Archive for the ‘gear’ Category

Gear up with decent equipment

February 25, 2018

Good gear is always a challenge to find, particularly on a budget. Here are a couple items I’ve been able to count on recently and would endorse:

Something fun: Akaso video camera. People have been telling me for a few years that I should get a GoPro camera. Sure, that could be fun, but for the longest time these gadgets were financially out of reach for me (falling well below bike maintenance costs on my ledger!). As much as I dislike the big online retailer that starts with “A” (oops, I used to work for them) — I found this Akaso mini video camera for under $100. It came with rechargeable batteries, has been reliable and is so much fun to fool around with!

Underwater videos have been my favorite part, because the camera came with a zillion mounts and accessories, including a waterproof housing. I can’t really get good mountain biking videos on it yet because I haven’t tried the helmet mount (I tried a handlebar mount and thought it was too shaky and tried clipping it to the chest strap of my backpack but got too much footage of my knees rather than the trail ahead of me). My issue is that it’s really hard to tell if it’s recording when you’re looking at it through a snorkel mask and the waterproof housing. They could make a bigger flashing red light on the screen or something. As a result I’ve taken lots of footage that looks like I’m in a washing machine and missed lots of footage of cool underwater things because it’s off when I think it’s on and vice-versa.

I’d love to upload the actual video (especially of Mike swimming with the fish in our favorite Florida spring, above right) but I’m not on the premium plan here so you’ll have to use your imagination.

Good shoes. Seriously, don’t skimp by buying cheap sneakers when you have a lot of hiking or even city shopping to do on a vacation. I like Salomon as a brand because they are rugged and last a long time. I tried out these new “Sense Pulse” style shoes (on left) just before we went to California and Hawaii last fall and I haven’t regretted it.IMG_20180224_181126_971[1]          IMG_20171019_145929_308

My partner, on the other hand, bought cheap sneakers before the trip. I think they’re Avias (on the right in photo above). Don’t make this mistake (I need to underline that and put it in bold too!). The Avias were worn out and lost all structural integrity by the end of the trip. We’d done some hiking, perhaps 15-20 miles, plus plenty of just around town walking, but that’s nowhere enough use to destroy a pair of decent sneakers — it’s the brand, the cheap construction, that is at fault.

You think I’m exaggerating? Look at the above photo of the soles, taken roughly a week after the trip. Our shoes were both brand new before the trip. I hiked a bit more than he did during the trip — and mine still look like new while his are destroyed. It was a bad decision to buy cheap shoes, and he’s paying the price (ask his podiatrist). Now that I’ve walked and run about 100 more miles in mine they’re starting to show some wear, but the upper is still intact and strong. I would buy this model of Salomon again in a minute.

Of course you still have to find the shoes that fit your feet correctly in order to get the best use of them. Not every Salomon sneaker is right for my bony feet. I decided to start running again this winter and again, just like last year, had to try on a million pairs of shoes that didn’t fit perfectly before I found some that do (I refuse to relive the toenail incident I caused by wearing too-narrow Hoka Cliftons last winter). The aqua pair of Salomons in this photo (next to my worn-out Missions and newer Sense Pulse) just didn’t work for me. It’s like dating — I knew they weren’t for me as soon as I laid eyes on them. Too narrow, not made of the same rugged materials as the others. Oh well, they’ll work for someone else.


A solid pack. When I was working for Eastern Mountain Sports I stocked up on backpacks using the employee discount, and it was a good investment. I can’t even estimate how many miles are on the tough Fen model pack I have. It goes everywhere I go, from biking trails to skiing to travel. At times it feels a bit heavy but the construction has been solid and it’s not practical to bring more than one for slight variations in use or conditions. It has a waterproof pocket built in to protect things like my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when I’m hiking in the rain (hello, Kauai).

My only significant quibble with this pack is that the mesh side pockets aren’t deep enough to keep a good size (20oz) water bottle from falling out. It has gear straps that enable me to lock my packable rain jacket or sandals in those mesh pockets but they don’t work for the water bottles unless the bottles have a loop to thread the strap through. (Yes, I’m available to work as a gear tester, just say the word!)

IRM postcards 1.27.18 148

And although I don’t think it’s x-ray proof, the TSA hasn’t confiscated stuff out of the bottom of it like my spare fishing knife — maybe they just know it will take all day to empty the pile of snack bars, Nuun tablets, pens, foreign coins, notes, etc. etc. to get to the contraband?? Every now and then I actually empty it to wash it. It’s like Christmas, finding my iPod shuffle and the odd seashells in the nooks and crannies.


Mountains and Sea, part I

November 1, 2017

It’s impossible to compare our two destinations: Sequoia National Park and Kauai, Hawaii. Which did we like better? Which was more fun?

Sorry there’s no simple answer. It’s more than a matter of sea turtles vs. black bears, crowded or uncrowded. The two places are about as different as you can get.

One thing they had in common is that it was possible to get away from people in both locations, and that’s something we like. We don’t travel to eat at restaurants or to visit museums. On these trips we’re going for the natural beauty of the destinations, to feel a part of the landscape and to be as far from deadlines and demands as we can get. When judging by this criteria we certainly succeeded.


I’ll try not to bore you with a multitude of photos of beautiful empty beaches, but on the east side of Kauai they are plentiful. Too far north and too far south the beaches are much busier. We stayed in between the busy areas in a town called Kapa’a, (which we didn’t know how to pronounce until nearly our last day) where a wonderful 4-5 mile paved bike trail follows the old pineapple railroad route right along the beach. Our guesthouse had an arsenal of beat up beach cruisers to choose from. Since we had done a lot of hiking in the Sierras, biking fit the bill here.

Underwater in Kauai

One disappointing aspect of Kauai was the absence of coral. Mike has been to Maui where he says the coral was beautiful, but we spoke to some local folks here who pointed to Kauai’s frequent rainfall and subsequent runoff as one significant reason why there’s little coral found here. We saw some large sea creatures like seals at Poipu (south) and turtles at Anini (north) but there were few places to snorkel and see other sea life (Poipu beach near the Sheraton was one of the best places we found for tropical fish, and there’s also a beautiful hiking trail along the edge of a cliff there).

Before I prattle on about the trip and its logistical challenges let me slow down and say swimming with sea turtles is incredible. Watching colorful tropical fish feed on rocks and hide under ledges is amazing. We had some fun boogie boarding — and we got trashed by huge waves but walked away.  And I even got to chase wild pigs around in the yard of the place we stayed (trying to get a photo of them, which was very amusing). So any critical comments that follow should be kept in context.

mike and turtle 2 oct 2017

Hiking in Kauai

My assumption was that we’d hike in the Sierras and swim in Hawaii but we managed to mix both in each place. To my surprise there are many hiking trails in Kauai’s mountains. I’d hoped to do the Giant’s Chin for its views of the coast but we ran out of time. Also, stretching across the west-northwest coast of the island is a canyon with many hiking options but we only nibbled at its edges.

My big kahuna on this trip was the Kalalau Trail that departs from the northernmost accessible beach in Waineha on the north shore and hugs the sides of steep mountains along the coast. In October it’s muddy — very muddy! The day I hiked it we had rain squalls every 30 minutes or so. While not unexpected and not unpleasant, it turned the trail into a morass of slippery red muck that will quickly cake up the lugs on your shoes and turn them into skates. The conditions made the right gear so important: quick dry wicking fabrics (never cotton!) and decent shoes with deep lugs; a hat, sunglasses, and a pack with some food, water, and other supplies (more on this below).

As tempting as it was to dive in and hike it, Mike only did the first half-mile due to a foot injury, and that was smart. This trail is hyped online and every day there’s a lot of people making their way along its rugged route. The majority only go to the secluded beach at the 2 mile mark which doesn’t seem far but the conditions slowed me to 2 mph, about half my normal walking speed.

Just before the secluded beach is a river. I carefully removed my sneakers and carried them across, only to realize that there was no way to scrape the sticky muck off them. Therefore every subsequent river crossing (there were many) was a welcome opportunity to lighten the heavy load of mud on my shoes as I wore them through the water and was happy they remained comfortable and drained quickly (they’re Salomon Sense Pulse).

From the beach, the historic valley is another 8+ miles, which I would not have made it to in my allotted time, so I chose to hike in toward the mountains to a waterfall about 3-4 miles away. This trail was quieter, following the river through some heavier foliage and past thick bamboo groves. I hit my turnaround time before getting to the base of the waterfall but I didn’t mind. It was enough hiking for me, with 2,800 feet of elevation gain.

I’m planning a separate post on the interesting and alarming gear observations from the trip, but I want to return to the topics of the backpack and preparedness. I’ve done plenty of spur-of-the-moment hikes without putting a lot of thought into it, but in these 7.25 miles I ran out of water right at the end. I generally have a few packaged snacks buried at the bottom of my backpack just in case. So I was adequately prepared but so many other people weren’t. Lots were suffering through the choice of flip flops for the trail, which didn’t perform well in the mud. Most weren’t carrying water or supplies. Then I met three women on the trail carrying a baby in nothing but a diaper, headed for the secluded beach they’d heard about. That was not just ridiculous but irresponsible. I warned them in no uncertain terms that the trail was poor due to the rain and then I went a little further: “I wouldn’t take a baby in there,” I said sternly. I hated being such a spoilsport but seriously folks??

That evening the property managers at our place told us about friends who got stranded on that secluded beach when rain in the mountains made that river rise and impassable. That night 60 unprepared, cold, and hungry people spent a night on that beach, they said. Who thinks of those possibilities?

At some point in the future I’d like to go back to Kauai to hike. I would like to be prepared and have the right gear and enough time. It’s a beautiful trail and a rewarding hike, but it deserves to be done right.

napali coast kauai

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.


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.

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.



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



My Big Bang

February 20, 2016

When I scraped myself off the pavement, I tested my range of motion. Probably nothing broken, but the blood was starting to flow, running over my hand and .. definitely not stopping.

I thought about my options: who would I call? Did I really need to call anyone? I guessed I’d make it back to my car so I held my bloody hand in the air and started skating again. My car was about three miles away, at the far end of the Cape Cod Canal bike path, which gave me time to replay the accident in my head a few times. My wrists were still buzzing from the impact but I kept going back to feeling my right temple slam against the ground – through my bike helmet, which I always wear. This time I was glad for those 300 other days I strapped on the damned thing, even when it was too hot, the sun was in my eyes, or more recently when it was cold and I wished I could wear a warm hat instead.

skate sideways

It was my first wipeout in I can’t remember how many years or how many miles of inline skating. I typically do the 14 mile round-trip here in 65-80 minutes depending on the Buzzards Bay wind factor which ranges from rare days of no breeze to a stiff wind that feels like I’m dragging an anvil. It’s a great workout when the weather permits, something that uses muscles complementary to those needed for biking and running. Fortunately in January the only potential witnesses to my pavement kiss were the crewmembers of the tugboat I was “racing” down the canal (and dammit I still won, even when leaving a trail of blood).

There’s never a good time to get injured, and two days before my significant birthday made its impact more palpable: a reminder that, oh shit, maybe I’m mortal after all? Not to mention it was the day of the premiere of my significant other’s movie and I was supposed to be dressed up, happy and concerned about nothing bigger than twisting an ankle in high heels in a couple hours. And oh yeah, we were leaving on an international trip the day after.. wait, how was I going to get pantyhose on with one functioning hand?

There was a kid on a skateboard in the parking lot, so I took the opportunity to menace him with my ugly bloody hand and strongly suggest he invest in a helmet. He probably thinks they’re dorky, but I don’t care. The more I thought about my head hitting the pavement the more thankful I was for the minimal precautions I take, like carrying my cell phone and for that previously untouched first aid kit in my glove box that was put to good use.

first aid kit

It took days for the ugly yellow bruises to show up on my hip, elbow and wrist but the ER doctor was satisfied with putting a few stitches in – and gave me the go-ahead to do all of the snorkeling I wanted on our trip (the surfing was a little tougher on the sutures but I gave it a try anyway). And somebody loved the bandaged hand that got us priority boarding on our flights, he thinks I’m keeping the wraps for future trips (only if he wears them!).


Pro tip: that duct tape I wrapped around my water bottle to fix anything and everything came in handy as a tough outer bandage when we went sea kayaking and zip lining.

duct tape hand

Which leaves me here, planning an epic 50-degree day of mountain biking tomorrow but contemplating the mouth guard I bought a year ago and haven’t used. Hmm..


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.


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.

Got me some truck love

October 14, 2013

Oooh boy, it’s starting: I had  a senior moment.

Driving down a back road, I was blinded again and again by the lights of oncoming cars. WTF?? I thought back to a researcher who told me that people over 40 need 20 TIMES the light to see things that younger people can see. Twenty times?? That can’t be happening to me!!

Then the light dawned:   I was blinded because I was driving my own car for a change. My car, the low profile, sports-car-kinda-car. The one that had been in the shop for the past month (ahem, not naming names but pointing at a kid about 21 years old..).

It had been in the shop because I have had the “have you pissed off a voodoo doctor” sort of luck. This summer the family van got wrecked. Loaned the kids mine. It got wrecked. Got a rental car on Friday the 13th and within hours was calling in a wreck: somebody hit it in a parking lot. Sat for hours in a McDonald’s parking lot waiting for rescue (if you have read my food-related posts, you know that’s like being at the gate of Hell itself).

My fortune improved immensely when the rental company replaced the damaged car with a Nissan pickup. Brand-new. But was it a blessing or another curse? Because it showed me what I’d been missing.. and sometimes that’s scary.



When I climbed into the cab and felt the V8 shoot the truck forward, I was unnerved. The balance was completely different than in my ground-hugging car, but after a few miles I realized it handled wonderfully and was as comfortable as any sedan. Pretty soon I was looking forward to my “test drives” in the truck, including tucking a load of stuff for a friend’s new house in the double cab.  I was up high where I could see around most of the vehicles in front of me, over others’ headlights

I filled that truck many, many times in my trips around the state, moving a pile of stuff here and another there. The last day I had it, I crammed boxes and bags in it until the bed bulged at the seams. Unfortunately, the truck was unable to help me heft those packages into the attic of my next place — a shortcoming not mentioned in testosterone-filled advertisements for the vehicles.

It took some effort to remain unattached but I couldn’t stop daydreaming about how easy it was to toss my bike in the back, to take all of gear with me that I could want .. and someday taking it up north and going anywhere I wanted without getting hung up on back roads where my car could never go. Hmm, maybe in a future life.


The things we carried

August 24, 2013

It’s great to spend a summer with a person on the same wavelength:

“That’s a fishy looking stretch of river. Pull over and let’s take a few casts!”

“Oh, we’re going within 25 miles of that stand of pristine hemlocks I heard about, let’s detour over this mountain.”

“We’ve been driving for hours and it’s hot. There must be a swimming hole around here somewhere.”

On the other hand, being prepared for these and other mini-adventures means we’ve got to have some gear. Therein lies the rub. We don’t exactly travel “light and fast.”

not exactly light and fast

not exactly light and fast

How much gear is too much? Sometime several weeks ago we loaded the truck with a box of food, duffel bags and fishing gear, then strapped kayaks to the roof and bikes to the back. Things got a little ridiculous when we had to dive over the back seats to reach anything because we couldn’t open the rear hatch with the bikes on there.


Almost immediately we reconsidered: how long to keep kayaks on the roof when they suck the gas mileage down to nil? How often will we actually use the bikes? After a week, we thought we could have gotten away with just bathing suits and fishing rods.

But bringing all that stuff along was good in many ways. We rode bikes when the weather turned too chilly for swimming. We took advantage of higher-than-usual rivers with the kayaks, logging more miles than anticipated. And we held one another to the pledge that we’d take any challenge, jump in any river, explore any back road. No excuses, no sitting on the sidelines.

without the kayaks we might not have seen some fabulously remote stretches of river

without the kayaks we might not have seen some fabulously remote stretches of river

We lived in quick-dry shorts and old, reliable water sandals (the sneakers, flip flops and -definitely- the pretty sandals were superfluous). While we had long pants for wading through fields and scratchy underbrush, they remained in the duffels as we successfully prayed that ticks would not be interested. Mike acknowledged that I’ve provided him plenty of breathable shirts but he didn’t bring any (per usual) and wandered about most often without any upper body coverage. No complaints here! My raffia sun hat got wet, squashed, dirty and lost under the stuff in the back of the truck. Then I dusted it off and put it back on. What an amazing $10 investment that has been. And, oh, the $5 CVS sunscreen is just as effective as the $15 stuff.

Of course this nomadic existence has had its downsides.

Getting a 10-foot SUP in and out of hotel rooms can be tricky. We apologize to the people in #510 who had the “Do Not Disturb” sign on their door the other morning. You can’t bend a SUP around corners unfortunately.


One morning this week we awakened in the luxurious confines of a friend’s home in Orleans where we had use of a $1200 espresso machine (I only know because we had to Google instructions to use it — then nearly blew it up) and this electric commode that made me laugh: which button to flush vs getting your backside rinsed?


Another morning we awakened in this houseboat on the Annisquam River in, let’s say, more rustic surroundings (yet fishing on a moment’s notice) … and a complete absence of plumbing.


On another day we were in a library parking lot (he was getting ready for a presentation, I might have been changing my clothes from paddling) and a woman gasped when she witnessed “stuff” tumbling out of the back as I opened the hatchback. Suddenly I realized that there aren’t many people who would enjoy living like this. Homeless? Aimless? Funny, I don’t care what anyone thinks. There are a couple of weeks of summer left and I’m gonna keep it going as long as I can.

Rope Swing at swim hole

Death, taxes and more snow

March 10, 2013

When the big guy next to you with the scruffy beard and trucker hat gets up to sing karaoke, you start to wonder. Then when his absolutely amazing voice has you turning to jelly inside as he sings “Come Monday” you know it’s happened: the world’s axis has tilted a little, the barstool isn’t feeling so solid under you anymore and you’ve gotta go home, out into the cold air where you can count on a brisk walk, the wind off the ocean and a quiet house to put everything right again.

It got me thinking: If you continue to get snowstorms when you think winter is finally over and if you can’t count on a truck driver-looking guy to act like a truck driver and grunt and just plant himself at the bar and drink beer,what can you count on? I came up with a short list:

I can count on something inside me wanting to go running in spring, even if I’m jumping over snowbanks and slogging inside soaking wet sneakers within the first mile. I’ve found a few things that help me get through the uncomfortable parts, like good socks, winterweight tights and my Superfeet insoles that take the brunt of the pounding. But really I don’t care, I’m just responding to the overwhelming urge to get outside and even the aches and pains feel good after a hot shower

snow doesn't matter, I can count on my inner clock to tell me spring is time to run -- in wet shoes

snow doesn’t matter, I can count on my inner clock to tell me spring is time to run — in wet shoes

I can count on another snowfall after I’m pretty sure winter is done. And that will make me want to get my skis back on. One very reliable place to xc ski in late winter is Leominster State Forest, the snow stays longer there than anywhere else I’m willing to drive to when I have a couple hours. And when I’m there I can count on a few more things: getting lost, then looking at my GPS and laughing because I don’t really care, I’ll eventually get out; staying too late because I couldn’t leave when the conditions were so good and I was just getting my ski mojo going again; my phone battery crapping out on me right when it would be a good idea to tell the person waiting for me that I’m going to be late …. and …. getting home close to on time by dint or by stint or by turbo (your guess).

If I'm lost, my phone is dead and I'm going to make someone worry, I must be in Leominster

If I’m lost, my phone is dead and I’m going to make someone worry, I must be in Leominster

The one thing I can count on my phone for is its photographic function. I’m not sure why else I carry it. I love getting out into remote places and grabbing a picture of something really cool to show those back at home. Of course I can count on several of them to roll their eyes and go “great, mom, that’s cool” in a very monotone, patronising way, and then I can count on Mike saying “You were WHERE? Don’t go that far, I’m worried about you…” Which makes me wonder why I bother.

something new to rely on: a waterproof phone holder. if only it charged the battery too!

something new to rely on: a waterproof phone holder that works for New England rain and Caribbean snorkeling (I tested both). if only it charged the battery too!

new this winter after years of frozen laces: I am officially the last on earth to discover gaiters. you gotta have them.

new this winter after years of frozen laces and snow in my boots: I am officially the last on earth to discover gaiters. I can’t believe I waited so long, you gotta have them.

I guess the reason I go out there is that I love to be surprised at what nature has in store for me, it’s reliable like that: will I run across the otter whose tracks I followed along the cranberry bog, or will I find an enormous flock of seagulls all looking in the same direction on the beach, or will I see a seal in the canal or just the cool way the light filters through the trees on a trail?


I may be the only one who appreciates the things the snow and wind do during a storm, but if nothing else it’s reliable, and it will keep happening when we are all just dust in the air


along the Sudbury River in Concord


one of my favorite pictures ever: this little snowball fell off a tree and rolled downhill, making a cool pattern as it went

making the first tracks in new snow never loses its charm for me

making the first tracks in new snow never loses its charm for me

even brutal snowstorms reveal beauty. note the icicles that grew sideways at the top of the photo (the wind never stopped)

even brutal snowstorms reveal beauty. note the icicles that grew sideways at the top of the photo (the wind never stopped)

I guess if I ever follow the little old guy in the cowboy hat who likes to rasp Glenn Campbell songs into the karaoke mike, I will choose the Stones:

Well, we all need someone we can lean on
And if you want it, you can lean on me
Yeah, we all need someone we can lean on
And if you want it, you can lean on me

Paradise in perspective

February 1, 2013

Spend a week on this tiny Caribbean island and you’re tempted to believe that life could be a lot simpler, slower, less stressed.

that's it, the whole of Salt Cay, a triangle in the ocean about a mile long

that’s it, the whole of Salt Cay, a triangle in the ocean about a mile long

For a week (plus) we had roosters awaken us rather than alarm clocks, biked to the beach (hoping to see it all before we left), we siesta’d in the heat of the day, we took walks at night to look up at the stars.

IMG-20130126-00449     IMG-20130127-00478

the locals were very friendly

the locals were very friendly

We’d go out for a swim and some beach combing, look for new fish on the reefs and amble back to the house for a bit. Swim, eat, repeat. IMG-20130123-00310



It was perfection. Except that my conscience followed me there.

Staying with a local couple, we saw up close how they carefully planned the use of food and other stores because it’s not possible to just stroll out to a Super WalMart to stock up. They have cisterns in their yards to capture rainwater for drinking. We took showers in 1/2 cup of water. Or just about.

But the beaches we visited told a story that was very different. Considering that the island’s longest side isn’t much more than a mile long, it was absolutely shocking how much junk piled up on them. Disgusting, even. And there’s no lack of irony that one of the great beach areas on the island was accessed by taking a left at the dump the locals use. Where they burn their household trash.

IMG-20130127-00459  This was just one of hundreds, maybe thousands of plastic jugs we saw washed up. Need I repeat that the island offers only a mile of beach to collect this trash? Where does the rest of it end up, and how much is floating out there somewhere? The organization Oceana tracks such pollution, but a peek at their web site is a reminder that the big plastic pieces are the easy ones to spot. Mercury and other stuff that are killing the reefs not so much. Think about it: our synthetic clothing (fleece) breaks down a little each time we wash it, discharging tiny plastic particles into the environment and adding to the burden. Even the founder of retailer Patagonia gets it and feels the guilt.IMG-20130127-00454

Snap a photo in any direction on these beautiful beaches and you get piles of fishing net, dozens of individual shoes, buckets, baby doll legs … you name it.

IMG-20130127-00455Yes, that’s the object (a tank that formerly held formaldehyde, we were told) that appears considerably smaller in the photo above. And that is Mike standing next to it. Something that big washed ashore. “How’d you like to hit that in your sailboat?” he asked, evoking the storyline of a friend’s book about losing his boat near the Azores (probably to a submerged object) and drifting a very long way in a life raft.


can't say if one of the refrigerators we saw on the rocks could sink a boat, but the sight of it was enough to sink my spirits

can’t say if one of the refrigerators we saw on the rocks could sink a boat, but the sight of it was enough to sink my spirits

Sure, we enjoyed our brief foray into the tropics, the feeling that a little time away from our usual schedules really puts life into perspective. We weren’t counting on the beaches putting our buying and recycling habits into perspective. Sadly, as we walked the beaches, Jack Johnson’s neo-hippie beach tunes were continually being pushed out of my head in favor of Joni Mitchell singing, “Pave paradise and put up a parking lot.”

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