Archive for the ‘adventure’ Category

Sorry Girl Scouts, you were not my type

October 13, 2017

If I could go back in time, I’d apologize to a few people. My Girl Scout leaders would be some of them.

You see, I was raised in a household of rambunctious, hockey-playing boys. I am still a “tomboy” because I require a pretty significant level of physical activity to balance the amount of time I’m required to sit still most days. Back when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old I was a good student and focused in school, but wanted to let loose afterward. I was into climbing trees, building forts, playing football or baseball or whatever the other kids in the neighborhood were up to. I delivered newspapers on my skateboard. I started running races around age 12 (just a few but it planted the seed). Girl Scouts was the wrong organization for me to join.

Girl Scouts was anathema to me. It was more sitting still. The leaders, God bless them, tried to teach me things like paper mache and embroidery. We used miles of colored yarn to earn badges that required nothing more than channeling our natural energy into a checklist of pseudo domestic skills designed to make us better housewives. That’s the worst thing for pubescent girls who are beginning to battle body image issues, to face “mean girl” school cliques, and often having few outlets for confidence building activities. Girls need to test their physical skills and keep endorphins flowing through rock climbing, biking, problem solving and meaningful activities like public service, in my opinion. Like I believe Boy Scouts do.

Girls belong in trees and on climbing walls and participating in more than glue and glitter activities.

In Girl Scouts, when I was participating, we never went hiking or learned survival skills, but my brothers did in Boy Scouts. In Girl Scouts, we never rode bikes or camped outside, but my brothers did in Boy Scouts. In Girl Scouts we never shoveled snow for the elderly, paddled canoes, or learned fire-starting techniques as Boy Scouts did. I asked to join Boy Scouts but was told no, that’s not for you. Instinctively I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do but in 1978 or thereabouts very few people were challenging the rules and my parents were not going to rock the boat. So I made my Girl Scout leaders miserable by misbehaving.

Later in life I became a Girl Scout leader, hoping to provide the right opportunities to my daughters and other young girls. Sadly, I wasn’t able to offer the kids much better than I had experienced in  my youth. Up against a bulwark of rules designed to protect the organization from liability, we could not push girls to participate in activities that they didn’t want to do, perpetuating a system that clearly discouraged physical activities in favor of using more yarn and glue and glitter. It was nearly impossible to even teach the kids to cook or allow them to use scissors. It was ridiculous. But if you sold lots of cookies and made money for the organization to pay its attorneys (the troops got pennies on the dollar) you got a pat on the head.

The climax of this frustrating exercise of working within the status quo was when I went as a leader with a dozen other troops (total of 60-100 girls) for a camp experience. We were going to be allowed to cook over fires (if you followed a dozen pages of rules of course)! We were going to be outside! What actually happened was these 60-100 girls were stuck playing kickball in a big field under the burning sun on a 100 degree day while a nearby beach had to be ignored because of rules and liability issues. That’s when I had enough.

Girl Scouts is nothing more, in my opinion, than an outdated organization run by old biddies who believe girls should be seen and not heard, clean and not dirty, still and not active.

This week, the Boy Scouts finally announced that they’d allow girls to join. I surely hope that means more kids will be allowed to run outside and be physically active and learn meaningful skills. The attorneys who have made their living writing rules that made generations of Girl Scouts sit miserably still should be forced into retirement.

You see, I’m still climbing trees and playing in the dirt, despite Girl Scouts.

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Mom needs a kayak

May 12, 2017

Yup, you read that correctly: it’s your answer for the annual Mother’s Day conundrum — and you still have two whole days to shop (or procrastinate).

Freedom. Power. Shopping. Those are the reasons why you’ll buy Mom (or your wife or significant other — or yourself or your daughter!) a kayak this year. Let me explain (note: this is one of those kayak-endorphin inspired musings that revealed itself to me as I plied the windy waters of the St. Lucie River, which will make more sense as the explanation unfolds):

Freedom: The realization that she can’t do anything she wants and she can’t do everything the boys do is something that slowly and insidiously seeps into a young girl’s consciousness. The result is often a home-bound woman frustrated by her limited choices and afraid to step outside the boundaries that society and the media have created. Those boundaries tell her she’s too old or too weak or it’s dangerous for her to do something like kayaking.

Of course the first problem with kayaking is “I can’t lift one of those onto my car.” But this video (link below) shows plenty of ways to get around that issue, even for a small woman. Where there’s a will …

Think about this: As we age and grow, true freedom evaporates for girls. We’re in the kitchen cleaning up after parties and dinners while the guys continue drinking and watching the football game. There’s little choice in the matter. We’re constrained by expectations of appearance in dress and manner, further eliminating choices and options. By adulthood, because we’re working and nurturing others or doing free work at schools and libraries many women are too pressed for time to do anything for ourselves. We’re too concerned about smelling bad or looking disheveled to participate in anything athletic, so we turn to finding cute outfits and cooking or keeping house as our outlets.

But eventually the beast emerges, hungry for freedom and choices that aren’t satisfied by retail therapy. A woman who’s been saddled with raising children, toiling under an ungrateful boss, and frustrated by time passing will inevitably implode.

Unless she has a kayak and freedom.

A kayak is a vehicle that doesn’t need roads and signs; it carves its own path to adventure and happiness. Travel quickly or meander aimlessly, the kayak doesn’t care. She may look for fish, for birds, for signs of spring or fall colors — or nothing but peace and quiet.

A in kayak Pittsburg NH  Freedom. Serenity. Power.

Power:  Women are generally discouraged from building or using muscle. “Let me do that for you” is a frequent phrase we hear for everything from lifting groceries to moving furniture. Call the handyman when a job requires lifting. Get a man to do that. Well, I’m calling BS — start with a kayak and pretty soon she’ll be doing pushups like Ahhhnold.

The sore muscles are a badge of honor after a long paddle. They remind you that you did it yourself, you propelled a watercraft and succeeded. You tamed the wind and were challenged by the tides, but you survived. Pretty soon the desire to tackle more physical challenges takes hold and the sky is the limit: a 5K run? climb a mountain? anything is possible.

Shopping: This is the gateway, it’s one of the ways a woman’s mind works when her options are limited. Bear with me: If Mom/wife/daughter is used to handling the family shopping, she will love a kayak because it opens a new world of choices and decisions. Cruise through a scenic harbor and she’ll begin to imagine herself aboard a variety of yachts or looking down from the balcony of a chic townhouse (whether as a Bond Girl or maritime skipper, that’s up to her). Glide by some cute seaside shacks and she’ll consider the scenario of running away from responsibilities to make a new life without the SUV and 9-to-5. She may be immersed in the suburban lifestyle now while raising a family but things will change eventually and unless she’s got some inkling of her next step (through “shopping”) the transition could be rocky.

It’s liberating to enjoy sights and sounds and sensations that aren’t loading up the car, getting kids to school, or the same old power walk around the neighborhood. You might have let the genie out of the bottle, but that’s OK because she will escape one way or the other.

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Note to readers: if you’ve read this far, I have one small item of advice — DO NOT buy a tandem/2 person kayak. If she’s timid of the water then start on a quiet, windless day on a small pond in separate kayaks. Tandems simply accelerate the implosion that I warned you about.

Also, don’t buy a crappy $300 kayak. Spend the $1400 and get something above 12 feet with a bit of a keel. If she’s nervous about controlling it, get a rudder installed. Mom is worth it.

Flip Flop to Costa Rica

February 4, 2017

This Central American country had been on Mike’s bucket list a long time. He showed me magazine articles about traveling there in the first month we were dating, but it remained the elusive, exotic goal for a few years.Costa Rica surfing

We were there a year ago this week. Was it amazing, was it worth the wait? I’ll let you make up your own mind.

First, we had visions of dipping our toes in the Pacific as soon as we got off the flight, but that evening we were instead schlepping chicken and canned beer from a street vendor to an unanticipated overnight in a city hotel room. That’s because we’d arrived too late to make the drive to our guest house by the sea. And because the car rental agency had abandoned us when we got stuck at an airport. Travel in Costa Rica is still pretty third-world. Our hostess had warned us that the 30+ mile trip from the airport to her guest house near Manuel Antonio National Park would take two hours or so, depending on traffic. I didn’t believe her until we were zig-zagging around food vendors who walked in traffic with bags of snacks for sale. Or maybe it was when we got on the main highway and discovered it was only one lane wide.

Narrow roads are the norm in Costa Rica, and I won’t exaggerate but I need to be clear. They’re often twisting, steep lanes where it’s risky to walk or drive because cars come at you at top speed only to skid to a stop just as the Grim Reaper has his hand on your shoulder. Once we arrived in our little village we decided we wouldn’t travel far for that reason. But this location would be just what we needed for relaxation and access to what matters: great waves on a long stretch of beach on one side of the peninsula, a calm lagoon for snorkeling on the other.

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The first thing we discovered is that the calm lagoon contained very little sea life. We had hoped to snorkel to some coral or pretty fish or SOMETHING to look at,  but there was very little. The water was also MUCH warmer than expected (yeah, I know we were close to the Equator but this is the largest ocean in the world..). Swimming was barely refreshing because of the ocean temperature. Everyone told us it was a warmer than average January, but isn’t that what we’ve been hearing everywhere?

The surf side of the peninsula was pretty spectacular. Big waves rolled in across a sandy break. We could walk for miles along the beach, right to the national park entrance. We both rented surf boards and had a great time practicing that (despite the bandage-covering-stitches-and-wrapped-with-duct-tape on my hand).. until Mike caught some waves that were a little too big and got freaked out (what’s sport without near death experiences??). But the sunsets here were to die for!

[I wasn’t joking about the lines at Manuel Antonio National Park, nor the monkeys]

Our outings included a morning in the National Park (honestly my assessment was a resounding MEH because of the crowds, the heat, and the damned monkeys). It was scenic but a chore to shuffle through with a million other people looking for sloths sleeping in the trees, and much of the park was closed to hiking without a permit and a guide, which was disappointing. When we took a sanctioned hike around a not-so-crowded peninsula to see cliffs and jungle we were accosted by a couple nasty monkeys on a bridge who wanted snacks. Also had a nice conversation with a giant iguana that got between me and my stuff on the beach — those suckers look lazy but can move really fast!

Another interesting day trip was to zip lining recommended by our hostess at the guest house. It included a bus ride with a ton of other American tourists into a very scenic area of the interior of the country (about an hour each way). We weren’t disappointed by the big trees we were frequently jumping off of! My issue (and this isn’t a minor one) is that the crew here made the quickest, most cursory equipment checks I’ve ever seen. I haven’t done a lot of rappelling or rock climbing or zip lining, but I know that  the way they were slapping on the carabiners that were going to hold a person 125 feet above a river isn’t enough of a safety precaution. I was nervous much of the time on this side trip but tried to put a good face on it. Also, I couldn’t help but analyze the return on our investment: we saw a beautiful area, we can say we did zip lining, but the reality of it was a lot of driving and standing around and perusing the base camp’s butterfly exhibit with a total of about 45 minutes of actual zip lining thrown in.

One of the aspects of the trip that we revisit is that we met some great people. Our guest house had a common room with kitchen that allowed us to relax and interact with couples from Europe, Canada, and the US. We had sundowners at a bar one night and met a naturalist who works at a local hotel and was very fun and interesting to talk to. There were people on the beaches who enjoyed sharing their suggestions and travel tips. All in all, the people were friendly, unlike the monkeys who were cute for about a day then got pretty annoying.

[Monkeys were cute for the first day or so.. and grocery shopping in foreign countries is so amusing to me!]

This blog item might sound cynical — Costa Rica is beautiful, but go with your eyes open. Don’t expect American-level facilities or infrastructure. Don’t try to pack in too much.

We had fun but we’re not in a big hurry to go back unless I decide to do the cross-country MTB race… which would probably result in the Grim Reaper REALLY getting his hands on me. (Check out this story!)

 

An exotic domestic trip you’ll remember

January 30, 2017

Winter getaways are so sinfully fabulous: you go back to the office after a week or so with a mild tan, refreshed attitude and a secret smile about “something I just thought about.” Yes, that means the absolute best part is that your coworkers wish they’d done the same rather than blowing their vacation time on an extended Labor Day weekend stuck in traffic.

Here’s one to do, and it’s incredibly simple: Puerto Rico.

Want to be out in the sun, to enjoy a tropical vacation without going broke, and not have to endure the snobbery of resorts? PR has it all, plus surfing and mountain biking and easy-to-navigate services. And, there are ways to avoid the crime that the little island was once known for.

[It took us about an hour to end up bushwhacking to a beautiful rocky overlook on Day 1.]

Jet Blue flights are pretty inexpensive to the island (you don’t need a passport!). We took a late-night flight to save a few bucks (Orlando-Ponce). The island is small enough to travel the perimeter by car in a day (but why would you?), so distances are easy to cover as long as you avoid San Juan-area traffic. Don’t expect high rise beachside resorts here (maybe in San Juan if that’s what you like) — better yet, skip them entirely! We found a lovely AirBnB accommodation that allowed us to enjoy home cooked meals on the wide veranda with other guests and offered local info from the owner.

Our route was Ponce-Guanica-Aguadilla, running from the south-central coast to the northwest coast on Route 2. If I were to go back (yes I would), I’d love to spend more time around Aguadilla, a small city with a decent airport and great beaches/surfing nearby, including the surfing hotspot Rincon.

In the south, the coast has small waves and from what we could determine, not much to look at when snorkeling. There are many mangrove islands offshore that make an interesting destination if you rent a kayak (just don’t rent a tandem, a.k.a. “Breakup boat” with your partner unless you’re prepared for all of the possible ugly ramifications). Guanica’s coastline in particular is bounded on the east and west by nature preserves, so the water was clear enough to see the sea urchins lurking on the bottom, waiting to stab bare feet!

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It only took a couple hours to drive from the Guanica area to Aguadilla on a Saturday afternoon. The main highway is 2 lanes in each direction but goes directly through several towns including mid-sized Mayaguez and Rincon. There are lots of opportunities along the way to stop and check out beaches or surfing but we were rewarded for waiting until we reached Aguadilla and Borinquen.

Weekdays were the best time to access beautiful stretches of beach, long rolling waves and some colorful snorkeling around Aguadilla’s Crash Boat Beach and Surfer’s Beach.

[Crash Boat Beach above]

[Surfer’s Beach above]

We also visited the north shore’s premiere surfing beach, Jobos, on a stormy day when the waves were crashing over offshore islands of lava rock in spectacular fashion. The beachside bars were empty and Mike’s memories of the place included being swept out past the surfers by a killer current. He learned later that more people die at Jobos than any other beach on the island due to the current. He made a joke about it at the Coast Guard gathering he spoke to but few people laughed (ahem).

Please note: Undertow and currents at these beaches aren’t funny! If you go, scout first and use caution. Crash Boat Beach had a great gradual break but the undertow would leave you at least a quarter mile south if you had a good run on a wave. Many beaches have  waves that can land you on rocks.

If you’ve read this far, I’ve got a reward: the best hike you can do in the NW of PR. Go to Surfer’s Beach and take the little bridge on the northern end to a trail. Here you’ll begin a spectacular jungle and cliffside journey to the remote, secluded Coast Guard beach, which is the sort of strand of sand and palm trees that your Caribbean dreams are made of.

The day we went, the surf was pounding the rocks. While it made for a spectacular walk, it cut off access to the beach at the end and was a little worrisome as we’d gone out with just enough time to get back during daylight (nothing new for us!).

The route was just challenging enough to make it worthwhile, the scenery was gorgeous, and there were some huge, spectacular lava rocks where the surf spume roiled and hissed. Plus, we saw a huge iguana on the trail on the way back. It was hard to keep moving as I wanted to take so many photos. If you go, you MUST try this hike.

I miss winter

April 8, 2016

It’s not a popular statement to make, I know. Nor will friends sympathize when it’s revealed that I was swimming in warm ocean waters off Florida for a couple weeks in March. But I miss winter, I really do.

April sucks, there just isn’t another way to put it. We had snow last weekend and a monsoon yesterday. The temperatures are soaring into the 40s for the weekend, a good 10-15 degrees below normal for this time of year. Spring keeps making promises and breaking them.

(above, exploring Ames Nowell State Park in Abington for the AMC hiking book)

If I had a choice between two adversaries, I prefer the one that’s more direct and perhaps predictable. That’s why winter is better than spring: you know it’s going to be damned cold, so you’re mentally prepared to have your face stung and your nose hairs frozen when you step outside. There’s little guessing at what to wear, there’s no hunting around for gloves that are only needed for a few minutes one morning a week because in winter you need them every time you go outside. Which is why I own dozens of pairs of gloves.

More reasons:

  • frozen ground that supports my bike vs. tire-sucking mud
  • trails that are unbroken vs. the unpredictability of flooded streams that are much more difficult and time consuming to cross
  • layers: putting them on and taking them off — and carrying those that are shed. ugh.
  • black flies: they’re coming. and there’s nothing you can do about it.
  • visibility: do we really need leaves when we’d rather enjoy the full, 20-watt-bulb strength of the sun this time of year?
  • animal tracking*
  • the trail race I signed up for is happening way too soon, and it’s going to be a muddy, layer-carrying, cold, why-did-I-do-this experience

*April is so .. equivocal. It’s a little of this and a little of that. In April I won’t be skiing in the woods, finding coyote tracks that, hmmm, are just fresh enough to make me look over my shoulder and make my skin prickle with anticipation and fear.

(above, views from the Mt. Major winter hike)

Also, this winter I had a great hike in 32 degree weather: Mt. Major, south of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. The conditions were just right to make me want to keep moving yet enjoy the distant views of the lake and dream about going back in summer when the blueberry bushes that cover the summit will be bursting with fruit. I wanted to go back and do more of the 52 with a view (see map view here) during the winter — but I ran out of time. It was a much better experience than my attempt to bag the Kinsmans in the snow, which turned out to be a lesson in humility.

(When I saw these photos of my bike leaning against trees I thought twice about posting them.. but I was so juiced about riding in the snow that I actually did a lot more riding than just posing it for photos. A bonus about winter riding: I can tell when I’m going in circles because of the tracks!)

There was sadness seeing my skis in the corner of the living room when I got home from Florida. It felt like they were accusing me of abandoning them, of cheating winter. Now I’m having second thoughts.

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I can’t wait for June, when I’ll be able to complain about the heat.

 

 

3 to read: romance, resilience, resourcefulness

February 14, 2016

On Valentine’s Day I offer you a treat: three reviews of great books worth reading — no added fat, sugar or artificial ingredients.

The common theme is exploration and survival, and the books are Joan Druett’s Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World; Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania; and The Long Walk, The True Story of a Trek to Freedom by Slavomir Rawicz.

In brief, each of these books will exhaust the reader because there’s so much to  digest.

RESILIENCE: In The Long Walk, the author, Rawicz, was a Polish army officer falsely accused and sentenced to the Russian Gulag. Even the first few chapters of the book are so incredible and appalling that they’re unforgettable: frozen, emaciated prisoners taken to the end of the railroad in Siberia, then put on uninsulated trucks for hundreds more miles — and THEN forced to walk hundreds of miles chained together with little food, poor clothing and no shelter. They finally arrive at their prison, so far from anything that the urge to escape is muted by hours of painful work in the woods (with little food, poor clothing, etc). Until amazingly, Rawicz develops an escape plan, putting in motion the Most Epic True Survival Story I have ever read. He and others basically WALK 4,000 miles to India: through the Gobi desert, over the Himalayas (where there’s a bit of a surprise for the reader), skirting civilization the whole way to avoid being returned to the Gulag. If you like survival stories, this is a must read.

RESOURCEFULNESS: Druett’s Island of the Lost is my second favorite because there’s nothing like the sea to create extreme isolation and desperation. Back in the early 1800s, four men set out from Australia (or New Zealand? I can’t remember!) to scout a distant island for mineral mining. In the beginning the book is a little slow, spelling out all of the hoops they have to jump through to get a sponsor, secure and provision the boat, etc. Fast forward and they’re shipwrecked on the island with prospects for rescue unknown (weather, sea conditions are so awful there that it’s amazing they were rescued at all). Apparently this particular island frequently hosted shipwrecked sailors because there was some evidence of previous inhabitants — but sea lions comprised most of the population. Aside from having to approach massive sea lions and club them to death in order to survive (can you see yourself doing that??) one of the men kept a concise diary of their activities, including step-by-step accounts of repurposing parts of their boat to build a shelter, foraging for edibles when sea lions/seals were not in season (there were times that the creatures left the island completely), finding other shipwrecked sailors on another part of the island, building a new boat.. I was so impressed by the knowledge and skills they possessed that I was convinced that NO ONE living today would have been rescued alive from that island, as they eventually were. (Except if you’re Steve Callahan, who documented his survival on a life raft in the Atlantic in the book Adrift — also highly recommended.)

ROMANCE: The Happy Isles of Oceania by Paul Theroux started out as a fun read because it’s a contemporary account of someone, like me, who seeks the unexplored as a solo traveler — and uses humor and wry observations to color his narrative. Starting in Australia, Theroux went to some of the least-traveled areas and talked to anyone he found, obliquely to explore the national identity of the enigmatic and apparently elusive Aborigines. With humor similar to author Bill Bryson’s (A Walk in the Woods), he has no schedule to keep, and lots to explore as he paddles a collapsible kayak among islands of the South Pacific, including visits to Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, Somoa and many more seldomly-discussed nations, examining the culture along the way. Although I’m not finished reading this book yet (it’s about 600 pages and frankly his observations of different islands are starting to sound alike) I can say I’d recommend it for the physical and cultural exploration he does and for his interesting comparisons between our romanticized views of that part of the world and their current (circa 1992) realities. It’s refreshing to read an outdoors travelogue that includes many references to literature and history rather than dry observations (although his are more wry than dry).

Peru — trip #1

October 19, 2014

Stop saying “that was a trip of a lifetime” because that makes it sound like my last big international adventure — and I swear it won’t be.

It was my first trip to South America, but 10 days just scratched the surface of so many destinations and opportunities there, not to mention the fabulous welcoming people, inexpensive travel and gorgeous landscapes. I used to love visiting Europe and wouldn’t sneeze at doing it again but seriously? Screw $50 lunches and people who’d rather spit at you than help you, I’m looking south from now on.

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I signed up with Bioandean Expeditions about 10 weeks before going, and started running harder to train. Despite a couple bike crashes and stuff I felt like my aerobic capacity and leg strength had improved enough to tackle the trip — part of the issue would be altitude, the other the significant 4 day hike we planned to do. And I couldn’t be upstaged by my 20 year old daughter and translator, Grace, who was flying from Rio, Brazil to meet me.

Let’s get the useful information out of the way first: altitude sickness feels like a hangover. We attempted to acclimate in Cusco, Peru for a couple days before the trip, walking up and down the city’s stair-lined streets and sampling local delicacies like grilled alpaca.We tried to stay away from Cusquena, the local beer (the “black” version is really good) but they had great 2-for-S/12 deals on 620 ml bottles in our hostel bar (it’s the approx equivalent of $4 for 4 beers)… so by day three I had the altitude headache AND THEN we got picked up by a van at 4am to start the trek and the twisting turning roads took a toll on my stomach as well..

So my antidote to altitude sickness was puking on the side of the road with 10 groggy strangers watching from the van. After that, I never had another altitude sickness headache or any symptoms. I’m just wondering how to market that cure — relabeling bottles of Ipecac?

The challenge: 4 days of trekking

Cusco is at 11,000 feet; our trek with Bioandean would take us to the Salkantay pass at 15,000 ft in two days, then down into a jungle and back up Machu Picchu (7,900 ft) and Huaynapicchu (8,900 ft). The days were divided roughly into 7 hours, 9 hours, 5 hours and 3 hours of hiking respectively. Our guide said the first three days amounted to about 35 miles of walking. (He had no estimate of the number of photos I’d take… 368??)

the pack horses knew what they were getting into but did we?

day one: the pack horses knew what they were getting into but did we?

The first day included a lot of steep uphill climbs into the foothills.. and our guide had said this was “easy peasey”?? Not really, but it provided some insight into the psychology of getting people to do what their bodies might balk at. He warned us repeatedly that the second day would be really tough, three hours straight up, then two hours to the lunch spot and 4-5 hours downhill. Gulp.

 

me and my trekking partner, 20-year-old Grace who is living in Rio

me and my trekking partner, 20-year-old Grace who is living in Rio

So at the end of our first 7 hour day, the group (a Dutch couple, a Brit, a Swiss woman, a Brazilian couple and four Americans including Grace and me) had chatted and bonded and despite the aches and pains, relaxed over dinner (I must say the Expedition company provided excellent food for us along the way, carried by pack horses). A few expressed concerns about the 3-hour uphill forecast for the next day.

a tiny outpost along the way -- the Andean 7-11 selling drinks and candy bars (no slurpees)

a tiny outpost along the way — the Andean 7-11 selling drinks and candy bars (no slurpees)

The morning of Day 2 included a great breakfast of pancakes decorated with flower designs (in syrup) and accompanied by hot fruit cocktail. We had hot cocoa and nescafe coffee and wedges from a big round loaf of bread smothered in butter and marmalade. Carb heaven for hiking! They passed out snacks of apples and packages of cookies for us to carry to our first break spot, a lagoon high in the mountains, about 2 hours into the hike. The weather was cloudy, literally. We were up in the clouds. Clouds are misty and cool, but they made for dramatic scenery as dark jagged peaks were briefly revealed when the clouds were wispy.

Reaching the summit

Now I have to get a little philosophical. There’s hiking, and then there’s hiking. This trip was definitely both. When you’re setting out, you’re just hiking, putting one foot in front of the other, burning fuel, enjoying the scenery. But when you’re feeling new muscles  with every step, when you’re walking alone through the mist for an hour or so with nothing in particular on your mind, when you realize that the rocks around you have been there for millennia, the activity becomes a meditation. You don’t think about emails and relationships and the bills you have to pay. You focus on the three feet of muddy, rocky earth in front of you and the peace and calm all around. Of course the cocoa leaves our guide taught us to chew might have nudged this illumination along.

the snow-capped mountains were just the icing on this meditative trek

the snow-capped mountains were just the icing on this meditative trek

Around this point, we reached the summit we’d sought. It was more than a physical achievement and I’m not ashamed to say between getting there and the amazing Incan ceremony our guide led us through (prayers to the Pacha mama and the protector mountains) brought a tear to my eye, not to mention that it was accomplished alongside one of my daughters. If you don’t have a transformative experience on such a trek, I have to ask if you are capable to having one at all in your life — if you’d know a transformative experience if one ran you down?

Getting beyond the aches and pains was one aspect of the transformative achievement. Believe me, after a couple days of long hikes on this sort of grade (both up and down) one becomes intimately acquainted with body’s many muscles and ligaments. In a moment of humor, our guide Tony said, “If you are sweating it’s your fat crying.” I’ll keep that simple sentiment in mind.

The jungle

Day three, we had descended back into a reasonable climate with clear skies and had a good night in a family’s campground/back yard. Like most of these remote outposts they sold bottled water, beer … and for the first time, hot showers for about $3.50. After my shower I bought two beers off a little girl of about six who was sent into the family bodega because her mother couldn’t be bothered.

Here is where we discovered a serious disconnect with the world: our group of hikers had collectively spent thousands on wicking clothing, high-tech boots, telescoping poles and breathable rain gear to do this trip once while some of our guides made the trip over the mountain many times a month in jeans and sneakers. No joke.

the high tech gear that a couple of our guides wore (and they do the mountain several times a month)

the high tech gear that a couple of our guides wore (and they do the mountain several times a month)

Instead of the Lord of The Rings scenery we had on the back side of the mountain, we were now in lush jungle with waterfalls cascading across the path and beautiful flowers everywhere. Swarms of orange and black butterflies flew overhead. And then came the bugs. Grace had warned me about the mosquitoes and she wasn’t kidding — the little monsters could do a number of any amount of exposed skin. They weren’t in our faces, but for those who dared change to shorts they quickly chewed on legs and ankles, leaving itchy, nasty welts.

our final campground where hot showers were $3.50

our final campground where hot showers were $3.50

The jungle is where our guide, Tony’s, skills shone: he had answered many, many questions about history and culture (and Quechua language from Grace) along the way, but he clearly enjoyed discussing the plants and animals of the jungle. He cut us each a portion of mare’s tail (looks like bamboo) so  we each had a “flute” to play while another group trekked through (obviously not having as much fun as we were). He warned us against drying and smoking leaves of a particular plant with medicinal properties because other tourists had done it and “were stoned for a week” — thanks, I hadn’t thought of that!

plant used in ancient brain surgery, Tony said -- don't smoke the leaves!

plant used in ancient brain surgery, Tony said — don’t smoke the leaves!

We split from the rest of the group (who were on a 5-day cycle) and took the train to Aguas Caliente, the town at the base of Machu Picchu. It was a smart move as the alternative was a three-hour hike along the train tracks. The mountains here changed from steep and conical to steep and pointy with sheer rock walls plunging to the Urubamba River.

 

the jungle trek was long but much easier than the mountains

the jungle trek was long but much easier than the mountains

 

we experienced a series of climate changes on the trip, ending in the steeply conical mountains near Machu Picchu

we experienced a series of climate changes on the trip, ending in the steeply conical mountains near Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu

Everyone back home was focused on Machu Picchu — “you’re going to Machu Picchu!” — but it was just the terminus of the trip, not really the high point. We did the tourist thing and got up at 4am to Grace’s alarm playing the theme song to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” How appropriate. It’s about a 20 minute walk in the dark to the gatehouse that opened at 5am to let hikers cross the bridge to the steps up the mountain. Tony had warned us that his last count totaled 1,600+ stairs and it was definitely on our minds as we started out with hundreds of others in the pre-dawn hours. It wasn’t much fun to join this herd and move up the steps as one giant caterpillar with thousands of legs after our wonderful, isolated trek in the mountains.

getting to Machu Picchu means climbing at least 1,600 stairs

getting to Machu Picchu means climbing at least 1,600 stairs

Machu Picchu was not the serene hike we were used to, it attracts thousands of tourists a day

Machu Picchu was not the serene hike we were used to, it attracts thousands of tourists a day

Then the buses started, disgorging dozens of tourists at the site so by the time we reached the top at 6am there was already a long line to get in. No surprise it’s on the UNESCO list of endangered sites.

Of course the historical and archaeological aspects of the site were staggering, but so was the number of tourists. Tony gave us a great personal tour, including the temple of the condor, the Intihuatana stone that acts like a compass, and the history of Yale professor Hiram Bingham’s location and excavation of the jungle to reveal the walls and terraces we now see.

I don't mean to downplay the beauty and impressiveness of Machu Picchu but it wasn't really the high point of our trip

I don’t mean to downplay the beauty and impressiveness of Machu Picchu but it wasn’t really the high point of our trip

Our last uphill hike was to Huaynapicchu, the gorgeous spiked peak that overlooks Machu Picchu. It took some fortitude (and snacks) to prepare. Our legs were quite sore from the days of hiking and the morning of ascending steps, but realizing that only 400 people a day are allowed to climb to this secondary peak, we knew we had to do it.

There are few ways to describe the steps to the top of Huaynapicchu. Scary is one word. Rustic is another. They clearly don’t have the same liability concerns that American tourists sites have. We could have fallen off the side of the mountain at any time and tumbled the 1,900 or so feet to the Urubamba river — and nobody would even know. When we reached the top there were even more scary, tiny steps — ladder-like — alongside the stone structures at the top. And a cave we climbed through on the quest for the summit.

Finally we found a place to relax at the summit, right where the “path” to the exit was literally a crease in a sheer rock face. The view of Machu Picchu was great, about 1,900 feet below us, but the prospect of unclimbing all those stairs (first Huaynapicchu to Machu Picchu then down to the town) was painful to consider. We conjured a vision of pizza and beer and got going. Fortunately there was a woman along the way selling big slices of bundt cake (no joke) which was a good way to fortify.

descending from Huaynapicchu -- you wouldn't want to stumble or you'd end up in the river about 2000 feet below

descending from Huaynapicchu — you wouldn’t want to stumble or you’d end up in the river about 2000 feet below

My opinion: GO. See the places, enjoy the people. Get away from the good old USA for a while and unplug from the up-to-the-minute news. Gain some perspective on life from ancient cultures. But let the journey be your destination.

Earl’s Trails, playing the game

July 22, 2014

A few months ago I saw a post on Singletracks that said people had voted for the best mountain bike trails by state. First, I was like, “And you didn’t ask ME??” Then, of course, I had to see what the “best” were in my area. Certainly Otis or Willowdale, right?

No, it said, “Earl’s Trails, Amherst MA.” WTF? Where’s that? I demanded as I scanned the comment section, noting that some said they wouldn’t nominate their favorite trails because it would only bring more users. Another said they might have only gotten five votes, and three were from Hadley, right next to the trails. It’s all a game, really.

Then I felt guilty because two of my minions have lived in Amherst for the last 2 years and I haven’t biked out there much, so it’s really my fault for not knowing more about trails there. My game is slipping.

Last weekend I rolled the dice at Earl’s and it was memorable.

Amherst-20140720-03260

The reviews said the trails were smooth and not technical, so I was excited to try my new bike. It’s important to keep that review in perspective, because “smooth” in one part of the state is challenging to someone else. But it was surprisingly mostly true: I went swooping into the woods, mostly downhill, for the first half-hour, enjoying few lumps and bumps from rocks and roots. Then it got more interesting: hills got a little steeper, there were more roots, drops and mud as I ventured further into the woods. Instinctively I sought the early trails that were more fun and less challenging, and strangely started thinking of the children’s game Candyland as an analogy to the trails. I wanted the fun Lollipop Woods and not so much of the Molasses Swamp.

the smooth shoulder of a pretty little pond

the smooth shoulder of a pretty little pond

zipping around the edge of a glacial pothole

zipping around the edge of a glacial pothole

Apparently the skeptics of the Singletracks voting could have been right: whether from overuse or lack of love the bridges here aren’t well maintained. While I don’t criticize much, I chose to skip several gap-tooth crossings because I didn’t want to do a face-plant in the middle of a brook or pop a tire on the exposed screws that used to hold the slats in place.

the interesting part sent me in search of higher ground with fewer roots

gap-tooth bridges need a little love

All the while I kept thinking, “is this really The Best trail system in the state?” Honestly it was just about average. I guess that means we’ve got it pretty good. I kept trying to orient myself according to a gun range I could hear in one direction, because I remembered passing it on my way to the trailhead. I even got back to the start once, but decided it was too early to leave, so I took yet another turn and headed back into the woods. That’s when Candyland started to resemble something more like Dungeons and Dragons.

a fateful decision

too early to go home: a fateful decision

Here I started down the swoopy, smooth fun stuff again and got a little carried away. Downhill and away from the entrance, I’d found a whole new area of trails I didn’t see in my first hour. They wound deeper through the woods, not another person in sight.

Gretel went deeper into the woods

Gretel went deeper into the woods…

Then I realized I couldn’t hear the gun range anymore. And I’d sort of become disoriented as to the direction to take to get out, lost track of the number of hills I’d crossed. Hmm, lucky I have a lot of experience getting lost in the woods. Then, around 2 hours into the ride, I decided I should really try to get out. And I couldn’t. I started up a trail and ran into some hikers. “Do you guys know which direction is Route 116?” I asked. “Um, well, that’s the Notch,” one of them said, pointing up the vertical trail they’d just descended. “But you might not want to carry your bike up it.” He had that “You’re f*cked” look in his eye. So stupidly I turned around and followed an ATV track that might have been headed in roughly the right direction at first.. until it didn’t, and Candyland became Mordor. I’m pretty sure I could hear Orcs chasing me. Like an idiot I turned on my GPS to get some sense of direction but got only a gray screen with a green dot in the middle. Duh.

single track became ATV track became.. lost, again

single track became ATV track became.. lost, again

So I followed the nontrail some more.. endo’d and was grateful for 100 years of leaves cushioning my fall .. heard Mike’s voice in my head nagging me to be careful and wondered how I’d tell him about being airlifted off a mountain… yet somehow found my way back to jeep trails and bikers who pointed me in the right direction! Ended up by Lithia Springs Reservoir and was thrilled to put some pavement under my wheels again, even if it was a few miles back to the car. And I’d somehow ended up in Granby, what? And me without my passport!

the bruises will heal but this scar will forever remind me of Earl's

the bruises will heal but this turn-the-handlebars-backward endo scar will forever remind me of Earl’s

 

Taking rides from strangers

April 9, 2014

It happens to all of us, eventually: the moment when you’re cold, hungry, tired, lost, far from your destination and looking into the eyes of a complete stranger who’s in a position to make your life easier by offering space in his or her vehicle. Or, perhaps, who could kill you.

There’s only one way to know.

This Outside article about getting a flat in South Africa prompted me to reflect on the kindness of strangers. For every nutcase who harms a passenger there are probably 10 — or 100 — whose good deeds go unspoken. Remember hitchhiking? I want to write a book about it because I can’t believe my kids don’t have any idea what it was like. Even my mother would pick up strangers who often entertained the car full of kids on the ride home. I believe that when it was more common to hitch or “thumb” rides people were less paranoid about asking and offering.

how it was done (not me)

how it was done — so simple!

There was a big gap in my “bumming rides” — maybe from the time a friend and I thumbed across northern France in 1984 to a time in adulthood when I decided not having a car wasn’t going to keep me from going where I wanted to. In those years my formula for deciding when and whether to take a ride from a stranger has evolved to include cigarettes, coins and scratch tickets. It isn’t  complicated at all, requiring that 1) you be the one who initiates the conversation and 2) have cash on hand.

Most of this is common sense, but I’m putting some serious effort into teaching it to my kids, because they think that as long as they have a cell phone they’ll never get stranded. Of course the first part of the lesson is to not end up in the situation by planning well, but the other is to develop and listen to the signals sent by one’s gut, because it’s usually right. That may mean there are times you’ll hoof it home, too.

Being on that edge, weighing that decision about your next move, is often a make-or-break proposition: if it goes well you’re more likely to pursue adventure, to trust your gut the next time you plunge in. If things go poorly you may become a hermit afraid to interact with people. I wonder if there’s a way to skew it in favor of adventure or if it’s left to a combination of  personality and circumstance?

Only once do I remember my gut yelling “NO!” when a guy offered me a ride home. I was about 15 and pushing my bike with a flat tire. There was some combination of his creepiness and my instinct telling me that since he offered without me asking there was something wrong with the equation. When I look back at it I’m glad I overcame the “good kid” urge to be obedient when he told me to put my bike in the back of his station wagon. I might have been the next picture on a “missing” poster but it didn’t scare me away from going back out on my own, looking for adventure.

You can’t always know it’s going to open up and pour on you miles from home, or that the subway is going to be shut down, or that the trail you’re on empties out on a road miles from the parking lot. And I’ve found, contrary to my paranoid friends’ firm belief that there’s an axe murderer behind every tree, people really enjoy being generous when it’s not inconvenient. Heck, I gave a ride to some shivering students walking back from a dance on a winter’s night in 1985 and they thanked me again at a reunion decades later.

The key is to trust your instincts. Once in Stonington CT I had walked miles from the marina to a store for much-needed allergy medicine. Facing a stupidly-long walk back after dark with a grocery bag, I opted to investigate taxis. Duh, I learned that Stonington is nice on the waterfront end but barely a speck on the map otherwise. The cab service I called said it would be a couple hours before someone could pick me up. That’s when I devised the cigarette/coin/scratch ticket strategy. I waited until a guy came into the store with 2 little kids and paid for his cigarettes with pocket change. I followed him out and offered money for a ride back to the marina. When he hesitated I told him my own daughters  were waiting for me there and would be worried that I’d been gone so long. He caved, and I was back at the marina in 30 minutes, leaving $10 or $15 on the car console.

not always the most reliable form of transportation

not always the most reliable form of transportation

Then there was the horrid sailing vacation to (overrated) Block Island when I hitched a ride for my whole shivering wet family so I didn’t have to listen to the kids complain all the way on a long walk into town. It was far better than staying in close confinement on the boat for yet another crappy, rainy day and hopefully the kids learned that there are gray areas around the edges of the rule about never taking rides from strangers. Exception No. 1: when you are traveling in a pack large enough to overcome the driver and steal his car if necessary. Or, when your parents say it’s OK.

When we were in Colorado we were out hiking when the sky opened up. Not being sure how far it was back to the car, we tried thumbing and ended up meeting a really nice couple who’d been mountain guides in the Rockies. Dumbstruck by our luck meeting them and hearing their stories, we kicked ourselves for not getting contact information when they dropped us at the car.

My most recent stranding was of my own doing: I got dropped off in an area where I know several people, and knew my car was just a couple miles away. Unfortunately I couldn’t connect the dots that afternoon and was stuck: smelly from a race and exhausted. Couldn’t even find a bicycle to steal. To add insult to sore muscles, my cell phone died while negotiating with far-flung cab companies for a $40 ride that might last 15 minutes. Bottom line, nobody was available to give me a ride, except for the lady who drove her 15 year old sh–box of a car to the convenience store for cigarettes.

It had been a few years since Stonington and Block, but I wrapped a smile around my frustration and approached her. She was friendly, and definitely interested in the money, never pretending to turn it down. She had to call her daughter first, she said, but quickly waved me back. I was at my car in minutes, happy to give the $40 cab fare to her in exchange for the nail-biting drive (while she was safe to take a ride from, she wasn’t the safest driver to ride with). And I hope she won something with the scratch tickets she was definitely going back to the store to buy with my fare.

Just like that lady in South Africa, it turned out fine. Relax, not everybody is an axe murderer.


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