian a gloomy shade of gray (to much local controversy) and reopened only the restaurant, named Sir and Star. It was a sequel, in a way, to their celebrated first: Manka’s Inverness Lodge, a pioneering local spot secluded in the woods and beloved by food lovers and luminaries alike, before it burned down in an electrical fire a decade ago. Now, the Olema once again operates as a proper inn, with five renovated rooms — each done in Ms. Grade’s unique style.

Location

Just about every backpacker, birder and oyster-slurper bound for Point Reyes National Seashore passes through the unincorporated town of Olema, and therefore by its namesake inn at the intersection of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and Highway 1.

Photo

The Room

Spare but sophisticated, the inn’s rooms are tucked down a short hall dimly lit by sconces. Each room is decorated differently, some with wrought-iron bed frames and footstools, free-standing wardrobes and framed etchings of fowl — all scavenged by Ms. Grade from Parisian flea markets or her personal coffers. Rustic black, wide-planked floors are made from repurposed wood, and long black shutters help keep the otherwise drafty rooms warm. Eye masks and earplugs are set on every pillow, in case you’d rather not fall asleep to owl hoots and the faint jazz coming from the restaurant downstairs — or, for that matter, wake to the dairy trucks rumbling by below.

The Bathroom

It’s called the “W.C.,” as emblazoned on the door’s clouded glass. Clean, with classic white tile, Kiehl’s products and a vintage toothbrush holder too small for today’s bulbous handles, there is nothing especially noteworthy about this water closet — other than the fact that, despite California’s drought, the hot water took so long to warm up I worried that my shower, in a basic tub, might have to be cold. (It wasn’t.)

Dining

Years before the notion of “local” took root in the culinary world, Ms. Grade and Mr. DeLong cooked exclusively with ingredients gathered from within miles of their restaurant, Manka’s. (All that remains now are a few guest cabins.) Today, Sir and Star is an intimate restaurant adorned with antlers, stuffed cormorants and candelabras. It’s a fitting scene for feasting on rustic, memorable dishes like “Leg of a Neighbor’s Duck,” as worded on the whimsical menu — typically written mere minutes before 5 p.m. service begins.

Amenities

No bicycles or hot tubs or even bathrobes, but the Olema does boast a romantic foyer with a seven-foot-high fireplace and pair of deep chairs, perfect for sharing a bottle of syrah by the local winemaker Sean Thackrey.

Bottom Line

If my room — though comfy and calming and affordable — was not a creaky flight of stairs above Sir and Star restaurant, I might wonder: What’s the point? (As Point Reyes has many cozy cabins available to rent.) But how wonderful it is, to enjoy such a fine supper in the countryside — without having to drive the winding road home.

The Olema, 10000 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Olema; 415-663-1034; sirandstar.com.

Uber and the Islanders

The “Help Wanted” sections in Martha’s Vineyard’s two local newspapers still read the same as they did 20 years ago, when I was looking for a summer job: server at the Seafood Shanty, carpenter’s assistant, rural mail carrier. Except for one, an ad with a glamorous-looking woman emerging from a shiny black car. “Drive with Uber,” it said. “Get paid weekly just for helping our community of riders get rides around Martha’s Vineyard.”

Uber, the ride-hailing app, began business on Martha’s Vineyard — as well as on Nantucket and Cape Cod — over Memorial Day Weekend, triggering mixed feelings among islanders and, of course, a barrage of resistance from the family-run taxi companies that have long dominated the island. “It will be the slow death of us,” Jim Hickey, a co-owner of Bluefish Taxi, told the Vineyard Gazette, in one of dozens of local articles and competing op-eds (with headlines from “Hashtag, Stay Local” to “Fan of Uber”) that have run since spring.

While many locals praise such technological advances coming to their community, some longtime visitors are unhappy about Uber infiltrating a place they would prefer remain timeless. “I don’t like it,” said Matt Fortenbaugh, 40, an Internet ad sales manager from Boston who spent summers growing up at his family’s home in East Chop, on the northern end of the island.

“McDonald’s, Uber, stay away,” he said. “You come out here for an escape. If you have all the conveniences you have at home, why bother with the hassle of taking a ferry? It used to be a badge of honor not to have a cellphone here. You’d say, ‘Leave me a message at the house.’ Uber is just another thing mainstreaming the island.”

While it is now available in 58 countries and more than 300 cities, operating in quaint seasonal vacation destinations is a new thing for Uber. (In spring, it also opened in other idyllic spots like the Berkshires and Mystic, Conn.; Kiawah, S.C.; and Eden, Utah.) But Uber’s on-demand model doesn’t quite seem to be working — at least not as well as it does in urban areas.

Islanders’ resistance to change is one reason. Uber’s resistance to small towns’ strict regulations is another. But ultimately it is the lack of reliable, round-the-clock drivers that has been the real obstacle. Cars will circle Oak Bluffs like sharks on a Saturday night. “But the drunk people can be annoying,” said Willie Simon, a nephew of the singer Carly Simon, and a part-time Uber driver. In Boston, where he is in school and drives for Uber part time, he might wait five minutes for a passenger, he said, whereas in Martha’s Vineyard it could be an hour. And if he is up island in Chilmark and the ping comes from Edgartown, a halfhour drive way, Mr. Simon said it is not worth the gasoline money or sitting in summer traffic to pick up a fare and then not have one waiting on the other end.

An occasional driver from Vineyard Haven who asked not to be identified because he has another job, said he earns roughly $250 a week as a driver. “It fills my tank, pays for lunch,” he said. “I’m not trying to make a living doing this.”

And that’s the thing: Few islanders are. Five or six drivers on the Vineyard was the estimate repeatedly given. “My friends have other ways of making 20 bucks an hour,” Mr. Simon said. “They have trucks or old cars they don’t feel like cleaning out.” Uber declined to comment on the number of drivers on the Cape and Islands. But Austin Geidt, the company’s head of global expansion, said, “We’ve seen overwhelming demand among riders and we’re always looking to bring more drivers onto platform to help meet that demand.”

This may be a bit overstated. Islanders’ transportation habits are well entrenched. Most locals and seasonal people have their own cars, parking is easy, and a bus ride is inexpensive (an all-day, island-wide pass is $8). Many people here said that while they are happy to have Uber — and see it as a solution to the island’s perennial drunk-driving problem, which worsens in summer — they would not use it.

What’s more, many tourists also don’t realize that Uber is available here. “Three full buses went by before we could get one,” said Bankole Ayodeji from Brooklyn, holding his toddler. “We didn’t even think about Uber. We would have totally taken it.”

On several occasions, when I opened my app in July, it flashed: “No Cars Available.” When I eventually did get Uber, on a Friday morning, I ended up paying $35, including tip, for a 13-mile drive from Vineyard Haven to Chilmark. I rode alone in an Audi sedan with leather seats. A taxi the following Saturday morning from Chilmark, called after another failed Uber attempt, cost me $60, including tip, to take me just two miles farther. I sat on a frayed tapestry, the driver was nice and on time and said his gig came with seasonal housing. (Which is harder to find on the island than Uber.)

It’s the same on Nantucket, said Briana Johnson, 25, a bartender at the Rose and Crown. “I can never get a Uber in the morning,” she said. “But I’ve taken it three nights after work. It’s been the same guy every time.” Dealing with small town regulations has led to some complications for Uber. After starting service in East Hampton two years ago, Uber suspended its operations in June because it refused to comply with local rules that all drivers have a local business office. On the Vineyard, Edgartown has fines up to $375 a day for any driver caught picking up passengers unless they adhere to the same licenses and laws as its taxis — including displaying the company logo on both sides of every vehicle and the town name on the back.

Uber was a good fit in East Hampton, where the social scene is an extension of New York City, and SoulCycle and Starbucks line the streets. But Uber’s arrival represents a bigger cultural clash on Martha’s Vineyard, where people still hitchhike, uphold the existence of dry towns, and leave their doors unlocked. The only chains that squeaked through are Stop & Shop and a Dairy Queen camouflaged by cedar shake shingles. And for better or worse, the old rumbling vans that await the ferries are as much a part of the landscape as the stone walls and sailboat-dotted ponds.

You would expect islanders (who eschew all things corporate) would support their local taxis in the face of a behemoth like Uber. And some do, citing potential congestion around the ferries and the fact that cabs will stick around come winter. But many locals see Uber as a refreshing alternative to a broken taxi system, plagued by rude drivers, rundown vehicles and steep, inconsistent fares.

“Every time Uber is mentioned in the local papers, it’s followed by hundreds of hateful comments about the taxis. Really mean stuff,” said Mr. Hickey of Bluefish Taxi. (He’s not exaggerating: “Is any creature more reviled on this fair isle than the surly taxi driver driving like an escaped psychiatric inmate in his dingy van? Perhaps the lowly deer tick … Or perhaps not,” posted Rex Treadwell of Tisbury.)

“I don’t even know why Uber wants to be on Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Hickey said. “They must think there’s gold in the hills. I work 100 hours a week and am just getting by.”

Despite Uber’s recruitment efforts, its doubtful more drivers will sign on at this point. After all the hoopla, as its inaugural season winds down, Uber has been a bit of a bust. Even Mr. Hickey admits his “slow death” comment back in April has yet to prove true. Business is busier than ever, said Casey O’Connor, who helps manage 25-year-old Stagecoach Taxi, which recently added an app and tablets to compete.

Still, the island will always appeal to purists, like Coco Dowling, a Columbia University sophomore and summer clerk at Edgartown Books. “The other day, I biked from my house to Back Door Donuts at sunset,” she said. “I think it made my doughnut taste better. If I’d just tapped my iPhone for an Uber, it wouldn’t have been the same.”

And she might not have gotten one anyway.

Sunset’s Best Cabin Getaways

Sierra National Forest,  California

Far Meadow

Yosemite may be only 12 miles away, but Far Meadow’s Base Camp, in some ways, trumps the iconic park. No valley floor swarmed with bus tours or crowded cafeterias—just you, your friends, and family tucked into a 750-square-foot pine cabin, with 5 glorious High Sierra acres all to yourselves. The Base Camp cabin—undamaged by this summer’s Rim Fire, which actually stopped 100 miles north—was remodeled in 2013, with the addition of a second bedroom and French doors that open onto the deck. In autumn, you’ll find the kind of Technicolor fall foliage that’ll make you think you’ve landed in New England. A bit farther east, above Bass Lake (and the snow line), Far Meadow maintains five additional properties in the Sierra National Forest: a new A-frame was added this season alongside a log cabin, two outfitted trailers, and another A-frame. From late May to November, you can swim, fish, and hike your heart out. After that, these five solar-powered accommodations remain open, but getting there gets more complicated. In winter, after the road closes, they’re accessible only by snowmobile or snowcat, and guides will take only the adventurous in—to cross-country ski, snowshoe, make snow angels—with a friendly reminder to stay safe. As manager Kris Roni puts it, “This is the High Sierra, and we are, always, at the whims of nature.”

Best time to go: November if you’re adventurous, or June for the Sierra’s sunny, clear-sky days.
From $220; far-meadow.com

Point No Point Resort, Shirley, B.C.
It exists: that private waterfront cabin with front-row views of the crashing Pacific, crackling fireplaces, and nary another tourist in sight—for less than $200 a night. So why haven’t you heard much about Point No Point before? Perhaps because it’s on Vancouver Island and Canadians have somehow learned to keep these sorts of special places a secret. The decidedly un-resort escape is the best of both worlds—seemingly on the edge of civilization and yet still accessible, just 40 miles west of Victoria. Point No Point’s 25 simple log cabins were built on a cliff, some in the 1950s, but there have been gradual improvements over the decades, such as new two-person showers and, most recently, a hot tub on almost every wooden deck. Shaker-style furniture, bright red Adirondack chairs, and warm cedar walls give the cabins a timeless feel, as does the winding country road, which you can follow from rugged beach to beach, back to your own empty stretch of sand, complete with a covered firepit to keep you warm. When it’s time for dinner, you can continue up the path to the intimate on-site restaurant. One of Vancouver Island’s best, it has walled-in windows so you can scan for otters, whales, and dolphins (binoculars are on every table) over locally caught salmon and seared scallops. It’s the kind of place that fosters loyalty, says Sharon Soderberg, who’s owned Point No Point with her husband, Stuart, for 32 years. “We’ve watched children grow up here,” she says, “who now come back with their own.”Best time to go: July through September for sunbathing on the beach and your best chance of spotting humpback whales; you can see orcas and gray whales year-round.$$; pointnopointresort.com

Dolores, Colorado
Dunton Hot Springs

Log onto Dunton’s live web cam and the scene looks straight out of the 1800s: a cluster of hand-hewn Lincoln Log-like cabins scattered across a meadow at the foot of the towering San Juan Mountains—a tipi here; a wagon wheel there; steamy natural hot springs everywhere. But if you actually make the trek to this restored ghost town in remote Southwestern Colorado, you’ll find full on 21st luxury. The kind of riverfront “rusticity” that runs you a thousand dollars a night, where both fly-fishing and reflexology are fair game, and the “Saloon” is more like a local, gamey French Laundry. (Slow-roasted elk tenderloin, anyone?) Though Dunton recently erected eight canvas tents in its new Cresto Ranch, four miles downriver, its 12 cabins, originally built out of aspen and cottonwood in 1885, have been sought-after escapes since 2001, when they reopened with outdoor rainshowers, ready-to-light fireplaces, and Rajasthan wedding beds. Couples come from all over the world to hike and ride horseback— and amble around in robes in between 107-degree soaks, as the odd elk or moose or black bear stroll by. Before falling asleep to the sounds of silence; so quiet that at least one city slicker had to download a white noise app on his iPad. Dunton ain’t cheap, but as one guests said, “Three days with the love of my life was worth every penny.” From $600, duntonhotsprings.com, 877/228-4674

Best time to visit: Right about now, rates are lower and, of course, the water’s warm… .

Big Sur, California
Glen Oaks Big Sur

Let the luxury hotels on Big Sur’s dramatic coastline have all the glory— in-the-know Highway 1-road-trippers would rather keep Glen Oaks to themselves. (Though, says the manager, it’s already poached a few Post Ranch and Ventana guests who’ve realized they can spa and sup, but save a significant amount by sleeping here instead.) What this 1957 adobe motor lodge-turned eco-mod retreat lacks in sparkling ocean views, it makes up for with the kind of rare, woodsy quiet that only comes from cozying up under a Pendelton wool blanket, by the crackling fire, beneath 300-feet-tall, thousand-year-old redwood trees. With radiant heat floors and cast iron stoves and ready-to-go-s’mores—it’s a little too easy to hunker down instead of hike. The new Roadhouse restaurant is just steps away too, which means you can feast on grass-fed steak and stumble back to your bed, instead of cooking in your (albeit cute) kitchenette. The main lodge has 16 rooms, but it’s the seven renovated cabins and two cottages along the babbling Big Sur River that are the most coveted. None more so than the Big Sur Cabin, with a private patio, outdoor fire pit —and two side-by-side clawfoot soaking tubs, under the stars. (Though, really, you kind of only need one.) From $275, glenoaksbigsur.com, 831/667-2105

Best time to visit: September and October aka Big Sur’s summer. But if you actually want to score a cabin, winter’s your best bet.

 

Pioneertown, California

Rim Rock Ranch Cabins

Surrounded by nothing but tumbleweed, cacti, and the twisted trunks of Joshua Tree National Park, this 10-acre retreat with four knotty-pine cabins (and one new rustic-mod ranch house) is all about the stars. Yes, Hollywood celebs like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, who used to hole up here, in Pioneertown, in the ‘50s, but we’re also talking galaxies, smeared across the expansive, dark desert sky. Which you can gaze at from your Adirondack chair, warmed by the fire pit on your private patio that proprietor-musician Jim Austin stocks with wood. (Want to get even closer? There’s an actual star observation deck.) This is the desert, which means daytime is all about sunshine, hammocks, BBQ pits, and the “cowboy plunge pool.” Built in 1947, with dated (but fully functional) kitchenettes and actual VCR collections, the cabins are decorated in vintage “desert eclectica” — as is the entire landscape. Austin considers Rim Rock his ongoing art project, where repeat guests see something new every few months. Say, an 18-ton rock heart for weddings or a bunch of antique skeleton keys dangling from a tree. As Yelper Jennifer A. puts it, in all caps: “This place is NOT for the resort types, people looking for a giant in-ground pool and spa.” Indeed, Rim Rock is a far cry from the Four Seasons. Which is, exactly, the point.

From $118, rimrockranchcabins.com, 730/369-3012

Best time to visit: Early spring, when the desert wildflowers bloom.

 

 

 

In the Van with Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers

Kemmerer, Wyoming is the sort of middle-of-nowhere small town that doesn’t see many visitors. The closest major city is Salt Lake, two hours away, and its only claim to semi-fame is the J.C. Penney Mother Store, circa 1902. But for Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers, Kemmerer is a must-stop—one of 117 on last year’s tour, that had this rising country-rock band crisscrossing the country, ultimately logging a whopping 57,000 miles.

Home is technically San Francisco, but, really, this one-woman-five-man band lives in the van, in musty motels, at greasy diners. At the whims of the saloons, clubs, and festivals that book them, their routes are often illogical and backtracking is frequent. In summer 2012, they passed through Idaho Falls, Idaho three times in one month. Which is to say, this talented group understands what a road trip is all about: the off-the-beaten-path places—and what happens as you ramble between them.

On this warm summer evening, they’ve hightailed-it 340 miles from Bond, Colorado to roll in right on time to headline Kemmerer’s annual Oyster Ridge Music Festival. The vibe is more ’70s than 21st century—and not just because Nicki looks (and sounds) like a dead-ringer for Karen Carpenter. The grassy square is filled with camping chairs and coolers and a motley crew of locals who quickly become friends—gray-haired men in overalls; toddlers bopping on shoulders; a scattering of twirling hippie-chicks; even a real-life Smokey the Bear, wearing the same Wrangler jeans as Nicki. All congregating for corn dogs and Coors and the sort of free Friday night fun every road-tripper hopes to just stumble upon.

Except, the thing is, we don’t. In these time-crunched, overly efficient days, we’re too busy bee-lining from Yosemite to Yellowstone, Telluride to Santa Fe, to bother being carefree. The modern-day road trip has become more like a micro-managed death-march between big-name attractions, carefully choreographed to maximize a week’s worth of vacation time.

Not so for Nicki and her Gramblers. They may not have time for a guided tour of the Tetons, but so what? They know where to find cold PBRs and warm waffles for breakfast at 10,000 feet. A steamy hidden hot springs off the highway. The best places for a pit stop.

Their white rental van might as well be a wood-paneled station wagon, without the Are We There Yet? gripes and sibling squabbles and crackly 8-track radio. There’s no radio whatsoever, actually. None needed. Not with Tim on harmonica; Deren on mini-guitar; Mike banging on a drum; Dave clapping to the beat…and Nicki blowing your best car-karaoke efforts away, singing her heart out at 70 miles per hour.

Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers’ five million YouTube viewers of their wildly successful Van Sessions would agree: these guys just might be the last real road trippers.

Watch their Hall & Oates cover and you’ll hear the hallmarks of the young band: their soft harmonies and shaggy confidence, Nicki’s voice, soulful, outward-reaching. But listen closer, just beneath the music, and you can hear something else, something more familiar. A low, steady hum. It’s the sound of the open road.

DINERS IN THE ROUGH

“We’re kind of food snobs,” says Tim Bluhm, digging into a plate of braised short ribs, paired with pinot, at the Cascade Grill, in Jackson Hole, following a late afternoon performance in Teton Village. For once, the band is being fed—well. The night before, it was “the worst pizza I’ve ever had in my entire life,” as Tim put it in Pocatello, Idaho, as he tossed a piece of half-baked crust over his shoulder.

And the morning before that: It was Café Ritz, in Kemmerer Wyoming. Puffing on his tenth cigarette of the morning, Bob, of Bob’s Rock Shop, warns us Café Ritz is expensive. But at six bucks for biscuits and gravy, it’s not the prices that are the problem. It’s the service. Apparently, when you’re the only place in town for pancakes, turning tables is not a priority. Finally, the harried waitress brings over seven mugs of burnt coffee and takes a pen from behind her ear. But then a baby cries. “Uh, be right back,” she says. “I’ve got my two-month-old in the kitchen.” When she returns 20 minutes later with a hot pot of coffee in one hand and, indeed, a newborn—neck dangling—in the other, Tim Bluhm up and bails on his yet-to-arrive waffle. Mike the drummer follows him out the door.

“Tim calls it the Food Desert out here,” says his wife and bandleader, Nicki, digging into her scrambled eggs, which eventually arrive. Cold. “I think it’s the toast that took them so long,” says guitarist Dave Mulligan, holding up a flimsy piece of un-browned white bread.

LIFE IS A HIGHWAY

A four-row passenger van crammed with six band members (half of whom hover around six-feet or taller) and manager, Scotty, behind the wheel, can look pretty lived-in pretty quickly. But apart from paper plates with leftover tamales from the lady in town; a jar of raw cashews in the center console for snacking; and a few Sierra Nevada empties rolling around (consumed during a game of Frisbee when the van broke down in Wyoming), the Gramblers are a relatively clean crew.  Not to mention, mellow. It’s more like a roving college dorm (of 30-and 40-somethings) than a raging party. Conversations over the seats take as many twists and turns as the roads themselves. On one eight-hour drive, they’ll cover everything from polygamy to making pizza to missing their moms to the contorted facial expressions made by Olympic divers mid-air. (Google it. Very cool.) But Van Time also doubles as Quiet Time. Nicki points out all the pretty horses along the side of the road while writing thank you-notes (“I heard Alison Krauss does that, and I thought, that’s so nice.”) Tim reads a book written by his childhood friend Mark Sundeen, Car Camping: The Book of Desert Adventures.  (Apropos as the band was soon headed to the Southwest.) Deren logs onto Facebook before sharing the good news, “Guys, we just broke 16,000 Facebook fans!” (Now, a year later, they’re pushing 30,000.)

HOME SWEET HOTEL-MOTEL

They haven’t made it to the Chateau Marmont (yet), but occasionally the Gramblers do luck out, with a room with a hot tub in Teton Village or an Internet fan’s horse ranch in Washington. More often than not, though, “It’s a Priceline Night,” as Nicki puts it. Which means they wing it, scrolling for affordable rooms on their iPhone app, as they roll into town. (“$40 at the Red Lion Inn, in Boise! Who cares if the elevator wasn’t working, the lobby bartender was.”) It might be a local motel decorated in ceramic owls. Or, the supposedly romantic Black Swan Inn in Pocatello, Idaho, where the band gathered for après-show beers in Tim and Nicki’s “Enchanted Forest Suite,” among faux leafy trees and murals of unicorns. The Applegate River Lodge in Southern Oregon was “idyllic.” But, once in awhile, accommodations are downright disgusting… As Darren recalls: “In Oregon, I once spied a bunch of Saltine crackers mixed with hairballs on the carpet. I called my dad and said, ‘I’m going to law school.'”

FAST FRIENDS

What’s the difference between a road-tripper and a rock star? No one cares whether you show up, but when Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers roll into town, people are actually expecting them. After a big drive, they can’t just grab a pizza and go to bed; they’ve got to play—sometimes to a sold-out crowd, sometimes to a near-empty saloon. But every time, fans swoon. After the show in Kemmerer, a grown woman in pigtails pulls up a barstool and starts chatting with the band like she’s known them forever. A gaggle of tweenage girls gives Nicki a hug when they see her strolling down the sidewalk. A gray-haired man in overalls walks up to tell her: “You did good.” In less than 24 hours, the band has become local celebs, only to move on to the next town and do it all over again. “We meet cool people,” says Nicki. “Most of the time.”

TOURIST ATTRACTIONS OF A DIFFERENT SORT

Being on tour is like being on the anti-Grand Tour.Yellowstone is out. No time for a hike in Grand Teton National Park either. Instead, sightseeing is more happenchance, fun found en route. Like, say, in Kemmerer: “Look, it’s the JC Penney Mother Store!” says Nicki, snapping an Instagram pic of the circa 1902 store. “Let’s see if they sell swimsuits.” (In the heat of the summer, oddly, they don’t.) Instead she finds a hot-pink “Pretty Woman“-like number in Lava Hot Springs, an Idaho vacation town taken over by bikini-clad tourists toting inner tubes. The next day, the van creeps along Highway 20, as Tim hops in and out between mileage markers, hunting for this secret hot springs among the roadside brush. Finally, he finds it—not a sole in sight. And no bathing suits required.

Only Hours From Napa, But A World Away

While Napa Valley and Sonoma are renowned for their world-class wines, tasting trips there generally come attached to luxurious digs, spa treatments, $25 tasting fees, Hummer limos and standstill traffic — and all the “no picnicking” pretension that goes with that.

It’s gotten to the point where a thirsty, fogged-in San Franciscan in search of summer sun, stellar wine and hotel rates less than $400 a night has to go out of state, especially when toting two children under the age of 5 and a husband who prefers his fishing rod to the French Laundry.

And so, we headed north to Oregon, not to the well-known Willamette Valley, in the state’s northwest, but about four hours to its south, a sprawling region better known for the “wild and scenic” (as the official designation has it) Rogue River and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland than for the rolling vineyards in between.

We found a relaxed, blossoming wine country with empty roads and crowd-free tasting rooms — some surrounded by strip malls, others by sparkling rivers — pouring excellent versions of an impressively wide range of varietals.

“Oregon is not all pinot,” said Liz Wan, nodding to the persistent misunderstanding that Oregon wine means not just Willamette, but itsbest-known grape.

Ms. Wan is a walking Wikipedia of wine knowledge who serves as the de facto spokeswoman for a vast wine country without one. She is also a refreshingly rare sort of sommelier in an industry long dominated by buttoned-up white males: a perky Asian-American woman who wears flip- flops and greeted me with a “Hey, girl.” She splits her summers between making wine and overseeing the tasting room at Serra Vineyards and leading rustic inn-to-inn wine-tasting-rafting trips with Rogue Wilderness Adventures, which is how I met her.

“We have 150 microclimates south of Eugene,” she said, pouring me a Bordeaux blend. From Medford and Ashland to Grants Pass and Jacksonville, all the way north up Interstate 5 to Roseburg and teeny Elkton, the region features mountains, high desert and three river valleys, which in turn means a crazy range of climates. Southern Oregon doesn’t grow just one type of grape, but a whole bunch — and really well.

Varietals like chardonnay and cabernet franc thrive in the dry, hot Rogue Valley; pockets of the Umpqua Valley, which is spread across a fault line, excels in Spanish varietals like tempranillo; and throughout, you’ll find albariño, viognier, malbec, gewürztraminer, syrah and, yes, more pinot noir.

In the last few years, that diversity — as well as a laid-back scene and, winemakers say, an opportunity to put southern Oregon on the oenophile’s map — has attracted talent from the Loire and Napa Valleys, as well as prominent critics, who have begun handing out high scores and accolades.

It also means that this region has a branding challenge. “The best thing about southern Oregon wine is that you don’t just taste the same grape over and over again” is a refrain I heard from local winemakers, over and over again.

For visitors, though, an under-the-radar wine country without a recognizable “brand” can be a boon, offering more accessibility and affordability than you’re likely to find elsewhere.

WHICH IS ALSO TO SAY that not all of the region is pure eye-candy. A few miles north of Ashland, in the Rogue Valley, we turned right past a Chevy dealership and into Lithia Springs Resort, a remodeled clutch of clapboard cottages set in a manicured garden. We grabbed a map of tasting rooms and headed out. Driving through Medford, we saw more fast-food-chain outlets than pear orchards, which once reigned in the Rogue Valley. That is, until we came across a wildflower-lined hiking trail and, conveniently nearby, the sunny patio at Kriselle Cellar’s new tasting room, where we kicked things off with crisp sauvignon blanc and a cheese plate.

Ten years ago, there were 49 wineries in southern Oregon; today there are more than 150, according to Ms. Wan. And as the number of tasting rooms increases and word continues to spread about the quality of wine being made here, the swilling tourists are just beginning to arrive.

As we wound our way to the Applegate Valley, the Walmarts and Fred Meyers gave way to organic farms and estate vineyards. We pulled into Troon Vineyard, at age 42 the area’s oldest, updated with bocce and hammocks. “It’s snowballing,” said Herb Quady, a scruffy-bearded, second-generation winemaker who consults at Troon in addition to making his own wine. Mr. Quady is a California transplant, having moved here in 2003 after working at the Santa Cruz winery Bonny Doon. “In the last couple of years, southern Oregon wines have had a critical mass of recognition,” he said. “It’s, like, suddenly, we’re a region.”

Before his move, even Mr. Quady fell for the Oregon wine canard. “I used to think it was all lightweight Willamette pinots,” he admitted. “Then I did my research on the microclimates and the soil and the season length, and I was, like, wow. I could make some good wine here.”

Not just good, but really good, we realized as we continued cruising the valley. We visited ramshackle garagistas like Devitt; new rustic-chic Red Lily on the river; Schmidt, an old-timer with acres of blooming gardens; and Quady North, Mr. Quady’s tiny brick tasting room in downtown Jacksonville, a charming Old West town.

Something else struck us about these wineries: They were actually welcoming to children. Everywhere we went, there were crayons and coloring books and toy bins. Grassy lawns beckoned families to spread out a picnic blanket, enjoy a wood-fired pizza and stay awhile.

We found one such spot at new Dancin Vineyards, a mile outside Jacksonville, with a prime view of Mount McLoughlin. The affable, apron- clad owner, Dan Marca, and his wife, Cindy, moved here from Sacramento in 1999 (the vineyard’s moniker is a mash-up of their nicknames). Mr. Marca delivered Italian-sausage-stuffed mushrooms and blistered pizzas to our picnic table; our children, tired of coloring, played around a giant black walnut tree and sunny-yellow chicken coop, while we clinked glasses of the 2011 Septette pinot noir, toasting to a wine country that kids and parents can both love.

Three hours north, in Elkton (population 194), Umpqua Valley’s newest American Viticultural Area, approved in 2013, it’s not quite as picturesque. The riverside town offers little beyond a sandwich shop, a dusty diner touting Keno poker and, housed in a nondescript corner building, Brandborg winery, one of southern Oregon’s best.

Tucked by the door was another bucket of toys (score!); we joined just two other tasters at the counter, both of whom, it turned out, were from Napa. One was a farmer who moved there recently with her new family to, as she put it, be “pioneers in a place where it’s still possible, and without $100 million.”

We made our way back down south along the Umpqua River, detouring off Route I-5 to sample spicy tempranillo at Abacela from Earl and Hilda Jones, pioneers of this Spanish varietal in America. Seth Berglund, who was behind the counter, poured us some of everything: viognier, malbec, syrah. He thought the branding dilemma was overblown.

“Everyone in the industry here is stressing: ‘We need an identity! What are we going to be known for?’ ” he said. “Why can’t southern Oregon just be ‘the Valley of Varietals’? I’ve been thinking about making a T-shirt.”

The next day, back in the Applegate, we sought out one last vineyard, Cowhorn. We tried four richly flavored Rhone-style wines and met the owner, Bill Steele, a former Wall Street equity analyst turned longhaired biodynamic winemaker. He, too, said that southern Oregon shouldn’t worry about its branding, but “just keep continuing to raise the bar.”

We grabbed a bottle of viognier, borrowed two glasses and found a hidden path that led to the Applegate River. With the sun beating down and the canyon rising above and not a soul in sight, we decided to strip down and dive in, a full-on family skinny dip. Try that in Napa.

Back in Ashland, we headed up a winding mountain road to Grizzly Peak and our home for our last night: Willow-Witt Ranch, a 440-acre off- the-grid farm run by a couple of 60-something women who promised to let the kids watch the 24 baby goats milk in the morning. The ranch was stripped of all conventional luxuries, lacking even a front desk. But we had a wheelbarrow to cart our stuff, a communal outdoor kitchen (and noncommunal outdoor shower), and a canvas tent complete with two comfy beds for $125 a night.

At dusk, we traipsed through the woods to the overflowing garden and honor freezer to collect our ingredients for dinner (including eggs and a Mason jar of goat milk for morning). By the light of our lantern, we made a fire in the wood stove, started chopping and lined up our loot on the table: a tempranillo from Abacela, Quady North’s syrah, a viognier from Cowhorn, Schmidt’s albariño. As the kids dozed off, we uncorked one, and then another.

‘My West Coast Martha’s Vineyard’

That first time I walked through the grassy dunes of Point Reyes National Seashore, back in 1997, it felt familiar. On this stretch of California sand, I’d found the West Coast doppelgänger of Gay Head, on the southwestern point of Martha’s Vineyard, from where I’d recently moved. Though it was summer, I was wearing a fleece, and the sandstone cliffs of Limantour Beach were shrouded in fog. But the echoes of the Vineyard in Point Reyes were immediately clear: a rugged, relatively remote refuge with salty air, fresh fish and a strong sense of place.

The differences, though, soon became evident. At Point Reyes, there was no mugginess or mosquitoes. No ferry lines or frozen mudslides. No tennis whites or Nantucket reds. No crowds. It was my West Coast Martha’s Vineyard, I decided one recent weekend while sitting solo on a hay bale in the sun eating a grass-fed goat burger, only better.

On the Point Reyes peninsula, a winding hour-and-a-half drive north of San Francisco, friends and I have hiked for miles and kayaked with harbor seals; we’ve pitched tents on pocket beaches and shucked oysters at ramshackle farms. And come fall, when the weather warms and the (slightly less chilly) water beckons, we even swim.

Point Reyes also has more Holsteins, herons and herds of tule elk than humans; locals live in a handful of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them-type of towns: Olema, the tiny gateway, at the well-trodden intersection of Highway 1 and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard; Inverness, on Tomales Bay, with its own bare-bones yacht club founded in 1912; Marshall, which draws oyster-slurping day-trippers, with six-packs and sauvignon blanc in tow; nearby Bolinas, notoriously unfriendly to outsiders.

With a bookstore, a bakery beloved by cyclists and a feed barn that doubles as a yoga studio, Point Reyes Station (population 848) is the metropolis of West Marin, what the locals call their rich agricultural region, home to organic dairy farms, sustainable grass-fed cattle ranches — and 70,000 protected acres of pine forests and coastal prairie.

The original plan, promoters said, was to turn it into “a Jones Beach on the Pacific,” before John F. Kennedy, urged by a group of local conservationists, declared it a national seashore in 1962: 80 miles of shoreline forever free of condos and golf courses, cabanas and cotton candy stands.

Still, at 51, the Point Reyes National Seashore remains every pastoral cliché: cow country, birder’s paradise, heaven for hikers. Now add to that list foodie destination, as local restaurants are finally on par with the local ingredients. “West Marin is one of the most vibrant local food sheds in the world,” said the writer Michael Pollan, a friend to its tight-knit group of farmers, ranchers and cheesemakers. Alice Waters recently told me it’s where she wishes Chez Panisse could be.

In February, Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong, two friends of Ms. Waters, opened a restaurant, Sir and Star at the Olema, which is as committed to using ingredients farmed/foraged/fished “within arm’s reach,” to use Ms. Grade’s phrase, as was their famed Manka’s Inverness Lodge, before it burned to the ground in 2006. Now, instead of committing to Manka’s seven-course prix fixe feasts, hiking-boot-clad diners pop by for homey dishes like Dave’s Beef, Cooked Around the Clock — or, on a Saturday night, wait so long for a table that the supply of homemade dinner rolls runs dry.

Dave Evans (of the aforementioned beef), a fourth-generation rancher and owner of Marin Sun Farms, is thrilled that the culinary scene here is thriving. “It was always ‘barbecue oysters with the same sauce,’ ” Mr. Evans said. “Now it’s, like, ‘artisanal oysters, in a brown butter shallot sauce’ — and three other ways.”

Not everyone, of course, is thrilled with change coming to an area meant to remain unchanged. “Point Reyes Station used to be a country town,” said Barbara McClellan, owner for the last 38 years of the novelty shop Lil Bit of a Lot o’ Things. “Not anymore,” she lamented, surrounded by gag gifts like phony hickeys, dusty Christmas decorations and “Everything Must Go!” signs. Her store will become a wine shop when Osteria Stellina, the farm-to-table trattoria next door, expands next month.

As Dan Morrissey, the third owner of the 100-year-old barbershop down the block, bluntly put it: “All the old people here are dying, and the yuppies are moving in.” Real estate prices have jumped roughly 20 percent in the last few years, according to brokers.

All of which is why my husband, Josh, and I like to rent a place and pretend we’re locals. In May, we stayed at our favorite little guest cottage, found on the rental site VRBO.com — up on a ridge, with views of forested Mount Vision and the occasional osprey.

Another plus for rentals: sometimes the owner becomes a guide. Ours led us on a walk through “the secret trails of Inverness,” as he called it — a woodsy labyrinth of easements blazed in the late 1800s.

Through unlocked gates of rustic homes passed down through generations, I was introduced to a frail former judge who is building a chicken coop in his backyard, which has sweeping bay views, and a 50-something environmentalist who supplies his friends with fresh-caught salmon.

The next day, we explored the area’s oyster farms. We joined a beekeeping couple from Kansas City who stopped on their drive up Highway 1, specifically for the Oyster Lover’s Tour with new West Marin Food & Farm Tours. Elizabeth Hill, whose grandparents and great-grandparents summered in Inverness, recently moved here full-time herself, to start a series of small-group culinary excursions. It’s the first of its kind in a place that typically eschews anything oriented toward tourists. “I overheard a woman complaining the other day about ‘some new tour company,’ ” Ms. Hill said. “ ‘Oh, it’s O.K.,’ ” she recounted the woman’s friend saying. “ ‘It’s Norma Wells’s granddaughter.’ ”

Stuffed on briny oysters and a picnic lunch of pastrami, bread, blue cheese and chutney (all locally made and obtained at various area shops), Josh and I mourned the fact that there was no time for our favorite 10-mile trek through the tule elk preserve at Tomales Point. Maybe a bioluminescence paddle on the bay tonight instead, we decided.

That evening, en route to the bay, though, we spied a trail winding through a lush meadow and pulled over. The air was warm and still, and we were joined only by munching cows. Then, suddenly, a great blue heron swooped down to grab a gopher. Getting hungry, too, we turned the car around.

Sunday at Sir and Star is much mellower, a locals’ affair. “You’re back,” our server said with a smile, as we slid into a table by a window.

Did we really just skip kayaking under the stars for dinner rolls? But then they arrived: six still-warm, pull-apart buns, with a mound of butter churned with local cream and whipped with West Marin honey. The butter was so good that when the bread is gone, I went for my spoon.

IF YOU GO

Where to Stay

For lodging, the home rental site VRBO.com is the way to go. Though rental rates are rising, what you’d pay for a summer week in Martha’s Vineyard could buy an entire month in Inverness. Accommodations can range from a one-bedroom renovated chicken coop to a waterfront cottage to a modern house with a living roof and lap pool.

Tucked in the trees across the bay, Margaret Grade and Daniel DeLong run the scattering of cabins at Manka’s Inverness Lodge (30 Callendar Way, Inverness; 415-669-1034; mankas.com; from $215) with fireside dinners on Fridays and Sundays and homemade sticky buns and yogurt delivered daily.

The remote Point Reyes Hostel (1390 Limantour Spit Road, Point Reyes; 415-663-8811; norcalhostels.org/reyes; $24 to $120) has 56 beds, and a new wing with private rooms.

In Marshall, the cluster of well-appointed cottages at Nick’s Cove (23240 Highway 1, Marshall; 415-663-1033; nickscove.com; from $229, two-night minimum) are somewhat overpriced for being on such a busy stretch, but those on stilts — like the ones called Ruthie’s and Al’s ($399) — directly above the bay are worth it. Dogs are welcome, too.

Where to Eat

Sir and Star at the Olema (10000 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard; 415-663-1034; sirandstar.com) is worth the drive, but six guest rooms will open by the holidays ($200 a night).

The convivial Saltwater Oyster Depot (12781 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Inverness; 415-669-1244; saltwateroysterdepot.com) serves sustainable and local fare. Be ready for a wait. Other oyster spots include Tomales Bay Oyster Company (tomalesbayoysters.com; reservations recommended) and Hog Island Oyster Company (hogislandoysters.com).

Picnic provisions from Cowgirl Creamery at Tomales Bay Foods (80 Fourth Street, Point Reyes Station; 415-663-9335; cowgirlcreamery.com) can cost you $60 — but it’s delicious.

What to Do

West Marin Food & Farm Tours (foodandfarmtours.com; $152 per person) is a terrific way to get to a taste of the sprawling agricultural area.

Bring your own kayak or rent from Blue Waters Kayaking (415-669-2600; bwkayak.com) with locations in Inverness and Marshall. It also runs guided sunset, bioluminescence and full-moon paddles.

 

Your Own Private Idaho

The “Entering Stanley, Idaho” sign seemed more like a friendly warning than a welcome. “Population 63,” it read, as if to say: Congratulations, you’ve made it to the middle of nowhere. Stanley is the entry point to the Sawtooth Valley, a time warp of a place with four saloons, five mountain ranges and not much else. My husband, Josh, our two children and I had driven three hours from Boise along an empty, winding two-lane scenic byway for a week of summer adventure. Still, as we strolled down deserted, dusty Wall Street looking for a lunch spot, it was hard not to wonder: Where is everyone?

They certainly weren’t on Highway 75, which we followed nine miles south from Stanley along the Salmon River, until we spied our home base, the historic Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, hidden in the foothills of the White Cloud Mountains, with a bull’s-eye view of the Sawtooth Range. After we checked into our rustic-luxe log cabin — on a little prairie, it was one Ma and Pa Ingalls would have envied — the first people we saw not wearing cowboy boots were my East Coast family: Mom and Dad, sister, brother-in-law and their children. They rolled in as we rocked on the front porch, captivated by the view: 10,000-foot snow-frosted peaks towering behind a trout-filled pond; bright white clouds suspended in a big, blue sky; buck fences lining fields of happy little sagebrush.

The first words out of my brother-in-law’s mouth: “I feel like I’m in a Bob Ross painting.”

Various national parks had been tossed around as potential destinations for this family trip: Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton. But I was hoping for something different. Can we please skip the parks? I begged. I love them in Ansel Adams photographs, but as a place to spend a weeklong summer vacation, the parks — and the bus tours and traffic, high-heel-teetering tourists and standardized cafeterias that come with them — are not my idea of good family fun. I know a place that’s just as pretty, I’d promised, but without all those people.

Established by Congress in 1972 and managed by the federal Forest Service, the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area, which includes the 217,000-acre Sawtooth Wilderness, is arguably more rugged and wild than any national park — in large part because it’s not one.

Annual visitation at each of the brand-name parks we had considered hovers around three and four million. (Great Smoky Mountains, in Tennessee, attracts the most, at about nine million a year.) Though equal in size to Yosemite, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area estimates just 1.5 million visitors. And since there are no welcome gates or entrance fees, Ed Cannady, the Forest Service recreation manager for the recreation area, said that figure is probably inflated, as it includes cars just passing through; he estimated the actual number of annual visitors is closer to around 700,000.

With 700 miles of trails and only a fraction of the annual visitors actually hiking them (exact statistics are not compiled), even the easiest, most accessible trails in the recreation area still feel like the backcountry compared with Yosemite’s valley floor. It came close, but the Sawtooths dodged the national park designation decades ago. And that’s a lucky thing, say locals, who proudly tout its unofficial slogan: “The Tetons, without the handrails.”

Indeed, the next day I could have used one, as I clung to the side of a boulder with one hand and sheepishly reached for my hiking guide’s arm with the other.

We were en route to a nameless high-alpine lake tucked beneath 10,751-foot Thompson Peak. The initial approach followed a sun-drenched trail through aspen groves and fields of balsam root, past views of snowy spires, until we climbed a couple of thousand feet and the trail all but disappeared, turning into a dirt-and-boulder-strewn slope, and it was time to scramble.

On the heels of our guide, Bill Leavell, a longtime local who regaled me with tales like the one about watching a wolf pack take down an elk outside his living room window, I made it across the scree, over a rocky bowl and up to the lake. It was still frozen and — with the jagged peak of the Sawtooths’ tallest mountain looming behind it — worth every step. I took a seat on an icy rock, pulled out my lodge-made turkey-prosciutto sandwich, and picnicked in the falling snow. Save for a scurrying rabbitlike pika and some well-camouflaged mountain goats, we were totally alone, as we were for almost the entire trek.

The next day, we left grandparents and kids behind (again), to hike to Goat Lake, another off-trail “attraction” in the area, still floating with chunks of ice. As we crossed creeks on slippery logs and inched along rock slabs, our new guide, Drew Daly, in his seventh season in the area, summed up what I was thinking: “If the Sawtooths were a national park this would be a paved road to a vista point; one of those 10-mile drives for a three-minute walk.” Instead, once again, on this late-June day, our foursome was the only group on a half-blazed trail.

And that’s how it was the entire week: virtual solitude in America’s great outdoors, all without having to pitch a tent (or pay five-star prices). This is what I like best about the Sawtooths: it gets the ratio of nature to creature comforts right. Chic spas and celebrity chefs? No. Natural riverside hot springs and grass-fed steak? Yes.

On a drift boat down the Salmon, we were the only anglers on our stretch of river. (I can call myself an angler, having landed a 16-inch cutthroat trout that day, right?) On a horseback ride up a hilltop, it was just us city slickers having a cultural exchange with a 20-year-old cowgirl leading the way. “What’s Twitter?” she asked, reigning in her horse, Jasper, who was feisty and, apparently, not used to groups. “What’s that?” countered my sister, pointing to a petrified mound on the ground. Cow pie, we were informed.

Back in Stanley, I was cautioned by a long-haired resident named Reno Spear at Peaks & Perks, the town coffee cart, where he’d been sitting on a milk crate for the past four hours, he admitted, admiring the mountains: “Just wait till July. It’s insane then.” Busier, yes. But I’d been here once before in July, and Stanley doesn’t know insane. “Last summer, I worked in Yellowstone,” one ranch employee said. “It was a constant stream of people asking me questions like ‘When do you release the animals from their cages?’ ”

Eventually, we found the crowds. They were at Redfish Lake Lodge, a classic family-run resort about five miles south of Stanley. “The Cabo of the Sawtooths,” Drew, our guide, had warned. Not quite, though it does have sandy beaches and all sorts of activity: tweens licked soft serve cones; couples paddle-boarded; children and dogs frolicked in the clear water, seemingly unbothered by its frigid temperature; families set up lawn chairs in preparation for a late afternoon folk singer. Backed by the same soaring peaks that seem to follow you everywhere in the Sawtooths, it was campy and fun and might as well have been 1970. Josh and I went back to Redfish the next morning to hop the boat shuttle that leaves on demand from the dock. Zipping across the lake, we left the cabins and campgrounds and RVs far behind for an easy three-mile hike up to Bench Lakes — supposedly one of the Sawtooths’ more popular, accessible spots. But on this sunny day we had it, no longer surprisingly, all to ourselves.

Josh peeled off his socks and shoes and waded knee-deep with his fly rod, casting (unsuccessfully) for trout, while I sidled up against a shaded boulder and cracked open my book. With warbling swallows as backdrop, I nodded off before I’d even turned a page.

HOW EXTREME?

Rankings are from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very).

Remoteness: 2

Boise is the closest city, a three-hour drive. Sun Valley and Ketchum are 60 miles south over the Galena Summit.

Creature Discomforts: 1

If discomfort means anything but, say, the St. Regis, than the Sawtooths aren’t for you. Plenty of campsites and cabins, from ramshackle to rustic-luxe.

Physical difficulty: 1 to 4

Something for everyone: Well-marked (though often rugged) hiking trails, rock climbing and rafting for all levels (the Salmon River is mostly Class II or III).

IF YOU GO

Where to Stay (and Eat)

Set on 900 acres, the Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch (208-774-3544; idahorocky.com), built in 1930, features 17 hand-hewn, just-luxe-enough log cabins and four lodge rooms, a natural hot springs pool, and a front porch with perfect views of the Sawtooth Range. From $185 to $285 per person a night; includes three delicious organic, meals a day.

The Sawtooth Hotel (208-721-2459; sawtoothhotel.com; starting at $70), in Stanley, is a historic hotel and restaurant, recently renovated, that looks as if it was built out of Lincoln Logs. The same couple also owns the Stanley Baking Company, whose homemade scones and sandwiches draw the town’s only lines.

Redfish Lake Lodge (208-774-3536; redfishlake.com; from $67 a night for lodge rooms to $550 for four-bedroom cabins) is a sprawling lakeside resort, which dates from 1929, that draws Boise locals and people from all over. Skip the sit-down restaurant in favor of the gazebo serving casual fare.

What to Do

The longtime hiking and rock-climbing experts at Sawtooth Mountain Guides (208-774-3324; sawtoothguides.com; from $75 a person, for a group of four) seem to know every nook and cranny of the Sawtooths.

Sawtooth Adventure Company (866-774-4644; sawtoothadventure.com; from $54), is one of several experienced white-water rafting outfitters on the Salmon.

Sun Valley’s Silver Creek Outfitters (208-726-5282; silver-creek.com; from $350 for two) has a small staff of knowledgeable Sawtooths-based guides, who all but guarantee a catch and an empty stretch of river.

 

The Road Goes on Forever

IT’S THE WELCOME BASKET that overwhelms him. Not the idyllic grounds or gardens or the fact that—for the first time in two years—Charlie Engle has his own room, with his own bath. Long deprived of fresh fruit, he beelines toward the bamboo bowl brimming with organic apples and Asian pears, just plucked from the surrounding orchards. Then, gazing out the sunlit window (a window!), he polishes off every piece. “I didn’t even know what I was eating! I just grabbed these weird brown things!” he says, laughing. “In prison I never ate something I couldn’t identify.”

I meet Charlie on a chilly morning last September at a manicured farm in Mendocino County, just a few weeks into his newfound freedom from West Virginia’s Beckley Federal Correctional Institute. He has been flown out to Northern California for the Do Lectures (think TED with olive oil and wine tastings), where he’ll lead morning runs through the grapevines and give an inspirational talk to a barn full of people in Patagonia puffies. It’s a chance to tell his new story, to see if the audience will accept him. Plus, it’s his 50th birthday, and wine country isn’t a bad place to spend it.

At seven this morning, he led a dozen of us on a six-mile run, but it’s not until he later hops up on the small Do Lecture stage that we learn the full extent of Charlie’s ultra-running, Hollywood-worthy past. For once, he kept his life’s details close to his dry-wick tee. “I thought my talk would be more impactful that way,” he says.

He was right. Turns out, as he tells the 100-person crowd in a 25-minute presentation, it was running that helped Charlie overcome a decade-long addiction to alcohol and drugs in his twenties. He went from doing crackand doing marathons—often days, sometimes mere minutes, apart—to getting sober and winning elite ultrarunning endurance races around the world, including a 155-mile run across China’s Gobi Desert in 2003 and a 135-mile jaunt through the Amazon jungle in 2004. In 2007, he and two other ultrarunners covered 45 miles a day, for 111 consecutive days, to cross the Sahara.

Charlie, who had previously freelanced as a cameraman and producer for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, dreamed up the idea for the expedition with ultrarunner Ray Zahab and approached Academy Award–winning director James Moll about making a documentary called Running the Sahara. Moll brought on Matt Damon as narrator and executive producer, and Damon’s production company secured the film’s sponsors, including Magellan Navigation, Toyota, and Gatorade. The project raised $6 million for the charity Damon cofounded with Charlie and others, H2O Africa, which brings clean water to communities in Africa.

The film, both gritty and moving, earned Charlie a new level of recognition, and sponsorships poured in, from Newton Running, Balega socks, and AXA Equitable. He signed on with an agent at William Morris, who secured corporate speaking engagements with fees as high as fifteen grand. Suddenly, Charlie had turned his two legs into a full-time, income-generating career.

The second film he appeared in, Running America, about his attempt to set a new cross-country speed record with ultrarunner Marshall Ulrich, premiered in May 2010, in his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, to a packed theater. “Best day of my life,” Charlie says. Less than 24 hours later, he was arrested for mortgage fraud.

In the spring of 2009, Greensboro IRS special agent Robert Nordlander became aware of Engle after reading about Running the Sahara in the local papers and wondered how he had time to make a living with all that training. He opened an investigation after noticing that Charlie hadn’t filed taxes for two years. When Nordlander found no wrongdoing on the returns he persisted, ultimately sending in an undercover female agent. While wearing a wire over lunch, she recorded Charlie saying: “I had a couple of good liar loans out there, you know, which my mortgage broker didn’t mind writing down, you know, that I was making $400,000 a year when he knew I wasn’t.”

The case went to trial in September 2010 in a federal court in Virginia, where Charlie owned a couple of properties. The jury eventually found him guilty of mortgage fraud (broadly defined as intentionally falsifying or omitting information on a mortgage application to obtain a loan). The prosecution pushed for four years’ imprisonment, but Judge Jerome Friedman considered Charlie’s clean record, his charity work, and the 120 letters of support he received and gave him 21 months instead.

The prosecutors maintain that the case was quite clear. “Mr. Engle was convicted by a jury of fraudulently obtaining more than $1 million in four mortgage loans on two properties, pulling out nearly $150,000 in equity, and then allowing the properties to go into foreclosure,” says Neil MacBride, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Still, hundreds of thousands of borrowers and brokers used liar loans—otherwise known as stated-income loans, which did not require a lender to verify a borrower’s annual income—during the housing boom, and Charlie remains baffled as to why he was targeted. “Twenty-one months for allegedly over-stating your income on a loan application?” he says. “It’s frigging ridiculous! What sort of prison tattoo am I supposed to get? A fountain pen?”

Indeed, several prominent journalists took up the case while he was in prison, pointing out the lack of prosecutions aimed at big-fish bankers who were driving forces in the housing bubble and crash. “It’s not just that Mr. Engle is the smallest of small fry that is bothersome. It is also the way the government went about building its case,” wrote New York Times columnist Joe Nocera in one of two columns he devoted to Charlie. “The more I looked into it, the more I came to believe that the case against him was seriously weak. As for that ‘confession’ … It really isn’t a confession at all. Mr. Engle is confessing to his mortgage broker’s sins, not his own.”

Charlie has always said that he didn’t fill out the loan document, and he maintains his innocence. Though motions for a new trial were denied in late January, he says he will persevere and intends to appeal until the felony is cleared from his record.

Meanwhile, whatever the merits of the case, Charlie served his time, and now he’s out. He’s back to dreaming big, planning another epic adventure: to run, bike, and kayak from the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, to the highest, the Himalayas, where he’ll climb to the top of Mount Everest.

He’s also jobless, facing five years of probation, and staring at a $262,500 court-ordered debt to the bank. “Which basically guarantees real poverty,” he says. “I just want my life back. The one they took from me. My biggest fear—my only fear— is that I won’t be able to live my life the way I want to.

BACK IN THE BARN, the Do crowd is riveted, including fellow speaker Cheryl Strayed, author ofWild, one of the 153 books Charlie read in prison. “You ran 4,400 miles across the Sahara?” she exclaims. “I only walked 1,100!” Charlie, who is writing a memoir, later says to me, only half-joking, “I was like, if she can write a bestseller about a hike…” The weekend was the jump-start he needed. Not every just-sprung ex-con gets a standing ovation.

But two months later, when Charlie returns to California from his home in Greensboro, post-prison reality has set in. We meet up in San Francisco. He looks older, paler, more human than superhero. He’s doing contract work for Hawkeye, a company that sets up urban obstacle-race courses and has 72 rainy hours of hard manual labor and sleepless nights ahead. Still, he’s grateful for the temporary gig. He’ll make about $2,000, plus get a shared room at the Radisson and free pizza.

At six feet tall and 175 pounds, Charlie is bigger than most distance runners. With blue eyes and a goofy grin, veiny temples, and graying, thinning hair, he looks a little like Don Knotts, but with more muscle tone. “From the neck down, he could be 18 years old,” says his friend Greg Clark, who has known him since he actually was. He says “aww” when he drives past road kill and taught his two sons (now 18 and 21) to greet people with hugs, not handshakes.

Sipping a triple-shot mocha, Charlie starts in on his life story. He got married in 1987, the day before his 25th birthday, to Pam Smith, a woman he’d spent a total of ten days with. They bounced around, from California to Georgia, where their first son, Brett, was born, in 1992, and settled in Greensboro, where their second son, Kevin, was born, in 1994. Pam and Charlie divorced in 2002 but remain close. They live minutes from each other in Greensboro, the sons with their mother.

On February 14, 2011, when Charlie entered Beckley, a fence-free minimum-security facility, guards ripped his sons from his arms, stripped the clothes off his back, and tossed him regulation greens and steel-toed leather boots. He got good advice early on, from an inmate named Block. “ ‘Do your time,’ he said, ‘don’t let your time do you,’ ” Charlie recalls.

He took it to heart. What he accomplished with a pair of Nike castoffs from the commissary and a quarter-mile gravel track is pretty impressive.

For starters: 135 miles. If he couldn’t make it to Badwater that year, he’d bring the famed Death Valley ultramarathon to him.

So at 6 a.m. on July 11, 2011, on his own, Charlie ran. Around and around the basketball courts on the quarter-mile path. There was no cheering on the sidelines. No support crew, save the guy he asked to toss him a Snickers.

He marked each mile with a stone: 81 the first day, 54 the next. He was back in his cell by the 4 p.m. count. A prisoner still—but 540 laps later, the length of the race done.

When he wasn’t running or cleaning the pool hall, his assigned prison job, he’d devour old copies ofVanity Fair or respond to the hundreds of letters he received—from recovering addicts, inspired runners, supporters he’d never met. Or he’d be in the library, poring over a world atlas, charting his route from the Dead Sea to Everest.

At first, no one was quite sure what to make of him, the guy running in the rec yard every day, doing downward dog, trading cafeteria meat for fruit, corralling signatures to get almonds onto the commissary list. “These guys call me crazy and maybe I really am,” he wrote in his journal. “It’s a label I can live with in here … my crazy label has drawn a lot of guys to me.”

One by one, inmates began approaching Charlie, tentatively jogging beside him and asking fitness advice (“If I jiggle my fat on purpose while I’m running, will that help me burn it off faster?”) and nutrition questions (“How many laps around the track equals a doughnut?”). Soon he amassed a ragtag workout group: Block, Butter Bean, Bootsy, Dave the pot dealer, Casey the meth manufacturer, Howell, in for a white-collar crime, and Adam, a six-foot-five 430-pounder who huffed and puffed his way to the cafeteria.

They met every afternoon. They’d run, do speed intervals, and lift rocks. Charlie’s coaching style was more lead-by-example than Jillian Michaels. “I’m not really a you-can-do-it type of guy,” he says. “I’m more like: if what I do inspires you, if you see something in that, then good for you.”

This unlikely crew saw something. “It was the darnedest thing,” recalls Casey by phone after his release, describing how he lost 20 pounds and worked his way up to five miles a day. “Charlie’d tell you entire stories while you ran. He’d just carry you around the track, know what I mean?”

Fifty-nine-year-old Howell got down to 7:30 miles and started running half-marathon lengths at Beckley. But it was Adam who had the most impressive turnaround. By December, he’d lost 180 pounds and went from a 46-inch waist to a 36. In a six-page letter to me from prison, Adam shares his first impression of Charlie. “I’d started walking and was complaining about blisters,” he writes, explaining how he thought he’d never be able to get size 14EEEE sneakers from the commissary. But “that afternoon, Charlie shows up in my cell. He went through the trouble of finding shoes for the morbidly obese guy he didn’t know.”

On August 8, 2012, Adam ran ten miles for the first time. “This is for Charlie,” he said of his friend, who’d left prison for the halfway house in June.

CHARLIE ACTUALLY started off on the right path in high school, in Southern Pines, North Carolina. He was at the top of his class, student-body president, a star at every sport he tried, including track—like his grand-father, who coached at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 40 years. But when Charlie got to UNC himself in 1980, he realized that he wasn’t exceptional at anything but alcohol. It was the early eighties, and cocaine was as common as kegs; by his junior year, he’d lost control of his addiction. His father, who divorced his mother in 1964, pulled him out of school and got him a job flipping burgers at a Wendy’s in Seattle, where he lived at the time.

Charlie spent the next decade moving around, going from cocaine to crack, and waffling between bingeing and achieving. One day he was the best salesman at Bally Fitness in Atlanta, Georgia; the next he was borrowing drug money from the Baskin-Robbins register he manned in Monterey, California. He became a top Toyota salesman, until he got fired for not showing up. He found a new niche in the auto industry, paintless dent repair, and started a company that chased hailstorms around the U.S. Suddenly, he was earning more money than he’d ever made. And spending it on more crack than he’d ever smoked.

His binges lasted anywhere from two days to two months and typically involved motel rooms, random women, and thousands of dollars of crack, which he’d smoke in three hours. Then repeat. His lowest moments came when he’d wake up strung out on some sidewalk—and see joggers’ legs going by.

So he did what he presumed no drug addict could possibly do: he laced up and started running marathons. His first was at age 26, in Big Sur, California, in 1989. The next year he ran Napa (March 10), then Boston (April 15), then Big Sur (April 21) again. He’d binge, then race, binge, then race. “I could say, ‘I just ran a 3:07. What’d you do this weekend?’ ” he recalls. He found sobriety in 1992, two months after the birth of his first son, Brett, when a weeklong crack spree in Wichita ended with a narrow escape and three bullet holes in his 4Runner. He went to three AA meetings that day, and the day after, and he attended a meeting at least once every single day for the following year. After ten years of addiction, what changed in Wichita? “All I can say is, I had a son, and I finally decided to choose life over death,” Charlie says.

Four years later, he’d done 30 marathons—and won his first ultra, a 100-miler in Australia. By the turn of the century he was on top of the world, competing all over it.

LAST DECEMBER, I visited Charlie in Greensboro. He’s living rent-free in a house in the suburbs with a friend who has an extra bedroom. Strewn with AA and Buddhist books, his old polyester greens and tattered Nikes, it looks like he’s barely unpacked from prison.

He’s wearing a gray shirt printed with the words BELIEVE+ACHIEVE in white. “I almost called to say don’t come,” he says. “I’m not in a good place. I’m too depressed. I hate it. It’s not me.”

We head outside to Greensboro’s network of wooded trails and he vents: “No one cares. No one gives a shit about me unless I’m doing something interesting.”

His cell phone rings midrun. It’s his 18-year-old son, Kevin. Doesn’t matter who it is—kids, potential job leads, probation officer, former girlfriends—he always picks up. They make dinner plans. “Bye, love you buddy,” he says.

“I’d love to do Badwater with my boys someday,” he says. Though Dead Sea to Everest is his top priority right now, Charlie has a zillion big ideas brewing. “Iceland would be really cool.” He also wants to take another shot at running across America. He wasn’t able to complete the first run due to a staph infection. (Marshall Ulrich pulled off the third-fastest crossing, completing it in 52 days.) “The women’s time is actually pretty soft,” he says. “I could find someone to do it with me. We’d go after both records.” And, of course, film it.

Eight miles later, his mood has mildly improved.

But he’s got a long way to go before recovering financially. He has no savings and is scraping together a living by working for a friend’s paintless dent repair business and with various freelance projects, like the contract work for Hawkeye. All of his sponsors dropped him after his conviction, as did H2O Africa (now known as Water.org), where he was a board member. Though he has given rousing free talks at his old UNC fraternity and the local Kiwanis club, he’s waiting to reenter the speaking circuit until he has something more positive to say. “People want a comeback story,” he says. “I haven’t come back from shit yet.”

Still, he’s constantly working all kinds of deals from his de facto office, the sofa. iPad propped on his knees and iPhone at the ready, he fields phone calls, e-mails, texts. Ding! A producer potentially interested in a reality-TV series he’s pitching called Time Served, about helping former inmates find their footing. Bark! A warden from a women’s prison in Tennessee inviting him to come speak. Ring!An AP reporter asking to film him at the Krispie Kreme Challenge, in Raleigh—which requires running 2.5 miles, eating a dozen doughnuts, then running back—for French television. Sure, agrees Charlie. He’s up for anything right now. As Kevin says over dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, “We wish he was a normal dad, but he’s not.”

To get fit, Charlie runs “as much as is humanly possible” and works out at his gym. He occasionally goes to Bikram yoga and sees his chiropractor (who never makes him pay). He admits that his body isn’t in shape for the Brazil 135, which his probation officer just green-lighted and is coming up in four weeks. “Prison, the stress, it all took a real toll,” he says. But his physical state seems to be the last thing he’s worried about. Ready or not, he’ll always run.

Ring! “Naaaaaate Smith… So nice to see your name,” says Charlie over a bowl of black bean soup at Panera Bread. The old friends, who met in the nineties when Nate was Charlie’s instructor at the San Francisco–based Presidio Adventure Racing Academy, catch up. Turns out Nate is now a manager at Oakley. I listen to Charlie’s end of the call:

“I have a new expedition planned. It goes from the Dead Sea to the top of Everest … I know … I just had to change my route again after I realized—what was I thinking?—I can’t cross Syria right now! So I’m gonna run through Jordan into Saudi Arabia, then Oman. I’ll paddle across the Arabian Sea and then bike across India to Everest. And climb it. Yeah, it’ll be another film.” He takes a sip of his soup.

It’s Christmastime, and at this point he has nothing more than a loose plan and a PDF of his pitch. Still, his tone is done-deal matter-of-fact. (Subtext: How about a sponsorship?)

Self-propelled, multi-country expeditions have been completed before. Last year, a 49-year-old Australian named Pat Farmer successfully ran from the North Pole to the South Pole in nine months. And Turkish-American adventurer Erden Eruc spent five years cycling, rowing, and climbing around the globe, finally completing his journey last summer. But very few have ever gone from the lowest point on earth to the highest. Which, of course, is why Charlie wants to.

He’ll kick off the expedition with a float in Jordan’s Dead Sea, then run 2,000 miles east—through Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Oman (approximately 40 miles a day)—to the Arabian Sea, which he’ll kayak 750 miles across to the coast of India. And then bike 2,350 more miles, for a total of 5,000 miles in six months—in order to reach Everest by May, climbing season. (He’s summited mountains of less stature before: McKinley, Whitney, Rainier, and, during the 1998 Raid Gauloises, Ecuador’s 19,347-foot Cotopaxi, following a five-day run.) His lean crew will consist of a physical therapist, a logistics expert, and a native in each country familiar with the area and local customs. Matt Battiston, a retired Army Ranger and former Eco-Challenge teammate of Charlie’s, has agreed to be his U.S.–based chief coordinator. Unlike Sahara and America, Charlie will run solo this time.

Being a gifted self-promoter is a necessity for anyone seeking to make a living in adventure sports, and Charlie is one of the best. Though some grow tired of his shtick. Ulrich, fellow star of Running America, no longer speaks to him. (Nor did he want to be interviewed for this story.) But in Running on Empty, his book about the 3,063-mile adventure, Ulrich writes: “The guy could work a room, for sure. Charlie’s braggadocio and craving for the limelight had begun to rub me the wrong way.” The index lists six separate instances under the heading “Engle, Charlie, conflicts with,” but Ulrich also credits Charlie for making the project possible. “It had all finally materialized with Charlie’s efforts,” he writes.

“He’s not egotistical,” says Jill Leibowitz, a producer who first met Charlie while researching a potential piece for HBO’s Real Sports about his run across America. “But he does have a very high level of confidence. You have to,” says Leibowitz, who’s now at Chicago-based Intersport, the production company working to secure sponsorships and funding for Dead Sea to Everest in exchange for a cut of what comes in. At least one former sponsor has expressed interest: Newton, the Boulder, Colorado, running company, which is also providing him with shoes. Before Inter-sport signed on, in January, a few colleagues asked Leibowitz if Charlie was credible. Her response: “Completely.”

BUT THE DEAD Sea to the top of Everest? That’s crazy talk. “I just keep talking,” Charlie says. “It’s what I did with Sahara. The thought of Sahara actually happening? I mean, really actually happening, never crossed my mind. Until one day, I bolted up in bed at 3 a.m. and said, ‘Oh, my God, I have to run across the Sahara Desert!’ ”

“I like to experience the world by the soles of my feet,” he says. “I want to suffer. I need the next adventure so I can know that feeling again.”

In late January, he gets a taste of it, after finishing the Brazil 135 in 45 hours. To further test himself, he tacked on 133 additional miles beforehand—“to find out where I stood,” he says—to run a total of 268 in four days. We talk the day he gets home. His body is broken, but he’s elated. “I set my own personal reset button,” he says. “Pain is what I need. Somehow, the easy path just doesn’t do it for me.”

Back in Greensboro, post-Brazil, things start to pick up for him. Hawkeye books him for more race-course work; he submits a memoir proposal to his literary agent, who is shopping it around; a DePaul University professor decides to make a documentary about his case; his paintless dent repair work is once again bringing in some money; and Running the Sahara and Running America are being rereleased by DigiNext Films in 18 theaters this spring. He also accepts a job as director of TransOmania, a 170-mile nonstop race across Oman in January 2014, where he’s planning on being at the time for Dead Sea to Everest. Coordinating the event will allow him to make some money midway into his expedition and give him a week to recover from his 2,000-mile run across Jordan before his 750-mile paddle across the Arabian Sea. Meanwhile he’s already jonesing for Badwater, in July. “Let’s say I’m not just looking to finish,” he proclaims.

Charlie plans to leave in December 2014 for Dead Sea to Everest. He will do it, he vows. Can he hold up for 5,000 miles and 29,035 feet? “Oh, absolutely,” says Ian Adamson, a friend and a director of research at Newton, as well as a world-record holder in distance kayaking, who has agreed to accompany Charlie across the Arabian Sea leg of the journey.

But the more pressing question looms: whether Charlie can rebuild his life and put together an expedition of this caliber. It’s almost as if he needs these insane goals to stay sane.

“Going from the lowest place on earth to the highest is perfectly in line with how I feel about my own existence right now,” he says. “Yes, I do need this. But there will always be a next adventure for me.”

He’s also realistic. “I never guarantee success. That’d be foolish,” he says. “Things never go as you expect.” He grins. “The interesting part is what goes wrong along the way. Shit happens. It’s all about what you do when it does.”

Surfacing: NoPa

Years ago, realtors attempted to gussy up a gritty slice of the Western Addition area of San Francisco — home to wig shops, greasy diners and its fair share of crime — with a catchy acronym, NoPa, after its city-central location, north of the Panhandle. When the restaurant Nopa took over an abandoned Laundromat in 2006, the moniker started to catch on — and it now seems to have officially stuck. Rents are rising, retail options are evolving, and the neighborhood is expanding up, down and around Divisadero Street. Check-cashing joints have become trendy salons; landscaped parklets and do-it-yourself schools have cropped up; and artisanal pies and pizza are making a Popeyes look increasingly out of place. With plans for better bike lanes, a branch of the cult-favorite grocery and ice cream shop Bi-Rite coming this fall, and a Four Barrel cafe and “toast bar” (called the Mill) opening soon, NoPa is poised to become the next Mission — just leafier and more low-key.

Workshop

1798 McAllister Street

(415) 874-9186

workshopsf.org

All things DIY is the focus at this unassuming 800 square foot space. Spend a foggy summer evening learning how to stretch your own mozzarella, assemble a terrarium. build a quilt, or pickle, jam, and can. Single classes are around $40; reservations for private groups are available too.

The Independent

628 Divisadero Street

(415) 771-1421

theindependentsf.com

The Fillmore may be the city’s most renowned live music venue, but the intimate “Indy” — with its 500-person capacity — has become one of its most popular, hosting everyone from big-name bands like Green Day to rising local singer-songwriters like Nicki Bluhm. There are also Monday movie nights, for free (the two-drink minimum sure beats a $6 bucket of popcorn.)

Rare Device

600 Divisadero Street

(415) 863-3969

raredevice.net

This art gallery-cum-curio collection moved here in April from its “no-man’s-land” location, a sales clerk said, barely looking up from his iPad. “NoPa is going to be way better for us.” On offer: reclaimed apothecary matchstick bottles, wooden puzzle serving platters and illustrated books and stationary from Little Otsu, a mini-version of the former Mission storefront.

 Ragazza

311 Divisadero Street

(415) 255-1133

ragazzasf.com

San Francisco didn’t need another Neopolitan-style, cracker-thin-crust pizza place, but in 2010, Divisadero Street got a quality one, from the chef Sharon Ardiana. Highlights include the Calabrian “Moto,” topped with chile flakes and house-made sausage, and a newly opened (and heated) garden patio. (Expect a wait.)

San Franpsycho

505 Divisadero Street

sanfranpsycho.com

A couple of surfers-skaters (and self-proclaimed partiers) with a thing for screen-printing opened this flagship apparel store and studio in March. Their Golden Gate Bridge “San Franpsycho” logo is already ubiquitous — before long, it may become the new go-to tourist T-shirt choice.

Losing my Vegas Virginity

No one thought Las Vegas was my kind of town. “You wouldn’t last 24 hours!” friends warned. “You, of all people, would absolutely haaate it.”

I’m the type who prefers the mountains to the mall. I cringe at the oversize and artificial. I get lost in crowds. Cry in traffic. And so, naturally, I always agreed: Sin City was not for me.

But then, here I was, a Vegas virgin at 32 years old. And, I admit, I was curious. Maybe it was time I learned what all the buzz was about. I’m young; I’m fun; I’m a travel writer, for crying out loud! I called my friend Raina, the one other person I knew who’d Never Been, and we booked our flights.

And then we booked a room — intentionally off the Strip and away from the chaos — at the swank new Red Rock Casino, Resort & Spa, located 10 miles west of Las Vegas Boulevard and five minutes, tops, from the entrance to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. With an “adventure spa” and a view of the red rock from my big cushy bed, how bad could it be? We’ll spend our days outside — in the wilderness, I told Raina. At night, we’ll hit the town. If, honestly, only because we were dying to try chef Joël Robuchon’s new eponymous restaurant, which elevated the local, already-on-the-rise dining scene. And then we’ll retreat safely back to our rooms, Cinderella-style. After all, if we were going to make the most of our days, we couldn’t sleep through them.

“Vegas doesn’t typically attract, uh, outdoorsy people,” says my cabdriver, on the way out of McCarran International Airport. Perfect, I think. More room for me. I’d heard all about Red Rock Canyon: It is climbers’ heaven, with hiking and horseback trails galore. But I didn’t know the relatively untracked Valley of Fire State Park is only an hour away; nor did I realize I could kayak down the Colorado River from the base of Hoover Dam. Vegas, baby, Vegas.

Our very first night, we wrap ourselves in the hotel’s plush white robes, order room service, and watch America’s Next Top Model. Off to a lame start, we realize. But what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! Plus, we have an early morning on the Colorado River.

Before we catch even a glimpse of glitter, we see a trio of bighorn sheep moseying along a grassy hillside near the base of Hoover Dam — our launching pad for the day’s paddle. I’m happy. At the suggestion of our Red Rock Casino adventure activities guide, David Bert, we sign up with Evolution Expeditions Kayaking — a new outfitter with the best boats in town. Given the tight security at the Southwest’s landmark power source, only 30 water permits are issued daily. “Even without that rule, though, there wouldn’t be many folks out here,” says Evolution’s owner, Dan Cameron. “Locals who’ve lived here forever have no idea you can do this! Took me 20 years to find out.”

Feeling fortunate to get a bottom-up view of the monolithic dam in the early morning light, we slip quietly down the glassy class I river and past the volcanic red rock of Black Canyon. Our first stop is Sauna Cave, where our guide, Aaron, leads us into a pitch-black 60-foot-deep, geothermally heated tunnel. We walk cautiously and ankle-deep in soothing, steamy water. Then we paddle on peacefully under the big blue sky, past peregrine falcons, our eyes peeled for more bighorns. I forget I’m in Las Vegas until Aaron informs me that his dream job is to be an aerial artist in a Cirque du Soleil show. “I’m worried I don’t have the body,” he admits, “but this kayaking gig should hopefully help my muscle tone.”

At Boyscout Canyon, we wade through a series of natural hot springs until we reach a big turquoise-clear pool, tempered by a rushing cold waterfall, and jump in. “This sure beats gambling!” says the one other guest on our trip. Agreed.

That evening, we shift gears: Cruising down Interstate 15 in our Chevy Impala, we channel Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in Swingers. A surge of excitement hits us as we near the Strip. We’re dwarfed by the gaudyskyscrapers, shining by the light of the setting sun. The sky is pink, the traffic converging. Signs, signs, everywhere are neon signs. We’re trapped in a real-life Lite-Brite, starstruck and overstimulated.

An all-glass elevator shoots us to the top of The Hotel at Mandalay Bay, to Mix Lounge, where we toast our trip from a patio table with a bird’s-eye view of the entire Strip. Lights crawl like caterpillars along the edge of the Luxor Las Vegas pyramid. So many hotels. So many parking lots. The long, narrow bar, with its disco feel, deep booths, and dim light, is almost too cool. Next stop is dinner at Daniel Boulud Brasserie at Wynn Las Vegas. Arguably the hotel on Las Vegas Boulevard since its splashy 2005 opening, the Wynn boasts a $2.7 billion price tag, a collection of van Goghs and Picassos that will bring you to tears, $500 greens fees, and a flashy website that takes two minutes to load.

We allow a good half-hour to make our way 3 miles, but still we’re late for our reservation. The effects of the long day in the desert sun kick in as we devour our steak frites and crispy duck confit, mesmerized by the changing colors of the “Lake of Dreams” light show outside. Bedtime. Twenty-four hours down — and, surprising myself, I’m actually looking forward to tomorrow.

We grab a cup of coffee and a couch in the lobby, and stare through the doors tinted fire-engine red at a view of fountains, non-native palms, and surrounding construction that will soon create an urban center, complete with residences and shops. We meet up with David Bert, the adventure activities guide who’d steered us to the kayak trip, so he can show us around Red Rock Canyon, the national conservation area he’s long considered home. “Are you ready to get spanked?” he asks. I’m startled, but then quickly realize it’s only innocuous hiking-speak. We tell him we’d prefer to take it easy, after yesterday’s invigorating paddle. He whisks us 15 minutes from the resort, yet seemingly worlds away, to Sandstone Quarry.

I’m surrounded by yellow sandstone cliffs, ruins of an agave-roasting pit, and crazy red rock formations. I ponder how these pancake layers came to be. “People come here for the whole what happens-here-stays-here thing,” says David. “I tell them, ‘Take a bunch of photos, show your friends! Spend a few bucks on a horseback ride and actually get your money’s worth –you’ll blow a whole lot more at the blackjack tables.’ ” We scramble up to Calico Tanks, one of David’s favorite respites — and a unique juxtaposition. Standing among 150-millionyear- old rock, touching the earth in its purest form, I can see, looking at a distant Emerald City, the exact antithesis: a 6-mile stretch of nothing but stuff, spanning from the Stratosphere to Mandalay Bay.

We’re back by noon and head straight for Salt Lick for real-deal Texas barbecue: jalapeño-stuffed shrimp wrapped in applewood bacon and tender smoked brisket. Trying our best to save room for dinner, we hold back on the berry cobbler. And then we hit the pool, the hotel’s 3-acre centerpiece encircled by private cabanas and umbrella-shaded chaises. The scene is tamer than I’d imagined, with more gray-haired folks than bikini-clad 20-somethings. Next, I treat my desert-dehydrated skin to the “Crystal Caviar” facial. After an indulgent sequence of exfoliation, creams, masks, and wraps, I emerge glowing — and ready for our next splurge, Robuchon.

Dining at Joël Robuchon’s restaurant, for us, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, with the full tasting menu priced at $360. So we savor each of the 16 courses, every sip of wine, and every pampered moment of the three-hour dinner. We treasure the over-the-top touches, from the dizzying choice of 14 kinds of fresh-baked levain to the truffled langoustine ravioli to the purple ribbon–tied napkin that appears upon return from each trip to the ladies’ room. Only in Vegas.

Après dinner, we head over to the Mirage for Love, Las Vegas’s latest Cirque du Soleil production. An acrobatic show unfolds, set to a remix of the Beatles’ greatest hits. We silently sing along, awestruck by the tumbles and trapeze — and then I, uh, nod off. Just briefly. It was late … We had all that wine … Raina nudges me. By the heartening “Love Is All You Need” finale, I’m revived.

Downstairs, we see a snaking line by a velvet rope. It’s Jet, the hottest club on the Strip — or so we’d heard. Enough with the good-night sleeps. We’re in Vegas! The music is hypnotizing, as is the people-watching. We make it through two of the three sound rooms in the laser grid-lit space. But we can only handle so much. Around 3 a.m., we call it a night.

We wake way too late for the sunrise horseback ride we’d planned. “This must be how people normally do Vegas,” I grumble, as we wander aimlessly around the MGM Grand. I slap five bucks down on the Wheel of Fortune — and win five more! This is kinda fun, but I’m no fool and quit while I’m ahead.

And we rally. We leave the Strip for a drive through Lake Mead National Recreation Area to Valley of Fire State Park. An endless stretch of mind-boggling boulders erupts from the creosote bush. The red rock looks superimposed against the stormy sky. Terra-cotta sand seeps into our sneakers along the White Domes Trail. Eventually, we tear ourselves away. Four days and 100 hours later, it’s all over. “Checking out just for the morning?” the valet asks, opening the car door. He sees my suitcase. “Or checking out forever?” he smiles. I pause, unsure at first how to respond. “Actually. No. Not forever,” I reply. “I’ll be back.”

Unique Sleeps

Sleep in a … Treehouse

So. This is what it feels like to be a tree. A branch sways. A bird flaps by. It’s just before sunrise, and I’m cuddled beneath a canopy of green needles and drooping pinecones. If the windowpanes next to my pillow could open, I’d palm the peeling panels of bark. Instead, I just look: up (through the skylight), around (through walls of windows), and down, at the river rushing 35 feet below. I’m suspended partway up a 300-year-old, 160-foot-tall Sitka spruce, surrounded by a stillness unlike any I’ve ever felt before. I’m one with the forest. And it’s pretty freaking cool. Julia Butterfly Hill certainly didn’t have it this good: built-in cedar beds, leather reading chairs, handmade quilts. At TreeHouse Point, 10 minutes from Snoqualmie Falls, Pete Nelson has created a two- treehouse utopia, with more underway–plus giant hammocks hung 18 feet high, trails leading to a rocky riverfront beach, and a night sky filled with stars that you feel just a smidge closer to.

From $195, including breakfast; treehousepoint.com 

Surfacing: In San Francisco, A Bleak Neighborhood Is Revived

It took the promise of freshly baked bread and recently laid eggs to drag Becky Eaton, 28, out of bed and all the way to Ocean Beach, on the far western edge of San Francisco. Outerlands hadn’t opened yet, but she was first in a long line of hungry locals dressed in hoodies and flip-flops. “This better be worth the half-hour on Muni,” she said, referring to the often slow city transit system. She knew it would be. It’s one of a few spots adding buzz to the Outer Sunset, a once bleak neighborhood home to surfers and families looking for affordable housing. Today, it hosts a cluster of arty shops and cafes covered in swirls of salvaged wood — a sort of Driftwood Alley.

You Have No New Messages

The first gong I hear isn’t really a gong but a gentle ding-ding-ding as a monk moves down the path in front of my cabin. I struggle to my feet, grab my water bottle, and shuffle out into the pitch-dark on my way to morning meditation. It’s 5:20 a.m. and I’m wondering, What am I doing here?

“You can’t sit still,” everyone from my mother to my husband to my therapist has always told me. It’s true. I’m the always-running-around type. Running late. Running errands. Running just to run. I talk as fast as I move, and if I do sit still for any length of time, it’s because I have a laptop propped against my legs.

And I’m not the only one. We live in the Always-On Age. We text while we walk and IM while we talk and spend more time with our screens than with our spouses. I needed a serious reboot, if not a full-on rehab: an escape to a Wi-Fi-free world where people do nothing but sit. Statue-still. Facing a wall. In silence.

Just as thousands of monks, teachers, and students have done here — at the bottom of a Big Sur canyon deep in California’s Ventana Wilderness — every day since 1967, when a Japanese Buddhist monk founded Tassajara, the first Zen monastery outside of Asia.

Surrounded by rising mountains and old-growth pines, Tassajara is an off-the-grid alter-universe, where kerosene lamps are lit by matches and time is marked by a cloud-shaped gong. Spiritual seekers from San Francisco to Stockholm, Moscow to Missoula stroll softly in dark robes, bowing to each other and to mini altars erected everywhere. And from late April through mid-September, Tassajara opens to the hedonistic public. Guests come, 80 a night, for meditation mixed with soaks in the hot springs, hikes along the river, maybe an outdoor massage or yoga retreat–and all the kale, polenta, and whole-wheat sourdough they can eat. Once was, a large majority of Tassajara’s guests were repeat visitors. But these days, 50 percent are here for the first time.

Like me. Curious, if skeptical, types who’ve meditated maybe once in their life (Buddhism 101, freshman year). So I signed up for the Guest Practice Program: 10 slots for those who want a taste of the real Tassajara, at a fraction of the price. For the next four days, I’m half-student, half-guest, straddling the two worlds like Baby in Dirty Dancing.

“No water bottles inside the zendo,” a monk reprimands in a surprisingly harsh whisper. I’m not off to a good start. She points to a cushion. I take my assigned spot and try to mimic the woman next to me: barefoot, legs linked, back straight. I’m ready to sit.

A bell rings and my mind races. Look at me! Meditating. At the bottom of a canyon. I’m hungry. Tired. What’s she thinking about? Are we supposed to be thinking? How much longer? How much Then: snooze. I break the cardinal rule of meditation and fall asleep.

I awake feeling disoriented but semi-rested. Everyone stands and chants for what seems like a long time before we file out. As I pass the Zendo policemonk, she whispers, “Please go to the kitchen for soji.” I’m hoping soji is Zen-speak for omelet and hash browns. Instead it means “temple cleaning,” and I find myself tearing romaine lettuce in silence for the next 15 minutes. Then a gong. Finally, breakfast.

I stare inside my bowl of rice porridge, inspecting every surprisingly tasty kernel so as to avoid eye contact with the student sitting across from me. “Good morning,” says a hoodied dude in his late 20s as he bows his bald head.

Modern-day Zen Buddhists aren’t necessarily the wise, wrinkled Mr. Miyagi types you might expect. Nor are they ’60s counterculture castaways in late-model VWs searching for some fashionable Eastern enlightenment. There was a time when you’d stumble on Joan Baez or Linda Ronstadt dipping their toes in Tassajara Creek, when everyone from California governor Jerry Brown to actor Peter Coyote came to the canyon to ride the Buddhist bandwagon.

“It was mostly about being unbound by convention and living in the moment,” says Norman Fischer, a Zen Buddhist priest and former co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center who raised his kids at Tassajara in the late ’70s. “It all sounded good to me back then. Still does.”

Today’s visitors are a mixed bag of stressed-out executives, artists, high school math teachers, recovering alcoholics, and, increasingly, technoholics at a “tipping point in their lives,” says Minoria Franks, Tassajara’s reservations coordinator. “We’re seeing a huge wave right now of people fleeing technology for a digital-free environment. Younger people, especially, in their 20s and 30s, who hear about us then come to unplug and practice.

There’s Mike Borozdin, a 32-year-old software guy who was “blown away” when he came to Tassajara for the first time. He tells me about a new group called Young Urban Zen that meets every week in San Francisco. Twenty-five people showed up to the first meeting. Today, a year later, the room is overflowing. “All of my tech friends are so tightly wound,” says Borozdin. “ ‘The server’s up! The server’s down!’ They’re freaking out about the competition. I’m learning to keep it in the now.”

I think about the late Steve Jobs, a practicing Buddhist and Tassajara visitor. Here was the person perhaps most responsible for busying our lives, and he got his spiritual nourishment at the very place we go to escape the digital noise he helped create. Then I think: There’s something about all this — the isolated beauty and simple schedule, the logic of the gong — that feels deeply, if strangely, familiar. Like we’re tapping into some forgotten algorithm.

After breakfast, we circle up outside. It reminds me of summer camp, except my counselors are monks in dark brown robes. “If anyone finds a striped towel by the pool, please let me know,” says one student. “There’s a dharma talk tonight,” announces another. Then we’re all assigned chores: weeding, dishwashing. I’m on cobwebbing. For 2 1/2 hours, I walk peacefully around the property, over wooden bridges and past creekside cottages, with a 10-foot duster, swabbing away any and all webs I encounter. Work, I’m told, is part of the practice.

The next day, I’m chopping apples into 1/4-inch cubes. I have no idea what will become of my apples, but I chop and chop, occasionally chatting with the other students charged with chopping other things. Celery, oranges, tofu. The supply of apples seems endless; the bucket I’m filling, bottomless. But by the time the bell rings a few hours later, signaling the end of work period–and the beginning of my afternoon freedom — something comes over me. I feel, for the first time in a very long time, relaxed. Calm.

I ride the wave of bliss back to my cabin, change into my bathing suit, and set off for Tassajara’s hot springs. More than a hundred years ago, long before this area became the birthplace of the Western Zen movement, stagecoaches would take the steep daylong trip into the canyon to bring people to the healing waters bubbling up beneath Tassajara Creek. And once I lower myself into the 100°-plus water, I know why. My calm kicks into another gear. I close my eyes, float, and wait for the next gong.

“Tassajara’s role is the same today as it’s always been,” says Norman Fischer, the Buddhist priest. “When I first got here, I thought this was the most sensible way a human being could live. The way human beings have lived, for centuries.”

Four days later, I’m in my car, winding slowly up the canyon, back to civilization and the noise of my life. Back to my laptop with its clogged calendar and in-box full of unreads. I have no delusions. I know that the calm will eventually clear, and that I’ll return to my always-running ways. But not right this moment. Not now.

Kayaking Lake Tahoe in Winter

Bumping along a freshly plowed road in Lake Tahoe, Calif., I felt oddly unburdened. No skis were locked on top of my car, no clunky boots rattled in the trunk. After more than a decade of ski trips to the region, I kept feeling as if I were missing something. Sure, it was sunny, but also a biting 17 degrees — and I was going kayaking.

“You’re going what?” asked my friend when she heard I wasn’t joining her for another powder day at Squaw Valley. “Seriously?”

Seriously. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day — the most crowded week of the season at one of America’s most visited ski destinations. Thanks to a record-setting December snowfall, the actual skiing had been phenomenal. But I was sick of struggling to find a parking spot, tired of waiting in all those lift lines that were as congested as the bumper-to-bumper traffic that led to them.

Of course, Tahoe offers more than just downhill skiing: snowshoeing and cross-country are the go-to alternative snow sports for most crowd-dodgers. But kayaking? In the dead of winter? Not so much. Not even on the largest alpine lake in the United States, and the second deepest in the country. A lake that never freezes over, where the surface appears so placid and the snowcapped scene so screen-saver-serene that it makes you want to leap off the chairlift into the hallowed blue water. For most, though, the primary function of Lake Tahoe in winter is as a breathtaking backdrop.

But for a small but growing band of adventurers, the lake itself is the star of the Sierra Nevada — and actually more so in the cold-weather months than in summer, when an even greater number of seasonal visitors descend on the area and afternoon thermal winds swoosh in daily, making the water choppy and the paddling iffy. In the winter, however, the lake is glassy and calm. And, of course, cold. “Thirty-four degrees” read the scrawl on the white board behind the register at Tahoe Eco-Sports, the kayak shop where I equipped myself — and the only one on the lake that rents boats in winter.

“The risk of hypothermia is high,” said Harry King, the shop’s owner, handing me a dry suit. (The difference between a dry suit and a wetsuit is that the rubber-lined dry suit is designed to prevent even a drop of water from entering, and therefore provides better thermal insulation.) “Fall in without this, and you’d have maybe a minute.”

Mr. King helped me wriggle into it, making me feel a bit like my 2-year-old getting into her pajamas. Zippers, sealed with rubber, were zipped, booties were Velcroed, a spray-skirt was strapped on, and pogies (oversize neoprene mitts) were snapped to my paddle to protect my hands from the splash.

Our small group of six walked behind the shop to a rainbow of snow-covered kayaks, and, with minimal effort, dragged our boats through the snow, down to Kings Beach, one of the best entry points on the lake’s 72-mile perimeter. “Another perk to winter kayaking,” Mr. King said. “We’d have to carry these babies in July.”

“You’d also have to dodge drunk wakeboarders and 14-year-old jet skiers who don’t know what the heck they’re doing,” said Richard Gorbet, a semiretired rock-crusher from Reno, Nev., with six kayaks in his garage (and just two pairs of skis), and an e-mail alias of “kayakaholic.” He likes to go out for full-moon paddles on the lake with friends like Chuck Freedman, a k a “tsunamichuck,” a nurse, also from Reno, with a collection of seven kayaks and an addiction to “surfing the waves” during winter storms.

“Ready to swim?” asked Mr. Freedman as I climbed into my single kayak. I laughed — hoping he was kidding — and shimmied off through a bunch of mini-icebergs floating around the shoreline.

It took only a few paddles and then, much sooner than I expected it: serenity. A kind of quiet, otherworldly solitude I’d never before experienced in Tahoe. Immediately, I felt the difference between being on the water and gazing down at it. I felt like we had cheated the system: it appeared that we had the giant, much loved lake all to ourselves.

“Someone has to be out here,” Mr. King said, as he paddled beside me. “It’s so spectacular.” After 15 years, the novelty had not worn off for him.

The lake below us was amazingly clear; as we paddled out, I stared about 70 feet down to hole-pocked rocks and rippling sand, before the bottom dropped to 1,600 feet and went black. The water lapped around us, hypnotically. The sun twinkled on the surface like a million fireflies. Slowing down, I cupped water with my hand and took a sip. It tasted cold and crisp. Surrounded, 360 degrees, by soaring peaks frosted white and pine forests that looked as if they were dusted with confectioners’ sugar, I felt a bit like I was inside a snow globe. The distant runs looked devoid of people, and for a split second, I wished I were skiing. Then my focus settled on the merganser ducks dawdling around us and I wanted to be them. I also realized I was as close as I was going to get.

We pushed past creaky cabins teetering on cliffs and a few condo communities that would typically make me cringe. But out here, in the middle of the lake, it was easy to imagine what Tahoe was like before the influx of fancy all-wheel-drive cars and fake Bavarian villages. Soon, we pulled up to the lake’s only hot springs — a few steaming rock pools accessible only by water (unless you happened to own one of the condos behind it) — and dipped in our booties.

Later, we crossed into Nevada — the state line bisects the lake — and paddled up to Stateline Point in Crystal Bay. It’s also known as the boulder-strewn belt where mountain lions like to sunbathe and bears are rumored to hibernate — and, on apparently every day this winter but the one I was out, Lake Tahoe’s increasing population of bald eagles balance in the treetops.

“This reminds me of Glacier Bay,” said my friend Anne Krumme, a former Alaska-based kayak guide, as she weaved between boulders rising from the water and caked in ice. “I mean, serious National Geographic stuff! It’s got to be the only similar experience in the lower 48.” Apart from breaching whales and calving glaciers, I had to agree.

As we paddled on and the sun beat down, I realized that not only was I sweating under my dry suit, but Mr. Freedman’s comment wasn’t a joke: I was ready to swim. We pulled into Speedboat Beach on the north shore — typically booked with weddings all summer long, but now totally empty except for swaths of snow and a few frighteningly fresh prints from prowling mountain lions. I stepped out of the boat and into the bracing water. Hooray for dry suits! I was neck deep in Lake Tahoe in December! I used my personal flotation device to do a little Dead Sea-style float, made myself a false promise to never ski again, and then joined the group on the woolly blanket for a beach picnic.

We sipped cups of coffee brewed over a propane tank and spiked with Baileys. Clouds swooped in. The descending sun cast a late-day glow, illuminating the peaks across the lake. And for the first time since we’d set out, I started to feel a little cold.

Hidden Rockies: The Sawtooths

I am in Lemonade Heaven. Rocking in a wooden chair, on a wide front porch lit by the late-afternoon sun, pointed at a picture-perfect row of 10,000-foot granite peaks. Oh, if Norman Rockwell could see me now, he’d bail on the Berkshires and hightail it out West to the Idaho Rockies. To the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. To the dusty gateway “town” of Stanley (population 100). And up a long gravel drive to Idaho Rocky Mountain Ranch, where the fresh-squeezed lemonade — which I pour from the spout of a big oak barrel, and mix, whenever I feel like it, with iced tea from the equally cold barrel beside it — tastes particularly good. Like, I’m addicted good.

I didn’t intend to come to the Sawtooths to lounge around all day. I mean, this is an alpine lake–studded, river-running, lupine-covered adventure-land — presided over by snow-caked spires that rival the Grand Tetons. Imagine, a national park–level wilderness without national park–level crowds. No bus tours. No traffic. No entrance fees. Just pure, unadulterated–and drop-to-my-knees gorgeous — land inhabited by more cows than people and waiting to be tackled. The hiking trails are calling. The hot springs are steaming. The trout, I’m told, are biting. And the mountain bikes, lined up to my right, are ready to be ridden.

Still, I’m finding the pull of this porch too hard to resist. Especially when my husband, Josh, walks up with two of those bikes. “Let’s go!” he says, beaming about the fact that you can access the best mountain biking trail in the West, the Fisher Creek Loop, from our backyard. I hike up mountains, I run marathons, but I don’t mountain bike. I don’t even banana-seat bike. He knows this. I reluctantly follow him (on foot) to the meadow behind the lodge. And then, maybe it’s the friendly-looking wildflowers or the puff of bright-white clouds in the big blue sky or the meditative silence broken only by muted moos, but suddenly, in Sawtooth fairyland, anything is possible.

Helmet firmly on head, I hop on. “Wait, is this single-track?” I ask, before the pedals make one rotation. I realize it must be, because this tire-thin dirt path is no easy fire road. Molehills literally become mountains. A branch across the trail becomes a downed redwood. A grassy bank becomes a full-on cliff drop. White knuckles are an understatement. I’m afraid to switch gears — so I don’t. I’m as wobbly as a just-born calf and I have an itch on my ear that I don’t dare scratch. “There’s no way in hell that I’m crossing that ocean of a creek!” I yell to my husband. “Look where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go,” he instructs from up ahead. Good advice, except I can’t follow it. Grass whips my legs; I veer into the sagebrush and brake, hard, and slam against the seat. Ow. An eternity — or 7 miles — later, we reach the tail end of the trail (not the famed Fisher Creek, mind you, just, uh, a path that links to it). I’m riding a ridge. Balancing in the breeze. Josh looks back. “You’re loving it!” he exclaims. Surprising myself, I realize I sort of am. When we get back to the lodge, I walk right up to the porch. I bypass the barrel of lemonade and reclaim my rocking chair. The craggy peaks of the Sawtooths look prettier than ever. I kick up my feet and order a nice cold beer.

Live the slooow life — if only for a weekend

I know I’ve landed in the right place when my B&B host bounds down the steps in his bare feet. “Hey, you made it!” says Dwight Milford, a fit Frisbee fanatic with a big smile. I look around. The place is clean and simple. Not a doily in sight. But even if Affinity Guesthouse were flowery and wicker-y and overrun with chitchatty guests — my personal bed-and-breakfast hell — I wouldn’t have cared.

I’m in the town of Cowichan Bay, on southeastern Vancouver Island, surrounded by a grassy meadow scattered with a couple of canoes and rows of quinoa and raspberry bushes. I’ve left behind my daily grind for a glimpse of a different life — one that doesn’t involve traffic or takeout, iPhones or fancy footwear. Just ultra-local food, walks along the river, maybe a farming class or mushroom forage. This salty seaside village is North America’s first official Cittaslow (Italian for “Slow City”), as ordained last year by the worldwide association (followed by Sonoma). Slow city. Slow food. Slow is my new speed … for today.

Sprawling Cowichan Valley isn’t as polished as its Northern California slow-city counterpart. Its country roads are lined with small farms, ordinary houses, a few tasting fee-free vineyards. The one swanky resort just went belly up. Hand-scrawled signs offer free-range eggs! fresh-cut herbs! (Payment by honor box, of course.) Some yards are filled with abandoned cars and old boats. Tanning salons sit beside organic bakeries. But back here on Affinity’s 22 acres, it’s pure bliss. Swallows sing. Bald eagles float by. Otters play in the Koksilah River — flowing right by my feet. Which are not bare like Dwight’s, but protected from the muddy bank by a pair of borrowed gum boots. Not those trendy rubbery replicas, but the real deal. And, as I suction-cup-step out of the water and into the canoe, they serve a real purpose.

It’s dinnertime in Cowichan — and if you’re staying with Dwight and his wife, Vanessa Elton, that means you earn it. In this case, with a 1 1/2-mile group paddle to the Genoa Bay Café. It’s sunny but breezy on the wide-open river. We push past bobbing sea lions and ospreys prancing in their nest. There’s deep green Salt Spring Island in the distance. An hour later, we pull into a tiny cove with houseboats gleaming in the late-day light — and the cafe, a shack of a special occasion spot, standing on stilts.

Inside it’s a local, candlelit affair. B.C. wines; halibut hauled off the island’s west coast; risotto with duck from “Lyle’s” farm. Talk turns to the farmer being sued by his new city-slicker neighbor because his roosters make too much noise. (Um, hello, this is farm country!) We polish off a warm apple cobbler, then it’s back to the boat, clopping down the dock in our gum boots. We paddle into a sky streaked yellow and pink. The water is a little choppy but the wind is at our back now.

Our pace has picked up — just barely.

The Last Great Ski Resort

“I had such a crush on him when I was a kid,” says my friend Didi Linburn, pigtails peeking out from beneath her pink ski helmet rather than the wool pompom hat she wore as a kid. I peer into the tiny ski shop at the Alta Peruvian Lodge and catch a glimpse of a cute guy in glasses behind the counter. “No idea how old he is,” she says, “but I’ve seen him here every winter since I was 15.”

Twenty-two years later, and Didi and her teenage crush are still here? I’ve yet to even take a run down the powder white slopes, but I already sense that Alta, Utah, just might be as special as everyone says it is — including my self-proclaimed “Altaholic” husband.

Tired of not getting an invite to his annual “guys’ trip,” and admittedly jealous about the other love in his life, I decided to tagalong on Didi’s annual father-daughter jaunt. And finally experience for myself this almighty Alta–with just seven lifts (and not much else) spread across 2,200 acres of heart-pumping hikes and narrow chutes, chest-deep powder, and total lack of pretension.

Skis slung over our shoulders, we walk out the weathered wooden door of the lodge, taking in a deep breath of fresh — albeit thin — mountain air. I’m instantly happy to be here at 10,550 feet, on leased U.S. Forest Service land at the resolutely un-corporate resort, where faded one-pieces outnumber Bogner jackets, chairlifts seat at most four across, and five no-frills lodges, scattered up Little Cottonwood Canyon, sleep 1,200 skiers, tops. Skiers. Not shoppers. Not ski bunnies. And, above all, not snowboarders. As the mountain motto goes, Alta is for skiers.

During my stay, I see it flaunted on banners, baseball caps, bumper stickers. Alta is, after all, one of just three resorts left in the country that ban boarders, since Taos Ski Valley opened its slopes to all in March. Geared up, Didi, her dad, and I creep along in a bar-less triple chair, surrounded by nothing save blue sky and the towering peaks of the Wasatch Range. “Same as it was in the ’60s,”says Geoff Linburn, who first came to Alta from California in search of what he’d heard was the best snow in the West.

Back then, lift tickets cost $8, and there were only five slowly moving chairlifts, but apart from building a couple more and raising ticket prices to a reasonable $64, Alta remains Alta. Didi’s dad smiles. “Still the best snow in the West.” A whopping 500 inches annually of light-as-a-feather powder — and I can’t wait to try it. But that will take some effort.

Without a convenient tram to Alta’s best terrain, the limited number of skiers allowed uphill work for every turn with an almost perverse pleasure. As a typically lazy, play-it-safe sort of skier, I’m intimidated.

We hop off the Sugarloaf chair and join the parade of people inching their way, single file, up, up, up, and gliding precariously, over, over, over, only to climb again. Is this really worth it? I think to myself, sweating in the snow. I contemplate taking off my skis, but then I look up. “Aw, it’s a bootpacker!” one guy yells at another fellow who’s stomping with his boards on his shoulders rather than suffering the steep sidestep with everyone else. I press on, inspired by the unspoken camaraderie on the traverse toward Devil’s Castle — a wide-open bowl and depository of powder — and the shared anticipation among strangers bound by a passion for Alta’s almost guaranteed fresh tracks.

Still, exhausted — okay, panting really — I stop and watch as the hard-core hikers keep stomping; my heart is pounding. I look downhill at the untouched powder and decide I’ve had enough hiking. Time to ski.

After a blissful day on the slopes, the return to the Peruvian Lodge is a comedown. The guest rooms remind me of my college dorm. There are shared bathrooms and a Ping-Pong table but no TVs. Still, the Peruvian, like all of Alta’s lodges, has a 75 percent return rate.

I’m honestly baffled, but by the end of dinner — a slippers-acceptable, family-style affair, where a wine collector wearing turquoise sweatpants shares rare bottles he brought from home and our table swaps stories like old friends — I start to understand. But, unlike most of the longtime guests, who remain fiercely loyal to “their” lodge, never venturing steps away to check out another, I’m curious and leave Didi a few nights later for Alta’s Rustler Lodge, where things are a tad more civilized (read: pricey).

Now I have a television and my own bathroom, and reservations are taken for the window-walled dining room, where the next morning, I overhear a waiter bellow “Welcome back!” to guest Roger Urban, who has been staying here since his bachelor days. He and his wife — looking very ’80s (like the lodge) in their matching rainbow-striped rugbys — fuel up at the breakfast buffet, while their teenage daughter, Alexandra, heads out for a lesson with the same instructor she’s always had.

Meanwhile, I finish my eggs alone and realize that I miss the chaos of the Peruvian’s hostel-like atmosphere. I slip on my skis and hop the rope tow to meet Didi for another day on the slopes.

From the chatter around the lift line, it’s clear that it’s not just the powder that draws people to Alta — it’s also the people themselves. Old college buddies, moms and sons, widows who used to come with their husbands … everyone returns without question. Likewise, all the locals I meet say they’d intended to come out for a season and do the ski-bum thing. But before they knew it, 10, 20, 30 years had passed — and they’re still here. “Alta just swallows you up,” says Craig Dillon, Didi’s ski shop crush, who, it turns out, is 41 and has lived here half his life.

And so, because people never leave Alta, it’s only natural that they grow old here. Not in the typical, canasta-by-the-pool way of growing old. Rather, Alta is like a real-life Cocoon, where the mountain is the fountain of youth. Senior passes start at age 80.Didi and I return to the Sugarloaf chair and ride up with an86-year-old couple. “Skiing is only getting easier!” the husband says, beaming. “Free tickets!” says his wife. Inspired, I make a mental note to be just like them in 50 years. As we climb, once again, toward Devil’s Castle, a father whizzes by with a tiny skier bouncing on his shoulders. “Daddy? Are we at Devil’s Castle yet?” He hikes as far as possible, plops his daughter in knee-deep powder, and off she goes: a 4-year-old making fresh tracks. I watch, dumbfounded.

And determined. I decide to hike out as far as I can. I want those fresh tracks, and this time I’m willing to work for them. Heart racing, legs aching, I reach the end of the ridge. I rest for a moment and then dip in. Flying solo through feet of untouched powder, carving near-perfect turns, snow spraying like the pros, I realize that I’m floating. This is it. This is why I’ve come to Alta.

Later that evening, lounging around the Peruvian lobby after dinner — with Scrabble, impromptu sing-alongs, nothing to face tomorrow but more fresh snow — I get the feeling I’m continuing a tradition at risk of being lost forever to the fast-paced, froufrou world beyond Little Cottonwood Canyon. “Everything changes in your life … so much,” reflects Leslie Johnson, who’s been coming here every winter since 1982. “Friends move on … my family’s homes have come and gone … but Alta, Alta never changes.”

I get it. I’m hooked. Another Altaholic is born.

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