Michael Owen and SEOTR

MO2An interview I conducted on October 17th, 2018 with Michael Owen, accomplished runner, race director, and well-respected community member in Athens, Ohio. Though we hadn’t met previously, Michael generously shared his time to speak with me as part of a class project regarding trends and issues in recreation. We first chat briefly about some of Michael’s achievements in ‘ultra’ running, where he not only competes, but often wins long-distance trail races, and also discuss a few other topics relevant to Michael’s involvement with the running community in Athens. Afterwards, we get into his role as director of Southeastern Ohio Trail Runners, or SEOTR (I don’t think the abbreviation is distinctly defined in the podcast). While I could have talked with Michael for much longer about his own running career and philosophies, I asked him to do the interview in order to hear his opinions and expertise regarding current paradigms in for-profit vs. non-profit races, and the exploding popularity of running events everywhere. Michael’s responses are thoughtful and informed, and the conversation goes on for quite some time. Even if you’re not as invested in the topic as I was, listening to his views provides a lot of insight into myriad aspects concerning the current state of running as a consumer activity, and more. Even if you don’t listen to the whole thing, it’s definitely worth skipping to the very end to listen to his final thoughts on running in the winter. Thanks so much for everything Michael.

You can check out his blog at: Owen Running

And info about SEOTR events at: SEOTR

MO1

Summer in South Central AK

Another summer in Alaska. Whole lot of time on the rivers, a little bit of wildlife, extended light and endless amazement at the sheer beauty of it all. The magnitude of the landscapes, the severity of relief. Seeing the same mountains day after day and marveling at their infinite capacity for captivation, their ability to generate wonderment, reverence. Watching colossal skies shift color endlessly, a steady transformation constantly at play between heaven and earth. A scope of supreme proportions.

IMGP4809

One can’t help but to sigh, to struggle with comprehension. The perfection uplifting and oppressive at the same time. The immensity of it all. The impossibility of so much space and land and beauty and indifference.

Once again, however, I feel as if I failed at Alaska. Perhaps it’s hard not to. After so many years of heading north, so many dreams of figuring it all out, of allowing myself to be totally consumed, or at the very least of seeing a little bit more of the place – I’ve still yet to come anywhere close. It’s always the road, the planes, the machines. It’s staying too close in. It’s lacking the proper dedication required to find oneself far far away from anything like this world, a thousand miles, at least, from the closest chain store. It’s the inability to summon the attitude and attributes necessary to disappear into real wilderness for weeks at a time. I still believe in the idea of it all, dream of possibilities, but continue to falter. To pretend to have more pressing things to do. Work, for instance, making more money to spend at strip malls and supermarkets and all manner of soul-sucking endeavor. Bah.

No matter, for now. We do the best we can, or say we do. And still, to be there, to breathe in that place for a while, to see those mountains, the same ones, though always different, day after day – there is some success in that. In the knowing that it’s all there, uncaring. In the knowing that it is there. Simply that, sometimes, is enough.

So we celebrate small victories. Celebrate making the most of all that our self-imposed constraints allow. Celebrate fragmented explorations and scratching the surface. Celebrate the day hikes and short trips and seeing a couple new places. We celebrate, as always, the floating of rivers and running of rapids and sleeping on sandy beaches. We celebrate life itself, the living of it. And even if every single day isn’t maximized to its fullest potential, there’s a close proximity to such. There is appreciation. So that’s what this is all about, for now, a little bit of success. A few small victories. A tiny tiny sliver of a domain unto itself. A summer’s worth of small adventures and daily encounters with grandeur.

_DSC9257

Matanuska River

Stacking up the fun tickets, as one James would say. Work, if you can call it that. Most days I run a couple of trips down the Matanuska River. Rowing folks down the morning float, putting them to work on the whitewater. The Mat runs gray, silty, and cold, like most glacial rivers in Alaska, and I love guiding on it for several reasons. The fact that it’s wild and free and constantly in flux, first of all. The level can change considerably between morning and afternoon trips, and significantly from day to day. I also love it because NOVA is the only company that runs it. No lines at the put-in, frustrations at the get-out, no ten boat trips of slack-asses dragging eddy lines in front of you. Just get in and go downstream and have the whole place to yourself. I love it because it’s fun. Three miles of scenery, three miles of crushing waves, and a bit of messing around on the last mile to the take-out. I love it for the ‘glacial facials’ the river dishes out daily. And I like working at NOVA, the 40+ year history of the company, the old school atmosphere but with quality gear, the solid team of guides, and the generosity of the owner, Mr. Chuck Spaulding, employer and friend.

_DSC9263

Matanuska Glacier

IMGP4332

Both creator of and counterpart to the river. Mostly I see it on the drive-by, admire it from afar, but I’ll go out and walk around now and again. Check out the formations, maybe kick a few steps in some slush and mess around with a couple ice axes and the glacier guides. Pretty amazing out there in the early summer, before the melting and flattening begin. This year featured the appearance of some monster moulins, massive potholes in the ice, and a secret ice cave to hang out in, its walls crystalline blue.

20180610_162753

20180811_195619

20180610_154218

Talkeetna River

20180616_105015

An Alaskan classic, they say, though I’m not selling it quite so hard. Do feel privileged to have had the opportunity to run it a few times, but the scenery can get a bit monotonous, low hills, low clouds, and half-dead spruce forests. More than anything, I suppose, a lot of flat water for a 3-day whitewater trip, and, again, not the most engaging landscapes Alaska has to offer. Lots of salmon streams to stop at during the right season, however, hundreds of multi-hued forms visible under the surface, and generally plenty of other wildlife to be observed. Eagles, caribou, bear, moose… And the half-day of whitewater, if the river gets going, certainly has the potential to make the trip truly memorable – continuous miles of big hits, huge waves, and terrifying pour-overs. I saw it BIG the first time, and will not forget. Did I mention that you fly in and raft all the way back to town? And that town itself, the celebrated Talkeetna, is a cool little place in its own right? Certainly worth the time, and worth checking out if you have the chance, but if I was spending my own cash on a charter I would either spend a couple days hiking in the high-country after flying in, or more time fishing, or perhaps search out a different destination altogether. Perhaps even the…

IMGP6750

Chickaloon River

IMGP6765

Another trip we offer, and run quite often, mostly with organized groups of southeastern teens who do things right and spend 8 days hiking through the Talkeetna Range to the headwaters, where we fly in with boats and a whole mess of food to meet them and raft the 30 river miles back to the highway. Now this is some amazing scenery, massive peaks and granite cliffs the whole way down. It’s just on the other side of the mountains from the Talkeetna River, but the landscapes are far removed. The river itself, like all the rivers I’ve been on in Alaska, never stops moving, though also never gets too crazy, mostly Class II with a couple more exciting parts, and one annoying boulder and log jumble we call Hotel Rocks that warrants attention. Would be awesome to fly in to the airstrip (more like a BMX track in the middle of a bunch of alders…) and check out the basin for a few days before getting on the water.

20180628_170101

Other Places of Note

As mentioned, most of the summer was dedicated to income generation. There weren’t many days off, and our departure came premature due to quick changes in personal obligations. But, when there were opportunities, we took advantage of them. A few words and photos from those times.

IMGP6802

Pioneer Peak

Highly recommended if you’re in the Palmer/Anchorage area and up for a worthwhile challenge. An amazing day hike to test both legs (ha, both legs…) and endurance. Like most trails in Alaska this one goes straight up (and straight down) the side of the mountain. With a starting elevation around sea level and the peak at almost 6400’, obtained in a mere six miles or so, you might guess there’s a degree of suffering involved, though in my experience more during the descent than the climb. The rewards, however, in the form of awe-inspiring panoramic vistas, are immense and almost immediate with abundant and ever-changing vantages of the Knik Glacier/River and the ice-covered Chugach Range in the distance. The option to turn around whenever you like always exists, of course, but one of two basic goals generally determines most peoples’ motivations. The first stop is at the top of the ridgeline, about 4.5 miles up. The views from here are probably almost as good as from the peak, but if you’ve got heart (lungs and legs) enough to keep going, the hiking gets even more remarkable from this point as the trail follows a narrow ridge the remainder of the way up. A bit more heavy breathing, a few short breaks, a couple exciting scree encounters, and you’ll be there. And there is a good place to be. Views of the confluence of the Matanuska and Knik, the estuary, and the Inlet/Pacific Ocean await your arrival, along with glimpses of Marcus Baker, highest point in the Chugach, to the east. Take a while to be there if you make it, as there’s no reason to hurry to the knee-walloping walk back down. One of the best days I had all summer.

20180729_160757

Gold Cord Lake

Hatcher Pass is one of the more popular destinations in South Central AK, in summer and winter both. Just outside of Palmer, year round options for recreation abound amongst a backdrop of stellar mountain scenery. The area offers several great trails, and opportunities to explore old mining ruins, the most popular being Independence, one of Alaska’s top producing gold mines until WWII. With only a day’s rest after Pioneer, we took it a little easy and opted to walk up to Gold Cord Lake, then stroll through the mine site on the way back down. One of the most traveled trails in the area, the path climbs from parking lot to lake in a mile or so. We were fortunate to have the place to ourselves for a short while, and were treated to fluffy clouds mirrored across the emerald green water. Afterwards, we drove over the pass itself, a dirt road leading over to the town of Willow and eventually on back to Palmer and the Arkose Brewery (best beer in AK if you ask me).

IMGP6808

Copper Center to Chitina

20180813_205426

A week before taking off, we got in a 24 hour mini-vacation and headed southeast, eventually ending up in the tiny town of Chitina where we camped out beside the mighty Copper River. Along the way we managed to check out a couple of short hikes, one to the Tonsina River, and another to a waterfall and high mountain lake. The next morning, we found another trail overlooking an upper portion of the Tonsina, and walked in a steady rain for a couple of hours before heading over to Copper Center. That afternoon we met up with some guides from NOVA’s sister company, River Wrangellers, and rowed a raft down the Klutina.

20180814_170753

Klutina River

Had a chance to float about 18 miles of the Klutina one afternoon in August. Long bumpy 4×4 drive along the rim with great views of the river on the way to the put-in. Once in the boats, it was fast moving, turquoise blue water, big sedimentary cliffs, and bald eagles galore. The guides there do mostly fishing trips, and could talk of nothing but Kings.

20180722_080334

And that was that. Time moving. Months disappearing, the days convoluted blurs across the backdrop of mind. Better enjoy each one as it passes, no matter what you’re doing as it does. I try, I really do. Currently in a part of the world I have never spent much time in, Ohio. The fabled, or perhaps rarely discussed, Midwest. Specifically SE Ohio, and, from what I hear, there is a distinction to be made. The foothills of Appalachia, rather than the flat fertile expanses of farmlands one might imagine. A long way from Alaska, to be certain, not only in distance and geography, but all manner of comparison. There’s beauty to be found everywhere, however, and this place does not lack for it. Guess it’s exactly where I should be for the meantime.

IMGP4539IMGP453220180615_224942

 

Yucatán y Barranca del Cobre

Have been meaning to do this for some time. Finally getting around to it. Took a trip to Mexico a while back, January and February of 2017. We started the trip by getting dropped off at the border in Presidio, TX, from there walked across the bridge into Ojinaga, and then bused down to Ciudad Chihuahua. The following day we took a national flight across to the Yucatan, spent several weeks hanging out in Tulum, and another week traveling around the peninsula. Afterwards, taking the long way home, we hopped a flight to Sinaloa, took El Chepe, the train, up into Copper Canyon, and spent several days in the area before heading back to Ciudad Chihuahua, OJ, and the Big Bend. The following text comes out of the journal I kept, sporadically, throughout those weeks. As will quickly become apparent, it’s in Spanish, or at least some resemblance of the language. If you’re not a Spanish speaker, or my butchered attempts prove too difficult to endure, hopefully the pictures will provide a story of their own. Highlights of the trip were biking around Tulum and neighboring sites; visiting ruins and cenotes; taking three weeks of classes at Metzli, a Spanish language school in Tulum; running a 10k in Valladolid; riding the train into Copper Canyon; spending a day walking in the canyon with Julio, a Tarahumaran guide we met the day we arrived; tooling around Creel on mountain bikes; eating lots of amazing food and meeting a whole lot of really awesome people.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tulum

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Zacil-Ha

Estamos en México hace dos semanas. Ahorita estoy sentado a lado de un cenote muy tranquilo que se llama ‘Zacil-Ha.’ Hay música, un cenote pequeño con una pequeña tirolesa, sillas para relajarnos, un bar, y más. Montamos las bicis desde Tulum, donde estamos quedando por tres semanas en una cabaña en el norte del pueblo. Hemos estado asistiendo a clases de español por una semana y media, y me gustan mucho la escuela y los maestros.

Salimos de Tejas el 20 de enero, cuando también Donald Trump asumió la posición del presidente de los Estados Unidos. Pienso hay muchos, como yo, quienes van a recordar ese día como un día muy oscuro en la historia contemporánea de nuestro país y tal vez el mundo. No quiero escribir mucho sobre estas temas, pero es casi imposible ignorar que está pasando en EEUU, y tampoco puedo fingir que todo va bien – pero no puedo hacer nade – ni desde aquí o si estuviera allá, pues es mejor leer las noticias con medida. Pero cuentos sobre él están en todos lados y el día en que nosotros cruzamos la frontera hubo una huelga en la aduana para protestar por dos cosas – lo que se llaman ‘el gasolinazo’ en México, y la ascensión del Trump. Bueno – ya lo mencioné – seguemos.

Cruzamos sin problemas y aquí solo hemos encontrado gente muy amable. Comimos en Ojinaga y compramos boletos para el camión a la Ciudad de Chihuahua. Llegamos aquella tarde y comimos en una taquería antes de ir a la cama. El hotel era limpio y quieto y dormimos bien hasta las cinco en la mañana cuando nos despertamos y fuimos al aeropuerto. Volamos a Cancún. Pasamos otra noche en hotel y comimos en el centro Yo pedí un tipo de pescado estilo Maya. El mesero era Maya y tenía buen sentido de humor. La próxima mañana fuimos a Playa Langosta en Cancún, una playa ‘publica’ entre todos los hoteles y resortes grandes que hay para alla. Es un espectáculo y no quisiera quedarme en ninguno de ellos por más que uno o dos días. Son resorts tipo ‘todo incluso’ y imagino que no es una experiencia muy mexicana. Salimos la ciudad a las dos, y llegamos a Tulum media tarde.

Cuando llegamos a donde estamos quedando era el cumpleaños do la chica de la pareja que cuida las cabañas. Ella se llama Adriana y su novio, Luis. Pasamos una buena tarde charleando con ellos y el padre de Adriana, quien era de España. Comimos un poco y después fuimos en bici para encontrar la escuela donde tuvimos que ir la próxima mañana. La encontramos por fin, pero estaba oscura cuando regresamos a casa.

Empezamos el lunes en la mañana. Fuimos a clases del grupo en las mañanas, clases privadas en las tardes, y hicimos todas las actividades que ofrecieron – yoga, arte, clase de baile, juegos de mesa, clases de cocinar, etc. Al fin de la semana yo estaba cansado, pero aprendí mucho y tuve muchas oportunidades para hablar español. Mis profesores eran Agustín, Toño, y Aura. También hay Mauricio, Lilliana, Sara, Guido, y más. Me callan muy bien todos.

El fin de semana fuimos con otros estudiantes a Coba, unas ruinas Mayas. También visitamos un cenote, ‘Choo-Ha’ –era súper chido – una lagunita adentro de una cueva. Cuando entramos era algo nuevo que nadie de nuestro grupo ha hecho antes. Después de 5 minutos de estar allá nadando, se fue la luz y la electricidad en todo el pueblo. Nos quedamos otros 30 minutos en la oscuridad y salimos después. En domingo encontramos algunos corredores de Tulum quienes tienen un grupo oficial. Se encuentran cada miércoles y domingo para correr juntos. Yo corrí con Frank, quien es entrenador profesional y loco para correr. Corrimos en el camino de la zona hotel desde la cruce hasta el arco que marca la entrada a una reserva. Después desayunamos en “Tapich’ el restaurante de un canadiense que también le gusta correr.

En la tarde fuimos a las ruinas de Tulum, un sitio increíble. Me encantaron las ruinas aunque hubo un montón de gente (los nacionales se pueden entrar gratis en domingos). Nos quedamos un par de horas caminando por las ruinas y leyendo los letreros. Y ya, — hoy es miércoles. Fuimos a Playa del Carmen en lunes, otras ruinas ayer, y ahorita estamos aquí. Estoy en una clase diferente (solo estamos asistiendo clases en las mañanas esta semana) y todo va bien. !Es Tiempo para saltarme al cenote!     X————-X

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ruinas de Tulum

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ataque de Gaviotas

Fuimos en una excursión el fin de semana pasado. Empecemos muy temprano en la escuela y salimos con otros estudiantes y el chofer, Arturo. Manejemos dos horas hacia el norte del estado Yucatán. Llegamos al río Lagarto donde embarcamos en una lancha para dar una vuelta en el río. Vimos a tres cocodrilos, y muchas aves como garzas, fregatas, águilas, cormoranes, y flamencos. Al final pasamos por una laguna, laguna Rosada, donde los flamencos pasan varias veces en el año. Dicen que hay temporadas cuando hay hasta 40,000 de ellos, pero solo había algunos 100 más o menos. Estuvo padre verlos en su propio entorno. Después nos entramos en un canal muy salado donde se podía flotar sin hacer nada. También nos cubrimos con barro de la orilla, un baño Maya según el capitán de la lancha. Pasamos 15 o 20 minutos allá, y al fin bajamos el rio hasta el mar, cual era en azul lindísimo. Enjuagamos en el mar para quitar el lodo y después fuimos a almorzar en un restaurante. En la tarde visitamos dos cenotes, ‘Kikil’ y ‘Hubiko.’ Nadamos en los dos y fuimos a Valladolid después. Visitamos el convento San Bernardino y despedimos a los demás para quedarnos en el centro.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Laguna Rosada

El próximo día me levanté muy temprano – demasiado temprano porque no sabía que estábamos en otra zona horaria – para correr en la carrera de la virgen de la candelaria. Era una carrera rápida – yo corrí lo mas rápido que pude y terminé en alrededor de 43 minutos (10k). Despues fuimos a Chichen Itza. Valía la pena aunque no tenía mucho interés en ir al principio. Había un montón de gente y además más de 200 vendedores por lo menos, pero caminar por las ruinas era impresionante. Intenté imaginar cómo estuviera la vida en aquellas épocas, pero pienso es imposible tener una idea con certeza. Imagino que todo era muy, muy diferente y dudo que ser un ser humano significó lo que significa hoy en día. No hay chance que pensaban como nosotros y todo el mundo parecía lleno do espíritus poderosos. Vida y muerte no representaba nada parecida a que creamos hoy. Que interesante sería vivir un día con pensamientos y creencias así.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Chichen Itza

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Convento San Bernardino

Regresamos a Valladolid en la tarde y fuimos a comer un almuerzo fuerte porque era domingo y queríamos observar las tradiciones locales. Comimos guacamole, totopos, un filete de res con papas (yo) y Erin probó una comida típica de Yucatán cual era un tipo de tacos (más o menos) rellenos con huevo duro con salsa de calabaza – la salsa estuvo rica pero los huevos eran mucho – como comer una docena de huevos al mismo tiempo – que bomba de colesterol! Me sentí un poco mal por el sol después de la carrera y el paseo por las ruinas, pero al fin caminamos por algunas horas por la ciudad. Al fin, terminamos cerca de la estación de autobús en un bar, el ‘Yuk-Tko,’ donde tenían botanas gratis, incluso una de chayote que era bien rica. Era el día del ‘Súper Tazón’ en EEUU también, y vimos el partido por una hora antes de regresar a Tulum (ganó Nueva Inglaterra en ‘overtime,’ escuché el día después). Llegamos a la cabaña a las once y media y dormimos muy bien por estar tan cansados. !Que buen fin de semana!                                                                                X—————-X

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Gran Cenote

Mahahual, Quintana Roo. Pasamos otra semana en la escuela Metzli y todo fue bien. Estudiamos con clases del grupo en las mañanas y tomamos otras clases privadas por las tardes. Mi maestro era Agustín y estuve con Anna de Minnesota. Para clases de conversación tuvimos Antonio, y mis clases privadas hice con Lilliana. Era la mejor semana y pienso que aprendí algunas cosas por lo menos. Todavía estoy sintiéndome un poco lerdo para aprender, pero recibí muchos comentarios buenos de los locales, pues tal vez no soy tan malo al fin. Fuimos también a otros cenotes – ‘Cristal, Escondido, y Gran Cenote’ – cual era excelente para practicar el ‘esnorkel.’ El Gran Cenote esta en una cueva y el agua es tal vez 10 metros de profundidad. Puedes nadar entre estalactitas en el agua y también ver a algunas tortuguitas y peces. Había también un pavo real que le gusto hacer escándalo cerca del área para comer. Fuimos también a la playa un par de veces. Una noche para caminar abajo de la luna llena. Yo corrí el circuito de las ruinas una mañana cuando Erin fue al dentista – donde todo fue bien. Viernes en la noche fuimos a la casa de una profesora, Aura, para tomar algunas chelas, comer botanas, y charlar. Fue buena noche y tuvimos la oportunidad para hablar mucho. Salimos domingo en la mañana y llegamos aquí a las doce.

Estamos en ‘la cabaña del doctor,’ un chavo amigable que nos dio sugerencias sobre que deberíamos hacer en Bacalar. Mahahual es una linda lugar y no hay mucho tráfico o bastante ruido. Nuestro cuarto esta 100 metros desde el mar y una playita con sillas y una pequeña muelle. Vienen cruceros casi diarios, y este es como la gente gana la vida aquí – vendiendo artesanías, comida, recorridos, etc. a los que vienen desde los barcos. Hay banquete que va por todo la zona turística donde no se puede manejar. Todos quieren venderte algo, pero la mayoridad de ellos son amables. Hemos comido en el pueblo muchas veces, y todo es rico, frito, y bien barato. También corrimos en las mañanas y hay un buen camino para correr que no tiene carros ni mucha gente. También es de polvo que es mucho mejor para mi cuerpo que el pavimento. El mar aquí es bien hermoso y muchos colores de azul, incluso un azul eléctrico. Después de todo el bullo en Tulum es lindísimo estar aquí con la tranquilidad.              X————-X

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mahahual

Estamos saliendo hoy. Corrimos esta mañana y comimos en la playa, aunque el desayuno no era tan bueno. Ayear fue ‘el día de amor y amistad’ (14 feb) y cenamos en un restaurante popular que también está cerca del mar. El ambiente estaba romántico, pero la comida tampoco no era nada especial. Parece que lo más cerca al mar que esta el restaurante, lo peor está la comida. Bueno, estamos sentados a la orilla ahora y tenemos media hora antes de tenemos ir al camión. Ayer, en la tarde, pedimos un kayak del gerente de las cabañas. Nos alquilamos uno, mas equipo para hacer esnorkel. Remamos a arrecife y nadamos algunas veces buscando peces antes de que pasamos una piedra y pedazo de arrecife abajo. Fue muy lindo todo y vimos muchas especies de peces. Nos quedamos en el agua hasta que estábamos congelados. Tomamos un poco de sol, y remamos de regreso. Estoy allegro que al fin hicimos algo, porque siempre he tenido ganas de hacer esnorkel en la península Yucatán.                                                  X————–X

Aeropuerto, Ciudad de México. Salimos Cancún esta mañana y estamos esperando otro vuelo a los Mochis. Después de Mahahual, pasamos algunos días en Bacalar y un par de noches en Mérida. En el camino a Bacalar tuvimos una llanta ponchada (pues la llanta se explotó). Esperamos un rato para que los dos chóferes pudieron cambiarla, y era poco chistoso mirar a los pobrecitos encontrar problema tras problema (como no tuvieron gato al principio). Llegamos a Bacalar en la tarde. Hacía mucho calor. Comimos una botana cerca del lago, y después fuimos a un recorrido en la laguna. Nuestro guía se llamó Sergio, y él me dejó dirigir la lancha por mayoridad del viaje. Pasamos tres cenotes – negro, esmeralda, y ‘coquitos’ – También pasamos la isla de pájaros que era llena de cigüeñas y dos espátulas rosadas. Al fin, pasamos al canal de piratas para nadar y tirarnos desde una barca pirata de concreto. Esa noche comimos comida vegetariana y vimos a algunas niñas bailando para el aniversario del pueblo.

El próximo día fuimos con Rodrigo para un recorrido en kayaks. Cruzamos la laguna otra vez, y pasamos por la canal hasta otra lagunita. De hecho, Rodrigo no era un buen guía, y pasó mucho tiempo en su teléfono. También, no sabía nada sobre la naturaleza, y llamó a todos los pájaros ‘garzas,’ que obviamente no eran. Después, desayunamos con él y Wilbur, su ayudante. Cuando terminamos, hicimos un mini-tour del museo del ‘fuerte’ que hay en Bacalar cual era para defender la ciudad contra las piratas. Al fin, fuimos al cenote azul y nadamos por media hora, incluso saltamos de un árbol. Terminamos a las dos en la tarde, y estuvimos un poco decepcionados con Rodrigo, aunque yo tenía un buen día a pesar del comportamiento de él.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Amanecer en Bacalar

En viernes, nos dormimos un poco tarde y cuando nos levantemos caminamos por el pueblo otra vez. Pasamos un museo, y nadamos una vez más en la laguna. Tomamos un camión en la tarde, vimos bastantes películas y tuvimos que usar toda la ropa que traíamos por el frio que hace en los buses de ‘primera clase’. Aparentemente, paga para estar en otra zona climática. Llegamos a Mérida a las siete, y fuimos al centro para mirar un partido de ‘pok-ta-pok,’ un juego tradicional de los Mayas que estaban demostrando en el centro. Comimos buena comida en un restaurante con patio y música en vivo. Próxima mañana fuimos en colectivo a Chablecal y caminamos hasta algunas ruinas que se llaman ‘Dzibilchaltun.’ Eran muy padre, y también hubo un cenote, cenote ‘Xlacah’ – mi cenote favorito de todos que hemos visitado. Regresemos en la tarde, caminamos otra vez por la ciudad, y regresamos a Cancún. Cuando llegamos en Cancún fuimos al hotel, nos cambiamos rápida la ropa y fuimos a correr. Era una linda atardecer. Corrimos por una hora y terminamos en la playa. Caminamos un poco, y regresamos a hotel. Tomamos unas chelas cuando estábamos sentados en la piscina, y después cenamos en el restaurante. Tuve una buena conversación con el mesero y después dormimos bien. Fuimos otra vez a la playa esta mañana, y desayunamos cerca el terminal ADO. Y ahorita estamos aquí y sale el avión en 30 minutos (ojala). Próxima parada – los Mochis.                                                               X————————X

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dzibilchaltun

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Arepo, Chihuahua, México. Llegamos a Mochis muy tarde. El chico del hotel nos avisó que no era buena idea salir en la noche por razón de los carteles y los problemas que plagaran Sinaloa. Dijo que la escuela había cerrada aquel día por una amenaza de violencia. Pues, fuimos a la cama y dormimos cinco horas antes de salir otra vez a la estación de trenes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mapa de Ruta

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

El Chepe

El tren – ‘El Chepe’ – fue muy divertido. Era mi primera (o segunda, o tercera) vez viajar en tren. Compramos boletos de segundo clase, como en esta época todos los vagones están conectados y casi no hay diferencia. Pasamos mucho tiempo afuera, entre los vagones, donde las vistas fueron mejores y pude escuchar a los sonidos del tren y ferrocarril. Llegamos a ‘Arepo’ o Posada Barranca, a las tres en la tarde. Tuvimos una reservación en ‘hotel Mansion Tarahumara’ y subimos muchas escaleras para encontrar nuestro cuarto. ¡Que increíble! El paisaje afuera de la ventana y desde el balcón es marvillosa. Casi no podía creer que era nuestra habitación, pero dos días después todavía es. En la tarde, pues el atardecer, vimos algo que parecía torre de castillo muy cerca a nosotros. Fuimos alla pensando que era mirador, y asi era, pero poco descuidado. Ahorita no hay escalera y tienes que subir escalando por una roca enorme hasta donde puede pararse. Otra vez, las vistas eran inolvidables. Había un chico solo allá. Él estaba admirando los paisajes también y poco a poco empezamos a hablar. Su nombre era Julio, y después de poco tiempo, nos hicimos planes para que él nos guía por el cañón el próximo día. Y lo pasó. Ayer, comimos desayuno en el salón de hotel, empacamos una mochila, y nos juntamos con Julio. Pasamos todo el día caminando cañón abajo, y después regresamos por otra ruta. Caminamos hasta una vista asombrosa donde pudimos ver el río Urique por cañón arriba y abajo. Nos acompañaron dos perros, Rocky y su ‘socia.’ Julio es tarahumara y sabía mucho sobre las plantas y los animales. Habló poco, pero contestó todas de nuestras preguntas. Pienso que caminamos 30 kilómetros o algo así. Fuimos al ‘nido de águilas’ y de regreso para aquí. Un súper día. Caminamos un poquito más aquella tarde, hasta el supermercado y después para cenar en la casa ‘cafetería’ del Victor, un señor que también trabaja para el hotel. Era una buena experiencia y estoy agradecido que tuvimos la suerte conocer a Julio. Hoy, continuamos.                                       X————————X

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Barranca del Cobre

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Creel, Barrancas del Cobre, Chihuahua. Llegamos hace dos días al pequeña ciudad de Creel. Parecía un poco loco al principio, después de dos días de tranquilidad completa, pero ahora me gusta mucho el pueblo. Ojala que tuviéramos más tiempo aquí. Ayer anduvimos en bicis desde el pueblo a muchas formaciones de piedra. Valles de los hongos, las ranas, las monturas, las chi-chis, y los monjes… El lugar de los monjes era mi favorito, y muy impresionante. Había muchos grupos diferentes de columnas verticales hecho de piedra. Yo hubiera poder pasado todo el día allá, pero solo tuvimos tiempo para almorzar y después caminar un poco por las torres de piedra. De regreso fuimos por otra ruta y montamos por un bosque de pinos hasta lago Arareko. Vimos al lago por un rato, y después encontramos algunos senderos hecho para las bicis de montaña. Era bien chido pasar por los ranchos de los Raramuris en bici, aunque no estoy seguro que opinan ellos. Imagino que quisieran que todo fuera como era antes de los Españoles, los mestizos, y por supuesto los gringos – pero no es así. Es poco triste ver a sus niños intentando vender recuerdos en las calles aquí. Sin educación, no pienso que van a tener una vida feliz. Yo estaba muy cansado, perro alegro cuando regresamos desde la cena anoche. Dormí bien, pero estoy deprimido hoy porque tenemos que salir y regresar a EEUU. Todavía tenemos una noche más en México. Vamos a Chihuahua (la ciudad) esta tarde. Ojala que regrese aquí pronto.                                              X—————–X

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ciudad Chihuahua

Terlingua Ranch, Tejas. Otra vez, y no estoy emocionado estar aquí. Salimos Creel medio día en camión. Pasamos por Chuatemol, y llegamos en la capital a las cuatro. Tuvimos un cuarto excelente muy alto en el hotel ‘Palacio del Sol.’ Caminamos mucho por el centro, vimos algunos mercados, y admiramos los murales en el palacio del gobierno. Cenamos en un restaurante cerca del zócalo, y después regresamos al hotel para disfrutar la habitación. Esta mañana nos despertamos temprano y miramos la tele y hicimos ejercicio antes de que tuvimos que salir a Ojinaga. Nos recogieron la hermana y madre de Erin. Fuimos a un restaurante en OJ, pasamos la heladería, y vinimos aquí. Yo anduve en bici por un rato antes de hacer la cena. No quería regresar. No quería salir México de verdad. No quiero estar en este país lleno de odio e ignorancia. Fue un buen viaje, aprendí mucho. Conocí a buena gente, y tuve la suerte conocer más de un país lindísimo. !Que viva México!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

!Que Barbara!

 

Run Alaska! (and Canada…)

Didn’t know if there would be enough to write about by merely focusing on a state which encompasses 1/5 the size of the continental US, so figured I’d better throw in another country or something as well. But not all of Canada, of course, just a few western provinces.

Obviously not going for full coverage here. Not even close to a comprehensive examination of running up north, just a few ideas on the feel of it all, and a couple of suggestions for anyone happening up this way.

IMGP4694

Running in Alaska (and Canada…) can be a lot of things. Challenging, steep, fun, frustrating, visually gratifying, and even a bit nerve-wracking. The minute you hit the trail, even paved ones, you know there are lots of things out there that can kill you. Bear, moose, humans, and even the mountains themselves occasionally seem a bit malicious. Even in the major cities of Anchorage and Fairbanks, wild animals often prove potential hazards, and stories abound about unprovoked maulings by drunk natives and bears alike. No lie. I don’t want to be macabre with the sharing of details, but people have been killed (and partially eaten, or in one case never heard from again) while participating in major running events in the state. And not even the ones out front, usually just unfortunate mid-packers in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not always the most pleasant thoughts to consider when out all alone.

So yeah, there’s that. The need to be constantly alert, the need to make some noise, the need to carry a can of bear spray in hand, just in case. The perpetual requirement of heightened awareness proves both exhilarating and exhausting, depending on one’s mood. Gives a person something to think about, provides the mind with license to fancy.

Then there’s the weather. Rain, frequent wind, rapid changes in temperature. Maintaining any sort of regimented running schedule requires dedication and self-discipline. Flexibility helps as well. Best to go when the going’s good, or simply deal with the elements as they are.

alaska 3

Locals don’t seem to mind a bit of discomfort or danger with their recreation. Though you might never see another person out running, the state boasts plenty of crazy die-hards, endurance athletes, and quirky ‘sourdoughs’ up for a challenge. A quick perusal of some of the races sponsored each year provides an idea of the type of adventure Alaskans prefer, from the insanity of the Mountain Marathon hosted each 4th of July in Seward, to the mid-winter Susitna 100.

My own experience in Alaska stems from several summers of living here and working on various rivers throughout the state. I am not a local, by any means. Each year I usually do a bit of traveling before and after the season, and I’ve driven multiple routes across Canada on the way up and down. In that time, I’ve seen a fair bit of some of the more accessible parts of Alaska, and the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, etc., often taking the time to survey some trails along the way.

The past several summers I’ve been based about 45 minutes east of Palmer in the Matanuska Valley. The name of the general location is Glacier View, a sparsely populated ten-mile stretch of the Glen Highway, or Alaska Highway 1, which leads from south of Anchorage up to Tok and onto the AlCan. Our headquarters/camp sits at the bottom of the valley at the confluence of the river and a couple of small creeks. From the office, it’s uphill two-miles in all directions. My first year living here I did my best to explore every game trail, 4×4 track, and dirt road around. I spent a lot of time running through the woods, crawling over and under downed trees, and doing my best to stay alert to my surroundings. Moose, which injure way more people each year than bears, are abundant here, and both black bears and grizzlies live in the area. Even on wider trails, I would be frequently whooping to announce my approach, and diligently scanning for animals to the front, sides, and rear. I eventually grew tired of the routine, of mustering the hyper-awareness I felt necessary even after miles of steeply inclined effort. These days, when I’m right here, right here, without any developed trails in the immediate area, I’ve reluctantly restricted my energies to road running.

IMGP4368

I don’t particularly like running on roads, especially trafficked highways. In fact, I would prefer not to even hear vehicular noise while exercising, much less be passed with frequency by speeding trucks and roaring semis. As such, Glacier View would not make a list of my top favorite places to run. Quite the opposite, in fact. The good news is, however, that sections of old highway, somewhat separate from the new one, still exist. The whole route was redone several years ago (a popular bumper sticker here reads: ‘Welcome to Alaska, Road Construction next 2000 miles.’), leaving leftover miles of decomposing concrete along the way. One such stretch extends a couple of miles from the back of our office, and another lies nearby to the cabin I’m staying in this summer, making for somewhat more pleasant runs, though both are still close enough to the highway to eliminate any sense of audio-tranquility. (Must point out here, however, that a busy highway in Alaska means a few trucks every couple of minutes…) Though as much as I loathe the idea of running along the shoulder of the main road, which I occasionally relent to on longer runs, the touted ‘glacier views’ often compensate.

IMGP4351

What I really wanted to write about, however, weren’t the highways, but a few of the running opportunities and trails I have found while traveling around Alaska as well as to and from. Just a short list of great places to run spanning across the top corner of the continent.

Palmer. The closet town around is Palmer, a quaint little farming community established in the early 1900s, and home of the Alaska State Fair. I generally find myself heading that way a few times a month in order to resupply, and each time I go I try to make time to run on the Matanuska Greenbelt Trails, probably some of the best developed trail running I’ve found in Alaska. The network of connected trails consist of small and large connected loops spanning many miles of open space. Most loops cut through densely wooded hills, occasionally opening up to provide great views of the surrounding mountains. The trails consist of a mix of road-width swaths and single track, and access can be gained at multiple trailheads. Due to the density of trails, routes can sometimes get a bit confusing, though trail markers and maps may be found sporadically placed along the way. I’ve definitely ended up out there for much longer than I originally planned due to the fact that the trails are both extremely enjoyable and, at times, disorienting. Paper maps of the system can be obtained at the visitor’s center in Palmer, and there are larger overviews at most trailheads. One of my ‘standard’ runs (quotes due to the fact that I don’t know that I’ve ever gone the same way twice…) consists of trying to find my way to Mooseberry Mesa and the aptly named Moose Poop Loop, and then trying to find my way back.

IMGP4526

Urban AK. Chances are that if you visit Alaska you’ll find yourself in either Fairbanks or Anchorage at some point. Both offer many miles of paved bike paths, as well as dirt trail options within their city limits. Again, this is Alaska, so even though you’re in the closest thing to a metropolis available, vigilance is still required as far as wild animals are concerned, with the added excitement of drunken homeless derelicts thrown into the mix. Have fun, but be alert. Easily accessible from downtown Anchorage one will find the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, which meanders along the Knik Arm providing great views of the water and glimpses of snow covered peaks, including Denali on a really clear day. Many of the bigger running events in the city incorporate sections of the path, and several spur trails lead to other parts of town. Scenic flat cruising at sea level. Fairbanks also offers miles of paved waterside trail along the Chena River, as well as multiple off pavement options. A popular place to walk, run, and admire migratory birds can be found at Creamer’s Field, while those looking for longer routes and less people should check out the trail network near the university.

Kenai Peninsula. Again, only offering a few initial points for the short term traveler here, as options for exploration abound in this area of the state. While running anywhere on the Kenai, the probability is high that you will be running in some type of rain. Embrace it. Or, rather, be embraced in the drizzle or all-out downpour. For starters, it’s often enjoyable enough to meander around communities such as Seward, Hope, and Homer with no particular destination in mind. Homer has its spit, Seward its sidewalks and paths along Resurrection Bay. Hope has one road in and the same road out, though that road terminates at Porcupine Campground, starting point for several runnable trails. One of the more popular summer events in the state goes 16 miles from Primrose Campground to Lost Lake, and there are many other roadside trailheads all along the highway.

alaska 19

Haines. End or beginning of a ferry trip along the Inside Passage. On my way up last season I took the boat from Bellingham and, after disembarking, spent the night in Haines and several hours exploring a few trails just outside of town. Three sedentary days aboard the ferry readies one for a run or two. Definitely check out the popular Battery Point trail, and brave the thick underbrush along the coastline in the Chilkat State Park if you dare.

alaska 13

Talkeetna. Confluence of three major rivers and departure point for most Denali bound mountaineers. Train stop and tourist hub. Quintessential small town Alaska. Again, just running around town leaping across mud filled potholes and exploring dirt side streets can be plenty entertaining. Check out the river trails at the end of the main street, then cross the Talkeetna on the railroad bridge and head out of town. Do some trail running out at X,Y,Z Lakes. A paved path parallels the highway into town. Don’t forget to stop by Denali Brewing on your way out.

alaska 20

Running opportunities in Alaska are endless. I’ve had a great time running around Chena Hot Springs, Valdez, and even good ol’ Tok while on my way through. Imagination, a bit of courage, and a little grit are all that’s required when it comes to fun, fitness, and exploration in the 49th state, the touted last frontier.

As promised, however, I don’t want to end without making a quick reference to America’s hat, Canada. Each time I’ve found myself heading this way or that across our neighbor to the north (or, if you’re here, to the east…) I always intend to spend more time exploring than I ever actually have time to do. Most of my drives up or down have taken around a week, and set plans become distant dreams as hours on the highway grow long – mere inches on the map turning into days on the road. In my experience, the best way to break up long day of driving is stopping off somewhere for an hour run, allowing for exercise, fresh air, and a chance to check out a bit of Canadian countryside – somewhat of a small condolence for the necessary acknowledgement as to the impossibility of previous objectives.

One of the many awesome things about Canada is the abundance of visitor information centers, state sponsored offices dedicated to providing local information to passing travelers. These centers can be found in bigger cities and small towns alike, and even in seemingly remote areas you will often find a clean building filled with myriad brochures and friendly Canadians eager to ply one with maps and advice. Thanks to these centers, their kindly hosts, and a little bit of luck, I’ve been able to find great trails in both bigger municipalities and random towns across the country.

A couple of the places along the highway I remember discovering some fun trails would include Ft. Saint John and Grand Cache, though I recall exploring trail systems in several other places whose names are long forgotten, though the routes themselves still memorable. One of my favorite stops every time I’ve driven by would have to be the community of Whitehorse, Yukon. Parking in the Robert Service Campground provides access to a paved trail system running up and down the Yukon River. Downstream takes you to downtown, with loop potential on the return; upstream sends you up a big hill, onto dirt trails, past the dam, and along the reservoir where you can watch float planes take-off as you run along high cliffs above crystal blue water. Downtown can also be a good time, and your one chance for a healthy meal in a couple thousand miles.

My last trip across Canada found me a bit further east heading across Alberta. There are all kinds of trails in the national parks of Jasper and Banff, as well as everywhere else in the area. Finally, the city of Calgary boasts miles (well, kilometers) of bike paths, and some fantastic trails in Nose Hill Park on the outskirts of the city with great views of the downtown skyline.

20170919_114724

I suppose that’s about all I have to write about running in the great north. So much to see, so many places to check out. And always remember, you don’t have to be faster than the bear, just faster than your running partner.

20170916_125324

 

Up 9th Street

I wish I could lose all inhibitions.  I want to dance in front of three-hundred people.  I want to be the only one dancing.  Not performing, just not caring.  I dream of wearing red socks with purple shoes.  Or purple socks in red sandals.  I want to rock Euro swimwear on American beaches.  Sport a Mohawk when I’m fifty, handlebar mustache below impeccably groomed uni-brow.  I long to talk loud in restaurants and not be concerned about the intrusive ears of other diners.  I will be fat, skinny, drunk, straight-edge, unbelievably gorgeous, irretrievably homely, boisterous, flamboyant, pointed at or ignored, and I won’t give a fleeting thought as to the opinion of others.

Dahlia says she doesn’t want a boyfriend.  It’s true.  She doesn’t.

I mumble.  I’m a low talker.  I sit in corners and post up against walls.  Observe from shadows, stay out of the way.  I’m embarrassed about my shyness, afraid to expose a private persona in public places. Acquaintances label me as serious, stern.  Usually they modify the terms with ‘too’ or ‘so.’   As in: ‘Why are you always so serious?’  I make my way to the sides of classrooms, the edges of bars, hang out in the back of theaters.  I do not initiate conversations.  If people talk to me I am polite to the point of curtness.  My face presents as dour without my permission.   My posture is erect, my shoulders somewhat broad.  It’s been said that I’m intimidating.  Usually, that’s the last thing I’m trying to be.

Dahlia has black hair and an incredible stomach.  I could spend all day with her between soft sheets, smooth skin on skin, cool breeze, autumn rain outside the open window.  Or so I’d like to imagine.  We would be terrible for each other.

I would love to be perceived as approachable, affable, open, but the older I get the meaner I look.  There are strings of days when I speak to no one.  I long to have jolly good times, make new friends, forget about the future and past and live smiling in the present.  Forget about being self-conscious forever.  I am never the center of attention, yet I always feel like it.  Arms swinging awkwardly as I cross the street in front of cars. Bar patrons eyeballing my every action while I order drinks, checking out my clothes upon entrance of any establishment.  I imagine harsh judgments in abundance.  I truly want to never care again.  Never have another thought about it.

Dahlia is the worst kind of bad news.  She crushes men and claims she can’t help it.  She’d rather be alone.  She needs a lot of space.  She doesn’t even believe in the word boyfriend.  She will never get married.

Dahlia knows that she’s the worst kind of bad news.  She tries not to be, sincerely, but she can’t help it.

Everything is energy.  There is an underlying unity to the universe beneath forms of separateness.  The tiny particles that are me pedal tiny particles that are bicycle.  We move through all sorts of jumbled cosmic dust.  The air is filled with flying particles of inane cellular conversations, invisible molecules of high-speed pornography broken into little bits, waves of radio negativity from right-wing baby killers condemning left-wing baby killers and vice-versa.  I question what this does to my psyche.  To the collective consciousness of the world.  I wonder how these things affect the soul.

She lets me rub her stomach, which I’m infatuated with, but there are set  boundaries. No hands on the breasts, nothing in the ‘bikini region’ (her words).  For now, I don’t mind making myself a little miserable.  I’m the worst kind of bad news too.  We might be evenly matched.

I run for longer than I have run in a while.  I want to keep moving.  Nighttime and stepping through shadows, off curbs, into puddles. There are dark dogs in the park that want to chase and bite.  Cars without headlights and drunken operators at the helm.  There is a big bright moon and myriad stars even under the blanket of city glare.  I see Orion as I go.  I focus on breathing.  The stars do not judge me.  I am part of them.  They were once me.  Light shines into my eyes millions of years after it has left the surface of each individual star.  In a million more years the light reflected off my eyes will be returned.  When I look at the star, when the light hits the back of my eyes and lets me see it, we are connected through time and eternity.  We, It, Us, Them – all the same.

Still, I wait for phone calls, for poverty, for judgment.  I wait for food to cook, water to boil, letters in the mail, for death.  I cannot die, but I cannot seem to realize that I cannot die.  I listen to music, I cross my legs, ‘I am not I,’ I sigh. ‘We, are everything.’

Sometimes I am so bold as to kiss her on the neck.  I like to bite.  A diagnostic test to determine the extent of the damage.  Dahlia claims she is ‘dead downstairs these days.’  I look for a reaction.  It’s frustrating to touch someone without being touched in return.  Legs intertwined, at times, and never a significant response.  Maybe she’s right.

Dahlia does her own thing and I do mine.  She says we only want what we can’t have.  Right.  She has some quirks.  Everything in her house/truck/life must be just so.  The kitchen cabinets are empty and the salt and pepper shakers can only be arranged one way.  Maybe the pepper sits closer to the edge of the counter than the salt, holes aligned, two inches apart.  Maybe the dish towel must be folded in thirds, rather than in half.  The eccentricities aren’t exactly endearing.  I long to be thoroughly annoyed.

Never assume I know what I want.  The questions in my life are the same now as they have been for years.  Persistent little interrogatives these ones:  Where am I going?  What am I doing?  What do I want if it’s not to be secure, become sedentary and stifling and blend straight in to the suburban strip malls of middle class mediocrity where I reside?  These statements, these questions, are prosaic and unoriginal.  It’s all been said before, but I don’t think most people really believe in any sort of rebellion after the age of 25 or so.  Then it’s time to settle.  Time to get busy being busy all the time.

I’m late.  A late bloomer maybe or just a bad weed seed.  If the status quo had a gardener I’d have been plucked and burned long ago, or hosed down with poison pesticide so good and cleansing.  And still the problem is that I’m not passionate about anything.  Not money, not politics, not sex or saving the world, or living or dying.  I am only existing.  Breathing oxygen and expelling something else.  I am wandering without purpose because I can’t sit still with purpose and neither of the two is all that interesting.

This is what I think at least, when I wake up in the morning and before I go to bed at night.  The old why are we here is why am I here routine.  I do not believe in a higher purpose, nor do I condone lesser evil.  But if there is no figuring anything out, then why am I still so stumped?

Dahlia says relationships are drama.  She prefers to be alone.  I have spent long stretches of time by myself.  Sometimes I crave companionship.  Then I don’t.  Dahlia says I would get tired of her.  She’s right.  I get tired of everyone.  I say that she’d never be able to give me the attention I need.  She agrees.  At least we’re honest with each other.  Most of the time.

I hate to hurt people’s feelings, but I seem to have a penchant for it.  Relationships are misunderstandings, frustration, damaged egos, things said in anger, anger itself, too many other emotions, and worth it most of the time.  Living in this world is absurd.  Consuming, buying, believing.  Trying to stand out.  Trying to fit in.  The clothes worn, food devoured, plastic containers of liquid quaffed.  The insecurities, activities, the confusion of attempting to deal with oneself and all the rest of the species at the same time.

Dahlia is athletic, but never exercises.  And she never eats.  Her body is amazing to me.  Mostly because I’ve only seen it covered.  I get the occasional view of perfect legs extending out the bottom of tasteful dresses.  The rare glimpse of exposed midriff.  She tells me she has cellulite in her ‘hard-to-reach woman areas’ – under the buttocks, top of the thighs.  Her self-deprecation is usually exaggerated.  I want to find out for myself.  Her eyes are bright green.  They are alive behind the blackest of eyelashes.  Illuminated when she smiles.

It would be easy to fall in love with Dahlia, at least for a while.  When people begin to like me, I slowly grow bored with them.  Not always, but often.  Dahlia isn’t completely insensitive to the requirements of others, just not interested in sacrificing any part of her life to meet them.  She says she needs to have her heart broken, penance for the pain she’s caused.  But she says I can’t be the one to do it.

I wish she’d give me the chance.

I haven’t loved anyone for years.  It’s not that I don’t want to, I just don’t feel like it.  There is a letter, a remnant of a relationship long past, that lives in my heart subjected to constant revisions:

‘Could you know that I dreamt of you the other night?  That for the first time in five years I saw you in my sleep and when I went to kiss you – you kissed me back?  Could you know that in all of the dreams before you only hugged me half-heartedly, and when I tried to kiss you, to resume where we parted so long ago, that you turned your cheek and gently pushed me away, destroying me in the process?

“It’s not like that anymore,’ you said. 

‘Recurrently.

‘Could you know how it felt to kiss and be kissed again after so many years – even in a dream?  Could you know that I have never looked at a photograph of you since you got in your car and drove up 9th Street that day?  That I prefer, instead, to remember you as much as I can from memory?  But reluctant to re-open that part of my life in flimsy pictures – I still have pictures of old photographs in my head, along with visions ingrained in mental images.  I have glimpses of your face, of your innocent and sincere smile when I used to walk unannounced down the aisle of the natural foods store where you worked.  When you looked at me like that – time stopped for a second and the universe was reduced to ten square feet of a grocery and I knew I would love you forever.  And I do, though I dwell on it no longer.

‘That dream the other night brought it all rushing back.  Could I know that this letter is still being written?’

It’s hard being human and small and loving somebody too much.  It’s hard to resent one’s own frailty.

If we ever did have sex, the mystery of Dahlia might disappear.  Most days when I see her it’s in a new light of attractiveness.  She has a calming presence and a model’s smile.  I try to make her laugh, but we don’t always share a sense of humor.

After knowing someone for a while their imperfections, both physical and otherwise, grow more obvious and impossible to ignore. Maybe the tiny mole on her cheek will sprout hair.  Maybe I will obsess over imperfectly plucked eyebrows.  Maybe I’ll fixate on the ‘hard-to-reach woman areas.’  Dahlia doesn’t use soap in the shower.  If I make her dinner she devours it without thanks and she never makes me anything.

My own imperfections are easy to ignore from the inside.  If there is one word to describe my alter ego it’s petulant.  Dahlia politely refers to my quick changes of temper as moodiness and tells me she doubts that she would be capable of dealing with it if we were ever together.

Dahlia has studied martial arts from an early age.  She once kicked her sensei in the face when he lifted his head too soon.  His wounds were a broken nose and much embarrassment.  He admitted that it was his fault, not hers.  So will I, when the time comes.  I don’t look forward to the pain, I merely live in the present unfulfilled.

Dahlia carries a folding three-inch knife everywhere.  It is both disconcerting and ridiculous.  She used it once (or one like it) outside a train station in France at three in the morning, but refuses to outline the details.  She clips it to the waistline of jogging pants, gym shorts, blue jeans, the skirts she wears to work each day.  She knows how to hurt a person more ways than most.

I enter the Pacific Ocean by running down a beach and jumping into waves off the Mexican coast with the biggest splash I can muster.  I wonder if the displacement is sufficient to affect the morning tide in Japan.  That is to question: Am I significant?

I like Dahlia’s feet.  Sexy long toes and delicately curved arches.  Some days they stink when she takes her shoes off.  She doesn’t watch TV or listen to music or write or draw or paint or read.  I have no idea how she spends all that time alone.  She doesn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs.  She neither prays nor uses profanity.  She doesn’t work out or cook or clean or sing (to my knowledge).  She simply IS, I suppose.

I think I might have to stop spending time with her.  It’s too much for me.  I can’t control myself.  Can’t contain the longing.  I go over to her house and she is outside washing her motorcycle in the sunshine.  She is wearing a black skirt and a white top that showcases the exquisite abs I want to gnaw on gently.  She smiles at me and I can only sigh inwardly as I attempt to smile back.  I’m not very good at forced facial contortions.  I’ll never win a high-stakes poker game.  I only want to grab her and hold her tight and carry her inside and love her forever.  I can’t.  Definitely not allowed.

It gets worse every time.  I say the stupidest things.  Ask the most ridiculous questions.  Tell her how much I like her and try to say why.  I feel like an incorrigible idiot every time I attempt to explain my emotions.  I can’t help myself.  I’m tired of feeling like this, and I don’t know what to do about it.

We spend the day together and go on a long walk through fields of sunflowers near her place.  It’s a beautiful day, but inside I am only being crushed by the immense weight of understanding that beauty is always transient, and that I am meant to appreciate it only from afar.

Before I leave I ask her to tell me why we can’t be together.  Until now there have always been allusions to the idea that it might be possible.  One day.  She tells me that I’m just not happy enough, and that she would feel as if it were her job to make me happy.  Then she says that it’s not that I’m not happy, it’s that I’m not ‘Hap-pY!’  As she says it she pokes her index finger into an imagined dimple and exaggerates a smile.  As she says it I’m thinking about how much I’m starting to hate the word ‘Happy,’ the condescending Ps slapping together, the long E at the end an additional insult to intelligence, a kick to the balls of the brain.  I’m thinking about what a subjective term it is, how utterly devoid of meaning.

I’m pretty sure she’s on to something.

There are days when I only want to melt into the afternoon light.  Days of contentment and inner stillness.  Days that don’t want to end with a night, with another day following.  Days that stand alone and unencumbered by ideas of infinitum.  There are days that call for something more: a silent explosion of particles, an infiltration of matter, a merging with the universe.  Myself and itself melded into more of a one than we already are.  I attempt to absorb the moment – the moment is indifferent to my longing.

Through eyes damp with beauty I crave to be part of fuzzy evening skies as the sun dissolves behind desert mountains.  Halcyon instants of such splendor that only evaporation could be a fitting end to individual existence.  I watch the air blend into dusk.  I breathe and let it all go away.

I go home and take a nap.  As I’m waking up, I have an epiphany and decide to call Dahlia on the phone and share it with her.  I tell her that I’m not looking for someone to make me happy.  That I have known for a long time the happiness of one individual cannot rely on another.  I tell her it would make me happy just to do nice things for her, to treat her well, to make her smile.  I tell her it’s been difficult for me to not be depressed when I’m around her lately because I can’t handle our relationship as it stands.  I know it sounds absurd, but it’s true.  Reluctant to hang up, still wanting to talk, I read her the first few paragraphs of this story.

She says she’s never heard me talk about myself before.

The last time I see Dahlia she comes over to my house with a vase of white, fist-sized lilies.  She’s leaving town for a week.  It is late at night and we lie next to each other for a while, on the bed, on top of the sheets.  Her flannel pajama bottoms are pulled up past her navel and she doesn’t have a bra on underneath a bulky brown sweatshirt.  I slide a hand onto her waist, but I’m still not supposed to let tentacles wander unimpeded.  The margin for error is slim.  I pull her close to me and squeeze tight.  Try to unify disparate masses.  I want us to be one.  This has nothing to do with sex.  This is about being lonely forever.

I rub her back and admire the tautness of her skin.  I stroke her belly, run my tongue along the length of her slender neck, follow it with soft bites down to the collarbone.  She allows me this privilege, allows herself the small pleasure.  But she is careful not to touch me in return.  She grants me these concessions and tells me they’ll never be enough to satisfy my desires.  She’s right.

Dahlia is going back to the East Coast for a wedding.  She’s fresh out of the tub and has just painted her fingernails maroon for the occasion.  Maroon is my least favorite color in the world, though a majority of women elect it as their nail color preference.  The smell of acetate is strong and nauseating.  It doesn’t fade for the two hours she stays.

Around midnight I walk her out to the car.  I hug a body reluctant to love and say goodbye.  I walk back inside and don’t turn my head as she’s leaving.  The odor of fingernail polish is gone.  In its wake there is only the sickly sweet smell of the flowers.  The air in the room is thicker than I remembered it.  I make myself and drink and turn off the stereo.  It is only this quiet late at night and early on Sunday mornings.  There is the sound of my breathing, of ice in the glass when I bring it to my lips, the occasional car passing outside.  Now is the time for silence.

(2009)

Peru

I’d been hoping to visit Peru for some time now. Visions of big mountains and colorful costumes. Of llamas and pan flutes. Snowcapped peaks and stony ruins. All somewhat accurate, turns out, though most of the flute playing these days seems to happen more in vacationer filled restaurants than atop high mountain passes. The high mountains themselves, however, still abound, far exceeding anything my imagination could have fabricated. The ruins too. The glaciers. As for the bright customary garments, the alpacas and llamas, they seem to split the divide between touristy show and traditional existence. Easier to spot in the cities than in the hills, but still part of a viable lifecycle in remote rural areas which have changed very little over the course of centuries.

We only had a short couple of weeks to visit Peru, which wasn’t initially how I had envisioned seeing the country, but it turned out to be just about right in the end. Enough to both pack in a decent sampling of the Andes and to witness some of the local culture, that is. When I originally anticipated going back to South America, it was with the intention of staying for at least a month and doing something a bit more adventuresome than our most recent travels. Something a little bigger at least, a little more out there. Maybe not extreme expeditioning, but at least seeing some wilderness, spending more nights in sleeping bags than hotels. Our past two trips out of the country, totaling a couple months in Mexico throughout the course of the past year, as worthwhile and interesting as they were, consisted mainly of day hikes and bike rides and visits to local attractions and various museums. Lots of time outside, but also cities and classes and cultural experiences and sightseeing. All well and good and interesting, fun even – but truth be told, I like my travels with a little hardship, a bit of a challenge, maybe some discomfort and deprivation. I prefer moving through big natural backdrops in solitude to anything any tour operator has to offer. While I have the capacity and often the willingness to appreciate cities and other cultures and sites of ancient civilizations and so forth, above all I am most interested in immersion in the natural world, the more remote the setting the better.

As mentioned, when I originally started dreaming of Peru I thought that I would have many weeks to explore, to really get out there, but it didn’t happen quite that way for various reasons. In the end, we had a block of time to go, so we went. Why wouldn’t you? As such, ideas were distilled to allow the bulk of the time to be spent hiking in the mountains. Friends and internet were consulted, trail guide referenced, and a route, or the broad scope of one, conceived.

One morning we woke up in Utah, later that same day we were in Las Vegas, and that afternoon, between flights, we hopped a bus to the beach in Los Angeles and watched the sun set. Hours later, thanks to the wonders of technology, we arrived in Lima and soon thereafter set down in Cusco, former capital of the Incan empire and current center of Peru’s booming tourist scene. The city sits at 11,150’ above sea level, and we spent most of that afternoon huffing and puffing at elevation as we walked around town searching out supplies for the backpacking trip. Success came in the form of a 1:160,000 trekking map and several bottles of stove fuel. Groceries were purchased the following morning at the bustling central market, lunch eaten at a local restaurant, and a ride share located to take us out of Cusco. A couple hours later we were standing in the central square of Ollantaytambo, looking for the trail leading out of town, across the Rio Urubamba, and into the mountains.

Our packs were ridiculously heavy, bulging in all directions. Having no specific schedule, and not desiring one, we carried enough food to last us for at least 10 days without a resupply. The first leg of the hike also led up the side of a mountain, with no promise of a water source until late on day two, which meant we also had to carry several gallons of water between us. Loaded down, yet anxious to get away from town that afternoon, we headed out of Ollantaytambo around four and walked uphill for several miles before finding an acceptable place to camp around dusk. Once we got the tent set up, I moved behind it just in time to miss a good trampling by a charging cow. She was being pursued by an older gentleman, outfitted in a sweater vest and worn dress shoes, swiftly chasing her down the hill, a handful of throwing rocks at the ready. An unexpected show so late in the day.

As close as we were to the equator, dark came on early. A cold stiff wind welcomed us to the Andes, along with a sky full of not-quite-familiar stars above and the lightscape of town in the valley below. Almost 12 hours of night allowed for plenty of needed rest after days of travel. Recharged, we were up at first light the next morning, packs on, gaining elevation with every step. After an hour or so of hiking, we arrived at a site called Las Canterras, an ancient Incan rock quarry which once processed stones for the massive Ollantaytambo complexes in the valley. We explored for a while, and enjoyed our morning coffee and breakfast in the sun along with the stunning views from the site. Impossible to imagine how they transported the rocks from that location to mountainside sites barely visible across the imposing valley. From there it was up some more, where we eventually arrived at another ruin site called Inti Punku. Several interpretations are offered for the original purpose of this outlook, now reduced to a substantial framed window and remnants of walls. Some say it was a lookout providing a vantage of several interconnecting valleys, while others believe it was a place of spiritual ritual where shamans convened with mountain spirits. All seemed plausible as shifting clouds parted, providing a view of two rivers below while the Veronica Glacier mystically appeared far above us.

IMGP6423IMGP6432

Until now, the trail was entirely obvious, but from here things were to become a bit more convoluted, though we wouldn’t realize it for hours to come. This part of the route was key to the trip we had intended, but the trail was not represented on any map, and the only directions we had proved to be severely flawed. Or if they weren’t, the original path must be long grown over or completely nonexistent these days. The first part was easy enough, from Inti Punku we walked along an old Incan aqueduct for a while, then began descending into the next valley, down towards the Rio Silque. The trail dropped down a steep series of knee-buckling switchbacks before traversing along a shelf around a 1000’ above the river. The views were unbelievable, our enthusiasm unbridled. After a couple of miles, we found an amazing lunch spot in the middle of it all, nonstop beauty in every direction. After lunch, we kept cruising, starting to search in earnest now for the trail that was supposed to lead down the rest of the way to the river. Instead, we began to climb again. And climb and climb. The trail was certainly not headed the way we wanted to go, quite the opposite in fact, as it rose back into the mountains, leading ever further away from the river valley. Water began to be a concern.

IMGP6441

At this point Erin mentioned that she had seen a trail from the lunch spot, though neglected to mention it as it was a long ways off in the distance, much further even, turns out, than we had traveled since leaving Inti Punku. After some discussion, we decided we needed to backtrack looking for a way down, rather than going up any further. Reluctantly, we trudged back the opposite direction. Indeed, there appeared to be a trail visible miles away from the lunch spot, though while it seemed to drop into the valley from the other side of Inti Punku, it was not at all what had been described, and it was a disheartening distance in the opposite direction. Not at all what we were looking for, but having returned so far already, and having not seen even a remote possibility of a trail downwards, we decided to accept our fate, continuing our reversal back up those brutal switchbacks with our brutal packs on in hopes of following that distant trail down to the river. Along the way we bushwhacked down multiple game trails hoping to find anything to lead us to the Silque, but we were only torturing ourselves as they disappeared straight off the sides of the cliffs below us. In our desperation, however, we did discover a small spring which allowed us to refill our water and alleviate the one true danger of an otherwise merely infuriating experience.

Back at the base of Inti Punku again, things were more frustrating than ever. The trail that we had spotted from so far back turned out to have been an illusion created by sunshine, shadow, and terrain. There was no remote possibility of descending into the valley from that side, the only way to anywhere we needed to be being the direction we had just come from, or back into the valley we had hiked up in the morning. I was incredibly aggravated at this point, though unwilling to admit defeat and spend an extra day backtracking in order to go the long way around to the Silque. We were completely exhausted from a long day of both physical and emotional ups and downs, and grudgingly decided to set up camp in one of the most stunning places imaginable. Ice covered Mount Veronica glimmered brilliantly in the late afternoon sunshine, the deep black silhouette of Yana Orqo sat to our west, and Inti Punku was a short walk away. It was impossible to stay irritated for long.

As we were setting up camp, a group of 25 or so people began filtering down towards the site from up on the mountain behind us. It was a trekking group on their third day of walking, and they were headed to Ollantaytambo. That night, they were going down about a half-mile or so to where mule packers, having arrived with their loaded pack train earlier in the day, had their camp set up and dinner waiting. Later in the trip, we would see more and more groups like this. In fact, almost everyone else we saw on the trails we would eventually hike, which was almost no one for many days, then lots of people on the last couple of days, was part of a trekking tour. First the horses and mules, then, large groups of hikers with small day packs and a guide or two. I took the opportunity to speak to the lead guide about the trail we were looking for; he said that no such trail existed, which made me feel both somewhat better and more irritated at the same time. I mean, it was in a book! We had the book… He explained that the trail we had been on probably went up into the mountains, and that it might eventually lead to the headwaters, but suggested that we go back down the mountain and over to the mouth of the Silque, and back up from there. Exactly what we were dreading, but an option we had to consider all the same.

An hour or so later, the sky lit up orange around us as the sun began to slowly fade into the mountains. Shadows set across the valleys below. I walked along the ridge towards Inti Punku, the stone structure radiant in the gloaming as it caught the last direct rays of sun. Another younger guide from the trekking group had run back up the steep hill from camp to photograph the event, only to have the battery on his camera die a few shots into his efforts. He and I stood just below the ruins, chilled by the evening winds, but faces still warm from the soft light of sunset, and chatted until it was time for him to head back down. Very congenial, in the course of ten minutes or so, he told me many stories about the Inca, about their beliefs and customs and respect for nature, about the Wacay Wilka, or the spirits that live in sacred natural formations, and about mountain biking and the ‘Inka Avalanche,’ an annual race down Abra Malaga, a steep pass coming down the other side of the valley – which he had both scars and tales of glory from. We also discussed options for my own plans, and while he doubted there was a trail down to the river, he believed we could go up and around, coming off the mountain near the confluence we were looking for. Exactly what I wanted to hear.

IMGP6446

After another long night of sleep, we were up at dawn again packing up and discussing our options. I really did not want to turn around and go all the way back down to Ollantaytambo and simply give up on the original route. To admit defeat. Quit. What have you. As such, we agreed that we would simply follow the trail we were on the day before and see where it led, and eventually find a way down off the mountain. And if we didn’t? We would just hang out for a day or two and see what was out there and walk back the way we came from. There would be no real pressure to get anywhere, as we had enough food for days and days of travel, and all of our gear, and no final destination set anyways. After all, the original intention of the trip was just to be somewhere, rather than to go somewhere. So that’s what we did, third times a charmed it, and, like always, it all worked out in the end.

It was back along the old Incan sidewalk, back down those damned switchbacks, back to the little spring we’d found the day before, spotting a few deer on the way, and back to our original lunch spot, only this time for coffee and oatmeal in the warming rays of the rising sun. From there it was over to and back up the other switchbacks, and finally on to new sights and fresh territory. And up and up we went, up the mountain indeed. The one gut sinking doubt of the day came when we knew we were almost to the top of the canyon, knew it as we followed small brook up and along paradisiacal meadows, only to arrive at the base of a sheer cliff where both water and trail seemed to completely disappear. We looked at each other in downtrodden disbelief at the thought of such rude defeat. In fact, we kind of just sat there feeling sorry for ourselves for a quick moment until we finally saw it, saw the crack in the rock and the creek pouring though it and upon closer inspection realized that we didn’t even have to get wet as we walked up into the cliff and through that bit of mountain and eventually out the other side of it into a pastoral wonderland of a mountain valley replete with streams, flowing grasses, rolling hills, and sunshine in abundance.

And there, the trail, solid and obvious as it had been all morning, really did disappear. Or rather, it morphed into dozens of faint stock paths going in no particular direction. We continued to walk up towards the hills a ways, past a few horses, and finally to within view of a large rustic ranch tucked away in an astounding bucolic setting hours and hours of travel from the nearest road. There was a large flock of sheep, several horses, maybe a cow or two, and an enormous circular lodge with thatched roof. All of it in the middle of nowhere, as they say, but obviously the center of everywhere for the people that live there. To see something like this is to travel back at least two centuries through time. The faint silhouette of a human figure walked out of the house towards the sheep, studying us from afar for a brief second before heading on to the business at hand. We were the world encroaching, a not uncommon site these days, I’m sure. Best to pretend it doesn’t exist for at least a little while longer.

IMGP6463

From there, we picked the most obvious path heading back towards the canyon rim and started to go in that general direction, weaving from one trail to the next as we climbed and traversed the steep hillsides. Across the next hill we came upon a vacant ranch with enormous livestock pens and dwellings built out of stacked stones. We would see many similar constructions in the days to come, structures that must have taken weeks of hard labor to complete, most of them seemingly abandoned. We continued to go up, trying to stay as close to the valley as possible, but fearing to walk too far in the direction of the sheer drop-offs along the edge. Before too long we were walking on skinny trails on the sides of impossibly steep hills, with potentially nasty consequences in the event of a misstep. We traversed like this for a couple of hours, the drops to the right of us growing in magnitude all the while. The scenery was incredible, the sense of isolation almost overwhelming. It was a lot to handle, in a good way. Time slowed way down for a while.

Around lunch time the exposure was beginning to wear on Erin. It was time to either go down, go back, or at least get away from the edge. We found a spot to hang out for a while, with impressive views of the mountains across from us, the river valley, and a glimpse of the confluence we needed to descend to, at least a thousand feet below us. While Erin made lunch, I went to do a quick scout, and eventually found what looked like a potential way down. It was impossible to tell if it went all the way, somehow threading between the ubiquitous precipices, however, or if it terminated at the top of a cliff. No matter what, it was the only remotely promising option we’d seen, and after a rest and a bite to eat we headed down. Steep steep, slightly scary, and questionable for quite a while, it went.

The bottom of the trail we eventually ended up on led to the base of a travertine falls where we rested for a while. From there, we walked through the scattered community of Silque, or Sallyapampa, or Ancashcocha depending on the source of information, and found a small bridge across the river. (Quick note here, to my understanding, there is no standardized spelling of the Quechua language, and names for everything from rivers to mountains to towns, both in spelling and as titular designations, vary greatly from source to source).  And then we started to climb once more. For the rest of the afternoon we walked alongside a clear glacial stream. There were big views of Mt. Huayanay to the north, waterfalls cascading from its crevassed slopes into the open valley below. It appeared as if several families lived throughout the valley, with traditional homes dotted along the way, along with sheep, pigs, cows, and the only herd of alpaca we saw along the entire route.

IMGP6477

It was a big climb, and we started to tire at the end, though wanted to try to make it up to Corrie Lake at the base of Abra Huayanay, the first major pass of our trip. As we neared the lake, we noticed a local family coming down from the pass, herding several horses in front of them. One of the men waved and shouted to us, asking if we spoke Spanish, and then came running down the steep slope with his small son on his shoulders to greet us. An impressive display of nonchalant athleticism. We had a nice conversation and he mostly just wanted to provide us with positive information about the pass and about where to camp before running on to catch up with the rest of his group. A little while later we were setting the tent up overlooking the lake. It was getting dark, and cold, and we made dinner and got into our sleeping bags for the night.

The next morning everything went south. I don’t want to dwell on the details, but the short of it is that we got sick. Very sick. And it would be a long time before we were completely back to normal, not until days after the trip, in fact. Our first assessment was acute mountain sickness, as we had ALL of the symptoms ever listed for altitude induced illness: nausea, vomiting, extreme fatigue, headache, diarrhea… It seemed to fit as we were at just under 14,000 ft. and had rigorously exerted ourselves from the time we arrived in Peru three days prior. But soon enough we began to suspect that altitude only played a small part in what was happening. In the end, it was obviously a lot more than that. Giardia, salmonella, dysentery… Something of the sort, most likely giardia, caused, not by drinking contaminated water in the backcountry, but inattention in the city the short time we were there. After years of traveling in Latin America, where not even in the scruffiest dirt floor restaurant in rural Mexico would anyone think to serve you a drink made with unpurified water, it only occurred to us in hindsight that perhaps more caution should have been taken in Peru. In discussing it afterwards, we’d actually both experienced unvoiced uncertainty at least a couple of times in Cusco. We probably could’ve been contaminated in six different places, at least, but no matter in the end. That was simply our reality for days to come. I would be lying if I said it didn’t overshadow the rest of the trip, but we did our best to not let it completely engulf the experience.

That first day it hit was horrible, however. I have been all kinds of sick in many a wilderness setting, but never have I known misery in the mountains like that morning. Foregoing any sort of breakfast we slowly started up the pass, the top of which sits at around 15,125’. From where we camped, it was only a few miles to the top, though with a gain of about 500’ each mile. On a normal day, it would’ve taken us around an hour to get there. But we fought for every labored movement, stringing out five or six steps in a row, at best, then leaning forward onto the one pole we each carried while struggling for minutes to breathe and stay upright. Erin, who is almost never ill, was taking it particularly hard. Early on, she laid down on the trail with her pack still attached. Angry at the dramatization, I yelled at her to get up and stop feeling sorry for herself. I think my own illness was a bit delayed from hers, as she had started throwing up the night before; less than 15 minutes later I was seriously considering crashing to the ground myself, honestly feeling incapable of taking another step. It was several hours before we finally reached the top of the pass, and the first time I’ve ever bothered to place a rock on a cairn pile in thanksgiving.

It was chilly on the pass, and we were both eager to drop down in elevation. We did not tarry long to enjoy the scenery. Survival mode. The trail on the other side led quickly down the mountain into a steep narrow valley. Once we were down a ways, ensconced near a small brook and out of the wind, I did indeed sit down, refusing to move until I’d properly rested for a while. I slept in the sunshine for an hour or so while Erin made herself some breakfast. Afterward, we mustered up the energy to continue on for several miles before setting up the tent in the early afternoon and sleeping feverishly for hours on end. We wouldn’t move again until late the next morning. The trail down followed a dramatic gorge, mountains rising straight up on either side. Cascades in abundance. We were on the edge again, and in the middle of some fantastic country. The campsite itself was tucked away in a small canyon right next to the river, hanging glacier on one side, abrupt valley on the other, an idyllic setting if ever there was one. At least there was that.

IMGP6499

The next morning showed faint hope of recuperation. We moved slowly through our tasks, cooking, eating, packing. Severely downtrodden, we discussed potential alternatives to continuing on, even though we felt as if we’d only gotten started. There was an option later that afternoon to continue heading down and back to the highway, if we truly needed it. The original plan called for dropping another couple thousand feet to a confluence, then taking a left and walking straight back up even higher, crossing the toughest pass of the trip the very next day. We tried to leave our decision open until later in the day, but we both knew that there was no way we could repeat the previous day’s events on the same scale, much less an even more demanding one.

Down we went. A beautiful trail. A beautiful day. High alpine turned to jungle. Thick vegetation and instant humidity. The river continued to cascade below, offering us occasional glimpses as it fell and fell and fell. We walked past ruins and through small Quechuan communities. We started to feel just a little bit better, again leading us to erroneously wonder if it wasn’t the altitude after all. Around lunch time we arrived at the confluence, also the site of the impressive Paucarcancha ruins only a few miles from the beginning of the most famous Inca Trail (reality being that all of the trails in the Sacred Valley were regularly traveled by the Inca (yet another misnomer as only the royalty were actually ‘Inca’, but I digress)) – which terminates at Machu Picchu. Dropping our packs for a while, we walked slowly around the grounds inside the fortified stone walls. After a barefoot lunch in the sun overlooking the compound, it was time to make a decision.

If you know either one of us, you probably know which way we went. Feeling marginally better, and kind of preferring straight dying to giving up, we put our packs back on and headed up the next hill. We’ll just see how it goes, we told ourselves, we can always turn around… Miles later we were still going up. No real middle ground, no cruisy walking level ground, to be found on this trip. It was along another river, the Rio Cusichaca, which we climbed. Along the way we met a local man who was eager to talk to us, though we had to wait until we caught up with his friend, who knew a little Spanish, for the conversation. Many of the inhabitants of this region speak only their native Quechua, using Spanish as a distant second language, if at all. We chatted for a while, mostly about where we were going, as they seemed enthused to ply us with information about the area. What they were most interested in, however, was if we had any coca leaves, which the people there habitually chew on without rest. We did, indeed, have a small bag of dried leaves for making tea, said to act as a prophylactic against altitude illness, and shook out a couple of sparing piles into their eagerly extended hands. At this, they stuffed the handfuls into their mouths said goodbye, both quickly mounting small mountain ponies and heading up a side path towards their homes.

That evening we made camp in the small community of Pampacahuana, a few houses scattered across a broad flat valley where the suddenly level river, perhaps due to an optical illusion of watching it fall at speed for so many miles, seemed to be flowing uphill through still intact Incan aqueducts. We were out of the tent at dawn the next day and soon on our way up the long trail to the 16,000’ high pass of Abra Inkachiriasca. One of the good things about not doing a lot of research before a trip is not having any real expectations, so when the gargantuan snow covered peak of Mount Salkantay came into view all at once and without warning as we rounded a bend in the trail that morning, it was a moment of genuine fascination. Feeling decent, and wanting to ride that energy while we had it, we climbed for an hour or so before pausing for breakfast at the base of impressive Salkantay. One of my favorite parts of the trip was that morning and sitting between braided glacial streams sipping on coffee and staring awestruck at the mountain, dazzling in the early sunshine.

IMGP6564

After fueling up, we put the packs back on and walked slow and steady for several hours. Up and up, but feeling kind of normal tired rather than extreme fatigued. Walking over the pass itself, no more than a quick step across a knife ridge, was also an incredible highlight. The mountain even closer than ever, the first view of the open landscape on the other side featured a brilliant turquoise lake at its base. Clouds floated well below us, as snow covered slopes extended thousands of feet above. We spent a long time up there, just hanging out and trying to take it all in.

IMGP6600

IMGP6597

We walked down the other side for several miles before making camp next to a series of waterfalls cascading down the edge of a colossal lateral moraine. In this tight valley, the sun started to go down early and the wind picked up quick. Luckily, we had a small cave to hang out in for a while and make dinner. Lying in the tent soon afterwards, an impressive storm rolled through, coating everything around with a thick layer of hail and shaking the ground with rolling trains of thunder.

The following day the plan was to join up with the Salkantay route, which is the most popular trek in Peru these days, being that, unlike the classic Inca Trail, it’s still unpermitted, unregulated, and ends up in the vicinity of Machu Picchu, with options to hike in to Aguas Calientes, the terminus of the train line and gateway to the ruins. As we hung out in camp that morning waiting for the sun, we had an excellent vantage point from which to look down a few hundred feet to the trail junction below, allowing us to see what we were in for. Up until this point, we’d only seen the one group of hikers near Inti Punku and a couple of smaller groups heading down the opposite side of the pass the day before. Otherwise, we’d been walking completely alone with a welcome sense of almost complete isolation. We’d had these remarkable valleys and extraordinary mountains and serene campsites and miles and miles of trail all to ourselves. That morning we saw crowds of people walking up the valley, along with string after string of loaded mules and packers. It was quite the sight, as each time we looked back down, more and more traffic filtered past. I’d read that it was a heavily traveled trail, but nothing had prepared me for those numbers.

The night before had been a bit of a relapse as far as the ailment was concerned, so we took it easy that morning, enjoying breakfast in camp and casually packing up. We had one more 15,000’ pass to climb, Abra Salkantay, and after that it would be down down down. It took me a while to build up my enthusiasm after an agitated night and then seeing all those people, but eventually I summed up the requisite motivation to move. Slowly. We dropped down into the valley below, crossed the foot of the moraine, and merged onto the 20’ wide scar of dirt and horse shit that was the Salkantay route. Fortunately, the late start worked in our advantage, and we found our own little hiking space for most of the morning. Yet, while there weren’t many hikers around, we were regularly passed by pack trains headed in both directions. By the end of the day, we estimated that we had probably seen over 500 horses and mules, and the relentless smell of ammonia and dung was nauseating. The Stinka Trail.

Throughout all of the areas we traveled through, there was widespread evidence of the heavy impact of livestock. It was impossible to set down pack or tent in any space free of horse or cow manure, and even the steepest of mountainsides were striated with crosshatched stock trails. Free roaming hogs caused wholesale devastation by snouting up large swaths of land. But this was on another level. As mentioned, unregulated. Turns out almost everyone hiking the trail that day started in the nearby village of Salkantaypampa, arriving by van early in the a.m. Most of them were in groups of around 25 people and had signed up with one of the myriad tour companies prevalent all over Peru. And there were dozens of these groups, that day and every day of the year, apparently. Literally hundreds of people. The pack trains carry their gear up the pass and either on to a backcountry campsite, or all the way over to the party/camping village of Chaullay, around 13 miles away. The next morning some of the groups continue hiking for another day down to Playa Sawayaco, others walk the road for a ways before getting picked up, and still others get trucked straight out of town while the mules and packers head back for the next load. An unfettered system, or lack thereof, which demonstrates complete lack of concern for quality of experience or preservation of resources.

But, if you can handle the stench, and ignore the environmental degradation, it’s still a great stretch of trail. Spectacular, in fact, as far as scenery is concerned. Around the time we reached the top of the pass, a thick bank of clouds began to rise up the valley. After a quick look around, we began our long descent. Happy to be losing elevation, we increased our tempo and maintained a hasty pace for the rest of the day.  Down we went, down through a valley marked by enormous steppes and scattered boulders of colossal size. An hour or so after the pass we caught up with the first of the groups, and from then on we were in the mix. Before long we were out of the fog, and into the jungle. The plants got instantly bigger and greener. The trail dropped and dropped as did the Rio Wamantay down below it. Just when we thought we were going to meet up with the water, the river would disappear again, nowhere to be seen in the gorge below.

IMGP6632

Late in the afternoon we arrived, shocked, in the village of Chaullay, a tightly condensed collection of campgrounds, cabins, and bars where almost all of the groups were heading for the night. There were cars, and crowds, and noise. People everywhere, and a couple hundred more coming down on the trail behind us. After so many days of solitude, it was simply too much.

We ended up fleeing for another mile down the road to the neighboring village of Colcapampa, also full of campgrounds, all of them empty. We set our tent up in the last one, and slept well. The next day we were back on the trail early, as were several of the groups, but there were significantly less people, many of them having already moved on to other activities, and no mules at all. And there were wild strawberries everywhere. Yes. This part of the trail traversed along the Rio Totora, another chaotic waterway frothing violently down the mountain. Up and down, up and down, went the trail, but never quite all the way down to the river, which was so what I wanted to happen so that we could just sit on a riverbank for a while and do nothing but rest and listen to the rapids and soak in the sunshine and pretend not to be plagued by gastrointestinal illness. Eventually, just as the day was really starting to heat up, a side trail took us down to a bridge and all my dreams came true for a few hours. We rinsed off in frigid mountain water and baked in the jungle sun and napped in the river sand and the remaining groups walked right on past us and by the time we got going again we never saw another person. Brilliant.

By this time, eight days into it or so, and still suffering from waves of sickness, we were thinking about being done. We’d seen a lot of incredible country, passed through some remote areas of rural Peru, crossed a few passes, and walked a good distance with some ridiculously heavy packs (we were still carrying about ten extra pounds of food apiece!). While there were options to keep going for a couple more days, we were content with all we’d seen, and also ready to get some rest and maybe some drugs for whatever else we were towing around. Before shouldering our packs once more and leaving the beach, we made the decision to camp out one more night, and head into town the next day.

The trail continued to follow the turbulent river for several miles, eventually leading us into the small town of Playa Sawayaco, where we spent the night in the backyard of a friendly local family. In the morning, we piled our gear into the back of a hatchback and shared a ‘collectivo’ ride down the bumpy dirt road to the town of Santa Teresa. The woman in the backseat with us was a real ‘chismosa’ who cracked me up with her steam-of-consciousness gossip about everyone in town. Every now and again it would get quiet for a bit and I’d look over to see her dozing away. She’d wake up soon enough, however, and start up again right where she’d let off. The driver, a too cool ‘papi-chulo’ type, gave her just the right amount of encouragement to keep it going all the way to the town square.

The town of Santa Elena was surprisingly quaint. A beautiful central plaza, and several clean streets lined with small restaurants and businesses. The driver dropped us at his friend’s hotel, and we spent a couple of hours organizing our lives and shifting focus. The itinerary for the rest of the day entailed checking out the Cocalmayo hot springs, right outside of town, and not much else. We took a moto-taxi out to the site, and spent hours relaxing in the thermal pools and sleeping in the sun. Back in town that evening we found a place for happy hour and ended up stuffing ourselves on various local appetizers, which seemed like a good idea in the moment, but quickly went the other direction, prompting us to cease the denial once and for all. Over to the pharmacist we went, and after listening to our symptoms, he knowingly confirmed our diagnosis of giardia before giving us a thorough briefing on the course of action and medicines recommended. We readily accepted his advice, purchased and instantly digested the first of the pills, and felt substantially better less than an hour later, though it was still a slow road to full recovery.

The next day we found another collectivo headed out of town, and enjoyed the scenic mountain drive over to Santa Maria. Here we spent a couple of hours waiting for our next ride, the long chug up 14,000’ Abra Malaga and the terrifying plunge down into Ollantaytambo. Thankful to have survived the bus ride once we finally arrived, we found a room for the night, and walked up to some impressive ruins on the hill above town. Having only a couple of days left in the country, it was now time to start sampling as much local fare as possible, starting with one of the best cocktails I have ever enjoyed, a Chicha Sour, variant of the famed Pisco Sour, though the pisco itself is imbued with purple corn along with other ingredients such as cinnamon and cloves. Wow. This started a nightly trend of sampling other sours, such as the traditional and the Coca Sour, all different but equally delicious. We also discovered Chicha Morada, a non-alcoholic beverage made of the purple corn, served at almost all restaurants, and I couldn’t drink enough of it those last couple of days.

 

From that point on, as we recovered from days of dehydration and inadequate nutrition, we couldn’t stop eating. It was actually kind of fun. The next morning we had breakfast at a coffee shop, then walked a few blocks across town to an empanada place where we proceeded to put down an even bigger meal than the first. Afterwards, wanting to spend a bit of time with a local guide, we walked one door over to a tour company and headed out for a half-day of mountain biking. It was a good time, and our guide, Abel, proved to be a wealth of information, answering all of the questions I’d come up with while in Peru. We did some fun riding, stopped for a while in the town of Maras, and then visited the Salineras de Maras, a unique salt production zone which predates the Incan empire. The mine itself continues to be operated by local families, and provides significant revenue from the production and sale of salt, and even more significantly, through tourism. The site consists of numerous terraced shelves of small pools, each of which is filled by a network of intricate irrigation tubes stemming from a salinized spring at the top of the hill. From there, it was a section of brake testing single-track back down the Rio Urubamba.

IMGP6692IMGP6693

That evening we were back in Cusco, strolling through the streets and plazas. In the morning we looked up a ‘Free Walking Tour,’ something we discovered while in Buenos Aires a couple years back. The tours, actually ‘tip based,’ can be found in cities around the world, and are conducted by knowledgeable local guides well versed on all sorts of local history. There were numerous options available that morning, as it’s an easy way for residents to make some quick cash, and we considered ourselves lucky to join up with Sergio, who really seemed to enjoy relating elaborate stories pertaining to Cusco throughout the various centuries of its existence. In the afternoon and evening, we ate. And looked around a little, and ate some more, drank some chicha morada etc. We went to a couple of Incan sites in town, and marveled at their sophisticated stone work, still prominent along the narrow streets. We also had a fun conversation with an indigenous artist selling small gourds covered in intricately carved scenes of Peru’s history.

 

The next morning we were up early and out the door. A few movie binging plane flights later, we were thousands of miles away, the Andes replaced by Alaskan ranges and different ventures, but recollections of Abra Inkachiriasca and the sides of Mt. Salkantay seared in our minds. Dreams of Chicha Sours beckoning eventual return.

Spring 18

Interpretations of spring seem to vary. I forget that sometimes, only to be quickly reminded as I head north each year thinking that summer must surely be setting in everywhere else, having already spent a couple of months baking in the desert sun myself. While once an avid proponent of winter, I’ve managed to do a decent job of skipping that season for a few years now, heading south of the border for a couple of months around December and returning to the Big Bend just about the time the heat starts to set in. This winter was about the same, though we found ourselves enveloped in snowstorms in Mexico in January, and again in New Mexico and Utah in April and May. The between times, however, were spring to me, starting, as a matter of fact, in late January this year as we floated through the Great Unknown blessed by unbelievable weather, and continuing on through early April when it was time to flee the hazy skies and 100+ degree temps setting in. It was not spring elsewhere, we soon discovered, but it is always nice to see a bit of snow each year, just to know what you’re not really missing. Here are a few highlights from the past few months.

Conservation Work. Or something like that. Spent all of February working on a restoration project around the confluence of Terlingua Creek and Rough Run Creek. The project, developed by Fred Phillips Consulting out of Flagstaff, consisted of harvesting sandbar willows and other varieties of native plants, and then strategically replanting them in zones where they historically thrived before the severe denuding brought about during the ranching and mining era. By the end of the project, our team of six had planted around 4,500 cuttings. Two months afterwards, around 80% of them were sprouting, in spite of no precipitation and ruthless spring temperatures nearing and exceeding triple digits. Here’s hoping that the project continues to be a success, and that its effects last for generations to come.

IMGP6172

Rancherias Loop. While working on the project, we put in the standard 40-hour week, allowing time to plan weekend excursions. One trip that I’ve wanted to do for several years was a three-day backpacking trip in the state park called the Rancherias Loop. The trail leads across a wide variety of rugged desert terrain, running up a narrow canyon for the first day’s stretch, then following a 4×4 road for a few miles on the second morning, and eventually dropping down another drainage before heading up, across, and back down a huge mesa. Even in February, things warm up quick out there, and water becomes a staid concern once you commit to the trail. Fortunately, there are two fairly reliable springs along the way, spaced perfectly apart for a three-day walk, though the drier the year, the less reliable the springs become. The information at the ranger station as to their status is also of questionable reliance, as neither of the rangers that we spoke to had ever hiked the trail, leaving them to depend on sporadic reports from returning trail users. This year being about as hot and dry as it gets down there, we certainly had some anxiety with relying on the availability of water, even once we spotted the stands of vibrant green cottonwoods popping out of the otherwise dried up landscape. The first night’s stop had one bubbling brook that appeared out of the ground near the roots of one tree, and disappeared back into the ground 20’ further down. Plenty for filling up, but not necessarily for assuaging concerns about the following day’s spring. The next afternoon we arrived at even bigger stands of cottonwoods, but had to search for a long while before finding a mudhole big enough to filter out of. But, we eventually filled up every receptacle we had, and carried a couple of gallons up onto the mesa to a dry camp and a stunning sunset. A great trip and a great trail with lots of varied terrain along the way.

IMGP6186

River Guiding. From the end of the project in early March, until the beginning of April, we guided canoe trips on the Rio Grande, which has been a spring staple for several years now. This year, the busiest few weeks of the season were enough to satiate my annual desire to run commercial trips down there. I will always love the Big Bend, but the river continues to drop to near dismal levels each spring while the temperatures continue to rise, the wind rips up the canyons, the long drives to and from the river only get longer each day, and the crowds are getting there earlier and sticking around later… Still, however, I love it somehow, working down there, being in the canyons, being on the river, even if I’m dragging a canoe up a canyon instead of floating for days down through it. Love it for a little while, at least. And I did get to do a Boquillas Canyon trip, four days of downstream travel on my favorite stretch of the Rio Grande, which also meant that I got to float the full length of the park plus some this year. Pretty awesome. At the end of the month, my mom came down south to visit for a week, which was a whirlwind of a Big Bend tour and hitting all of the highlights from Balmorhea to Ft. Davis to Ojinaga to both Big Bend parks and several other state parks and a few miles on the river in a canoe to boot. Was great to get to show her around and let her in on a bit of van life for a while.

IMGP6237

New Mexico. After dropping my mom off in Midland, we headed over to New Mexico for a few weeks, primarily to attend a couple of classes, but also just to do some poking around. On the way over we stopped off in Guadalupe NP for a run up McKittrick Canyon followed by dinner at the Frijole Ranch, and then spent the next morning touring around the pictographs at Hueco Tanks SP. That afternoon, we drove into downtown El Paso and took a quick walk over into Ciudad Juarez for some lunch. In spite of all the stigma, Juarez seemed like every other town in Mexico I’ve ever been to, just a bunch of decent people trying to go on about their lives. And good tacos. After that, it was leaving Texas and a couple days of driving up to Taos, where we spent three days renewing our Wilderness First Responder certifications, followed by a week of swiftwater rescue instruction with Tommy Gram from the American Canoe Association. Both classes were excellent, and after receiving our instructor credentials with the ACA, we headed west for a ways to check out the Rio Chama.

20180418_101758

Rio Chama. I’ve wanted to run the Chama for years now, but was never in the vicinity at the right time. Now we were, and with one of our beater canoes along to provide the ride. Having heard only that the Chama was awesome, with no real specifics, I suppose I had no idea what to expect, nor had I put any significant thought or effort into finding out what the run might entail, other than ensuring that there wasn’t any major whitewater to be encountered along the way. I guess, due to its relative closeness to the San Juan in Utah on a 2-D map devoid of elevation markers, I’d always imagined it would be desert river, and somewhat warm in mid-April. Not so. From the mountain town of Taos, we drove up to get there. Up and up and up. And then down a little, but not that much. Our first day on the water the wind blew cold and steady at around 30 mph. That night the temperature dropped down into the low 20s. It warmed up a little the next day, but not much. We were adequately prepared, but it was still pretty dang chilly for most of the four-day trip. Early early spring in the Rocky Mountains. Snow on the tent the last morning.

20180419_141410

It was quiet out there, being still winter like, with almost no signs of life other than birds. At one point, after trying to name all the avian species of the morning, I said aloud that I’d like to see at least one mammal. A bear, perhaps. And about two minutes later we floated past a strange looking piece of fur on the right bank. It took while to realize that it was in fact the fluffiest blondest little bear cub I’d ever seen, just kind of hanging out all alone waiting for its mom to return. And that was about the only land based creature we spotted other than a couple of squirrels and a bunch of cows and a few other humans.

20180418_113855

The scenery was spectacular. We floated through open canyons of mixed conifer forest interspersed by massive multi-hued sandstone walls extruding along both banks. Walls of purple and orange. Other highlights were fossilized dinosaur tracks up one wash, a hot spring, and several short side hikes with stellar views of the canyon. With the flows we had, it was fun canoeing with steady current, lots of riffles, and the occasional rapid. Near the end, the rapids got a bit bigger, and we swamped pretty good dropping into a big ledge-hole at the bottom of Bridge Rapids, barely making it to shore and calling it our last night’s camp as we pulled everything out of the almost capsized canoe. That evening, we went for a run on the Continental Divide Trail, which happened to cross the river on the bridge just upstream of us. The wind went back to blowing cold, and continued to do so till the end. We navigated a couple more rapids the next morning, packed up, and ended up finding a few unanticipated diversions in the hours to come.

20180419_120725

Abiquiu, New Mexico. After packing up our gear, we debated as to what to do next. Having been slightly cold for several days, and with the breeze going, and big thunderstorms blowing in, the hike up to the canyon rim we’d been discussing lost its appeal. We decided to check out a couple of nearby locations on the map, with no real destination in mind. Just the way I like it. And it ended up being a really sweet day. The first stop was Echo Amphitheater, just up the road. The site is a monstrous sandstone amphitheater, as the name suggests, a huge half-dome of naturally sculpted rock. We hung out for a while with the place to ourselves, ate lunch, made some noise, checked out the acoustics. From there we drove a few more miles and visited the Ghost Ranch, where we were surprised to see hordes of busy artists scattered across sprawling parking areas diligently producing landscapes in a variety of mediums. And the natural landscapes they were attempting to recreate, albeit while leaving out the car-crammed chaos of the parking lots they chose to stand in, were indeed unique and amazing, replete with towering spires and animated colors in constant flux due to the briskly shifting clouds. Knowing nothing about the place when we entered, we eventually learned that the ranch was a long-time base of the famed artist Georgia O’Keeffe; many of her works can be directly correlated with iconic rock formations found around the ranch. The site also has a lot of history with Hollywood movie production, as an impressive list of films have shot parts here, and as a paleontological site of renowned interest. A bit overwhelmed by the crowds of people and their easels everywhere, we decided to take off after a short visit to the museum and headquarters. Less than a half-mile back out the driveway, we found an easy ridgeline trail to stroll along with incredible views of the surrounding features and not an artist in sight.

From there, we drove a few miles to the town of Abiquiu, a name I’d recognized from a post on a random blog I’d read two years before. The basis of the article had to do with a church of sorts, the still utilized meeting place of an archaic religious sect, a secret brotherhood of practicing penitents. I won’t get into the details here, but will say that we somehow happened to stumble upon the site on the outskirts of this odd little town, which had a distinct aura of insularity about it. The town itself, that is, whose empty dirt streets were enough to kindle a strong sense of foreboding. Aside from the church (technically a ‘morada’), there wasn’t much to the town other than another church, a library, and an art gallery, which we visited on our way out of town. The gallery itself housed an eclectic collection of pieces from around the world, with one half of the location packed with myriad Buddha sculptures and African peculiarities, and the other half filled with a combination of Americana kitsch and Indian weavings. None of it seemed to be priced to sell, but I don’t think I qualified as the target clientele. The most interesting part of the gallery turned out to be the manager, who offered us a detailed history of the Abiquiu area. As we were leaving, I asked him what his personal interests entailed, and he mentioned photography, pointing to a few works mounted on the wall which I’d been admiring earlier. I asked him where one of them had been taken, a shot of a distinctive rock formation I’d never seen before, and he told me that it was from nearby, at a place called Plaza Blanca, another site frequented by O’Keeffe. He gave us directions to get there, I thanked him sincerely, and we headed out of town. We ate dinner beside the Chama, and then drove several miles down another dirt road to arrive at Plaza Blanca, which actually sits on private land owned by an Islamic foundation which sponsors educational programs at their mosque a few miles outside of Abiquiu. Another story in itself, as you can imagine. Anyways, we spent a couple of hours wandering alone around the ‘Plaza’ which is actually comprised of many acres of spectacular surrealistic landscapes. Formations of white rock sculpted by wind and water. The sun began to set about an hour after we arrived, softly shifting both sky and sandstone through revolving pinks and blues. A perfect end to an inspiring day.

Utah. Well, really Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Nevada, then Utah, but mostly just Utah. The day after taking off the Chama, which was also the day with the amphitheater, the Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, and Plaza Blanca, we decided to head out of New Mexico and on towards Tennessee, where we were planning on leaving the van for a while as we traveled on to Utah, then Peru, then Alaska (where I’m finally getting around to writing all of this…) So it was out of New Mexico, USA (distinguished on their license plates for some reason), over to the panhandle of Texas for a quick visit with the folks, across Oklahoma on the freeway, and then onto some Arkansas backroads through vast miles of flooded rice fields for a change of scenery. It was a couple of days in Tennessee hiking and running around a couple of state parks, followed by a long day of airports, delays, lost luggage, and an eventual arrival in Brian’s Head, Utah about 24 hours after waking up in Tennessee.

IMGP6268IMGP6382

The week in Utah was hanging out with Erin’s family. Lots and lots of driving, some day hiking, and several different parks – Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Snow Canyon State Park. It was navigating throngs of other visitors in the insanely crowded national parks, and having a bit of space to ourselves the days we didn’t go to the national parks. It was cool weather, sunshine at times, and a day of heavy snow. It was hotel living and internet service and all the hot water you could handle. I think those things are commonplace for most people, but not always part of my personal reality. It was healthy eating and plenty of sleep. It was another good reminder that March and April really only mean spring when you’re in the Big Bend. In the most parts of the country, it’s still winter, apparently. I forget that some years. So yeah, Spring 18, and now for my own annual winter – summer in AK.

IMGP6372IMGP6366

Run Tennessee!

If you ever have an opportunity to go for a run in the Volunteer State, chances are you’ll figure out real quick what you signed yourself up for. Uphill travel, son. Some heart thumping, lung burning, thigh searing suffering. This place has got itself some mountains, and most of its trails just head straight on up the side of ‘em. And once you go up, you gotta come down. Sorry knees.

But with challenge comes reward. Vibrant beauty lies around every bend. The world throbs with palpable green energy. Vegetation creeps closer by the minute. Everything is alive.

Having lived out west most of my life, accustomed to sweeping landscapes and open horizons, I sometimes feel hemmed in by the trees in Appalachia. The only way to escape the claustrophobic sensation is get to the top of a ridge and climb several flights of rickety stairs up an old fire lookout tower – only to be haunted by the sight of ridgeline after ridgeline after ridgeline of forest for as far as the eye can see. One has to readjust. To realign perceptions. Reset preconceived interpretations of splendor. Here, beauty lies close in. It exists in the minutiae, explodes in the vitality and congruity of ecosystems.

IMGP2398

The trails go up, and the trails go back down, but more than that they go along and through and beside. Water features abound. Brooks, streams, creeks (cricks?), and rivers. Waterfalls galore. Plants grow on plants growing on plants. Big trees shade little trees which shade even littler trees. The color of the world is green. Even the air, the very air itself, all thick with humidity and hanging dense under the canopy, is green. You run in the green, inhale and exhale it. And the sounds, the intensified ‘OM’ of creation. The birds, the frogs, the rushing water, the insects. The cicadas can be deafening, their pulsating din directing your attention to the hum of the universe.

IMGP2386

This is in the summer, of course. All other seasons have their time in Tennessee as well. So I’m told. Splendid fall colors and all that. I was there last week in the early spring, bare limbs on the trees, their buds only beginning to show. But mostly I know it in the heat, when the air is a thick mass. I know it covered in sweat, skin glistening. I know it as a living breathing entity, a place to run and be alive along with everything else.

And I don’t know it all that well, truth be told, having only spent a couple of summers out that way, but I do know that Tennessee can be a phenomenal place to run. Tough in all the right ways, and pretty as all get out. Just about every trail I’ve run there parallels (or crosses twenty times…) a watercourse of some sort. Most trails also keep you in that green shade, though you’ll be sweating like crazy regardless, of course. And the nuanced varieties of scenery and micro-ecologies are never ending.

IMGP2448

Tennessee also has a surprising amount of public land, both state and federal, and at least a few thousand miles of trails. As mentioned, we spent a few quick days out that way last week, and randomly visited several parks in middle Tennessee. The trails in all of them were spectacular, well maintained, and almost devoid of other users. As it was early spring, the air was brisk with the occasional storm rolling through. Heavy rains in the lower elevations had already set the green in motion. Up on the Cumberland, winter was barely letting go, but it was great running weather and the absence of leaves allowed for slightly longer views than in the summertime. The hills were still everywhere.

The first place we stopped off was Montgomery Bell State Park where we headed out on a ten-mile loop circumnavigating the park boundary. Unlike the trails I remember in Eastern Tennessee, which go up for miles before going down more than a couple of feet, this trail gained and dropped the entire way, climbing one hill to traverse a ridgeline over to the next draw, then following a creek down until the next significant turn in the trail where it was back up again. It was a super nice trail with a steady pattern of challenging sections and lots of great scenery.

The next couple of days we were over on the Cumberland Plateau, which has multiple options for hiking, running, biking, and climbing. The first afternoon found us in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. Pretty much just headed out from the first trailhead we came to, the majority of the loop we chose following along and underneath a band of sandstone cliffs. Each turn revealed huge eroded overhangs, generally replete with a curtain of water falling from their apexes. We probably passed 20 or more spectacular sites in a mere couple of miles, each of which could have been a destination of its own.

20180426_160256

The following afternoon we went to Pickett State Park, which sits only a few miles away from where we were the previous day. If the two state parks we happened upon are any indication of what the rest of the state has to offer, as I’m sure they are, they must all be worth a visit. (Have I mentioned there’s no daily admission?) Like Montgomery Bell, Pickett boasts a network of well-marked trails. And also like Montgomery Bell, the terrain and scenery vary with each new section of trail. I was able to combine several different loops in an hour or so of running, passing by several notable features along the way. A decidedly satisfactory excursion.

Most of the time I’ve spent in Tennessee has been in the eastern part of the state, near its border with North Carolina, the squiggly line on maps that represents the ridgeline of the Appalachian Mountains. And while middle Tenny has plenty of steep topography, these are the mountains I spoke of in the beginning. The real deal. Having lived a fair amount of my adult life in Colorado, I once scoffed at the idea of legitimate mountains in the east. I mean, look at those things, they can’t even get themselves out of the trees… But buddy, you start running up one of those little inclines, and keep running up it, and keep running up it, and repentance is imminent. You will believe!

IMGP2822

There are lots of options for running in these mountains, but no flat ones, or even moderately rolling ones, that I’ve found. They go up a couple thousand feet. They go down a couple thousand feet. And here’s the thing: as most of us are a lot slower at running up than running down, you’re going to be going uphill at least twice as much as you’re going to be running downhill. Not that going downhill is all that easy either, mind you. I’m sure you get the point, but to truly understand is to experience.

My experience derives from the couple of summers I spent in Hartford, a tiny little exit town on I-40 about an hour west of Asheville, NC and just north of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hartford, which exists primarily due to its role as the hub of rafting on the Pigeon River, sits within easy access to numerous trail systems on a range of public lands. Depending on the day, I would run in the Martha Sundquist State Forest, the Cherokee National Forest, or the national park. The first two areas are great for being alone, though some bushwhacking may be required as the trails receive little use and minimal maintenance. Both necessitate regular tree ducking, log jumping, spider web across the face tolerating, and occasional route finding – all part of the adventure. Nearby, the access points to the northern sector of the national park aren’t nearly as crowded as those outside of Gatlinburg, and the park boasts over 800 miles of trails. Like most national parks, the further away from the nearest trailhead you make it, the less people you will encounter. Awesome loops abound, and easy out-and-backs await. A few of my favorites would be Big Creek up to the bridges, Big Creek to Swallow Fork to Baxter Creek, and the Boogerman Trail (as much for the name as for the route) over in Cataloochee.

The last thing to mention about running in these incredible places is that wildlife can be abundant. A watchful eye is recommended, mostly for the pleasure of spotting whatever it is that you happen to see, but also for personal safety. I’ve seen far more bears while running in Tennessee than anywhere else. One week in late August I came across three different sets of mothers and cubs, in completely disparate areas with miles of separation between. The last encounter was a bit worrying, as the mother was clearly displeased with my presence. I also have a great video of two copperheads that came out of the bushes seconds after I passed and started mating on the trail. Most of the time, however, sightings provide less intimidating memories and equally good stories. Under every third rock in almost all the streams you’ll find a salamander. Herds of deer and the occasional elk are frequently seen. I’ve also crept up on a bobcat, and was once stopped dead in my tracks when a huge turkey flew out of a tree directly above my head and ‘soared’ a few hundred feet down into the valley below. Like Tennessee itself, it was as majestic as it sounds.

IMGP2615

Run Big Bend!

IMGP1814

With so much space dedicated to the Big Bend on this site, perhaps it’s best to clarify approximately what we’re speaking of. The Big Bend is a fairly remote region of West Texas. Its moniker stems from the topographical representation of the Rio Grande River on a map, specifically the slowly curving 300 something miles of it that gives Texas the lower left bit of its iconic shape. As mentioned in other posts, the bend also happens to be the international border between the US and Mexico. It’s Texas on one side, and the states of Chihuahua and Coahuila on the other. The entire region, more or less, lies within the even more expansive Chihuahuan Desert. While some use the term to refer to the national park of the same name (which encompasses over 800,000 acres at the point of the bend), or the park and the nearby towns of Terlingua and Study Butte, the broader Big Bend, in both character and atmosphere, extends a bit further north as well. While the boundaries aren’t displayed on any map that I know of, most folks would probably agree that a line connecting Presido, Marfa, Alpine/Ft. Davis, and Marathon would represent a general idea of the upper stretches of the Big Bend proper.

Having mentioned all this, however, the heart of the Big Bend, in my opinion, does indeed lie along the border stretches, and it’s along those border stretches where one can run for seemingly infinite miles through rugged, remote, and extraordinarily beautiful desert terrain, most of the time in complete seclusion.

The difficult decision as far as running in the Big Bend never seems to be where to go, as everywhere delivers as far as stark splendor is concerned, but when to go, especially as far as time of day is concerned. Over the past four years I’ve spent a good deal of each winter and early spring in the area, which, unless you’re some freakish cold blooded mutant that thrives in triple digit thermometer readings, is the time of year to be there. Even in December, afternoon temps can be quite warm, and by early March daily highs often creep towards 100+ on the desert floor. There can be cold days and windy days in there as well, which can make for some frigid runs in the winter, but the best part about the Big Bend in January and February is that storms seem to roll through for a day or two at a time, rather than sticking around for long weeks. And cold quickly becomes relative, with wind chill being the biggest factor in run enjoyment.

So, the biggest decision is usually when to start your run once things start warming up again, especially if you’re planning on doing any significant distance. Early in the a.m. is always an option, though it can be brutal to head out just before the sun breaks the horizon only to have things heat up by 20 degrees or more 15 minutes into it. You’re wishing you had gloves and some nipple tape one minute, and tearing off your sweat soaked layers and dying for water the next. My favorite time to go is as close to dusk as possible, but this can also become problematic, as the Big Bend sits on the far western edge of the central time zone, meaning that sometime around the first of March the optimal departure time might be around 7-8 pm, a little late in the day if you have any other plans. Having offered these two options – uncontrollably shivering-to-profusely sweating or sunset mission – the most important thing to mention is that in warmer seasons the meanest time to go is anytime between 3pm and early evening. Around 4 o’clock each afternoon the sun reaches a particularly vicious angle, its rays intensifying significantly. If, as I have so many times before, you allow yourself to be lured into running in the afternoon, the magnified heat and ferociousness of our sky dwelling friend and tormentor will make you feel as if God has singled you out for punishment. Something you may want to experience for yourself, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

As for the where…

Big Bend Ranch State Park. One of my favorite places to run anywhere. Texas’s biggest state park, by a huge margin, only receives a small fraction of visitors compared to the neighboring national park. At over 300,000 acres, with a well-developed and maintained trail system easily accessible from the highway, Big Bend Ranch offers an austere paradise for those seeking solitude in the desert. I regularly run long loops in the park, and other than the two event weekends of the year, have yet to see another person on the trails. I’ve even run a trail two weeks after I originally ran it, only to recognize my own footprints in the dirt. The running is phenomenal, as are the surrounding mountains and desert vegetation. Some of the trails are old 4×4 roads, while most are single track with technical sections and undulating elevation, and there are untold options for connecting routes. The two best spots to access the main trail system are across from the Barton Warnock Center, which is one of the park’s headquarters just outside of Lajitas, and the Contrabando trailhead. Perhaps my favorite run starts at Contrabando, heads out towards the Dome trails, and returns via the Fresno Divide. And if the thought of running solo in the wilderness is in any way uncomfortable, I’ll mention that each January there is an ‘Ultra’ with distances of 10k, 30k, and 50k. Kind of fun to run with a small crowd out there one day a year. It’s also worth noting that the trails are open to mountain biking, with a bike festival happening each February.

IMGP1809

Lajitas Airport Trails. East of the resort town of Lajitas sits the Lajitas International Airport. I’ve never seen a plane land or take off from there, but I’m told that they do. The important thing to know, however, is not that a flight to the Big Bend might be available if you know the right people, but that there is a network of trails open to public use accessible from the highway at the airport turnoff. These trails are only slightly more popular than the state park trails, as local mountain bikers ride them with some frequency, though the chances of having them all to yourself is still likely. At the trailhead is a map with routes, descriptions, and mileage. The trails are well signed and provide a diversity of terrain and scenery. As the trails are a bit closer to the town of Terlingua than the state park, one of my preferred sunset runs is the 5.5 mile Loop 3, with great views of the Chisos Mountains on your way out, and often brilliantly colored clouds across the western sky on the way back in.

Horse Trails? Town Trails? Study Butte Trails? These don’t have a name that I know of. In fact, I’ve never thought of calling them anything until now, though I run on them more than anywhere else since they’re a) awesome, and b) begin in the town of Study Butte (aka Terlingua, but not the Ghost Town) just behind the Motor Inn, which is now called something like Big Bend Resort and Adventures… Anyway, just behind the gas station/laundromat/campground there’s a dirt road that leads past a water treatment pond and through a pseudo golf course which is basically just a few greens and a couple of flags out in the desert. As you’re passing the shitpond, just find a trail and start running east, or south, or even north, anywhere but back to the highway. There are trails heading all over the place which are primarily used by the nearby stables to do trail rides. You’ll see a lot of ‘evidence’ of the horses, but their hooves do keep the trails nice and soft. You may even see some folks out on a ride, but there’s usually an alternate trail to turn off onto before you meet them, and the wranglers are friendly enough if you end up in the mix. It’s fun just to figure some things out for yourself, but as you choose your own adventure the trails might take you past old mining ruins, up Rough Run Creek, along a sweet ridge, on to Ocotillo Mesa, and even all the way back to Indian Head, which is the northwest corner of the national park.

IMGP1820

Big Bend National Park. To be honest, I haven’t done much running in the NP. Lots of hiking, lots of canoeing, but hardly any running and nothing noteworthy at that. There are plenty of options, however, just a lot more people and potentially long drives to get to the trailheads if you’re not staying in the park. Most of the trails are clearly marked and travel through some striking terrain. You also have the option to run up in the Chisos Mountains, where the temps are generally significantly cooler than in the desert down below. They are real mountains, however, so be prepared to run up/down a mountain, and the trails, as already alluded to, will be more crowded in the Chisos than anywhere else. If you want to do some desert running in the park, try cruising along one of the unpaved roads, such as the River Road or Old Ore Road. (Avoid Maverick, unless you don’t mind being plastered in a dirt patina from the clouds of dust you’ll be eating each time a car speeds by on the washboard.) Or, for a more authentic trail experience, head out the Marufo Vega until the junction with the Strawhouse Trail and follow the wash back down. Epic desert views abound.

IMGP1796

Terlingua Ranch. The Terlingua Ranch comprises thousands of acres of land adjacent to the national park and north of the Terlingua Ghost Town. While a true working ranch in the late 1800s, the land has now been parceled off into small swaths of barren desert. As you approach Terlingua from the north, you will begin to notice all manner of dwellings scattered across the landscape for as far as the eye can see, an unbridled sprawl of anything from conscientiously built eco-homes to abandoned buses and decrepit trailers. Personal junkyards abound. All of this is connected by an immense network of private dirt roads maintained by the Ranch. I mention this here because with the ever-growing popularity of Airbnb in the area, many visitors find themselves ensconced on the Ranch somewhere along all those miles and miles of dirt roads in lodgings which are many more miles from anywhere near the parks. All of the above mentioned locations are much more enjoyable to explore, in my opinion, than the Ranch, but, having said that, I run out there quite a bit and the empty roads provide plenty of possibility. I will say that running out there can be a bit intimidating. It’s like jogging suspiciously across the set of a bad Billy Bob Thornton movie – you will find yourself looking cautiously between rusted cars and bullet riddled washing machines, knowing that a heavily armed someone might certainly be living in one of the decaying vans in the back, and imagining that they’re not the kind of people that live out there because they want to see some dude in short shorts trotting through the privacy of their conspiracy riddled reality. Keeps things exciting, I guess, the wandering imagination that is. I will end by saying that the Ranch can be a great place to see wildlife, such as deer and javelina, and you can take your dog along, which you can’t do in any of the parks. So, if it’s where you’re at, get after it – the gunshots will be a strong motivator for negative splits on an out-and-back.

IMGP1860

Davis Mountains. As mentioned in the beginning, the Davis Mountains lie at the far north of the Big Bend, and are often included in vacations to the region. This area is home to the McDonald Observatory, Ft. Davis, Davis Moutains State Park, the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, and by far some of the most scenic driving in the state of Texas. And, if you happen to be there, they’re also home to some great running trails through those very mountains and the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert. The Research Institute has several miles of desert trails (along with botanical garden and a cactus greenhouse), while the state park offers multiple options traversing some steep rocky terrain. To test your mettle try starting at the campground, heading straight up the Old CCC Trail, dropping down the Fort Davis Access Trail, running around the fort, returning up the canyon and then up some more and all the way back down the Skyline Drive Trail. The other side of the highway also offers a challenge in an 11-mile ‘lollipop’ including the Sheep Pen Canyon Loop. Keep an eye out for the aoudad.

I guess that’s it. A brief guide to running in the Big Bend. Watch out for snakes, the sun, and all the spiky things. With hundreds of miles to choose from, I probably won’t see you out there, but have fun exploring.

The Great Unknown

IMGP6082

About a week after our last trip to Mexico, we’re back again. This time it’s a quick trip across the border into Ojinaga, Chihuahua and an easy walk over the bridge and into town for a big food buy in preparation for some days of canoeing on the Rio Grande. From our last border crossing back into Laredo, Texas it was a night of sleep near Lake Amistad, then the drive west over to Terlingua, where we generally spend several months each winter guiding trips on the river, and doing lots of hiking, backpacking, canoeing, and running when work gets slow. While here, we usually make the journey to ‘OJ’ every few weeks or so in order to stock up on fresh produce and other items not generally available in the ‘nearby’ towns of Presidio and Alpine (both 80 miles away). Most times we try to combine a trail run and night of camping in the Big Bend Ranch State Park and make a day or two of it rather than drive there and back in the same day.

An afternoon in ‘OJ’ usually starts with a big lunch at Lobbys, a popular local restaurant, followed by a serious bout of shopping at the Al Super, the biggest supermarket in town. Depending on whether or not we drive or walk, which mostly depends on if I’m feeling like it’s worth it to get hassled/searched for driving a van filled with random boxes packed with camping supplies and river gear, we might also make a few stops at the fruit market, the tortilla factory, and maybe even sit around in the shade of an ice cream shop for a frozen fruit bar before coming back over. On this particular day, we walk across with empty backpacks, enjoy our lunch, and then go straight for the groceries, loading up with a couple of weeks’ worth of food for the river trip, which we’ll start the next day, though this already feels like part of the adventure, hence the inclusion here. The walk back to and through customs takes a half-hour or so, and then it’s back in the van and heading out of Presidio. That evening we stay in the state park, as per usual, get up and run some trails the next morning, and then head over to Lajitas and the put-in, where I drop off Erin and the gear before heading off for the necessary tedium of the long shuttle that awaits.

Each year I come down to the Big Bend, I usually have several trips/missions in mind that I want to do before leaving again in the spring. Sometimes those trips entail checking out something totally new, while others are repeats of trips worth revisiting. This trip happens to be one of the latter, in a way, though with a couple of changes to the start/end locations and canyons floated from some years earlier. It’s a trip on the Rio Grande along the border of Big Bend National Park, which also happens to be the international border, right bank Mexico, left bank Texas if one is oriented downstream. The majority of boaters who come down to float the river are generally most interested in paddling through one or more of the several deep canyons found along the 118 miles of river forming the park boundary, which are awesome and certainly worthy of attention. Most trips through the canyons generally start and end near the entrance and exit of the canyons, which clearly makes sense if that’s what you’re down here to see and only have a few days to a week or so to see them in. As such, there is a lesser frequented section of the river, a section that winds slowly along the through the open desert, which receives far fewer visitors each year than the canyons. Due to this relative unpopularity, most folks refer to the section as the Great Unknown. And it is the Great Unknown, with the addition of a couple of those awesome canyons, which we are planning on paddling.

IMGP6037

We’ve allotted nine days to travel about 95 miles total on the river. Sounds easy enough in writing, a measly 10 miles a day, but making miles on the Rio Grande can be a tiresome process depending on how low the water might be, and how fiercely the upstream wind blows. Even on the best of days, paddling more than a couple of miles in an hour can be a chore, and on the worst of days, going even one mile downstream in a canoe can be literally impossible. And down here, it’s best not to ever plan for the best of days.

The crew consists of myself, Erin, and my pops, Glendon, who’s driving down from the Texas panhandle to join us. I love my dad. He’s one of the smartest and most content human beings I’ve ever met. He’s constantly reading something interesting, and always cultivating curious new hobbies such as making and utilizing atlatls and bows, fashioning native flutes and other instruments, studying native grasses, etc. The list fluctuates continually, and I have endless respect for his dedication to lifelong learning. He’s also a lot more of an outdoorsman than he admits, as capable and enduring of a hiker/backpacker/camper as you could ask for, and he never complains about anything – though you wouldn’t know either one were true if you ever read his pre-trip correspondence, which always expresses great concern as to potential weather and his unfounded fear of somehow physically encumbering whatever plans we’re trying to coordinate. To date, I’ve never outwalked him, though we might not always travel at the same pace, and I certainly tend to grumble about the wind, rain, and cold way more than he ever has, especially since that’s never that I’ve heard. We’ve done a lot of great trips in the outdoors together over the course of my life, and over the past couple of decades he’s met me in a lot of different locations, from Colorado, to Alaska, to Costa Rica for a range of different adventures. He’s also been down to the Big Bend several times, including my first time down here when I was a kid, but this will be our first real river trip in this part of the country.

In order to run our own shuttle, my dad and I arrange to meet at the take-out, Rio Grande Village in the national park. He drives down from the panhandle the day before, staying the night in Ft. Stockton, and we both arrive at RGV around 11 a.m., leaving one vehicle and getting right back in the other one for the lengthy drive back to Lajitas. We make it to the put-in around 2 p.m., where Erin has done almost all of the boat rigging and even has lunch waiting for us. It’s a beautiful day. Blue skies, no breeze, maybe 75 degrees out. A true gem of a day, in fact, and over the next nine days we are to be blessed with day after day of amazing weather. Probably the nicest continuous stretch of atmospheric pleasantness I’ve ever experienced down here. There is one chilly morning, one slightly breezy afternoon, one evening of rain, but other than that, nothing but sunshine and no wind – which, if you’ve ever spent much time on desert rivers, is almost unheard of. I’ll credit Papa for the good karma.

IMGP6139

River flows are typically low this time of year, and this trip is no exception, though there is sufficient volume to cover most of the rocks and even a bit of current now and again. That afternoon we paddle about five miles downstream. Erin paddles her own boat, while Glendon and I go tandem in the second canoe. Both of the boats are second-hand beaters Erin and I purchased from the river company we work for, and not designed for anything even close to expedition boating or even smaller rapids, but they float and carry gear and are basically good enough for just about any stretch on the Rio Grande. Having said that, however, Glendon and I come as close to flipping as we will the entire trip about an hour or so into the first day while navigating our way down a skinny channel in a shallow rock garden. The boat low sides through a slot, we lean hard to the right, but still fill up with a significant amount of water and barely make it to shore before tipping over. Funny, but not necessarily the way to inspire confidence at the beginning of a long journey. The next morning our wonky load has us tilting sideways for miles before we finally pull over and reconfigure all the gear in the boat, which sets us up right for the rest of the trip.

That night we make camp on river right, in Mexico, that is, getting everything set up in time to cook dinner and wash dishes just before dusk. One of the more controversial aspects of paddling on the Rio Grande is the fact that it serves as the international border, though, for now, in our potentially pre-wall era, there isn’t anything glaringly different about any one side. This is surprisingly surprising to many of the tourists who visit, and I’ve never been able to figure out what they imagined they would witness when gazing across into Mexico. I suppose the severity of their conceptions could be directly correlated with the amount of corporate media consumed on a regular basis. The same animals live on both sides of the river, the same birds fly back and forth. The same vegetation lines both banks, canyon walls rise on either side or the desert extends in all directions. Sometimes there are great campsites on the left, other times on the right, and there can be long miles between those campsites. It’s a river. And it’s pretty much impossible to only paddle on the left side of a river, which means you’re constantly crossing the border, officially the deepest channel of the river, all day long.

On paper, on your permit, you are forbidden to step into Mexico other than to scout a rapid or portage. In practice, it’s never really worked quite like that. Even on commercial trips, we’re often eating lunch in Mexico, or hiking a side canyon, or even spending the night on the right bank. Guidebooks highlight features on both sides of the river without discrepancy. For decades, river runners have traveled the river as any other, exploring sites of interest on either bank, lunching wherever there’s shade, camping on grassy flats or sandy beaches regardless of nationalistic labels, following the same wilderness ethic without distinction between governing entities or geographical specifics. Recently, however, due to so much vitriolic attention directed towards our southern neighbors, it seems inevitable that consideration must be given to the prudence of this practice, and those thoughts are on my mind that first night, and throughout the trip, a lot more than I want them to be. I’ll leave it at that. We still camp in Mexico that night, and a couple of other nights throughout the trip, just like I always have, just like common sense would dictate one would do while floating down 100 miles of river, but without quite the same serenity as before, perhaps the one downer of the entire experience.

That night we build a small driftwood fire in the firepan and hang out talking for an hour or two before bed. This ends up as the standard for the trip, and is another reason I appreciate having my pops along. Spending so many days and nights of every year in the wilderness, I practically never bother to build a fire. It simply doesn’t occur to me to do so. I suppose I got out of the habit years ago, and no longer associate camping and campfires, as most folks who only spend a few nights outside each year might do. Once it gets dark, I quite enjoy sitting around and looking up at the night sky for a while, and then usually read in bed until it’s time to sleep. This can make for some long nights in the winter months, not to mention chilly evenings, so it’s great to have someone along that’s motivated to gather wood and get a blaze going each evening. We talk about nothing in particular, or nothing at all, simply stare at the fire and enjoy the quiet of the desert.

Relative quiet that is, for another factor to doing trips down here involves the ubiquitous livestock found along every mile of the river. While parts of the Mexican side enjoy a somewhat vague level of federal protection, most of the adjoining land is used for grazing, and, believe it or not, herd animals seem disinterested in recognizing the river as an international border. As such, horses, mules, and cows will be encountered frequently on either side, and are often nonplussed to find humans occupying their nighttime grazing areas and water holes. The beach we are on is no exception, and sometime in the middle of the night a troupe of galloping horses storms through the middle of camp, bringing quick awakenings and unwanted imaginings of bandidos riding upon us. A quick head thrust outside the tent reveals that it’s only frustrated mules looking to graze in their usual spot, however, and they reluctantly choose to move on to perhaps less green pastures rather than roam among the strange tents on their home turf. Several nights later we have a more intense encounter with a proudly prancing gelding intent on intimidation, and have to get out the pots and pans in order to scare it away for good.

In the morning, we wake up, laugh a bit about the horses, and pack up the boats. We float and paddle for several miles through open canyon country, spotting a roving fox on its morning patrol and various ducks, flycatchers, and other birds. We stop at a spot called ‘metates’ and spend a few minutes pondering holes worn deep into bedrock from the grinding of mesquite pods used in the production of flour by early inhabitants of the area. Up on the cliffs around us we spot a herd of about 30 aoudad, or Barbary sheep, a non-native species of mountain sheep that were introduced as game animals on Texas ranches back in the 50s. Aoudad (pronounced aw-dad), native to northern Africa, have since escaped the private ranches they were originally released on, and now thrive in the harsh desert environments of several southwestern states. All over the Big Bend they continue to proliferate, to the point that they are open-season animals for hunters here (though not in the park), and are slated to be targeted for significant numbers reduction by the National Park Service, which considers them a threat to the ecology of the area for multiple reasons. All the same, it’s pretty awesome to see them in what certainly seems like their natural habitat, to admire their climbing agility and determined adaptability. We watch their red bodies move gracefully upwards, almost entirely camouflaged against the desert rocks, until they simply disappear into the mountain.

We lunch at the entrance to Santa Elena Canyon, and hike up to an overlook for a quick peek into the shady depths we’re about to float through. The canyon is a narrow slot through two massive limestone mesas. Around seven miles long, its walls reaching heights of around 1500’, it’s one of the main attractions in the national park, and an inspiring sight from all vantages, through especially impressive from the river. As we enter the canyon in our canoes, the temperature drops significantly and the current picks up a bit, giving the experience a slightly ominous feel. We navigate a few easy riffles, and line the boats through a couple of others where the current surges into banks lined with overhanging river cane. About a mile into the canyon, we come upon Rock Slide, where an eponymous event centuries prior left monstrous house-sized boulders strewn across the river in a difficult maze. With a bit of lining, dragging, and paddling, we manage to get our boats through the confusion, and then spend the rest of the afternoon drifting slowly downstream, our necks craning upwards as we attempt to take everything in. Reluctant to float through the entire canyon in one day, we decide to camp a couple miles above the exit. Knowing we won’t have any sun the next morning to animate us seems a small price to pay for a sublime evening spent on a rock beach in the bottom of such a wondrous environment. That night, the near full moon illuminates the canyon walls, surrounding us in silvery blue light.

IMGP6112

The next day we leave the canyon mid-morning with cold fingers and toes, happily paddling as we continue past the usual take-out, and officially enter the Great Unknown. Around the first corner we’re immediately rewarded with big views of the Chisos Mountains and Cerro Castellan. A few miles downstream, we stop for lunch at Cottonwood Campground, a popular birding destination in the park, temporarily closed for repairs, but easily accessible from the river allowing us to have the place to ourselves for long enough to sight several colorful species including vermillion flycatchers and golden-fronted woodpeckers. Back on the river we float past a great-horned owl as it snoozes in the sun. That night we camp on a low beach with a good view of the Chisos in the distance. A fiery sunset turns clouds and mountains brilliant pinks and reds.

IMGP5988

The next six days we paddle, hike, camp, repeat. We swim a bit, bask in the morning sun, seek shade in the middle of the afternoon, sit around a fire each night. On the river it’s mostly steep, cane lined banks, though there are occasional glimpses of ever-changing desert scenery as we slowly make our way downstream. There is wildlife in abundance. A short list of birds would include: great blue herons, blue and green winged teal, cinnamon teal, buffleheads, cormorants, multiple raptors, two species of vultures, ravens, Pyrrhuloxia and cardinals, Say’s and black phoebe, several species of wrens… We catch a quick glimpse of a bobcat early one morning, see another fox, spot several herds of aoudad…

The guidebook offers thoughtful histories about the early Anglo settlers of the area, and we often stop to poke around the foundations of old rock houses, remnants of lives left long ago. We try to imagine what life might have been like for those people, how different the landscape might have been before the taxing human endeavors of ranching and mining, said to have significantly altered the ecosystem. More grass and trees? Less desert? How hot?

IMGP6103

After several days of floating through the Great Unknown, we drift into Mariscal Canyon, every bit as spectacular as Santa Elena, though infrequently visited due to the challenge of getting there. We check out the crystal caves near the entrance, walk up a steep path to the abandoned dwelling of a hermit, said to have spent some time there while dodging the Vietnam draft, navigate ‘Tight Squeeze.’ We lunch at Cross Canyon, and speed hike up the steep trail there for a few miles, hoping to get on top of the canyon wall but not quite making it due to daylight constraints; there are rewarding views all the same. We spend a night in that canyon as well, on a high grassy knoll alongside silent waters below.

IMGP6026

One of our favorite campsites is a large barren island just upstream of the old Solis house, which we arrive at the next afternoon. Favorite for the views, and favorite because we decide to do a ‘lunch-over,’ in which the lunch spot also serves as the camp spot, one of my preferred ways to float rivers these days. The afternoon off provides a welcome respite from long days of paddling. We all do our own thing for several hours, reconvening around dinnertime. That night, the moon waning now and not appearing for several hours, the stars explode in the expanse of sky above us.

For half of the next day we paddle through the short but spectacular San Vicente Canyon, and then back into the open desert. A final river campsite, and out the next morning. The last day comes on as perfect as the first. We eat our last oatmeal breakfast, perform the standard camp breakdown, fasten everything securely into the boats, and push off the banks for a few sunlit miles down to Langford hot springs, where we soak in the springs and swim in the river for a couple of hours before paddling through Hot Springs Canyon on our way to the takeout.

We arrive at the boat ramp around noon, pack quickly and efficiently, and head back across the park, this time at 50 mph rather than 2. Back in Lajitas we say goodbye to Glendon, hoping for many more adventures in the years to come, but more than anything incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have lived this one.

IMGP6044