Toledo

“La peor forma de extrañar a alguien es estar sentado a su lado y saber que nunca lo podrás tener.” Gabriel García Márquez

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A veces es difícil enfocarnos en las personas que nos cuidan y que nos apoyan, en vez de obsesionarnos en las que pensamos deberían haber hecho lo mismo, pero nunca lo hicieron. Por esto, tengo que dar gracias etorno a Laura—anfitriona demasiado generosa, persona increíble amable, y un alma lleno de energía positiva. Me ha mostrado lo mejor de tu ciudad, y algunos lugares encantadores de tu país. Gracias por todas las comidas—típicas y ricas, y por invitarme a visitar después de tantos años. Ojalá que tenga la oportunidad para hacer lo mismo para ti en el futuro próximo. Ha sido un placer pasar tiempo contigo y con tu familia. Nunca dejes de sonreír.

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Lo Inesperado

Vivir no es sólo existir, sino existir y crear, saber gozar y sufrir y no dormir sin soñar. Descansar, es empezar a morir. –Gregorio Marañón

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Toledo, España

Hay veces cuando uno tiene que preguntarse si usar agua como metáfora por cómo se debe vivir es pragmático. El agua, después de todo, no planea su futuro. No piensa en dos movimientos adelante. No le importa las repercusiones de no dirigir su destino en avance. Solo se mueve—a veces rápido, a veces casi indistinguible. Solo sabe comportarse como agua, no importa si es líquido, solido, o gas. No importa si está bajando un rio, o formando una ola, o pudriéndose en una planta de tratamiento de aguas. Solo reacciona sin reaccionarse. Sin tener reacciones que sean negativas o positivas. No tiene emociones ni pensamientos en lo bueno ni en lo malo.

Hay mucho que aprender pensando en ella, pero también uno tiene que ser el ser humano que es. Uno tiene que vivir evitando consecuencias que puedan parecer más duras que las piedras que hay en los arroyos. La vida nómada suele tener etapas muy altas y también muy bajas. Experimentar los momentos más altos, los momentos de pura alegría y libertad, es lo que ánima a los que la viven, a hacerlo. Pero los momentos bajos también pueden ser extremos, y duros, y pueden durar hasta que uno no puede más. Ya he conocido a algunos que no tenían lo que hay que tener para soportarlos, pero tampoco no podían pensar en cómo cambiarlos, ni cómo vivirían sin esta libertad. Pero si alguien puede mantener la fe—aunque cada vez pueda ser más difícil—las cosas sí cambiarán. Solo hay que tener esperanza y enfocarse en salir adelante otra vez.

Entonces, cuando desde la oscuridad, alguien te dice ‘ven a España…’ tal vez tienes que pensar que no solo habla la persona, sino el universo. (Pero a este pensamiento, este alguien me respondió: ‘Eso es! Pero la persona también quiere que vengas…’) Hay que ser como agua, y no preguntarse para que estas siguiendo una ruta sin saber el destino. Hay que evaporarse desde el charco estancado, ir al aire, y bajar el rio otra vez. Sobre todo, y por lo menos, tienes que intentarlo. A veces la vida puede ser como un sueño. Hay que vivirla así.

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Barrancas de Burujón

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Nerja, Costa del Sol

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Backroads

Bit more time in Canyonlands and then back to the backroads. South and east. Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas. Piñons and junipers, cactus and sage. Ruin sites and petroglyphs. Desert running, big-sky walking, beveled horizon lines and distances without end.

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Needles District, Canyonlands NP

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Newspaper Rock

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Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelley

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White House, Canyon de Chelley

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El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments

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Ohio

Ohio gets a bad rap in my opinion. When I first told people I was going to be living here for a while, most all had a snarky reply. “Oh, I’m sorry,” or “oh God, why?” were common repeats. Most of these comments were made by people who, like myself, had probably never been to Ohio. It just has that kind of reputation. The worst part is, even lifelong Ohio residents, once they find out you’re not from here, are also quick to apologize that you’re spending time in the state—especially if they discover you’re from out West anywhere. While there is some regional pride apparent in the state silhouette stickers, shirts, and even tattoos prominently displayed by Ohioans, a very high percentage of them having lived here their whole lives, there’s still a prevailing attitude of inadequacy somehow. I think they should get over it.

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Spring on the Ohio University campus

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The Ridges Trails in Athens. Run here and you’ll know Ohio’s not all flat.

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For the past nine-months I’ve been living in Athens, down in the southeastern part of the state. Often, Ohioans will say that Athens is different from the rest of the Ohio, hence tolerable to an extent, but I’ve done a bit a driving around and cannot attest to have seen much of a distinction other than the rolling geography—which one can find all along the eastern border of the state as it cuts through the Appalachian foothills. I won’t speak for Ohio’s major cities, which seem to be following the national trend of downtown revitalization complete with local food and beverage culture and increased recreation opportunities, or the sprawling suburban strip mall excrescences at their outskirts. And the small towns look like small towns anywhere, of course, with the same repetition of box stores and fast-food places. But rural Ohio as a whole seems like a pretty decent place to live for anyone simply looking to have a place, raise a family, etc. Positives are: green lush landscapes, productive growing conditions, decent year-round weather, an excellent system of state parks, and significant biodiversity. Negatives: roads in dire need of repair, substantial poverty in many parts of the state, and intense levels of allergens.

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Bikeway along the Hocking River

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Fall colors and brick buildings

Athens itself is home to Ohio University, founded in 1804, the year after statehood. The campus, streets, walkways, and buildings, are made of red brick, much of it locally produced at the time of construction. It’s a beautiful campus replete with numerous species of towering trees and flowering plants. Downtown Athens consists of several blocks of local businesses and bars, collectively referred to as Court Street. The best parts of Athens, for me, however, have of course been the opportunities for being outside. One of my favorite features of Athens is the Adena-Hockhocking bike path, a 20+ mile paved trail running from the east side of town all the way to neighboring Nelsonville. Prospects for trail running, hiking, and mountain biking are also abundant, with several options beginning within the town limits. Most notable is the Ridges trail system accessible from campus, and Sells Park on the east side, with connector trails extending into Stroud’s Run State Park. Numerous areas for running, hiking, canoeing, and kayaking can also be reached within a half-hour drive: Lake Hope and Burr Oak state parks, and the Zaleski State Forest. And within an hour one has access to one of the more famous regions in Ohio, the Hocking Hills, an area full of shaded canyons and waterfalls.

 

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Rock work and scenery combined on the Hocking Hills trails

My time here has been busy, but I’ve still managed to check out a fair amount of this part of the Buckeye State. Not wanting to leave without seeing a few other parts of Ohio, however, a couple of weeks ago Erin came up and we set out for a few days of exploring. From Athens we made our way up north, stopping off for a run on the Buckeye Trail, a 1,444 mile loop trail marked by ‘blue blazes’ which circumnavigates the state. From there we cruised up to Akron and camped out at the southern end of Cuyahoga National Park. The park comprises a strip of greenbelt along the Cuyahoga River and remnants of the Ohio & Erie Canal. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad also runs along the river, and one of the more popular activities is bike riding along the old tow-path of the canal. It’s a nice place, to be certain, but the experience is decidedly more urban than wild. I doubt there’s a square foot of the park where you can stand and not hear some attention deprived Harley owner revving up his ego. We spent most of the day in the park, first biking the path several miles into downtown Akron early in the morning, then loading up on the train. The ‘bike aboard’ pass is only $5, and we rode an hour-and-a-half north to the last stop in Rockside, disembarking there and riding many miles back to our starting point. From there we headed up to Lake Erie, finding our way to East Harbor State Park and an awesome sunset. The next day was a stop at the Marblehead Lighthouse, and a ferry over to Kelley’s Island, where we spent the night. This little area of Ohio was really cool, with a distinctly beachy vibe. I got a kick out of the travel ‘Coastal Ohio’ signs along the roads. The next morning we caught the ferry back, and headed south through central Ohio and lots of scenic farmland. That afternoon we checked out a few gems of the Hocking Hills, camped a final night, and got in a hilly run at Lake Hope before returning to Athens.

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Van life on Kelley’s Island

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Lake Erie

So yeah, nine months in Ohio. It was a pleasure to be here long enough to witness the four seasons, and to feel like I got to know the area a bit. Headed to Dayton this afternoon for a few days, then westward bound. Time to move on.

East Coast Sunsets and a Government Shutdown

It’s winter in Ohio and I decide to take advantage of some time off to see something other than winter in Ohio. Erin comes up from Texas for a few weeks. Everything from the apartment gets moved back into the van. And just like that, we’re off. Unstated goals: find some sunshine, sit in the sand, spend our nights in a tent, our days in the open air… Paddle, run, hike, bike, and watch a few sunsets. To face west from the east.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

We have never heard of Congaree until a few hours before we arrive. The first day’s strategy consists of leaving Athens and driving until we don’t want to drive anymore. Potential itineraries begin to take form on the road. Place names and possibilities begin to seem tangible only after a certain radius has been passed. Once forward motion seems sustained. Repeated map checks and sporadic internet searches become the passenger’s primary responsibility.

Snow flurries in the mountains of West Virginia. Creeping traffic and rain in Charlotte, NC. Darkness as we turn onto backroads in South Carolina. We make a quick stop at a convenience store/bait shop along an empty highway in the Deep South, and find that we are a world away from where we started that morning. The campground at the park is vacant, and also completely saturated. The entire park, in fact, is mostly flooded to some degree, something that apparently happens several times a year. At one point it was actually called Congaree National Swamp.

In the morning we cook breakfast early and make an effort to see some of that swamp. When it’s not flooded, wilderness float trips on Cedar Creek and the Congaree River are possible. A trail system also exists. With most of the ground covered in water, however, options are mainly limited a couple miles of elevated boardwalk, which makes for an engaging experience that morning as we stroll along it in a light rain. This type of ecosystem is a novelty for both of us, and I find myself imagining how much diversity exists in such a primal place, so seemingly inhospitable to our species, but entirely conducive to life all the same. It’s easy to envision dinosaurs wading through the trees.

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Weeks later, on the way back to Ohio, we spend another night and most of a day at Congaree, which remains flooded. We make an attempt to paddle Cedar Creek, even going so far as to bike the shuttle, leaving the van at the take-out miles from where we put the canoe in. For the first bit a steady current carries us along, though we have to portage around or over a few fallen trees. Soon enough, however, the creek becomes nearly indistinguishable as we float further into flooded stands of cypress, forcing us to make the decision to either turn around or risk spending untold hours (perhaps days) trying to guess our way through. We make the sensible decision, a rarity at times, and find our way back to the put in.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Upon leaving Congaree that first morning, we continue to head south, crossing the Georgia state line around lunchtime. We decided to spend the afternoon riding bikes around the historic district of Savannah, and stop near Forsythe Park to rent a second bike. The bike shop proprietor provides us with a map of the city and suggests a route, which we follow from park to fountain to park to fountain to the waterfront and back. It’s warm and sunny with a light breeze, a perfect spring day in mid-December. We see for the first time massive live oaks covered in Spanish moss which will become a familiar backdrop later in the trip. The light filtering through fern-covered branches and draped moss creates a calming, otherworldly environment.

That night we make it into Florida, and find a spot to sleep near the coast. Before turning in we walk a couple miles along the beach, illuminated by the waxing moon. In the morning, we drive for a while before pulling over to make breakfast with a view of the sun rising out of the Atlantic. Afterwards, we continue to head south in a less than direct manner, cutting back and forth from coastal highway to freeway in search of a good place for a run. Like Congaree, however, the trails at the state parks we stop at are also flooded, leading to a couple of false starts and frustration. Eventually, we fortuitously find our way to Merritt NWR, and an awesome introduction to wild Florida.

Upon entering the refuge, we make a stop at the visitor’s center for information on trails and the potential of seeing bioluminescence in the bays (turns out Mosquito Lagoon in the refuge is one of the few spots in the world to do so, but mainly in the summer months). Before leaving, I decide to take a quick stroll around the building on the interpretive boardwalk out back, which passes through a small patch of wetlands. On my way from the parking lot to the path, I see what surely must be a lawn statue of a small alligator strategically placed just off the back deck of the building. After studying it for a bit, I realize that it’s an entirely real alligator, about 3’ long. A few minutes later, I see another one, much larger, across the pond. I suppose I hoped to see a gator or two at some point in the trip, but never expected them to be as prevalent as they are in reality. And these two only serve as a prelude for what happens soon after.

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From the visitor’s center we head over to Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven mile one-way dirt road that traverses through wetlands alongside the Indian River. I spot a wild hog grubbing around on the banks of a pond, and then marvel at the avian diversity in all directions. Hooded mergansers, tri-colored herons, little blue herons, green herons, great egrets, great blue herons, osprey, roseate spoonbills, and on and on. There are many species I don’t recognize at all, and others I can only guess at. And then another alligator, like the first one, so dark black and still that it looks fake. Halfway along the drive we turn off to the Cruickshank Trail, a five-mile birding loop along raised earthen dikes through the marshes. We plan to run the loop, following it counterclockwise along the route. Things are nice and dry, with perfect conditions for running. Sunshine and light wind. It’s easy cruising with scenery and wildlife in every direction. About four miles into the run I’m leading the way. When Erin and I run together, we’ll usually switch out every ten-minutes or so, so I decide to let her pass once we get to the big black sand pile a couple hundred feet down the trail. A hundred and fifty more feet and I realize that my marker’s not a pile of sand, but an eight-foot gator, its body stretched almost all the way across the path, reed-lined ponds on either side.

We have no idea what to do. I’m familiar with bear protocol, and moose evasion, and what action to take in the unlikely event of a mountain lion attack, but neither of us has ever read anything about trying to sneak around a sunning alligator. I’ve seen videos of people interacting with gators, and don’t remember them being particularly aggressive, but I’m also thinking about how embarrassing it would be to get chomped my first day in Florida. Erin remains a sensible distance away while I approach the gator in order to gauge its reaction. No reaction. I get closer. Now there is a reaction, but from Erin and not the alligator, which is not moving at all. I try to find something to toss at the gator to see if it will kindly slide forward and into the water, but there is nothing around to throw. I get a little closer. Still nothing. Finally, I back up to stop the increasingly annoying reaction from the opposite direction. Erin and I discuss what we should do. The choices are: wait, which seems like it could take a long time; turn around, which means backtracking four miles instead of running just one more to the parking lot; or run past the alligator and hope for the best. Erin says I should go first, promising to follow if I am successful.

Again, I’ve seen videos of alligators, that’s about it. I’m know they can move much faster than I would like to witness from this distance, but think I can probably kick it into high-gear if this thing starts to shift position. I take a couple of deep breaths, and go for it. There is about a foot of space between the tip of its tail and the steep decline of the bank. I make it to the other side, and the gator doesn’t move at all. Now I’m on one side of it, about ten feet away, and Erin is on the other side of it, about 50’ away. And now that I’m not between her and the animal, she seems to be reconsidering her commitment to following me. I’m looking directly at the gator now, right at its matte-black eyeball (we later read not to ever look a gator in the eye…) which looks almost hollow in its prehistoric head. “I think it might be dead,” I say. On cue, and looking like an animatronic version of itself, the alligator very slowly raises its snout and crooks its head towards me ever so slightly. Erin starts to sprint. Just a she gets to the tail, which she later says she didn’t realize was so long that she almost had to jump over it, her eyes get huge, her arms pump furiously, and she kicks into warp speed, not stopping until she’s long past where I’m standing. As she runs past, the gator does a quick startled thrust upwards as well (which is why I think her eyes get big) and stays in this push-up position as we quickly move on down the trail.

After that excitement, we drive the rest of the wildlife loop and head over to the Haulover Canal where we hope to see a few manatees. We take the canoe off the rack and paddle from the river side to the lagoon side, where they are reported to hang out. They’re not around, however, so we continue into the lagoon for a ways. Soon enough, we hear the forced expelling of air, and sit and watch for a while as a pod of dolphins hunt for fish only feet from the canoe. An inspiring first day in Florida.

10,000 Islands, Everglades National Park, Florida

After around 1000 miles of driving, an exciting first day in Florida, and a few mini-adventures, we’re eager to get off the road, pack our gear into the canoe, and head into some wilderness. The spontaneous day-to-day road trip traveling style can be fun, but exploration feels more authentic when it’s human powered. The longer one can go without hearing an engine, the better. As such, we decide to point it parkward that third morning, hoping to make it into the Everglades region by early afternoon with the intention of starting a week-long paddling trip the following morning. And so it goes. A quick visit with the rangers and a map of the park allows us to come up with an itinerary and the required permit. We spend the night in Big Cypress National Preserve, organize our gear, and return to the ranger station the next morning for an early launch.

After unloading the boat and equipment, I head off to find a navigational chart for the area while Erin finalizes the canoe loading. At the local bait shop, I purchase the map and the woman there asks me what I’m up to for the day. When she hears that we’re going out for a week, she shows significant concern. Around that time one of her fishing guides comes in, and when she tells him what’s happening, he begins to describe an upcoming storm and his predictions for its outcome. While not a hurricane, the scene he offers sounds almost apocryphal in his depiction, with violent winds and fluctuating tides which will completely wash over most of the small islands we’re planning to camp on. Generally, I don’t pay a lot of attention to the weather or listen to second-hand forecasts, knowing that I’m simply going to deal whatever happens as it comes. This time, however, it seems serendipitous to have heard about the upcoming tempest, and prudent to at least consider what I’m hearing, as this individual appears to have a lot of experience with the area and effects of local storms. I thank them both, and head back to the put-in where I consult once again with the rangers. The one that helped us put together our plan earlier acts downright sheepish, saying that he has indeed heard of the impending squall, but forgot about it the day before. As such, we end up modifying our original itinerary somewhat, and it ends up being an incredibly good thing that we do, as two days later everything comes to pass as predicted.

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Everglades National Park, which encompasses most of the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, offers visitors several different sections to explore. As most of the park consists of near impenetrable mangrove habitat, and the glades themselves, shallow sawgrass-covered wetlands, one of the best ways to see the park is by boat. And from a boat, the more accessible areas of the park are found in the keys, or small islands, which lie along the edge of immense swaths of wetlands, swamps, and sloughs. Boaters can gain access to portions of the inner ecosystems, but the general landscape is entirely unlike what I have always pictured when imagining canoeing in the Everglades. Over the course of eight days, we manage to find a few small creeks and passageways into the mangroves (as I’d always visualized), but spend most of our time paddling on open water between the keys, and across the large bays which separate the inner islands of mangroves. Our original course had us traveling inland first, as I guessed there would be more bugs there than out on the keys, but the switch has us paddling out to a couple of islands first, then looping back in for the storm, and finally paddling back out to another section of keys for the final few days.

In spite of the last minute plan adjustments, we push off relatively early in the morning, heading south and into the rapidly warming sunshine. Navigating through the keys provides a new challenge, as the landscape offers little in the way of recognizable features or landmarks. It’s simply open water and islands of green treetops and brown trunks all the way around. Everything is either sea level, or treetop level, and the shorelines offer nothing in the way of distinguishing characteristics to gauge the shape of each island of mangroves as we pass. Erin paddles and steers in the stern, while I sit in the front, alternating between paddling and trying to intuit the map. A compass mounted to the bow helps in deciding which direction to point.

The new plan has us paddling 13 miles out to Pavilion Key, which will be one of the longer days of the trip. This may not sound like a difficult distance to achieve in a day, and with ideal conditions it’s certainly not, but given the added factors of tides, winds, and waves, things can get interesting quickly, especially in an open canoe paddling across open water (by this I mean we often find ourselves further than a mile from the closest shore). After a couple of hours of paddling that morning, we end up arriving at the outer edge of the keys with the Gulf of Mexico in full view. Approaching the first sandy beach we’ve seen all day, we notice a woman sitting in a lawn chair watching her husband fish from his motorboat a short distance away. Not wishing to disturb her solitude, we decide to paddle around the island to look for a landing spot on the other side in order to eat lunch. In the end, however, the other side has nothing but waves (and almost us) crashing into reef, so we end up making a loop and pull up next to her just as her husband comes in for extraction. They live in the local area, so we chat for a few minutes before they leave and find out that we’re one key off of where we thought, which provides a good sense of scale regarding the map with relation to the landscape we’re traveling through.

After a quick bite in welcome shade, we direct the canoe south towards our first bigger crossing of the trip. As we start the traverse, the wind kicks up, and small waves begin moving laterally across our path and into the side of the boat, occasionally nearing the top of the gunwales. Nothing too extreme, but stimulating conditions to be sure. While the navigational charts include depth, knowing that the choppy waters around you are only around 6’ deep doesn’t do much to assuage the imagination once we find ourselves miles from shore for the first time. Capsizing in this situation probably wouldn’t prove deadly, but it would be mean serious catastrophe and a difficult self-rescue. Mental reprieve comes in the form of a heavy breathing manatee which surfaces off the bow before disappearing. After a couple more hours of focused paddling, we arrive at our destination for the evening, an extended sand spit forming the capacious beach of Pavilion Key.

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The way the NPS manages these areas is through the issuance of camping/trip permits only given out the day of or the day before your trip. You show up with a couple of itinerary ideas, and go from there depending on availability. No matter what, you’ll most likely end up with a trip similar to your desired plan, though might have to make a few slight adjustments regarding specific destinations. The longer you plan on staying out, the more flexibility you’ll have in creating your route. I’m sure a lot of people don’t like this first-come first-serve system, but personally I love it, and know how impossible it can be to be spontaneous in the era of internet and required reservations. I get why a lot of the parks run this way – avoiding overcrowding, maximizing revenue, etc. – but in my mind it completely kills the sense of adventure and punishes the free-spirit.

The keys themselves prove remarkable, each separate island resembling a small piece of Caribbean paradise. Sandy beaches, the occasional palm tree, and views for miles across open expanses of sea. Within the permit system, each island has a maximum occupancy, both group and individual. Rabbit Key, for example, a smaller key, allows two groups and a total of eight people. Camping on most of the keys is along a spacious beach, though some of the islands have smaller, more private sites scattered around the coastline. The only development on the islands comes in the form of boat serviceable port-a-lets meant to be shared by everyone on the island (all the ones I visited were remarkably clean – great job NPS crew!). In the 10,000 Islands region there are seven or eight keys designated for camping, along with several inland sites. For conservation purposes, stopping on other islands is not permitted.

Pavilion, where we stay the first night, proves to be one of the larger keys in the system. We end up sharing the space with one other group, a contingent of young sea kayakers who decide to set up camp about 100’ from our tent, even though the beach is over a half-mile long. They’re quiet and respectful kids, however, and barely noticeable as our first sunset viewed from the keys lights up the open sky around us. (The keys prove to be the perfect East Coast sunset spot, as most all of the beaches have sections oriented directly towards the Southwest.) In the morning we cook a big breakfast of eggs and potatoes, and spend an hour strolling the beach before departing.

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From Pavilion, it’s a 4.5 mile crossing to the next night’s stay on Mormon Key, though we opt for a more circuitous route along the coastline in order to occupy the day with activity. This proves to be a wise decision, as the wind picks up rapidly as soon as we start paddling. Unlike the previous day, this time it comes as a headwind from the southeast, kicking up waves high enough to occasionally splash over the bow of the boat. Paddling directly into the waves and wind, however, proves to be much easier than when they were coming from the side, and though it’s a grind, we end up falling into a rhythm which moves us steadily forward. A couple hours into our paddle the wind is strong enough that we elect to take a slightly longer inland route instead of continuing across the open Gulf, a plan that works out well as we navigate our way through sheltered bays before eventually coming back out just in time to make the short crossing over to Mormon Key.

Once across, we paddle around most of the island, finding a small beach on the southern tip which makes for one of my favorite campsites of the trip. It’s like having a tropical paradise all to ourselves, the wind a slight breeze from this vantage and the sun warm enough to allow for a mid-afternoon swim. We spend most of the afternoon lazing around in the sun. In the evening we gather driftwood for a fire, which you’re allowed to build below the high-tide line at beach campsites, and begin preparing dinner as we again watch the sun set directly in front of us. A truly memorable day and an unforgettable campsite, though soon for reasons other than its sheer beauty and solitude.

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A word about insects. Like most people, I don’t enjoy being munched on by bugs, losing blood to mosquitoes, tweezering off ticks, etc. I’m okay with foul weather, willing to accept the risk of recreating among predator species, comfortable with discomfort, and fine with some physical and emotional suffering on vacation from time to time, but I’m not really okay with insects in copious quantities. “Lots of bugs” is perhaps the one thing someone can tell me about an area that will significantly decrease my desire to go there. Which is probably why I haven’t been to the Everglades until now, the place name itself immediately conjuring images of face nets and bug spray and endless swatting and shooing and the scratching of skin hives. Park literature doesn’t deny the existence of insects, rather it does all it can to apprise potential visitors to the reality of a hostile ecosystem. But words will always fail to describe what it’s like to operate amidst a relentless attack of determined swarms of infinitesimal winged parasites. I’m sure you can guess where this is going.

For the most part, bugs weren’t really a major issue on this trip. Reportedly, insect activity significantly decreases in the winter months in all the swampy coastal areas we visited. Many visitor’s centers and park entrances and businesses in these regions display some humorous homemade variety of a “mosquito meter,” generally a hand-painted wooden graph with an adjustable pointer ranging from something like “All Clear” to the extremes of “Combat Zone” or “Blood Donor.” Throughout our travels their arrows are generally resting around what would be a two on a scale of 1-6 or so. On the keys, things are generally meant to be better than inland, mostly due to the reliable island breezes blowing in off the water. And that is the case, most of the time. On this particular night, however, just as we begin to tuck in to our evening meal, an almost imperceptible change occurs. The wind, which we’d experienced since leaving the beach the day before, suddenly stops. And then another, immediately obvious change occurs as we diners suddenly become dinner. There are mosquitoes, to be sure, but also bloodthirsty hordes of no-see-ums, nearly invisible (as the name suggests) gnat like creatures with a vicious bite and a voracious appetite. Things get miserable. Erin barely finishes her food before retreating to the tent. I try to pretend things aren’t so bad as I douse myself with repellent and break out a face net that I’ve owned and never used for years now. I light the fire and try to hang out for a while, but the breeze fails to return, and the net proves ineffectual at providing full protection. The bugs still penetrate somehow, finding every exposed piece of skin imaginable. And then there’s the hum. The droning trill of biomass. The only course of action remains to dive into the tent, zip it up tight, and assist Erin with her in-progress killing spree.

In the morning, things haven’t improved much, so we swiftly pack our bags and get out of paradise with a quickness. Thankfully, those 12 hours or so will be the only time on the entire trip where the bugs prove downright intolerable. The rest of the time, they truly aren’t that bad, and cooler evening temps and breezes allow us to wear sufficient clothing to cover most of our bodies, while a bit of bug spray (from a bottle I’ve had about as long as that face net, such is my aversion to insect prone areas) is enough to keep the bites to an acceptable level. The lull in the wind turns out to be the proverbial calm before the predicted storm, as this is the first day of the bad weather I’d heard about in town. Once on the water a gale begins to build, though as we’re now headed inland, and traveling with the morning tide, the wind pushes us along for 8 miles as we head up the tidal Chatham River and into Sweetwater Bay, where we plan on waiting out the storm over the next couple of days.

On the way there, we stop off at an old ruin/habitation called Watson’s Place, which also serves as a campsite. In addition to the island camps, there are two other types of campsites in the area, ground sites and “chickees.” Having avoided signing up to stay at a ground site, we stop to check one out just to see what fun we might have missed out on. Watson’s Place is indeed not somewhere I would personally care to spend any significant amount of time. Ground sites are small swaths of cleared land along the otherwise heavily vegetated river banks. They are described as having the potential to be more buggy than the other two options, and also offer additional opportunities for undesirable experiences in that they’re commonly visited by alligators and snakes, a fact reiterated through semiotics on a sign at the dock which displays illustrations of a man, an alligator, and a snake with symbolic representation prohibiting the molesting of the animals by the person (though not of the person by the animals). Indeed, the place looks buggy, snakey, and gatory.

It should come as no surprise then, that as I’m flip-flopping around the site I almost step on a very large python near the corner of the clearing. It does come as a surprise, however, as even though I’ve read about the invasive pythons previous to this visit, I certainly never expected to place my foot inches from the engorged body of a six-foot long serpent with a mid-body girth of a human thigh. After the initial shock of discovery, followed by recovery and the realization that the snake doesn’t seem to be particularly lively, I take the opportunity to inspect it from a short distance. Pythons are not native to the Everglades. They exist as a product of irresponsible human actions and their own adaptability. It’s an intriguing story which I won’t get into here as the details are readily available elsewhere if you are curious. In short, the species has proven to be incredibly destructive to the ecology of the Everglades, taking a huge toll on the resident fauna and vying with alligators as the region’s top predator species. State-wide programs exist to eliminate the snakes, but this has proven incredibly difficult to achieve. Knowing all of this, I still have no idea what I should do upon seeing this specimen sitting in the grass in front of me. It’s huge, and even if I wanted to “euthanize” the snake, as I’m guessing would be optimal, I don’t have permission to do so, or the slightest idea as to how I would go about doing it. In the end I take a couple of photos with plans to report its location to the rangers at the end of the trip. And then we leave. Happily.

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An hour later we are blown across Last Huston Bay and up past Sweetwater Bay to the “chickee” where we’ll spend the next two nights. This third type of site is named after dwellings once utilized by indigenous Seminoles. Their contemporary construction consists of metal-roofed wood and composite structures anchored by concrete pylons well away from shoreline. When we round the corner, we’re surprised by how exposed this site looks given the current weather conditions. It’s two platforms joined by a small deck and a port-a-let, sitting about three feet above the water in the middle of a small bay. What would generally be a unique setting looks a tad unprotected given the steadily increasing winds. But hey, definitely no bugs.

With the force of the wind now generating bigger and bigger waves, pulling up to the structure and exiting the boat proves to be a challenge in itself. Once we’ve tied off, we’re unsure as to what we should do next, as getting anything out of the canoe seems a precarious option with violent gusts whipping across the tiny unshielded platform. After a few minutes of assessing the situation, we decide to move a few heavy boxes out of the boat, and attempt to build some sort of windbreak by utilizing the roof supports. The only item we have with us that might be suitable to the purpose is a mesh sand mat that we miraculously threw into the boat as a last minute impulse. Always a novelty item before, it proves to be a crucial component over the next couple of days as it works surprisingly well once we get it secure, which is no small feat. It doesn’t fully block the wind, as nothing short of solid walls could do, but it allows us a bit of reprieve. From here we arrange our gear boxes around the corners of the platform in order to create a place to hunker down for a while as we determine our next plan of action.

It’s kind of an intense place to be. We are definitely a long way from anywhere, and know that we’ll not see another person for quite some time. The platforms barely provide enough space for a pair of backpacking tents in ideal situations, and the wind makes this one seems very minuscule indeed. Each movement requires conscious action. Anything that blows off the sides, or even falls through the cracks in the decking, will certainly be gone for good. Even if it were to float, retrieving something by boat seems highly unlikely and perhaps physically impossible given the conditions. The wind rips across the platform, and the water below courses past at significant speed. We’re sitting perhaps 50’ from the closest shore, though the shores here are not solid pieces of ground where one could huddle up and wait out a storm, they’re impossible structures of intertwined roots sheathed in razor sharp oyster shells. In an emergency one could probably survive on top of them for a couple of days, but it would be most unpleasant. The wind is now blowing hard enough that it doesn’t seem imprudent to assess the structural stability of the chickee itself, though it seems sturdy enough in spite of a few random creaks and strains. Still, worst case scenarios come to mind. We sit behind our boxes and snack on whatever happens to be on top of the food supply. For now, the rain hasn’t started, and it’s warm enough out that extra layers aren’t required. We’re also happy to be sitting where we are, miles from the Gulf, rather than stranded on one of the keys.

Eventually, the wind abates for a while. Slows down some at least. We cautiously manage to set up the tent, utilizing gear straps to secure the corners to the decking. After, we put everything but the food boxes into the tent to weigh it down. At that point, we ease in to the idea of waiting out the storm here, and consider our fortune in having heard about it in advance as we contemplate the route our original itinerary would have had us doing for the day, which would have been both dangerous and downright unmanageable in these conditions. The wind picks up again, and big clouds begin to build to our north. Impressive sheets of rain begin to rip across the bay in waves, though the roof provides just enough dry space to stand and watch for a little while. A powerful experience. We spend the rest of the afternoon reading and sleeping in the tent, listening to the world rage outside. Thinking we will most likely be going without supper, just before dusk everything stops. We get out and cook a quick dinner. The sky begins to darken, an alligator swims lazily by, unconcerned. The sky goes black. The wind starts again in earnest.

In the morning, a lull. We crawl out of the tent and make breakfast. The storm forecast calls for it to continue throughout this day as well, and we are scheduled to stay another night on the chickee. The idea of not loading up the canoe and trying to go somewhere specific is welcome, though the idea of spending the entire day cooped up on the platform not so much. As the wind doesn’t seem to be all that bad, and the clouds not all that ominous, we pack a lunch and paddle the empty canoe back out the direction we came from. The map offers several options, and we end up heading north on Deer Island Creek for a while, with easy paddling once we make the turn out of Sweetwater, the wind now behind us. The best part of the day occurs when we discover that the small squiggly black lines on the map, seemingly unnavigable as drawn, represent narrow passages through the mangroves. Turning into one of these outlets immediately gets us out of the wind, and onto a slender channel winding through heavy vegetation, coming out a half-mile later on another windswept bay. This is the type of paddling I always imagined doing in the Everglades, ducking under branches hanging across the creek and similar fun, and it’s enjoyable to be so immersed in such a foreign environment. After turning back around, we continue on the river with the optimistic idea to cross a much larger bay in order to check out the Alligator Alley channel a couple miles away. Not happening. Once we arrive at the confluence with the bay, we experience the maelstrom in progress as wind and waves thrash across the water. It’s difficult to turn the canoe around without being driven into the mangroves, or swamped by the spraying waves. We manage to do so, without event, and begin the arduous paddle back to the chickee, which first requires battling our way against the wind back to the mouth of the river we’d just sailed down. We pay for a laugh when, after a misjudged turn, we end up at a dead end we’d already seen earlier that day, both of us recognizing the spot at the same time. It requires significant effort to paddle back out the second time around. We finally arrive at the river mouth only to have to work even harder to make it across the small section of bay separating us from the Sweetwater, eddy hopping from one wind sheltered stand of trees to the next. Once on the Sweetwater, however, welcoming déjà vu awaits as the wind pushes us all the way back to the chickee, where it continues to blow for the rest of the night.

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Around 5 a.m., all is calm. After many restful, then restless hours of lying in the tent, we’re ready to move. Getting out of the tent before first light proves much easier when the weather allows for flip-flops and shorts while drinking coffee at daybreak. As the trip progresses, we wake up earlier and earlier, often getting on the water as the sun begins to rise. Two things about winter expeditions: you need more days to explore due to the limited amount of daylight; and, when it gets dark at 5:30, you spend a lot of time in your tent no matter what the weather’s like.

We welcome movement this morning, knowing that we have many miles to go, and four major bays to cross on the way to the next chickee where we’ll be spending the night. We make a mile before the sun hits the horizon, and glide across the glossy surface of the first bay before the wind realizes what we’re up to. It catches on once we enter the second bay, but thankfully lacks the fervor of previous days. Slightly chilled by the breeze, we paddle 11 miles and get our tent strapped down to the chickee deck before lunch. The rest of the day we paddle around the area and explore a couple of the black squiggles on the map, getting in to one small overgrown creek nice and deep. We dodge, duck, push, and pull our way through heavy thicket for an hour before deciding to turn around, probably less than a mile from the entrance. Hundreds of tiny crabs on the tree roots provide additional entertainment, along with a chance couple of ibis.

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When we arrive back to our platform, a group of four occupies the adjoining chickee, and tells us that they had originally planned to stay several nights, but no permits were issued once the park service realized the severity of the storm. We are again thankful to have been fortuitous enough to have made adjustments, and to have weathered it all alone on our little stand in the bay. That night I take the canoe out for a solo spin under the light of a full moon. The intensity of silvery glare drives me into the shadows. I float several miles in complete stillness, unanticipated in this tropical environment, the silence broken only by cautious paddle strokes.

Up early the next morning, we eat and pack with a quickness before bidding goodbye to our chickee mates. We paddle out with the receding tide, our destination the keys once again. On the way, I notice what could be an alternate route through the mangroves on the map, and having all day to paddle, we elect to go exploring. We weave our way slowly down a canal for a couple of hours, eventually floating into a maze of mudflats with the tide still on its way out. Ibis, roseate spoonbills, and a variety of herons inhabit the rich feeding grounds. We marvel at the scene, and somehow manage to scrape our way through the muddle and back onto the open water. A few miles later we watch a loggerhead turtle, or two, rise and disappear, rise and disappear.

The next two nights we spend on the islands. Evidence of the recent storm abounds. The camping location at Jewel Key, normally several feet higher than the tides, is covered in detritus from waves washing completely over the island. I would probably be writing a much different story right now had we been out there as scheduled. From there we cross over to Tiger Key, stopping to admire flocks of great white pelicans standing together on white beaches along the way. Our last night in the area happens to be Christmas Eve, our camp a small private beach. We get in the canoe and paddle around as the sun sets, the sky to the east slowly shifting lavender, indigo, cobalt, even deeper blues without need of names.

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Christmas breakfast: fat burritos and Florida grapefruit. Another sunrise. A tough paddle out against the biggest tide of the month and a steady offshore wind. Punished for our impatience and unwillingness to wait for the tides, we make nine or ten miles in around six hours. The last couple of miles necessitate traveling down the shoreline, our paddles constantly digging into inches of silty mud. Most unsatisfying, though laughable if not for the frustration of awkward and inefficient strokes. We arrive at the dock in good spirits all the same. It’s early afternoon, and downright hot out. A couple of spoonbills methodically shovel through the silt at the take-out. As we derig, a hurried Brit and his partner pull up with their kayaks. He asks about the situation with the rangers due to the shutdown. I have no idea what he’s talking about, and wish I still didn’t.

Peace River, Juniper Creek, and Silver Springs

We spend the next couple of days hanging out in the nearby Collier-Seminole State Park. The most memorable experience comes when we try to run the park’s six-mile “Adventure Trail,” apparently devastated by one hurricane or another in recent years, and end up on a 3-hour bushwhacking excursion through brush, briars, and sawgrass. Over a week later, deep crosshatched cuts on our legs remain as a reminder of the fun. We eventually decide to start driving north, constantly deliberating what we should do next. Almost all of the longer rivers we’d considered running are still seriously flooded, with no signs of falling water levels. Options for other paddling possibilities in the state are almost overwhelming in scope, though most would only be shorter trips, each requiring significant shuttling logistics for only 2-3 days on the water.

As such, we spend the next couple of days working our way from one seven-mile stretch of river to the next, still trying to figure out the best place to get back into some semblance of wilderness for another extended expedition. We waver between too many potential options, most of them only rough ideas encumbered by current water conditions. We paddle a short section of the Peace River, counting gators on the way down. We make our way up to the Ocala National Forest and end up at Juniper Springs, a campground next to a large freshwater spring, where we run on a section of the Florida Trail through a bizarre backdrop of funky flora, and follow up with a swim in the natural pool.

Our last day in Florida easily rivals the first. Wildlife encounters abound. We wake up in the dark in order to get an early start on Juniper Creek, a tiny trickle of clear cool water coming directly out of the spring itself, the put-in barely deep enough to float a canoe and not much wider. The current cruises along at a decent clip, carrying us into constant corners and through dense stands of jungle. We ride it for seven miles or so, the clear water allowing us to see everything below us, including a snapping turtle the size of a dutch oven slowly patrolling its way upstream. Schools of fish, a snake launching from its branch into the creek. We spot deer through the foliage, several alligators only a few feet from the boat.

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The same afternoon we find our way to Silver Springs and another clear water stream emerging straight out of the earth, this one with much more volume than the first. We paddle a loop around the spring itself before moving down the river. There is everything here in abundance, birds, fish, gators, turtles… We have also come to see the monkeys, and a few miles down we do. Only here and the Florida Keys do primates live in the wild in the US, though they are non-indigenous and often a source of controversy. When we do spot them later that day, however, we’re not sure whether to look up or down, as several manatee emerge all around our canoe. They are only inches from our boat, often just beneath it, or underneath the floating aquatic plants beside it, nibbling at them from below. They slowly surface, breathe heavily, and dive again, their deeply scarred bodies baring signs of encounters with engine props. Near the confluence with the Ocklawaha, we’re still seeing new things – a six-inch baby gator sunning on a stump, a pair of purple gallinules. We get off the river late in the evening, and camp that night on the banks of the Ocklawaha River.

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia

That night we make a decision to move on the next morning. To leave the state. The rivers we want to run, mainly the Suwanee and the Apalachicola, will not be accessible anytime soon due to water levels. It’s not that they’re particularly dangerous at flood stage, it’s just that they spill over their banks into the surrounding lowlands, convoluting routes and submerging camping locations. At least that’s my understanding of it based on what the people we’ve spoken to on the phone have told us, and evidence of such was apparent even on the Peace River. It’s time to move on to something different, and even though there seem to be a lot of amazing parts of Florida left to see, we would rather be in one general area on one focused trip than driving around each day only getting pieces of nature a little at a time.

Having not spent much time in the east, I had never heard of Cumberland Island until this past October when I began to ask around about potential wilderness opportunities in the southeast. The person who told me about the island had recently camped there for a week, and said that he would have stayed much longer given the opportunity. I made a mental note to check it out myself at some point, and even considered the possibility of a visit on the way down to Florida. A bit of research and a phone call to the park office made it seem like an awful lot of required planning and reservations would be required, however (see previous comments on spontaneous behavior in Everglades section…), which I was not excited about committing to.

All of the sudden, however, thanks to Day-Glo Donnie’s ego and his red-herring of a wall, an exceptional opportunity emerged.

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Cumberland is a 17.5-mile long barrier island that sits a few miles off the coast of southeastern Georgia. The island has a rich history of occupation, including ownership by several wealthy families over the past few centuries. In the 1970s, the Carnegies, major landholders on the island, forged a relationship with the federal government which allowed for the creation of a national seashore that now encompasses most of the main island, though some property owners retain ownership and property rights for the remainder of their lifetime, meaning there are still a few people living on the island. The storyline goes that most of the landowners in this era did not want to see intensive development, as was happening in similar locations up the coast, destroy Cumberland, so they figured out a way to preserve it for future generations. Of course, there were a few private interests served as well, but overall the idea proves noble in implementation. Visitors may enjoy untrammeled, unpopulated beaches, and explore miles of uninhabited trails leading across the island through landscapes of saw palmettos and live oaks.

At least that’s how it seems while we’re there, the untrammeled unpopulated uninhabited part. Hardly a person to be seen as most visitors come over to the park via a regularly scheduled ferry which runs from St. Marys, Georgia several times a day, now suspended due to the government shutdown.

There is also the option, of course, of arriving at the island on your own boat, motorized or human powered, though even the shortest paddling distances require several miles of open water navigation. So during the shutdown it basically comes down to this: the park is open, but only equipped or fairly determined individuals have access to it (it’s possible to find a water taxi in St. Marys); camping reservations are nullified and unrequired; and no one knows when or if any of this is going to change. Talk about unanticipated circumstances and invitations for spontaneous journeys…

I will be honest and say that it is with mild trepidation that we depart from Crooked River State Park in Georgia and begin paddling the seven miles over to the island. The situation in general seems ideal in some ways, but creates anxiety as well. Thoughts of anarchy and lawlessness? I’m not sure what. I guess I should have more faith in the rest of humanity, but part of me hates to think of our public lands being advertised as unprotected. I’d like to think that most people value and respect what they stand for, and the places themselves, but I also know that not everyone operates with this mindset, especially if they think they can get the best of the government somehow. (Though within our current government, of course, there are people in charge of our public lands that want to do much worse than build an illegal campfire…) A mild unease sits with me the whole trip, though the few other paddlers/campers we meet seem to be there for the same reasons we are, to capitalize on an exclusive and otherwise negative situation solely for the positive aspects of the possibilities. For over a week, we have a whole national park, a whole island, almost to ourselves.

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I won’t get in to the day to day. We leave the state park that afternoon without any idea as to what we’ll find or what we’ll do. We think maybe we’ll stay for a few days, and end up staying for nine. We only see one or two people a day, many of them locals and all extremely kind. They are happy that we’ve made it over, and all of them hope that we will enjoy the island. While we’re out running on the third day, a man on a four-wheeler with his basset hound riding in a basket stops to chat. His name is Thornton Morris, and we later find that he’s an attorney who helped to create the legislation to make the island a park. He invites us to stop by his house, where he presents us with a book he wrote filled with vignettes and personal memoirs from the island. It’s enjoyable to read it over the course of our days there. The few other visitors that we meet are also entertaining, each with their own mission.

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We spend the first few days running and hiking most of the trails on the north half of the island, making big loops consisting of several miles of trails combined with a few miles of beach travel. We stay several nights at the Brickhill Bluff site, including a peaceful New Year’s Eve. Our camp faces west to the mainland, and the sky lights up in oranges and reds each evening. Later, we embark on a difficult day of paddling to the south end. Strong tides and wind beat us down for the better part of the day as we cover perhaps 12 miles over the course of eight hours. There are a few days of paddling on this trip where I have to remind myself that if it was easy, or even fun, we wouldn’t be out there alone. That the suffering begets the rewards. Half-a-mile from the dock, dark clouds cut across the sky, drenching us as we continue to paddle, knowing that if we stop we’ll only get blown backwards for who knows how far.

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The next four nights we have the main Sea View camp almost completely to ourselves. A boat captain dropping off a couple of backpackers tells us that there were 120 people there the week before the shutdown, as it’s the most popular spot on the island. Erin harvests the grapefruit and oranges from the laden trees around our site. Each day we see several of the wild horses the island is famous for, along with the armadillos, hundreds of shorebirds, and the occasional deer or wild turkey. We walk and run miles along trails and beach without seeing another person. For a couple of days we borrow, with the unofficial off-the-record blessing of a ranger on a morning visit, beach cruisers from the ranger station and ride for miles around the southern part of the island. We wander around the ruins of the Dungeness mansion, evidence of the immense wealth and privilege of Cumberland’s recent history. Eventually, having checked out almost every part of the island, it is time to leave.

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The last morning we get up while it’s still dark, hoping, for once, to ride the tide the right direction and also beat the wind. We eat oatmeal under the still bright stars, and drink our coffee as Mercury reveals itself against the coming dawn. We load the canoe from the dock, and take our first paddle stokes as the day breaks around us. Thankfully, we time everything just right.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Matanuska Glacier

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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.

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Talkeetna River

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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…

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Chickaloon River

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Copper Center to Chitina

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Tulum

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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

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Ruinas de Tulum

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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.

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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.

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Chichen Itza

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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Dzibilchaltun

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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.

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Mapa de Ruta

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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

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Barranca del Cobre

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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

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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!

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!Que Barbara!

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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