Utah: A Vegetarian’s Paradise

Wooden BearThe drive to Daniel’s Summit was long and cold. The snowy mountain road was indicative of the opening sequence of The Shining. There was no cell service where we were going and the Wi-Fi was supposedly fair at best. No Internet makes John a dull boy and I was hoping not to fall into a murderous rampage that would surely ruin the weekend for everyone. I’ve been to the area once before at least five years ago, but that trip was for a different reason in the middle of the summer, and even then I remember it being cold. The temperature only climbs so high once you reach a certain altitude, and although this isn’t the Andes or the Himalayas, it is still higher (and colder) than most places I spend my time nowadays. In places like these, the only living things that solely eat plants are the animals whose heads decorate the walls of local hunting cabins. A vegetarian would struggle to spend the winter in a place like this. A vegan could possibly starve. The weekend I spent here was a taste of a world that I forgot existed, void of the “liberal” eating habits I had grown accustomed to while living in New York City. But like everything in life, I made the best of what was available and managed to enjoy myself in the process.

I was going to the lodge for an event that involved many friends, both old and new. I hadn’t really planned out my eating situation, as I am used to having options wherever I go, and therefore, didn’t think I would have to. My wife is usually the one that runs into trouble since she is both vegan and gluten-free, but even with her restrictive diet there is always a solution even if it means talking directly with the chef. Being a vegetarian (meaning that eggs and dairy are still fair game) is not as hard as it seems. Things like pasta, pizza, French-fries, and omelets are technically vegetarian, although not incredibly healthy. These things are generally a last resort, because although I am not vegan, I still try to avoid most eggs and dairy. This weekend, sadly, that was not an option.

Gun LampThe lodge was an isolated building on a mountaintop about 20 miles Southeast of Heber City, UT. There are no services nearby, and without a car of my own, the conveniences of the closest civilization were out of my reach. Truth be told, even with a car, finding a restaurant with a vegetarian menu in Heber is still wishful thinking. What people in the east sometimes don’t realize is that Utah is the contemporary Wild West. Cattle ranches, rodeos, and demolition derbies are very real, very common things.The lodge where the event was being held was a concentrated version of this culture with every square inch bathed in rustic cowboy motif. The walls were a holocaust of decapitated prairie animals displayed for the amusement of its guests. Most of the furniture was made out of logs, antlers, and guns. Yes… guns. The leather that covered nearly every surface surpassed any amount I’ve ever seen. Every chair, every sofa, the pillows on my bed, and even the ice bucket in my room, were wrapped in tanned hide. I like to think that I have a high tolerance for human supremacy being that I grew up in the country, but the amount of carnage that went into decorating our weekend accommodations was outright excessive. Apparently, people like me are not their target demographic.

Gun chandelier

The small restaurant that was attached to the lodge celebrated the same Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show theme. Guns, animal heads, and various signs describing what a woman should be cooking decorated the walls. Needless to say, the options for vegetarians were few. There were two specials of the day – an 8-ounce prime rib and a 12-ounce prime rib. Other dishes included chicken-fried steak, chicken-fried chicken, various meat salads, and virtually every edible piece of bovine. I ordered the French fries for lunch and didn’t Wooden Cowboyinquire about whether or not they were cooked in lard. Sometimes, it’s best not to know. Most of my meals consisted of deep fried food with the exception of a pasta dish for dinner one night. My 12 year-old self loved eating fried side dishes for every meal, while my 33 year-old self wanted to smack my 12 year-old self in the head for eating such shit. But that’s the way it goes for a vegetarian in the mountains during the winter. Eat shit, or starve.

Despite the dead animals and grease running through my veins, the weekend at the lodge was pleasant. The coziness of the wooden building was reminiscent of my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, and the wood-burning fireplace added to that nurturing feeling. We spent several hours next to the fire playing checkers, all the while sheltered from the sub-freezing temperatures outside. Good company always makes a difference no matter the situation. It’s the reason people survive (and prosper) in harsh situations. It doesn’t matter where you are as much as who is with you. I could have a miserable time in paradise or a great time in prison cell – perspective is everything. I made the most of my weekend in the modern-day Winterfell. Blizzards, bearskins, shoddy Internet, steaks, and more steaks – not much can stand in my way of enjoying myself if I don’t let it.lodge


Why I Waited On College

When I was about 21 years old I was a painter in Pennsylvania. I was painting a house one day when the homeowner came outside and started talking to me and my coworkers as homeowners often do. The man led an interesting life. He volunteered his time rescuing stray animals, mostly cats, he worked in construction, and on the weekends, he performed in a KISS tribute band in which he breathed fire on stage. He wasn’t an old man – no more than 45 – and he seemed like he lived a very full and interesting life. He did something different everyday. Some things he had to do – like show up for his construction job (I believe he was self-employed) – but others he wanted to do, such as save cats and breathe fire while dressed like Gene Simmons. I remember saying to my boss who was somewhat of a mentor to me, “I want to do what he does.” My boss looked at me with a puzzled look. “You want to be in a KISS tribute band?!” He didn’t understand what I meant.

In the 15 years since I graduated high school I’ve held many jobs. Following my job (and almost career) as a house painter, I decided to move to Park City, Utah and become a snowboard instructor. During my stint in the beehive state, I worked as a rock climbing guide, a trampoline and gymnastics coach, a facilities manager, a personal assistant, a painter (again), a furniture designer, an IT specialist, a security guard at Sundance Film Festival, and filled in the gaps as a self-employed everything-man. I volunteered at an elementary school, brought people to speak to local drug rehab centers, and taught English. I made a very productive, although not always financially rewarding life for myself. When people would ask me what my long-term plan was, I’d tell them it was to have many short-term plans. I never wanted to get stuck in one thing. I always needed an escape plan just in case I got too comfortable, too bored, or both. My goal was to always have options, and I would fulfill this goal with a lifetime of diverse experience.

I started going to college when I was 28 years old during a low point in my life. I felt I’d run out of options, and therefore, might as well take a class. One class turned into two, then three; before I knew it I was a full-time college student. Many times I felt a bit of shame and embarrassment being that I was the oldest person in my classes, but I fought through it by showing that I was the most dedicated. I approached college with the same meandering attitude as I approached the rest of my life. Each semester I’d take whichever classes I thought seemed interesting with no particular goal in mind except to fulfill general requirements. This (and a long-distance girlfriend in New York City) eventually led me to the east coast to finish my degree. In order to supplement my income while in college, I took a job at one of my favorite retailers, REI. I had zero retail experience, but I was hired based on the time I spent out west. By this point I knew that I wanted to be in business and what better way to learn than on a retail sales floor in Manhattan while attending business school. I think that one day I may have a… dare I say… career in the industry I love. I am still connecting the dots, but starting to see the big picture clearer each day.

Today I am a 33 year-old recent college graduate successfully leveraging the years of experience I built by following a path of whatever intrigued me. I know that this isn’t the life for everyone. Some people don’t like surprises. They need to know what they will be doing everyday for years to come. Each person’s life course is as unique as her or his fingerprint. The one thing I do know is that if I had said I’m going to be an accountant or a web developer or a photographer straight out of high school, I would have deprived myself of 15 years of amazing experiences which turned out to be richer and more formative as any college course. I haven’t found my passion, I’ve found many passions. That is the reward I received from putting off going to college.

That man whose house we painted wasn’t rich by any means, but I know he was happy. As it turns out, so am I.

Graduation Day 2014
Graduation Day 2014 – Madison Square Garden


I Love Skateboarding

I love skateboarding.

I started when I was thirteen years old and have never put it down. It’s been one of the few constants in my life. The way I dress, the things I say, and the places I’ve lived have changed, but throughout it all, I’ve always skated. I’ll admit, at times it’s taken a back seat to whatever flavor of the month sparked my interest – snowboarding, cycling, running, capoeira, etcetera – but I’ve always returned to my first love. It’s hurt me. Left me beaten, bruised, and bloody, but I’ve always stood up, brushed off the dirt, and came back for more.

My first exposure to skateboarding was when I was 8 years old. I went to the local mall with my mother, and on our way inside, I saw a guy skating in the parking lot. He would ride up to a stone pillar, scoop the board into his hand, run up the pillar, then jump back onto the board. The maneuvers he was doing – now obsolete by today’s skateboarding standards – seemed physically impossible to my childish mind. The things he did on the board were like magic and I knew I wanted to do them. I had no idea how, or even whom to ask, since I didn’t know anyone that skated, but I knew that I could figure it out. When I got home that night, I found a pair of my dad’s old shoes and had him help me glue them onto a board he had bought me a yard sale. That was the only way I could figure out how to get the board off the ground and it was a complete failure. It wasn’t until several years later when I finally saw my first skate video that I realized the potential of what can be done on a skateboard.

Throughout 8th and 9th grade I learned a lot about skateboarding, both through watching 411 Videos and reading Transworld Magazine. Some of the cool skater kids that I had no desire to be friends with called me a “poseur” because I wasn’t part of their group. Once, I remember one of them stopped me in the hallway and verbally ripped me apart about my brand new Maple jeans. Like the passive person that I was, I stood there and took it, thinking for a second that maybe I was just trying to be like the cool kids. It was later discovered that this particular kid used a hacksaw to put artificial slide marks on his board in an attempt to make him look better than he was. He also took a file to his brand new Etnies to make poor excuses for ollie and kickflip marks. I was always suspicious when I saw the perfectly round quarter-sized wear marks on his shoes. This was one of my earliest lessons in the nature of people – those who are quick to criticize others are probably the least secure in themselves. Much like the closeted homosexual tough-guy that runs around calling people faggots, it was the phony cool-guy skater kid that ran around calling people poseurs. Go figure.

We skated everywhere that it wasn’t allowed, mainly because it wasn’t allowed anywhere. In my hometown, skateboarding was banned on all public property including sidewalks. I once got a ticket because a police officer thought he saw me riding across a gas station parking lot. In reality, I didn’t even have my skateboard, but that didn’t stop him from writing me a summons. Situations like these helped form the anti-authority mentality that still shines through in my personality today. Confrontations with the police were a regular occurrence, which in retrospect, added to the proverbial thrill of it all. We stole wood from housing developments that were under construction, drove for what seemed like days to explore mediocre skate parks, and got chased out of everywhere. We worked hard to feed our habit and did a pretty good job at staying satiated. It wasn’t just about doing tricks. It was about exploring unknown landscapes and seeing what the skate gods delivered.

Over the years, my interests changed, but skateboarding stayed with me. As people often do, I went through many phases throughout my adolescence – hippy, stoner, grunge kid, hip-hop head – it didn’t matter, skateboarding fit into each one of these categories like a skeleton key. I was exposed to enough skate-centric media to know that the stereotypical “skater boy” was dead. Jamie Thomas, Chad Muska, Rodney Mullen, Ed Templeton, and Kareem Campbell embodied completely different styles, yet all were incredible skaters. Skateboarding is a subculture aggregator. I knew it was something I’d always be a part of, regardless of which particular subculture I belonged.

Now, at 33 years old, I’m no longer one of the many people I thought I was throughout my youth. I’ve given up on being cool. I go to bed at ten o’clock and watch Jeopardy almost every night – but I still skate. Scouring industrial parks and pillaging lumber isn’t my game these days. I haven’t jumped down a set of stairs in years. I tend to stick to the ramps and pools, since (in my head, at least) the consequence factor is much lower. My local skate park is perpetually closed, yet it’s almost always occupied. When I first moved to Brooklyn, I used to have to jump an 8-foot fence to get in. Now, some local kids jury-rigged a section of the surrounding fence to form a gate, allowing easier access for everyone. It’s good to know that, despite how mainstream and accessible skateboarding has become, people are still willing to work for it.

First frontside air in a pool at 33 years-old. Captured using the time lapse feature on a GoPro Hero 3+ Silver edition.
First frontside air on transition at 33 years-old. Captured using the time lapse feature on a GoPro Hero 3+ Silver edition.

Hey! I’m Bikin’ Here!

It was a slippery day to be on two wheels. A light drizzle had been falling most of the day and the streets were slick as ice. I was taking my usual route south on Chrystie Street through Chinatown towards the Manhattan Bridge – Shanghai Calling in Strava terms – a route people know is most dangerous in the bike lane due to its many potholes, double parked cars, and careless pedestrians. It was a dreary afternoon and the constant mist made visibility less than ideal. In my typical “rather safe than sorry” fashion, I was decked out in my reflective raincoat with both my front and rear lights flashing. I know how unpredictable people can be in New York City, not only while riding a bicycle, but while walking or even standing in one spot – more than once I’ve been run into while patiently waiting for a train by someone more concerned with their phone than with the hundreds of people around them. If age has taught me anything, it’s that I have gotten away with far more than I should have, and as I get older, the consequences of not being careful are often clear before the prospective risky situation rather than in hindsight.

On this particular day I was following a biker that has become the archetype of the New York cyclist. He dressed all in black, wore no helmet, and was riding a bike with no brakes. His bike was also black which made him nearly invisible given the conditions. None of this seemed to matter to him as we approached the intersection of Canal and Chrystie. I am not one to stop at every traffic light; if no cars are coming and the light is red, I will continue through. I have never thought that bikes should be required to obey the exact rules of cars, seeing that they are a very different mode of transport, but when traffic is heavy – especially when crossing Canal Street – I will always put on the brakes. My cyclist friend whom I was following did not seem to have the same concern for safety that I possess and decided to ride through the intersection without a single care. He passed unscathed through the westbound lane, causing only one car to brake mildly through the green light. His crossing of the eastbound lane was a bit more problematic. Several cars were traveling at a high speed typical of Canal Street, which caused the unnamed cyclist to execute a skid stop, a method used by bikes with fixed gears and no brakes, but given the conditions, he had a hard time staying in the median out of traffic. The cars skidded to a stop on the wet pavement, narrowly missing him. As I eventually caught up to him while crossing the bridge into Brooklyn and followed him down Jay Street, he was living the life of Riley as he stood on the top tube and surfed his bike through downtown Brooklyn amidst the heavy traffic.

I’ve been riding in New York City for over three years and have seen many cyclists like him. His riding style is carefree in a city where anything can, and will, kill you – a characteristic I simultaneously admire and scoff at, possibly due to my heightened awareness of my own mortality. There is something to be said about coming very close to death and brushing it off by performing a stunt that again brings you very close to death. When I was in my teens and early twenties I could understand this thought process much easier than I can now. Today, when I leave the house on my bike I know very well that I may become another statistic local advocacy groups will use to make an argument for safer cycling.

Life is too precious to assume that anybody cares about your environmentally friendly mode of transportation. I’ve learned that simply making eye contact with a motorist, pedestrian, or even another cyclist doesn’t mean they are going to acknowledge your right to be on the street. Many times (and I mean many) I have made direct eye contact with whomever I was attempting to pass or maneuver around and met with complete disregard to my safety. I’ve thankfully never been struck by a vehicle, but have come very close. One day, I was on my way home from work in the early afternoon. I took my usual route to Bay Ridge which takes me along a nasty stretch of 3rd Avenue directly under the BQE – a section of city riding that would have most Greenpoint, Williamsburg, and Park Slope residents rethinking just how wonderful cycling in Brooklyn is due to the three lanes of heavy traffic whizzing by at 60 mph. In order to avoid a portion of this, I usually hop onto 2nd Avenue right around 39th Street, since 2nd Avenue has a more industrial, less of a highway type of traffic pattern. I made my usual left onto 2nd at the Playpen, Sunset Park’s most luxurious cabaret, when a vehicle wandered out of its lane and aimed directly towards me. I emptied the contents of my Air Zound at around 115 ear-piercing decibels. This got the discourteous driver’s attention – or at least I think it did since he looked directly at me – but his car continued towards my bike. I continued to move further and further towards the edge of the street, as did he, until I hit the curb and fell onto the sidewalk. His car stopped inches from my fallen bike as I now realized his intention – to park his car on the wrong side of the street precisely in the exact spot where I was riding. He held the same oblivious attitude as the irresponsible biker I followed home that day, except with disregard for others lives rather than his own.

While I am still terrified each time I leave my house on my bicycle, that fear has yet to stop me completely from cycling. I have given it up in short spurts – generally after near-death experiences such as the one previously mentioned – but those are only small speed bumps in my journey on two wheels. The freedom I experience when riding is unmatchable. After Superstorm Sandy struck New York, there was a citywide gas shortage that had drivers lining up at stations for hours or siphoning their unsuspecting neighbors’ tanks in an attempt to keep going. I felt joy, pride, and even a small amount of superiority knowing that my method of travel did not require the prized commodity that we as a society are so dependent on. The safety of cyclists depends not only on courteous drivers, but also rule-following pedal pushers. I get equally upset when I see a stupid biker as I did the day a car almost parked on top of me. Just the other night, I yelled at a cyclist in Union Square as he blew through a red light and nearly hit my wife’s car. He was riding east on 14th Street in the dark dressed completely in black. “Get a light! They’re not that expensive!” I yelled. His headphones likely drowned out my suggestion.