Last Thursday I decided I could do better picking a destination on my own so I ignored the list of nineteen beautiful places and opened the Google map app on my phone instead. I entered the word museum and pressed a pin at random. It opened to “Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum.” I had never heard of it and yes, you read that correctly. It’s an entire museum dedicated to the Irish famine of the 1840’s.

And so it was that I found myself blasting the Cranberries and early U2 winding down route 34 towards Hamden, hoping to make up for a slow start to my Connecticut adventures.

I figured if I put in the time to learn something about my Irish heritage a week in advance, then tonight I can just wear a green t-shirt and raise a pint of Guinness to St. Patrick like the rest of America without the usual guilt. Although truth be told you’ll never find me savoring a beer as dark as Guinness so perhaps I should say… chugging a pale and tasteless Harp or twelve.

When I got within a quarter mile of the museum I noticed a sign for Sleeping Giant State Park. I love me some time in the woods and it was still morning so I decided to take a quick hike before the impending rain kicked in. Sleeping Giant is directly across the street from Quinnipiac University which houses the museum I was headed to.

While I was thankful for a breath of woodsy air I have to say the Sleeping Giant trail system left much to be desired. The sheer volume of options made for a lot of time wasted deciphering between a greenish-blue marker and a bluish-green one. At any given moment you can be walking on red, orange and yellow trails at the same time only to have them veer off individually and meet up again in a few thousand feet. What is the point of having a trail running parallel six feet to the left of the one you’re on? All it accomplishes is the odd feeling that someone over there is following you in a not-so-incognito fashion. Furthermore at no point on the hike did I make it to an area where I could no longer hear the traffic below.

My personal disappointments aside, it’s very easily accessible and directly across from the university. I imagine it’s a great place for college students and personnel to take a brisk walk and let off some steam so they can get back to work with a clear head. For that I’m grateful it exists. It’s not a destination I would make a point to return to but I’m happy it’s there for everyone else.

After an hour or so of ambling the rain started so I headed back to my car. I grabbed a quick lunch at the health food store across the street then made my way to a small but beautiful new building that opened in 2012. The museum depicts Ireland’s Great Hunger, An Gorta Mor, also known as the potato famine.

Pre-famine Ireland was largely a place of hardworking simple people who lived off the land with very little to show for themselves. An acre fed a family and they were content to keep it at that. Unfortunately for the Irish, the British government had other plans once the blight hit which sent sick starving people out into the streets to die by the droves. Too sick to fight for their rights, their homes were burned. Meanwhile newspapers, parliamentary papers and workhouse minutes portrayed them as lazy but festive drunkards to the judgmental elite in England; even going so far as to insinuate that the rotting crops were a fitting punishment from God.

The museum houses a collection of permanent works and is currently hosting a temporary selection titled In the Lion’s Den from Daniel Macdonald, one of the only artists to depict the famine while it was happening. Turns out it was very uncouth to acknowledge those poor starving people in the higher society of Britain. According to Niamh O’Sullivan, the collection’s curator and Macdonald’s biographer:

Themes rarely visited by Irish artists – rural agitation, superstition and folkore, as well as aspects of the national character – were given spirited treatment by Macdonald who insinuated such subject matter in to the salons of metropolitan London, to venues distinctly hostile to Irish poverty, hunger and violence.

a8c38a17ef49b0d73ccc0be31b5f80a2Macdonald’s most noteworthy painting, titled An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of Their Store, was unveiled in London during the worst year of the Great Hunger, 1847. Because the fungus that was infecting the crops putrefied the potatoes and turned them black under the soil, that year became known at Black ’47.

When I think of Ireland I think of rolling green pastures and wool sweaters. I think of the backpacking trip my sister and I took to Dingle Bay in the early nineties when I was a fresh faced teenager eager to see the world. I think of Celtic fiddles in tiny village pubs, rustic sea worn cliffs and a never ending flow of charming and inviting characters. I never think of starving poor people being forced out of their homes by a government that thought them on par with rats and pigeons.

And while I’ve always known the arrival of the Irish in America was not exactly met with a warm hug (Gangs of New York anyone?), I never put the piece together that it was in fact a forced emigration because home had become unlivable and their government was intentionally culling their population. They had to leave in order to survive.

It’s always been fascinating to me how regularly we mis-remember the past. I was taught in history class that everyone came here to pursue the American Dream. And isn’t it so much nicer to believe that? Yah right, they came here on the off chance that it would keep their children from being murdered or starving to death, even though most of them died on the boat ride over. Sound familiar?

Depressing world politics aside, I had an absolutely lovely experience at the museum which included a ten-minute educational movie, sculptures, Celtic music, paintings, stained glass and a projection series of quotes and cartoons from the newspapers of that time. The staff were all engaged and knowledgeable and I left feeling proud to be descended from such a beautifully tenacious and sturdy stock. And to that I will certainly raise a glass!

Sláinte!

Bryson is a master of the tangential rant. At one point in Little Dribbling he goes on about a lengthy article in the U.K. Times which caused him to stop reading newspapers altogether. In the offending series a young journalist travels to America to see how many outdated and ridiculous laws he can break. His goal is to get arrested in as many U.S. states as possible only it turns out that none of the laws he’s trying to break are real and he never once gets the attention of law enforcement. It is essentially a loss on all levels and seems to annoy its reader mainly due to a complete lack of research.

The state of the media is disastrous to say the least and I kind of felt like that when I got to Guilford. Upon my arrival in town I had a Homer Simpson Doh! moment thinking: Why in the world did I let a Facebook advertisement tell me where to go?

If Bill Bryson can’t rely on the Times how could I be so stupid as to trust a list that had been generated by a website called the Crazy Tourist and was written by someone who believes Yale University is in East Haven? I’ve already admitted to not knowing enough about my state but I do at least know that the home of one of our nation’s most prestigious college campuses is New Haven, not it’s lame duck cousin to the east!

Upon further inspection of this list I realized I didn’t even have anyone to blame for its multitude of mistakes because no one actually claims authorship of the article.

Granted Guilford is a cute wealthy seaside village with a nice little beach park and a town center with a row of overpriced restaurants, but that’s kind of it. Much of the coastline is blocked by gargantuan summer homes whose owners have way too much money and sense to occupy them during the winter so this time of year it was mostly empty.

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If I hadn’t been in a rush to get home by afternoon I may have been able to experience the Henry Whitfield State Museum and the other houses that have been turned into historic sites but none of them opened until noon. Furthermore nothing I saw on the outsides made me feel like I was missing anything by not exploring the insides.

Guilford is the kind of town that still has a fairgrounds and is dotted with cedar sided houses that start off tan and fade over time to grey from the sun and the salty air. I noticed many homes that had been painted a slimy green color which can only be described as asparagus or pickle. Now I’m all for a green house but these had the budding distinction of looking like they were about to vomit, an oddly human characteristic for a house to exhibit.

Really all I did in Guilford was drag my pups around a tiny windy beach on a day that promised to be much warmer than it actually was. Then I got back in my car and drove around in circles for an hour thinking there must be more but there wasn’t. Guilford is probably much better in the summer and if you’re really rich.

One saving grace was Bishop’s Orchards, a farm market and winery with a wide selection of homemade goods from applesauce to ice cream. One thing I learned on my fall bike ride around New England is that every orchard makes cider donuts and in that department Bishop’s was on point.

Cider donuts make up for a lost adventure any day of the year. I ate so many during the month of October I was inflating the spare tire around my middle more than the tires on my bicycle. (Why must it be so hard to stay in shape once we’re pushing forty?) A break became necessary but everything eventually must come to an end. That donut break came to an abrupt halt at Bishop’s as I bought myself a three-pack and scarfed them down in one sitting before making my way back home.

Filled with sugar, carbs and fat I was gastronomically satisfied though a tad disappointed that my at-home-adventure started on such a mild note.

61a6s4+LrDL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_A few weeks ago my dad bought me Bill Bryson’s latest book The Road to Little Dribbling. I’ve been laughing out loud at inappropriate intervals in public ever since. I have about a third left and I’m already in mourning for the inevitable end to the escape this nonsensical journey around the U.K. has provided.

Bill Bryson is my favorite. I’ve always wished I could write like him – quick witted, barbed with good reason, generous when warranted, oftentimes self deprecating and always hilarious. Reading his books makes me want to be not just a more well-traveled human being, but a much better writer.

My own writing has completely stalled. For months I’ve been working on a full-length memoir and lately it has mostly felt like slow dull torture. Rather than continue to slave over something I no longer know how to improve, I’ve made the decision to stop and send it out into the universe for feedback. I made an agent inquiry, entered a pitch contest through NaNoWriMo and handed over my first 30 pages to a dear friend who was also one of my first writing teachers.

While she takes a look and puts together a proposal for how quickly I should burn it all and pretend I never tried (I jest), I will be left with ample opportunity to experiment with something new.

As if part of a happy accident set in motion by something bigger, I came upon a Facebook post today about the nineteen most beautiful places in Connecticut, my home for the first seventeen years of my life, a place I have revisited regularly for the last twenty, a place I find myself surprisingly (read : somewhat reluctantly) living in again, a place, it turns out, that I know almost nothing about.

Of those nineteen beautiful un-miss-able places I’ve been to two.

So I got to thinking. I don’t have Mr. Bryson’s wit or perfected style. Far be it from me to dream of a day when I could pen such delicious perfection as:

Call me fussy, but if I ever decide to turn my colon over to someone for sluicing, it won’t be at a beautician’s in Skegness…

or to the waiter upon leaving an Indian restaurant after drinking one giant bottle of beer too many:

“You should make this into an Elvis-themed restaurant,” I said. “You could call it Love Me Tandoor.”

Furthermore I will likely never be paid money for my writing. BUT! That doesn’t mean I can’t continue to practice and get better. And it doesn’t mean I have to sit around wishing I could travel when I have so much to explore nearby.

Gas is cheap and so begins my new blog, Vacationing At Home, An Ode to Connecticut. This may not be as awe inspiring as my Thirty Days on Oahu but I hope it will be at least as interesting and, dare I hope, maybe even a little funny. It’s a writing experiment for me and something to keep me engaged and moving towards whatever it is I’m currently moving towards.

As always I hope you’ll join me for the journey. First up will be the coastal town of Guilford, CT for no other reason than a Facebook ad told me I should go there.

Just stumbled on this and had to share. So beautiful, so far beyond words.

Just a quick note to let you all know that Ericka (a.k.a. the most convincing female Eminem ever) is doing really well. Today we went to the oncology radiologist and she got fitted for her radiation therapy which will start in about ten days and last through the middle of December.

It was all a weird blur of contrast dyes, CAT scans, masking and three tiny tattooed dots that will allow the physicists (yes, physicists!) to line her up properly for each of her daily treatments.

As for me, I have so many thoughts and memories swirling around in my head from this past month’s journey across New England. I reached all six states and cycled through at least 145 towns and cities. It was such an incredible journey and I can’t possibly thank you all enough for the love, the support, the shout outs, the financial contributions and everything else that made it all possible!

Yesterday I dove right into National Novel Writing Month because deep down inside (and all the way up to the surface actually) I’m a total nerd. So please excuse me while I dig into that. I’ll check in on the blog occasionally but you probably won’t hear much from me until I come up for air in December.

Sending love and light! FUCK CANCER!!!!

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My route out to Mattatuck was just over forty miles. Gorgeous ride, perfect length. Should’ve put me back at home right around eighty-two total like I wanted, but I took a different route back and it ended up being a bit shorter.

I figured I’d get to Danbury and do a few victory laps somewhere to make up for any missed miles so I could officially surpass 1,400 – but I couldn’t stop thinking about the kids. It was getting late and I had promised all four of them that I’d be there for trick-or-treating. How ridiculous would it be for me to be late because I was riding around in circles for a number that doesn’t seem to mean anything to anyone?

My mileage total has always been an estimation anyway because I didn’t use an app like Strava and I had bike computer issues on three of my rides.

Instead of putting unnecessary emphasis on my grand total I decided to pack it in and just get home. I showered quickly and headed out the door, arriving at their house just in time for the building frenzy of four kids excited to get out into the neighborhood. The ten-year old vampired me up – blackened cheeks and eyes, bright red lipstick to look like blood dripping down fake fangs – and we were off:

One Tinkerbell

One Malificent

One Harley Quinn

One Hulk

One living dead breast cancer awareness cyclist

And the most convincing female Eminem you’ve ever seen

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It’s never been about the miles anyway. It’s always been about them.

And look who’s hair is growing back!!

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Officially getting to 1,400 miles would have been nice. But trick-or-treating with a gaggle of nut cases, candy swapping on the living room floor and snuggling in bed to watch Alvin & the Chipmunks Meet the Wolfman was priceless. I’m gonna go ahead and say that with 1,395.2 miles, I came close enough.

Happy Halloween! And love and Love and MORE LOVE!!

Tomorrow is the last day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and my last ride for Cycle My Heart Out. My plan is to put 82 more miles on the bike which will land me at 1,400 total for the month. Far from what I originally intended, but it still feels like a really good stopping point.

I’m going to head north through Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington, then east to Mattatuck State Forest.

Tonight I feel such a mix of emotions. I’m looking forward to a scenic and quiet last ride partly to help me make peace with this journey ending, and partly to help me clear my head to figure out what’s next.

Most importantly I’ve got to be back before dark so I can get my Halloween on by joining Ericka and the kids for trick-or-treating. No matter what’s going on in our lives, having our priorities straight is always one of the most important aspects!

Thank you again to everyone who has supported this effort. It means the world to me that you’ve helped me help my friend. And for anyone who intended to give but hasn’t gotten the chance yet, it’s not too late! Anything you can do to help will in fact… help!

MUCH LOVE!!

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My Uncle Bill taught me how to skip rocks and fish up on Lake Champlain in Vermont, and by “fish” I mean I would catch and release tiny yellow perch with a pout of excruciating boredom across my face until he caught an actual trout. Then he’d hand it off to me and we’d race up the dock to the house he was renting, him giving me all the glory. “Look at this beauty! Can you believe this little pipsqueak nabbed such a big fish all by herself?!”

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I thought about him a lot as I was riding south through Vermont last week. He lived in a couple different states but for a while he was near Rutland. My grandmother would drive her grey Chevy Celebrity up Route 7 to visit him and my Aunt Carol. He was the oldest of her five children, the one who took her to hot air balloon festivals in Arizona, the one who drove her cross country to see California and Mount Saint Helens. The only one she lost.

Most of my memories of my Uncle Bill are from Candlewood Lake in Danbury, CT. That’s where he had the speedboat. That’s where he would yell, “I’m letting go so you better take the wheel!” as we’d go whipping across the surface at speeds that seemed unimaginably dangerous to my eight year old self.

Losing Bill to lung cancer in 1996 was devastating for everyone. He was only 56. Way way way way way too young.

I’m circling the lake today remembering how he and Carol were always out there on their boat for the Fourth of July fireworks that were set off from the island near the Danbury Town Park. I’m remembering the sound of his gravelly deep laugh, how tall he was. How much fun it was at their wedding because Lionel Ritchie’s Dancing on the Ceiling had just been released and the videographer kept turning the camera upside down on the dance floor so it would look like we were on the ceiling too.

I’m circling the lake slowly through Sherman, thinking about how tired I am today, so tired of riding, and for a minute I have the audacity to complain. Immediately there’s Joanna cheering me on. “When you’re finished you can light the bike on fire if you want! For now, ride Jenny ride!” And I just want to smack myself for being such an ass.

How lucky I was to get so many summers with my Uncle Bill as a kid, to have this treasure trove of memories of his smiling face tossing horseshoes in my grandmother’s backyard, because not everybody gets that. I’m circling the lake somehow forgetting about Joanna’s daughter Eleanor who will never get to know her Uncle Frankie, another awesome uncle gone way way way too soon, also to lung cancer just this past January.

So how about I shut up, remove my foot from my mouth, and ride for her?

Of course Eleanor has other great uncles, just like I do, but I know that Frank would have been to her what Bill was to me. I hate that my mom and Joanna both lost perfect amazing totally awesome big brothers, idols. Frankie, the jokester who was always laughing, every single time I ever saw him. Either laughing, or cracking a joke, or trying to jump off the roof of the Contorno’s house into the pool. How impossible is it to lose that person?

I continue past Squantz Pond through New Fairfield and back into Danbury. I’m passing the Amber Room where Ericka and I went to the prom twenty years ago. It’s also where I ran the Ann’s Place 5K along with Frank’s wife Lauren back in August before I started pedaling. And I’m thinking of my Aunt Carol and Lauren losing husbands, best friends. The utter impossibility of it all.

Heading home from the lake I ride down Hayestown past Abbot Tech and over Hospital Avenue. I pass the Praxair Cancer Center where Frank, Ericka and countless others received their chemotherapy. I take White Street to Cross Street and start up the back side of Old Shelter Rock to Skyline. I’m crying long before reaching my grandmother’s house, which still hasn’t sold since she passed over a year ago. When I finally get there I lean my bike against her mailbox and collapse onto the grass.

The maple tree in the backyard is gone now. The one my teeny tiny Grams pulled a large branch from out of frustration and anger, slashing a huge gash into her leg right after Bill died. Mothers are not supposed to lose their children at any age. I cry for the pain she felt. I cry for Frank’s mom Cathy.

I started today for my uncle and I ended it for the Contorno’s, every single one of them. Frank wasn’t just a delightful human being; he was a beacon of light amongst his family and in his community. Hundreds of people attended his funeral. Nine months later friends continue to post messages to his Facebook wall. The King Street Intermediate School where he worked planted a tree and dedicated a bench to him, engraving it with Live Laugh Love. He was so important to so many people.

Losing a family member to cancer is gut wrenching and atrocious. As a family mine has had many years to grieve but the Contorno’s have only had a few months. The loss is so fresh, so visceral.

Joanna I’m sorry for complaining. I love you so much. Thank you for waking me back up to what really matters.

When I initially saw the weather report for Maine, nothing but rain, I just wanted to give up. I was warm and toasty at a friend’s near Boston and it would have been so much easier to say I’ve done enough and I just want to go home. But nothing I’m doing out here has been as painful or as uncomfortable or as awful as what Ericka’s been doing back home. And she does it all with a grateful smile on her face.

So yesterday I waited out the rain in Ogunquit at a packed little hole in the wall called The Omelette Factory. I knew if I could put in four hours on the bike I’d be able to cross over a big milestone – 1,200 miles – so I was OK to wait until noon to start. That’s exactly what I did and it turned out to be a gorgeous ride from Wells Beach up to Old Orchard and back in my sixth and final New England state!

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It’s been clear for quite some time that my initial goal of over 2,000 miles in thirty days was just a tad overblown. Haha! That’s putting it mildly. Going into this I really had no idea how far I could go or how fast I could get there, I just wanted to set out on something epic enough to get people’s attention and raise a decent amount of money to really make a difference.

My true goals have been to plaster all six New England states with fliers (done!), flash as many people as I possibly can with a big grin when they notice my FUCK CANCER jersey and to tell a good story that sheds light on what really happens when a woman is diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I won’t reach my mileage goal but all of those other more important things are happening and the donations are still piling up.

Meanwhile back at home Ericka has continued her trek up Recovery Hill. She’s been to physical therapy to increase range of motion in her arm. The surgical oncologist removed so many lymph nodes from her armpit she’s had a lot of pain in that area and difficulty stretching.

The physical therapy will help reduce her chances of having lymphedema, which will be a concern for the rest of her life, and also get her to the point of being able to rest with her arm above her head while lying down. That’s the position she’ll be in next month when she starts five weeks of daily radiation.

It’s all still so much to take in but she keeps moving forward no matter how difficult or painful it gets.

Tomorrow she’ll continue physical therapy and implant spacer inflation. She’ll start to grapple with what radiation is going to be like and hopefully figure out what the heck is going on with her eye (ocular nerve damage being another little tidbit left behind from our dear friend chemotherapy). Meanwhile I’ll tackle the Kancamagus Pass from Conway, NH to Lincoln, NH and back – over 2,000 feet of elevation gain in each direction. We’ll be brave and strong for each other as we each tackle hills that at one point may have seemed insurmountable.

And I figure whatever intended miles I don’t conquer on this journey, I’ll make up for in vertical feet tomorrow. Haha!

Wish us luck! And don’t forget to check out my fundraising page. If all of you made a tiny contribution we’d be able to help a tremendous amount of people through Ann’s Place, and of course my dear friend and her four wonderful kids! Ten or twenty bucks goes a long way when it’s multiplied by all the people tracking this story!

Here’s me surpassing 1,200 miles at Wells Beach in Maine! Thank you SO MUCH for the continued love and support!!

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