Backpacking the Pinnacle

Winter bring a set of different adventures with itself. In the cold months of February, I set out on yet another adventure and a new experience. I went for a Backpacking trip with 9 strangers, led by trip leaders from UMD Adventure Group*.

Backpacking means carrying all you need – food, water and shelter – and set out to explore the nature on foot. We choose to hike the Pinnacle Trail Loop (part of the  Appalachian Trail) near Hamburg, Pennsylvania.

First on the list: Planning. We all met on a Tuesday evening to get to know each other and plan out a few details about the trip. Most of us being newbie needed a good lesson on what and how to backpack. The trip leaders did a great job on informing us of what to pack and how much of it, you don’t want to carry everything as you are the one who will be carrying it around the whole trek.

Now that I was well-equipped, it is time for the adventure to begin. We met on Saturday morning and drove from College Park, MD to Hamburg, Pennsylvania. The mountain threw a surprise our way, everything was covered in snow. It only made us more excited. With a snow-ball fight, filled-stomach and backpack on our shoulders, we began our journey.

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Just a few steps in we were greeted by a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains. A perfect backdrop to connect with nature and make you feel alive. Continuing down the trail, we observed different trees and learned about their properties from one of our trip leaders. The snow-covered route was slowly and gradually proving to be a challenge and I admit I was a little too scared of slipping. But I was surrounded by a group of amazing people who kept me going.

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The trail was serene and beautiful, you would occasionally hear the rivers flow but for most part it was silence. The kind that gives you a sense of inner peace and makes you think. Without the hassle of everyday life – study or work – you are answerable to no one but yourself. Your perception is changed and you have the opportunity to think of life as being alive and not just living.

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After all the walking, we were rewarded by a beautiful sight from the top of the mountain. As far as the sight would go, you could see snow-covered farms. With having reach our view point, it was time to think about our next steps. Having covered half our trail, we had to plan the amount of trek to cover before we take shelter. We decide to cover the trek till the designated campsite, which would also bring us close to start point.

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As the trek continued, I got a chance to talk to everyone and get to know all these interesting people. Each one had their own story, what excites them and what makes them. What excites them and what motivates them. As I will go on with my life, I will remember them by their excitement of life.

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With the sun bidding us good-bye, we modified our plan. We choose to pick a close-by site, set up our camps and rest for the night. Now when I say rest, it is about bring out our food, cooking it together and eating all we can. We also set up a bonfire, to get warm and dry out our shoes. Note to self: invest in a real good pair of water proof shoes!

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After a good night’s sleep, we packed our bags and took on the trail. In just a few hours, we had completed our hike and were on our way home. We stopped by the Hershey’s park, got our self some much-deserved chocolates and clean bathrooms. The journey was drawing to an end. As we drove back home, re-entering the city and its chaos, we were bringing back our own peace.

Down the slope

When the weather is so cold outside, you end up sticking to indoor activities and museums. But there is an activity that you can do in the cold: Skiing. I was interested but didn’t know anyone who did that and was scared to try it out on my own. I got a chance to explore the same with a trip to Roundtop Mountain Ski Resort in Pennsylvania organized by Graduate Student Life Monthly Social Series*.

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First up, preparation. You do need to be dressed up in layers of thermals, ski pants and water-proof jackets. You are going to fall but you don’t want to get wet and cold. Next, if you have not done this before, you need to have some training. My trip package included a beginners class of about 90 minutes.

Once we entered the place, we got to rent out boots, helmet, ski & poles as part of the trip package. After gearing up, we went out on the ice and got ready for our beginners training. There was a small slope where we got to train and practice. The instructions were decent and it was quite difficult to pick up the skills.

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With my little training and poor knowledge, I got on to the lift to try the beginner’s slope. In retrospect, it was not the best decision. My turning were not good so I decided to just go straight. And soon I realized I am only gaining momentum so I would just fall to stop myself. I did manage to get downhill without serious injuries but decided not to go again until I got better. However, it was really fun. The view was beautiful and the rush was ecstatic.

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Little did I know that skiing is an extremely tiring sport which requires some serious skills. Overall, the ski trip was a new experience. I gained new respect for people into extreme sports, I got a good workout and made some new friends.

* Graduate Student Life is student body at University of Maryland – College Park that organizes social events for University of Maryland Graduate Students.

The Chocolaty world of Hershey’s

Hershey Park is an adventure theme park in Pennsylvania. You’ve got everything from thriller rides to water park rides plus a huge Hershey’s chocolate store. There is also a Boardwalk and Zoo in the vicinity.

Let’s start at the roller coaster rides, there are lots of them which are clearly marked from 1 to 5 with 5 being the highest thrill on the park map. My personal favorites were Fahrenheit and Sky Rush, each being equally adrenaline high ride. While Fahrenheit gave you the goosebumps for highest steep on your way down, Sky Rush gave you the whoop-whoop you are not sure where you are going feel.  There are about 13-14 high lot thrill rides which would take up your whole day. So the place definitely has lots to offer.

My trip was on a typical late summer weekend and I witnessed 10-15 min average wait time for most of them. The Hershey’s app is pretty useful and provides an accurate wait time listing. One of the highest wait time of the day was 45 min for Laff Track. It is an indoor roller coaster that has glowing images of circus characters popping at you while you ride. It was an average experience and not worth the wait.

There are multiple restaurants within park including a Subway when you want to grab a bite. The park also has various stand-alone carnival themed games where you could win cuddly cute soft toys while you wait for your food to settle in.

One can finish up the day at Hershey’s store where you get a ride of how famous chocolates like the Kisses are made. And you can then go around the shop buying some for yourself. They also have an option where you can get your name on the chocolate.

The sand, the water and the wind

Ocean City is a beach in Maryland, a 3 and half to four hour drive from College Park and a hot spot to beat the heat in Summer.

A long stretch of beach along with a boardwalk that is dotted with ice-cream shops. Being Summer time, it is pretty hot and one can’t imagine just sitting on the beach without a big umbrella beach. Carry or rent it out but a must to just sit on the beach.

However, the fun is in the water. On a good windy day, expect huge waves in a cold but not so chilly water. Once you go in, that is all you want to do. Just be in the water and move with the waves. The beach has designated spot to wash off the sand with some clean water in terms of open public showers. However, there are no changing rooms.

One can simply stroll along the boardwalk, probably in the late afternoon or evening when the sun is not so harsh and the view is picturesque. Along the walk, you will notice man-crafted structure of sand mostly carrying a social message.

After  a swim and a walk, anyone would get hungry. One can’t miss out on the smell of french fries sold out in big buckets with vinegar and salt on the side. Or just check out one of the many restaurants and ice-cream shops. Most have a minimum credit card usage limit, so it would be wise to carry cash.

Among other things: there are water sports, art shops and live art-making on the streets. All in all, it is a good place for a hot summer day to just gain back your energy for the upcoming week.

With love, Philadelphia

A two-and-half to three hours drive from College Park, Philadelphia is a beautiful city for a day outing. Known for its historic importance, one must check out the Independence hall and Liberty Bell. Then change the gear from history to romance by visiting the Love Park. A day in Philly would be incomplete without getting a picture at the iconic Rocky steps. Lastly, wind down the day at Penn’s Landing.

At the Pennsylvania Visitor Center

Philadelphia has lots to offer and most attractions are nearby, one can walk around or opt for a Philly PHLASH Bus Pass for a day at $5. A good place to start is Independence Visitor Center, you can get all the information you could need.

Independence Hall is a place of significant importance in American history as the Declaration of Independence was discussed here. One can simply visit the place or take a 30 minute tour, where volunteers give you a chronic description of the events that took place there. There are limited tickets per time slot and distributed at the Independence Visitor Center daily. There is an option to book it online.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

Liberty Bell

Liberty Bell

Close-by you have the Liberty Bell Center, you can take pictures with the Liberty Bell and learn about it history. Next up is the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul. A true beauty and an architectural maneuver.

Interiors of Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul

Interiors of Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul

Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul

Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul

After the Cathedral, walk or take the bus towards the Rocky stairs and enjoy the view. As you past the Logan circle, be sure to check out the flags of various country along the streets of Philadelphia. Rocky steps is famous for a shot in the movie series Rocky featuring Sylvester Stallone. Further to mark its importance, there is a statue at the bottom of the stairs, expect a long line of tourist before you can get your picture.

Statue of Slyvester Stallone as Rocky

Statue of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky

Rocky footprints at the entrance of Philadelphia Museum of Art

Rocky footprints at the entrance of Philadelphia Museum of Art

At the top of the stairs you have got a breath-taking view of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Rocky footprints and entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As mentioned before Philly is a city of love and here atop the stairs you’ve got yet another monumental structure – AMOR by Robert Indiana – meaning “Love” in Spanish and Latin.

AMOR meaning "Love" in Spanish and Latin; Outside Philadelphia Museum of Art

AMOR meaning “Love” in Spanish and Latin; Outside Philadelphia Museum of Art

After a tiring day strolling around the streets of Phily, one can just hit pause and enjoy the wind’s at Penn’s landing, a waterfront.

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Philadelphia is also a place to try out new food. A famous and must-try place would be Zahav serving modern Israeli cuisine with lots of vegetarian options. Delicious food, nice ambiance and good servers. Being this famous, it is indeed difficult to get a table so book a reservation in advance.

Picture with Top Chef Michael Solomonov at Zahav

Picture with Top Chef MICHAEL SOLOMONOV at Zahav

Caving at Whiting Neck, West Virginia

Caving, when I first heard the word, my brain conjured up the image of long wide cylindrical tunnels that lead to some underground space filled with bats and probably some ancient drawings on the wall. Lucky for me the description said another story.

At University of Maryland, each month there is an outdoor event conducted by Graduate Student Body. And that is how I came across the word caving and the experience that awaited me. With a curious mind and an adventorous spirit, I signed up for the trip.

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The journey began with a drive from College Park to Sheperdstown in West Virginia. The cave has multiple entrances and exit points and to fulfill the promise of an exciting trip, our trip leader took us to the entry point that required us to crawl down a hole.

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Once inside the cave, the temperature is more pleasant than the ouside chilly weather but it is also muddy, so heads up wear something you don’t mind getting dirty. It is also dark inside the cave, one would need tourches strapped on to their headgear.

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Traveling inside the cave involves crawling, sliding through narrow paths and down the slope. It is a combination of difficult rock climbing and joyful sliding. There are parts with enough space to stand and places with just enough room to lie down.

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There are various activities that can be done inside the cave. It starts with the milkshake challenge which requires you to go head first inside a small room formed within caves, turn yourself around like the way milkshakes are made in a mixer and come back out head first. As easy as it may sound, it is not. The place inside the room is very small. But don’t be dishearthen if you can’t do it as there is milkshake challenge part 2 which has is little bigger and easily done by anyone.

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Other than the fun activites, I believe the experience is about going through small compact space where you can barely see beyond a few centimeters. A brain that is used to seeing the 110 degree view point faces a real challange with limited vision.

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The entire experience is breath-taking. From knowing your physical capabilities to enjoy beautiful structures within earth.

Festive Lights

Nothing defines festivity more than lights, be it Diwali, Christmas or New Year’s. While the first night was spending watching fireworks at Alexandria, I decided to checkout ‘Zoolights‘ at Smithsonian National Zoological Park.

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Zoo-lights was a month long event, where the entire zoo was covered in colorful lights. This was not a typical trees covered in light scenario, they had made animals & bird animations using lights. My personal favorite was frog leaping into a pond.

Parts of the zoo such as Great Apes and Reptile Discovery Center was open to public and certain regions were closed given the evening time. Most of the animals were asleep and cuddled up in blankets or in a corner. It was quite a delight to see animals in their sleeping state.

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As part of the event, there was carousel and tubing tracks. Given the holiday season, there were also long lines of kids! The highlighted part of my visit was the animated movie projected on one of the walls. It was short film displaying the animated version of zoo animals singing the Christmas song.