Playlist: U.S.A. summer feels

There might be no stronger keeper of memories than music — even more than photos and stories, songs have a way of sending me back, viscerally, to specific moments in time, to an almost palpable state of mind.

SO: one of the things I want to do more of moving forward is creating playlists based on place and my time moving through them. I’m starting with my nearly four-month cruise through the States (plus a week in Canada!).

It was a hell of a journey being in my native country — even my former adopted home, Minneapolis — as a nomad, this time. It was both familiar and strange; comforting and challenging; indulgent and driving.

Live Inspired: How to travel around the U.S. for a summer as a kind-of broke nomad

On Sunday night, I had a nightmare that I got sick while back in the States.

In the dream, I had a cold that wouldn’t go away, so I went to a hospital. At the end of the appointment, I asked the doctor how much this visit would cost, sans health insurance. She wrote down and slid a number across the table that jolted me from sleep, wheezing.

Health insurance, you see, is one of the many things that just isn’t in the budget for this three-month stint in the U.S. — a venture I’m both very excited and very stressed about.

After I awoke, I lay in bed for a minute, doing a mental check of every part of my body to ensure sickness wasn’t creeping up inside of me. I considered that I should probably drink fewer beers and smoke fewer stress cigarettes. I mulled how many more tunafish sandwiches were in my future. I checked my bank accounts, again, and the tally of all the various reward points I have.

When people in the U.S. marvel at how I’m able to afford to travel full time, they’re usually doing so with a North American mindset — scrutinizing just how much everything costs, here. By moving through developing countries, I tell them, I spend a lot less money to travel full time than most people do to stay in one place. That, of course is because everything in the U.S. is more expensive. Healthcare is a pretty dramatic example (seeing a doctor and obtaining medicine in Central America are tiny fractions of what such things cost here), but vast differences, exist, too, in travel, housing and food.

In Central America, I make enough money to buy my coffee each morning, eat out three meals a day (sometimes on the street though), drink too many aforementioned beers and occasionally stay in a locale with AC, hot water or (!) both. In the States, that budget would barely get me a sandwich and a dorm bed.

On Monday morning, thinking of all this, I considered breaking all my plans and zipping back to El Salvador, stat.

But alas, I have already booked nearly a summer’s worth of travel, and have some events in the works, too. SO, I guess I’ll figure out how to make it work. Hopefully. Maybe. Con suerte.

Here’s how to do it (I think):

While we get outraged about Russian interference, we should consider our own history too

Last week, the redacted version of the Robert Mueller investigation into possible Trump collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections was released, and seemingly all of the U.S. — particularly its media — took the opportunity to find new ways to be aghast, disgusted, horrified by the idea that a foreign government could be involved in dictating our leadership, our way of life.

It’s disturbing, certainly. I’ve been among those enamored with fury, too.

But lately, I’ve instead been thinking back to a conversation I had a few months ago in a bar in Belize.

My Belize City friend, Ian, chuckled then as we shared a glass of wine, talking politics in a small bar in Placencia. At some point the Mueller investigation came up.

“Americans are outraged that Russia helped choose your president,” he mused, “even though it’s what your country has done with leaders of countries all over Central America for decades.”

Despite knowing the history, foggily, the statement hit like a 2×4 block of concrete to the face.

Because, well, let’s face it: as U.S. natives, we don’t like to think of ourselves that way.

Live Inspired: In the “land of the free,” our toilets flush all

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

These days, I spend a lot of time trying to remember where to put my toilet paper.

Since I got back to the States a week ago, I’ve found myself lingering in a lot of bathrooms, awkwardly holding that little used swath and trying to figure out why the trash can is so far away.

When I realize, anew, that I’m back in the ol’ U.S. of A. and I can indeed flush the stuff, my new reaction is less relieved than it is confused — mystified by the fact that the toilets can actually handle it here. I’ve stared into a lot of toilets, unconvinced it will all make its way down.

Perhaps this is the biggest analogy of it all: life in the States, down to the way we dispose of our excrement, is different. Almost every moment back is a reminder of that.

Live Inspired: why I journeyed, last minute, to the States to vote

• Brought to you by John Reamer and Associates

About eight days ago, I was sitting at a cafe in Cobán, Guatemala, when the reality set in.

My absentee ballot for the midterm elections had not come. Something in the system had gotten screwed up. I called the North Carolina voting office and they confirmed: my registration had gotten lost.

“You can show up in North Carolina on election day,” the woman on the line told me, “or you can not vote.”

Nearly 3,000 miles away, I buried my face in my hands, distraught. I cried for a few minutes. Then I whipped open my computer and began plotting to do just that — to change all my plans and reservations and show up in my home town just four days later.

CITY GUIDE: Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh typically doesn’t get mentioned in the conversation about the country’s top cities— but don’t expect to find a chip on the locals’ shoulders over that perception. Based on the conversations I’ve had while traversing the hilly scape, Pittsburghers seem content to keep their bounty a secret. 

But make no mistake: the Steel City has world-class food, architecture, and views to offer across a slate of highly walkable neighborhoods that rival those of its Northeast compatriots that are often heaped with much more attention. 

Grab a picnic and stroll to the edge of Pointe State Park in the heart of downtown to see, up close, the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers converge. Or take a ride up the historic Duquesne  Incline for that same view from above, compete with perspective of the bridges and city skyline. Buy insanely cheap, insanely fresh seafood on the Strip. Sip craft cocktails in East Liberty’s fresh new Ace Hotel. Or test the city’s next wave of restaurants in one of its incubator kitchens.

Best of all: Pittsburgh has authored its impressive turnaround following the collapse of the steel industry without harming the gritty spirit that bleeds through. It’s cool without pretension, full of quality finds without approaching extravagance. Don’t check the rental prices or else you might be enticed to stay.

In the meantime, here’s where you should eat, drink and play: 

CITY GUIDE: Raleigh. N.C.

When I moved to downtown Raleigh in 2005, people quietly warned me to buy a firearm.

Then, abandoned storefronts lined prime street corners, drug deals went down in the open and not much existed in the way of restaurants, save for the sports bar where I worked and a handful of other options.

Life in downtown Raleigh couldn’t feel much different now and yet, it somehow still feels like the same city to me every time I make the jaunt back. The City of Oaks has managed to hold onto its charming architecture, it’s blue collar feel and its beautiful, tree-lined streets— the best of its assets remain, while its dangerous overlay has been greatly diminished.

Still small, the 10-some square blocks boast lush city parks, an impressively diverse array of eating and drinking opportunities and a vibrant, lived-in feel at every time of day. I’ve seen many small city downtowns remade in this era of revitalization, but few as authentically and gracefully as Raleigh. The only proof necessary is how eagerly its residents have embraced the changes.

Here’s where you should eat, drink and play: