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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Tex-Mex

Where does one journey stop and the next begin? Is it a moment of departure, or arrival? The minute you leave one place, or the hour you enter the next? A geographical shift, a border crossing, a change in location names or physical address? Or does it begin with a change in consciousness, a refocused alignment in attitude? Does it get going the instant the thought occurs to go, or the minute the first plan of motion is followed through with? Perhaps, if one feels the need to compartmentalize, clear delineations may be by found and argued. Perhaps, there is no beginning, no true end.

 

For our current purposes, however, I will say that this trip began an hour or so after something else was finished, which was the income generating before the actual travel. The expenditure of energy involved in the shoring up of resources. The work which allows for the not-work, always an expedition, of sorts, unto itself. In this case it was San Antonio, Texas and 30 even days of attachment to a noisy parking lot full of harvested Christmas trees from North Carolina and the PNW. Our job being, as it were, to sell them to suburban families in search of status quo holiday décor. We did that, for twelve hours a day, but really more like 24 as we couldn’t leave the lot at night, having been contracted to stay with the trees at all times, for those 30 successive days without break. So, in reality, I suppose it was more like 720 total hours in the end – nothing in real life as it looks in those tiny three numbers. As I mentioned, an experience all of its own, though not the focus of the rest of these words. Suffice it to say, that when the last of the little trees left the parking lot that final afternoon, there was a significant shift in mental focus, an ease of tension, a release. Though the physical location, noisy, hectic, and unstimulating as it was, had not been altered in any way save for the disappearance of the inventory, a palpable modification of intention signified the shifting of one thing to the commencement of another.

 

We spent another couple nights there, on the lot next to the intersection with the same staccato roar of traffic piercing the air around us, but the days were far different from the ones before. There was time downtown, a day of walking in the cold and riding bikes in the rain and just feeling a sense of freedom only available to those who have been without for some time. There were different neighborhoods, and a couple of restaurants, paths by the river. There was exploration and spontaneity and a sense of relaxation even in spite of trying to see as much as possible in the time we chose to be there. There was a slow Sunday morning, the packing up, and the inevitable departure. The open road before us and no real plans and the undeniable sensation that the intense monotony of the past 30 days had never occurred at all.

 

From San Antonio we cruised the freeway the few hours to the coast, going first through Corpus Christi, then south down to Padre Island National Seashore. We arrived in the cool evening hours to the sounds of wind and gently lapping waves, a light mist, and the scent of unseen flowers blooming in the darkness. The next morning we discovered that the park allows visitors to drive and camp along the beach, which is exactly what we decided to do, traveling several miles south across the sand and finding a place to just be for a few days. And that was it. Sitting, walking, running, reading, sleeping. More than anything, decompressing I think, letting the hums of the ocean replace the remembered barrage of suburban traffic, those bullying modified mufflers trying without end to scream meaning into countless existential crises.

 

It was foggy and cool for the first couple days we were there, brilliantly sunny the last. We hopped in a van with a couple of park service volunteers that last morning before leaving, and went cruising around looking for birds. I am a longtime admirer of the avian world, and appreciate knowing the common species wherever I might be spending my time. I am not, however, a ‘birder,’ and probably never will be, the checked boxes and life lists and driving to garbage dumps and wastewater treatment ponds to complete them not seeming nearly as appealing as casual observation. But I like to hang out with those who know more than I do whenever possible, and always appreciate the opportunity to look at animals through spotter scopes worth more than some cars I’ve owned. It was an enjoyable couple of hours, though slightly foreign to my idea of outdoor activity as we never strayed more than 20’ from the van. The couple’s enthusiasm for ticking each species of the day’s list was an even blend of infectious and absurd. After driving in loops in order to scan the bay, the beach, the duck ponds, the dunes, and a sadly unfruitful radio antennae (where was that peregrine, he’s always there…), our pencil-ticked sheets showed a grand total of 35 birds, a new record for the short time they’d been there, and a joyous success.

 

That afternoon we made our way back west and down to Laredo, having decided over those past days to head into Mexico for a while. There it was a couple of nights in Casa Blanca State Park, a day of errands, a final decision to store the van and board the bus rather than drive ourselves. It was a long walk across a harsh urban landscape from the storage facility to the Turimex station. It was a three-hour ride turned to seven or so, including the hour-plus spent sitting in standstill traffic on the bridge over the Rio Grande. It was the day before Christmas Eve, and hordes of heavy laden pick-ups carried gifts and goods home for the holidays.

 

We spent that evening in Monterrey in a hotel just down the street from the central bus station, surrounded by acres of gridlocked vehicles and fruitlessly blaring horns. An almost comical cacophony of anger and futility. In the hotel bar there was a company Christmas party in progress complete with Santa hats and potentially regrettable happenings on the dancefloor. The main entertainment was a man with long gray hair and glasses seated casually on a barstool surrounded by sound equipment. He seemed to be a professional karaoke singer who took requests on cocktail napkins and kept the crowd going with some real belters. It was much too loud to hold a normal conversation, but quite fun to watch from the edges.

 

In the morning things were a bit more tranquil when we walked back to the bus station to find our local connection. We were headed west of town an hour or so to Hidalgo, Nuevo Leon, and then from there to a climbing area called Potrero Chico. Some information was available on the internet as far as how to get there, complete with a photo of the appropriate window to purchase tickets. Much to our chagrin, however, when we arrived at the counter everything was exactly as shown in the photo, minus the destination placard of Hidalgo. It was quite funny to hold the screen up while viewing the real world version of the scene, as even the counter woman looked almost exactly as the one in the photo, however, that one word was missing and nothing else. It was like one of those find the differences games come to life. Once the amusement wore off, however, there was little to be done but try and figure out how we were going to get to where we wanted to be going, which provided the basis for an ever more confusing set of conversations and wanderings around the city center. In the end, and after several hours of mild frustration, we managed to find, board, and ride the bus to Hidalgo and finally arrived around noon.

 

The first mission was eating churros in the town plaza where the bus dropped us off, the next, finding lunch, which ended up being tamales at a tiny shop nearby. Afterwards, we bought a few groceries, and found a taxi to carry us up the hill towards the national park and outlying campgrounds. Finding one to our liking, we set up camp for the week, grabbed our gear, and walked up into the park for a bit of evening rock climbing.

 

And that’s about how the next few days went. Climbing for a few hours, going out for a run afterwards, cooking, eating, repeating. Potrero Chico has become, in the past several years, an internationally renowned sport climbing destination, especially popular during winter in the northern hemisphere. It boasts masses of beautiful karst limestone, and hundreds of bolted routes at all climbing levels, many of them multi-pitch. The entrance to the park, whose name means little corral, is a spectacular looking notch between vertical cliff faces on either side, a corral gate of colossal dimensions. There is a dirt road which runs through the center of the cliffs, and on up into the park. An enormous water park, empty and ominous in the winter months, sits off to the side, just past the gate, leading one to consider the very different sort of recreation popular over the summer months as local families arrive to escape the heat of the Chihuahuan Desert. There are certainly Mexican climbers around, but for the most part, the locals prefer to drive up the road a ways, crank some norteño music, and drink beer while watching groups of foreigners eke up the cliffs around them. Tuba rhythms and the occasional trumpet section reverberate off the canyon walls as you climb.

 

I am not much of a climber, and never have been, though I’ve given it my best efforts plenty of times and in multiple locations over the course of many years of knowing lots of climbers. It’s simply never excited me the way that other methods of experiencing the wilderness have, and to be quite honest I often find it rather boring as so little of the time one invests in a day of climbing involves actually working your way up some rock. I’ve also recently realized, after visiting three celebrated spots in the past months, that most popular climbing destinations offer very little in the way of solitude, as lines form for certain climbs, crag dogs bark the day away, and you’re often roping up about three feet away from others groups. Erin, however, was once an avid climber who previously planned international vacations with her sister based on climbing destinations, and it’s something she still enjoys doing, and something that seems to be rewarding to her in many ways. So, as of late, we’ve been giving it a go together with mixed success. Her somewhat rusty leading skills combined with my neophyte belaying behavior often make for some emotionally charged situations, though I suppose we’re getting better each time we go out. For the first several days we were around, we went out for several hours and managed to climb a few easier routes a few times each before finding something else to do for the rest of the afternoon. It worked well enough for us, but there were certainly times when I felt, though I tried my best not to, like some kind of fraud due to the intense focus and monotonous climbing conversations which dominated the social energy of the place.

 

And I get it, the inability to discuss anything but the common denominator of a shared lifestyle focus, having been involved in the whitewater community for years, but that doesn’t mean I particularly enjoy sitting quietly on the sidelines in shared living spaces and tiny restaurants and the one coffee shop in the area suffering through non-stop jargon and endless references to routes, crags, and all the places in the world one could go to climb and presumably talk to likeminded people about climbing ad nauseum. All of the talking was also conducted in English, in Mexico, with little interest shown regarding that particular geographical/cultural circumstance. I will respectfully say one final thing about climbers vs boaters, however, and that is that climbers seem to be a decidedly more healthy group all around, focused more on set goals and increasing physical prowess rather than getting sloppy drunk on a nightly basis. A refreshing dissimilarity. In short, there were certainly a couple days I enjoyed more than others, and we did find ourselves climbing away from the crowds once or twice, which I really appreciate, but I wasn’t altogether broken up when the weather turned nasty for a few days and we were forced to find other ways to entertain ourselves.

 

The best day I had over the course of the several days of living in the cold wet cloud which set down on top of the place was when we decided to take the bus over to the neighboring town of Mina for a visit. I suppose I appreciated this day because, like so many days we’d have for the rest of the trip, it exemplified the type of traveling I really like to do – the limited plans, see what you find, everything works itself out type of 20171228_142614exploration that calls for patience and problem solving and above all a positive attitude. The type of travel that ideally leads to interactions with remote places, kind people, and unexpected events that will not be soon forgotten. I won’t bother with all of the details, as they might not seem as serendipitous in the retelling as in the actual living of them, but some of the highlights of the day were: a small but well-done museum, a well-cooked meal (you know it’s going to be good when you hear the tortillas being pounded out in the kitchen as you wait), a long cab ride down a deserted dirt road to a closed park gate and telling the driver to go ahead and leave with no idea as to how we would get back to town, eventually finding our way into the park, wandering for a couple of hours through a desert landscape and hundreds of petroglyphs, getting a ride out that evening with the superintendent who showed us the ruins of the adobe house he was born in, being invited to share a cab back to Hidalgo with a couple of local ladies sick of waiting for the bus, and getting a ride back to the campground from another local who turned around after seeing us walking out in the cold.

 

Around that time, which happened to be a few days after Christmas and a couple days before the New Year, the place started to really fill up with climbers, mainly travelers and college students on break hoping for some sun and fun before heading back to a winter of work and study. The weather was still cold and rainy, and as things became noticeably more crowded, we decided to move on for a while.

 

From there it was back to Monterrey for a couple of days of walking around the city, visiting museums, and checking out the urban revival of a city recently plagued with cartel violence and the accompanying reputation that comes with such troubles. A serendipitous, though somewhat terrifying ride from two local women in their 20s who picked us up as we were leaving Potrero (terrifying due to the maniacal manner of driving and the casual nonstop banter from both as we careened multiple times towards oncoming traffic), landed us in the heart of the city a couple of blocks from our reserved residence. We ended up at a real dive of a hostel in the Barrio Antiguo district, but its proximity to most of the major attractions made most of the egregious shortcomings somewhat tolerable. And besides, you get what you pay for, and in this case that wasn’t much from either party. The surrounding neighborhoods and multiple plazas were full of families on holiday outings, and we walked for miles the first evening we were there submersed in a festive atmosphere and surrounded by crowds of happy people.

 

The next morning we woke up early and toured several museums, including a contemporary art museum, a historical museum, and a cultural museum where throngs of diligent Catholics leisurely swarmed through a traveling Michelangelo exhibit replete 20171231_141248with life-sized replicas of many famous statues and paintings. Most were snapping selfies in front of the pieces, rather than of the works themselves, but hey… Afterwards we strolled along the river walk, eventually ending up at Parque Fundidora, a proud metropolitan park dotted with historic artifacts now serving as industrial art showing off the city’s legacy as an iron producing powerhouse, where sprawling acres of pathways, attractions, and open space await the weary city dweller. A true gem any city would be proud to boast. While there, the weather started to turn nasty, leaving us to seek shelter, sustenance, and coffee in a cozy diner nearby. Things were no better once we were ready to leave, so we decided to try our luck on the Metro rather than walking all the way back in the rain. Success, followed by a cozy siesta in our sparse quarters as the storm settled in to stay for a while.

 

Later that night, New Year’s Eve, we spent the celebrated observance of the changing of calendar years without much fanfare. It wasn’t for lack of trying on our part, as we went back out in a steady downpour and walked around for over an hour trying to find someplace to eat and perhaps listen to some music until midnight, but almost everything was closed down completely, or else dinner was by reservation only. New Year’s in Latin America is commonly celebrated with family rather than out partying. We were happy to finally get some dinner, and probably the best veggie meal of the trip in the form of some tasty portabella tacos, and a couple of beers, and ended up calling it an evening sometime around 10.

 

The first day of 2018 in Monterrey was far colder than anything we had yet experienced, with temperatures near freezing and a steady drizzle coming down from the dark skies nestled low across the city skyline. We eventually motivated ourselves to go on a run, however, and were rewarded with empty streets and open sidewalks. The cold air was harsh on the lungs, the breeze frigid against bare legs, and the needley rain a bit rough on the face, but we eventually got used to it and made our way back to Fundidora, seeing a few paintings and places along the way that we’d missed the day before. Later that morning, we packed up, braved the artic wind tunneling through the streets while searching for breakfast, and headed for the airport for the afternoon hop down to Tampico, Tamaulipas on the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Things in Tampico weren’t much warmer, nor the hotel room that much nicer, but it was more stopping point than destination. A few days earlier, we’d decided on somewhat of a whim to do a fly-down/bus back option that began as close as possible to Ciudad Valles in San Luis Potosi, a few hours by bus away from Tampico, as it turns out. Having finalized those nonspecific travel plans, by which I mean we bought two plane tickets and didn’t bother to plan much further, we mostly forgot about them until a couple hours before the plane took off. As far as spending any time in Tampico, which didn’t seem to be a highly recommended tourist destination, my general attitude holds that if you’re probably only going to be somewhere once in your life, you might as well make an effort to at least see a few things while you’re there. As such, we ended up booking two nights in town while at the Monterrey airport, and spent the next day checking out a good portion of Tampico.

 

The morning started with a huge breakfast buffet at a little restaurant next to the hotel. Most of the food was prepared on site, and the offerings were numerous, delicious, and hard to resist. Needless to say, we left, as will happen after one pays for an ‘all you can eat’ experience, overly sated. Erin, bloated more from multiple glasses of fresh juice than anything else, swore off of buffets for an indeterminate future. We held our bellies on the way over to a nearby bus stop and boarded the first one that came by after an affirmation from the driver that he was headed to the beach, only to be promptly dropped off several minutes later and nowhere close to the coast, for reasons I could not clearly understand. Vague directions were given as to which way we should go to board the correct bus, but we decided to start walking instead, eventually arriving at the beach an hour or so later. (Turns out a large road construction project was happening near the entrance, which was the cause for all of the initial confusion as all bus traffic had been suspended from the thoroughfare.)

 

Wind off the ocean amplified the pervasive chill as we walked for a couple of hours along the edge of a tumultuous sea, down a beach recently hammered by a tropical storm, now strewn with hundreds of empty palapas and battered wooden chairs. At the end of the beach was a jetty extending from the mouth of the Panuco River. The boardwalk along the top of which was the only populated area around. Aggressive gulls dashed and dove, fighting for food scraps, while vendors sold puffed corn snacks to tourists who then fed them to vacant eyed raccoons ensconced in the rocks along the pier.

 

From there we ended up on another town bus, and received a thorough crisscross tour of the streets of Tampico from a local’s perspective. It was not a city I would love to live in, dirty, noisy, and monotonous. I wondered at the lives of those who did, but am sure I found myself no closer to imagining their realities than they mine, if the effort was reciprocated to any degree. After almost an hour to traverse what would have taken us about three minutes in a cab, we were dropped off in front of Laguna Carpintero, a sizeable lake in the center of the city. After a salty snack of tamarindo in a cup, we almost jokingly boarded a small boat for a quick tour of the lake, imagining there wouldn’t be much to see. The night before, my interest had been piqued in seeing the place after the cab driver from the airport told me there were crocodiles in the lake, though I was somewhat skeptical of his claims. Turns out he was telling the truth, as a seven-foot long one swam just in front of the boat as soon as we left the dock. But crocodiles weren’t the only attraction of the ride, as the other side of the lake was a small wildlife refuge of sorts with multiple species of herons hanging out in the trees alongside hundreds of enormous orange-red and emerald green iguanas. Quite cool. Towards the end of the tour there was also a beach full of sunbathing crocs, which, though impressive, almost paled in comparison to all of the unanticipated wildlife we’d already seen. Perhaps my favorite part of the trip, however, was the trip host/announcer, who, in spite of the fact that he probably did this dozens of times a day for years on end, resonated fresh enthusiasm for the laguna and for his city as a whole with his upbeat attitude and positive affirmations pertaining to Tampico’s attributes as an outstanding city worthy of pride and consideration.

 

From there we walked to the central district, stopping to check out the obligatory cathedral and the main plaza before catching a, thankfully, more direct bus back towards where we were staying. Still full from breakfast, dinner consisted of fresh fruit in the hotel room, and breakfast the next day was no more than a couple pieces of bread and some coffee before boarding the bus to Valles.

 

The intention to check out San Luis Potosi had been a couple years in the making. Perhaps never a true intention, rather more of a suggestive impetus in the back of the mind. As such, finding ourselves a state away while in Nuevo Laredo, opportunity merged with subconscious slowly developing as potential reality. Two winters ago we spent several months in Argentina, where I worked on the Mendoza guiding rafts, and Erin shot photos of the rapids. While there, we met lots of kind and generous people, among them a Mexican river guide by the name of Miguel, who often spoke passionately of his adopted home state of Potosi. It was there that he spent a majority of each year running trips on the turquoise blue waters found throughout the region, and his descriptions of the waterfalls and countryside in the area left one with a strong desire to visit and explore.

 

The main hub of adventure based activities in the state is found in Ciudad Valles, several hours east of the capital, and a couple hours west of Tampico. In Valles we ended up staying several days in an apartment near the city center which we found on Airbnb. Our host, Don Gustavo, and his son Marco, picked us up at the bus station and shuttled us over to their place. Once there Don G provided us with an outline of the multiple locations worth visiting in the area, along with several hand sketched maps drawn over the course of our conversation. He left with an invitation to join him for a sip of tequila at some point during our stay, which we later took him up on, showing up expecting a quick nip and some light conversation only to find ourselves being served a full dinner and hanging out for several hours of casual Spanish chatter.

 

The biggest challenge during our stay in Valles become quickly apparent when we realized that most of the outlying destinations weren’t necessarily all that close to the city, and no one could provide us with any solid details pertaining to public transportation to and from any of the major attractions. Frustrating as this may have been, however, some of the more rewarding, though potentially maddening, experiences garnered in the course of both travel and language acquisition (and the combination of the two) arrive in the form of seemingly daunting and insurmountable obstacles such as getting from one place to another. The good news is that if you want to go somewhere in Latin America, there is almost always a bus, or series of buses/colectivos/etc., heading that way from somewhere at some point just about every day. You just have to find them. And we did, eventually, and without excessive effort and a little bit of occasional luck.

 

The first day there we decided to go for the easiest place to reach, which was the small neighboring town of Xilitla and the surrealist garden of Sir Edward James. The eccentric James was an uber-rich Scottish socialite who transplanted himself to the Mexican jungle in the late 1940s, eventually creating/sponsoring the construction of a paradisiacal micro-reality in the form of Las Pozas, where towering concrete sculptures and multi-storied staircases to nowhere serve to visually enhance the already fantastical pools and waterfalls on the sizeable property. I had read about the ‘garden’ years before, while in southern Veracruz, which is as close as I imagined I’d ever get to seeing the place, so it was a truly dreamlike experience to walk the paths there for a few hours and marvel at both the imagination and labor that went into the creation of such a unique locale.

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That evening, we caught up with Miguel, who was preparing to head down to Costa Rica for the next several months to guide rafts during the slow season in Potosi. We didn’t have much of an opportunity to hang out with him throughout our time in Valles, as he left a couple days later, but it was fun to visit with him for a couple of hours all the same. Always a treat to reconnect with people you met in a totally different set of circumstances, people you never really imagined you’d ever see again. He also set us up with his company to raft down the Rio Tampaon the following day, which was an enjoyable experience and welcome opportunity to check out a new river – and our one day of no hassle transportation as the operation’s headquarters was only a block from our apartment. The Tampaon, like most all of the rivers and otherworldly swimming holes we’d eventually see in San Luis Potosi, was a brilliant turquoise, the exact color you might imagine in an advertisement for a Caribbean vacation. And while there wasn’t a significant amount of serious whitewater, there were a couple of fun rapids, and a long scenic float through deep gray canyon walls followed by a quick portage around a chunk of limestone where the entire river disappeared into a cliff blocking its passage. Lots to take in.

 

We stayed around Valles a few more days, heading out on a couple more excursions including a day on the Micos River (same startling blue water) where we found a guide to lead us down the river about a mile, jumping off one waterfall into the current and swimming downstream to the next in a series. It would be hard to describe this place, as with several of the other places we would eventually end up later that week, without hyperbole, so I won’t attempt to do so. Suffice it to say that the entire time we were in that portion of Potosi, we had the great fortune to see (and swim around in) a lot of places the likes of which I’ve never seen similar. And Micos was one of them. A few leftover acres of Eden, if you will.

 

Deciding to be done with the daily busing to and from the city, we headed out after about a week with the intent to spend some time in our tent, as we’d heard there was camping available nearby most of the other places we’d wanted to see. And there was. We based out of the town of Tanchachin for a couple of nights, checking out both the top and base of the Tamul waterfall. We spent one night a hundred feet or so from the opening of a 1200’ deep cave shaft, known as Sotano de las Golindrinas, where tens of thousands of birds, mainly white-collared swifts moving at fighter plane speeds and green parakeets, return with astounding velocity each evening at dusk, and ascend in concentric circles to leave the abyss come dawn. We stopped by the popular Tamasopo Falls for a few hours for swimming and some lunch, and later camped out a short walk from Puente del Dios, yet another improbable and almost indescribable collection of water features, including multiple falls spouting out of all directions from the porous walls of an enclosed amphitheater of aqueous crystallinity, and a natural tunnel through a land bridge one could swim underneath from pool to flowing creek. Unbelievable that such grandeur exists in this world – truly – and even cooler that you can buckle up a PFD and jump right in!

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When it was time to start heading back north, we first had to travel west a bit. We camped one night at Laguna Media Luna, a warm water, spring-fed lagoon in the form of a half-moon, and then made our way by bus to the capital of San Luis Potosi, which bears the same name, the following morning. We spent the late afternoon wandering around the city, and arrived in time to spend a couple of hours in the national museum of masks, which moved into place as one of my favorite museums ever.

 

From the city the next morning, which happened to be Erin’s birthday, we headed due north and back into stark landscapes and lanky cactus, though I think the actual shift occurred somewhere between Media Luna and the city. It was remarkable to observe how quickly the environment changed from lush jungle to arid desert, and to marvel at the curious plants in the transition zones. After a long ride, a transfer, and a bumpy ride, we arrived at the Orgarrio Tunnel, gateway to the ‘Pueblo Magico’ of Real de Catorce, an old silver mining town in the mountains of the Sierra Catorce. The local shuttle ferried us through the two kilometer tunnel, where we departed and searched out our hotel along the steep narrow cobblestone streets of town. As it was Erin’s birthday, we splurged a bit and ended up in a quaint, stone constructed suite owned by an Italian couple, both ex-accountants who vowed not to die at their desks before moving to Mexico to begin life anew. During our two-day stay, they plied us with Italian coffee, homemade focaccia, and explanations about one of their cats, half-crazed from a recent operation.

 

We got there early enough to go for an evening stroll up a steep hill to the old ghost town on the outskirts of town. From there we watched the sun set behind the mountains, and wandered around the well-preserved remnants of old mines and habitations. Dinner was simple fare of beans, gorditas with nopales, and quesadillas made with local cheese and 20180115_134916huitlacoche, a type of fungus that grows inside corn ears that is somewhat of a delicacy and surprisingly good. The following day we woke up early and hiked south out of town. Spotty directions and good fortune led us out on the right road, and we eventually found ourselves climbing up and past more old mines and a few occupied dwellings, shanties burdened by difficulty and squalor. Up we went to around 11,000’ and the top of Cerro Quemado, sacred mountain of the Huichols, who make annual pilgrimages to the site. Views in all directions, perfect weather, and not another person the entire time we were walking. We made our way back down a different route, following a ridgeline over to Cerro Oregano, whose namesake grows wild across the hill, and the huge cross above town, descending from there.

 

The next morning we walked north of town a ways, before leaving around noon via one of the antiquated Willys jeeps commonly used for tourist excursions in the Wirikuta Desert below town. Once a day, collective rides to Estacion de Catorce are offered at an abominably low rate for what ends up being over an hour long trip straight down the mountain and across the desert into town. Even better, we rode on top of the jeep with two other passengers and the luggage. It was nice to take in so much fresh air before the bus ride that awaited us that afternoon. We spent an hour soaking up some sun in the main plaza of Estacion before boarding for the hours long ride to Saltillo, Coahuila, and finally arrived there around dark just as the weather was getting very nasty indeed. It was back to winter in a flash, with snow and sleet beginning to blow sideways across the city, and the driver didn’t even bother to pull into the station, simply dropped us off on the main thoroughfare and sped off, hoping to make it to Monterrey before things got really ugly. Which they did, as I read the next morning of a 46 car pileup on the roads through town, and heard of other multi-vehicle accidents for the following two days.

 

We found our hotel, back to budget and with nothing in the city really set up for that kind of cold. Once again, as we were traveling through, we decided to spend a full day seeing what Saltillo had to offer, what kind of city it might be. Turns out, a really nice one. Mellow, relatively quiet, clean, and with all sorts of museums focused on everything from the Mexican Revolution to the history of the serape. The following day, the one after we arrive that is, the one we spend walking around the city, was bitterly cold with snow falling for most of the morning and afternoon. It was hard to find a place to eat in an enclosed setting, as most of the year it’s probably a lot more comfortable to dine in an open air atmosphere. Many of the shopkeepers didn’t bother to go to work, and even a couple of the museums we were going to check out were closed due to weather. We finally found the internationally renowned bird museum open, and ended up spending a couple of hours checking out all of the well-conceived exhibits and trying to memorize as many bird names in Spanish as possible. Afterwards, we tried to find anyplace warmish to hang out, eventually ending up at the Cineplex (which, though not all that toasty, was at least out of the wind). We decided to test our Spanish skills while watching Una Mujer sin Filtro, a contemporary comedy filmed in Mexico City. It ended up being easy enough to follow with or without total comprehension, and provided several warming laughs to boot.

 

The next morning it was back on a bus to Monterrey, only a couple hours away. The roads were relatively clear, though several passengers used their phones to film the frozen landscape outside the windows, an uncommon sight in that part of the world. We stayed the night in the same hotel we started out in, a block or so from the main terminal, and I enjoyed the full circle sensation of return. That evening we found the nicest place to eat available in that area of town, which isn’t all that nice to tell the truth, ate our final tacos and drank the last couple Carta Blancas of the trip. In the morning it was a few hours spent on a bus to the border, the crossing, the bus station, a cab ride to the van, and straight on out of Laredo, the open road before us, and no plans for anything to be over anytime soon.

 

 

Northbound 17

Left Terlingua, Texas and the southern border in early April of last year. Spent a week with family in the Panhandle, and drove out of Texas around the 14th. The end goal was returning to Alaska for the summer, where I guide whitewater trips for a company called NOVA, primarily on the Matanuska River, which is about an hour east of Palmer, which is about an hour north of Anchorage, which seems to be about the only place anyone has ever heard of in Alaska despite the question I’ve heard about 200 times in the past month “Where at in Alaska?” (Point being, I suppose, if you’re a recluse that cringes at small talk, you should never drive around the lower 48 in a van with Alaska license plates…)

However, the main goal, the means not the end goal, was to see a few states I’d spent little to no time in, but have been interested in for several years. The two main ones being Nebraska and South Dakota, with northern Montana thrown into the mix somewhat spontaneously after visiting some friends down near Yellowstone. I also spent about a day in Wyoming, a half-day in Idaho, and a week in Washington before boarding the ferry in Bellingham and traveling by boat through the Inside Passage up to Haines, AK. From there it was a day’s drive through a sliver of Canada, and then another day of driving over to Fairbanks, where I met up with some folks to do a training trip over Memorial Weekend. That’s the basics.

Here’s the details: Just before I left Texas I decided to participate in some sort of organized run in either Nebraska or South Dakota. I’m somewhat into running these days, I suppose, mostly on trails and on my own, but occasionally I enjoy signing up for an event and spending an hour or two panting alongside a bunch of semi-athletic types who appreciate fitness and suffering more than most of the people I normally hang out with. Anyway, thanks to the interweb, I was able to locate a half-marathon in Arthur, Nebraska, which happened to be more or less on the way to the Niobrara River, the floating of which was my main reason for visiting Nebraska in the first place. And so it was decided, first stop, Arthur.

Left Texas on a windy Friday morning, pausing for coffee in my long forgotten hometown of Stinnett perhaps for no reason other than to write it here, and pretty much cruised right on up through Kansas stopping for gas once and swerving around dead badgers a few different times. It was windy there as well. Ended up staying the first night on Lake McConaughy, enjoying a sunset and the sounds of passing trains.

In the morning I woke up early, drove the remaining 30 miles or so to the town of Arthur, population 146 according to the sign outside of town planted next to a barbed wire fence with posts covered in disintegrating cowboy boots. We, collectively around 120 people I believe, met at the high-school at 7 a.m., boarded three luxurious coach model school buses, and rode out to the start point at a place called Sillassen Ranch. 13 miles never seemed so far as it did that morning with the buses creeping along slowly up and down hill after hill. At the starting point, the wind was whipping, though it ended up blowing from the west all morning as we runners headed east. It was cold, but had it been a headwind instead, the day would have been miserable. Before the race started, the organizers asked all military veterans to step forward and then made the crowd thank us for our service. Having been in the Army for several years, every time someone tells me that I wonder what conservative douche started that trend in the first place, undoubtedly some nutless Fox News pundit trying to con viewers into believing their bigoted rhetoric stems from patriotism rather than cowardice. If you want to thank someone for their service, pick an environmental engineer, a teacher, your local collector of recyclables, or anyone working on the problem of overpopulation (which, I suppose, could grimly be considered to be a soldier after all, so whatever…). Above all, thank a farmer. Thank an artist.

After that we all honored a flag someone had gone to lengths to station nearby, while a high school girl sang the Star Spangled Banner over a portable PA system. Finally, with raw nipples each one of us from standing in the cold wind for 30 minutes in our running clothes, the gun sounded and we started the run. I was tired from poor sleep, untrained, and underprepared, but ended up doing alright I suppose. I ran the entire time, at least, and even finished with a better time than the last one I ran in Anchorage a few months ago. The Nebraska sandhills got bigger and bigger mile after mile, with the steepest two falling at miles 10 and 11, but then the last couple of miles into town were downhill, with BBQ provided to all finishers at the end. A good morning overall, and a great way to start a trip in the Midwest.

From Arthur, I drove up, over, and through further lengths of hills to north central Nebraska and the town of Valentine. On the drive, an odd coincidence occurred as the only station available on the radio was NPR, which was broadcasting the nationally syndicated program Radiolab. The minute I left town and turned on the radio, the show shifted to a story about the very area I was traveling through, which could easily be described as the middle-of-nowhere. It’s a place where there are no towns for long miles, and what small populations there are seem to be very small populations indeed. Not a place, in any event, that generates a lot attention from the national press. Anyway, this show was about one of those towns, or what was once one of those towns, with a populace of about 20 that proposed and then voted to unincorporate due to very opposing views as to what the town was about. Basically, from what I gathered, there were some folks who wanted freedom in the form of living like trashy shitbirds, and a few others who somehow got themselves elected into positions of power (again, in a town of 20 people) who wanted them to clean up their yards, lives, etc. In the end, the shitbirds won and the town was unincorporated. The vote was something like 11-9. As a result the no longer town basically lost all the services and rights once offered to them by the state, which seemed to be significant according to the story and recorded interviews, but no one was forced to clean up their yard. Also, in the end, my previously planned route took me to about 10 miles from what was once the town, and I elected to stick with that route rather than drive 20 miles out of my way to blink past a bunch of stupid people’s trash filled lawns, no matter how cool the coincidence seemed at the time.

Okay, maybe I’ll speed things up a bit from here on out, otherwise I’m guessing this is going to be much longer than the average internet user’s attention span (not that you, of course, my dear friends and family who have managed to follow thus far, are average internet users by any means..). Or, maybe I won’t. I’ll try, how about that? From the junction which led me away from the town, it was a beautiful backcountry drive into Valentine, where I planned on beginning a multi-day float trip on the Niobrara River.

Having worked on rivers for many years, I’ve always enjoyed asking clients about the rivers in their home state. Most folks from the Midwest (I’m hoping my geography is correct here in labeling Nebraska as such) generally guffaw at the question, though many will come up with something when pressed. Nebraskans always answer with the Niobrara, though pass it off as a canoeable stream generally inundated with drunken tubers. I’d heard several times that a 2-day trip was possible, and that it was indeed a beautiful stretch of water lined with waterfalls and wildlife, all this, mind you, by Nebraska standards according to Nebraska residents who often offered that caveat. As such, checking out the Niobrara served as the original impetus of this entire trip. And once I started looking into it online, about a week before I decided to go, of course, I learned that there is actually a 70+ mile section of river that is federally designated as wild and scenic. After a few inquiries to park service personnel and local outfitters, most of who encouraged me to only float the first 20 miles or so, I decided to canoe the entire stretch.

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Oh yeah, speeding things up. Great trip. 4 days. Lots of waterfalls and wildlife, as promised. From the river I saw buffalo, beavers, deer, bald eagles, lots of turkeys (one recently killed and being eaten on by an eagle), ducks, pheasants, monstrous soft shell turtles, and more. After the recommended initial section, the river changed characteristics quite a bit and finding one’s way around sandbars became a slight challenge, though the river was high enough that it wasn’t generally a problem. The only hairy moment came when I took a swift-moving side channel and ended up having to charge across the top of a tightly strung barbed wire fence. Two days of excellent weather, one day of so-so haziness, and then a final night of violent thunderstorms followed by an afternoon of rain, upstream gusts, and chills. I ended up paddling 30 miles into the wind that day, arriving at the van around dusk just in time to chat with the friendly local sheriff who was checking up on the abandoned vehicle his deputy reported some days earlier (after sniffing around for a whiff of a potentially decomposing body inside). I had left it at a supposedly official take-out that apparently receives very little use, and the sheriff was actually so nice that he even said I could go ahead and stay the night there, which is what I was intending on doing anyway as it was past dark by then. Did not see another person on the river at all, which is always my definition of success as far as wilderness trips are concerned.

The next morning I drove a series of small highways up and into South Dakota. I ended up heading east for a few extra miles in order to detour over to Mitchell and the ‘World’s Only Corn Palace,’ a long-standing tourist attraction designed to keep the town alive way back in 1892 (and back then, it wasn’t actually the only corn palace, but more of a rip off of another state’s original). I don’t generally go out of my way to stop at tourist traps in general; most of the time, in fact, I avoid them at all costs. But when I first heard about this place 15 years ago, for some reason the idea stuck in my head: an enormous palace adorned with annually changing murals made from corn. Who could resist? From what I saw of Mitchell, it’s a good thing the corn kingdom (which really isn’t all that enormous after all…) still exists, otherwise that place might not. However, I must say I considered it worth the stop (though I wouldn’t drive more than an hour tops out of the way to get there, if ever you’re traveling through). This year’s theme, which changes each fall hence the double year date, was ‘Rock of Ages.’ The façade murals included Elvis, a nondescript woman belting out a tune, a weird corn guy rocking out, and then for some reason moonwalking Michael Jackson, Saturday Night Fever Travolta, and a prominently featured Willie Nelson (though who knows, maybe it was Dicky Betts – it was made out of corn cobs, after all). So not entirely sure about the Rock part of the theme, but did enjoy checking everything out and seeing all the photos of the palace themes over the past century plus.

That afternoon, I finally started heading west and made it over to Badlands NP in the early evening. Watched the colors change over the Big Badlands Canyon as the sun set, spied on a porcupine walking around on top of nearby formations for a while, and then drove slowly across the north part of the park through multiple herds of mule deer. In the morning, I woke up super early and did some route planning. For some reason, before I left that part of the world, I had to stop off at one other tourist trap, one that I’ve seen ridiculous stickers from for countless years now, as well as billboards galore all across the state: Wall Drug. Somehow, I arrived in the town of Wall around 7 a.m., which happened to be when a few of the shops started to open. One of the ubiquitous billboards on the way in advertised ‘Free Coffee and Donut for Military Vets.’ I don’t generally bother mentioning to most folks that I was ever in the military, but hey, a free donut is way better than the before mentioned ‘thanks for your service’ comment. And damn that freshly made donut was about the best I’ve ever had.

One thing I learned from my South Dakota trip is that I enjoy Americana much more than I cared to admit. I spent about two hours wandering around that place amazed at the success of the original concept, which was basically get people off the highway and make some money by inundating the potential consumer with copious and relentless advertising (still is) and enticing them with a few potential freebies. In the beginning it was, get this, free ice water. There was also a large hall full of articles written about Wall Drug in various mainstream publications spanning several decades, along with exhibits of vintage black & white photos and written histories from the Black Hills area.

With a full tank of gas and a couple dollars less than I came with, I left Wall mid-morning and headed back into the park. Did some scenic driving, spotted several big horn sheep, lots of pronghorn, and uncountable mule deer. A few hours later, I ended up in the main campground drying and reorganizing gear from the river trip. The sun was shining, a light wind helped the drying, and the songs of meadowlarks permeated the afternoon. That evening, I took the bike and rode several miles over to one of the main trailheads, where I got in some sunset hiking and marveled at the ever-shifting hues of light illuminating and then fading from the characteristic formations. In the morning it was a lengthy run on the Castle Trail, followed by a drive west across the park, buffalo and prairie dog viewing, and eventually  finding a secluded spot to camp in a separate sector with amazing views from the rim of a plateau.

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The next morning entailed a lengthy drive across the high desert and along many miles of dirt roads. A shortcut of sorts, I suppose, on the way to Wind Cave NP. Here I went on the morning tour of a small section of what is apparently an incredibly vast and mostly unexplored cave system (also one of the earliest national parks, and the first cave to be designated as such – who knew…) Not the most exciting tour, if you want the truth, but then again being stuck underground with 40 people in a foreign environment guided by a seasonal employee of questionable competence and going ever deeper into a place you could die a slow terrible death in should the lights go out and you get lost, has never been all that appealing anyway. I suppose I only went because it seemed as if you couldn’t visit Wind Cave NP and not actually go in the cave, plus, truth be told, it was National Parks Day, so the tours were free, which made hanging out in the dark with a lot of loudly whining kids and some completely capable seeming old man with his ‘service dog’ and its homemade vest only slightly more tolerable.

Back on the surface, things were much happier. Spent that afternoon hiking around next to buffalo, and the next morning going on a run that ended up being much much longer than originally intended. Also had the distinctive experience of running, inadvertently, next to a small herd of bison and six pronghorns at the same time, and later causing a near stampede when more and more bison joined the original group in ‘our’ run, eventually forcing me to stop, change direction, and sneak around yet another herd. Within the first two steps of resuming the run, I almost trampled a startled coyote in its den which bolted with a surefire quickness.

And that was only the beginning of that day. From there I drove north through Custer State Park and into the Needles, multiple ranges of huge granite spires seemingly transplanted from the southern Sierra into western South Dakota. Without much warning, the road went from ordinary double lane highway to climbing single lane asphalt, hairpin turns, and tunnels so tight the van barely squeezed through. My initial plan was to rest for the rest of the day, and then hike Harney Peak, South Dakota’s highest point at around 7200’, the next morning, but when I asked the gatekeeper of the park what the weather might be like the next day she replied: ‘Snow. For the next week or so.’ So it was over to the trailhead and onto the summit. The trail passed through miles of beetle killed trees, and next to great chunks of neatly eroded towers as I walked under ever-darkening clouds. The top culminated in intricately designed stairways and a huge stone lookout structure built by the CCC long ago. From the tower there were great views to one side of the ridge, and cold misty clouds blowing swiftly up and over the other.

Once back at the van I decided I should start descending, and realized I could probably catch a quick glimpse of Mt. Rushmore before the day was over. And I did. And again, something I had somewhat low expectations for, and no overwhelming desire to visit in the first place (I suppose because I equated the site with places like Wall Drug and the Corn Palace, touristy stops for unmotivated chunkers looking for something to do between meals (this one with an American flag sweatshorts patriotic bend to it…)), turned out to be pretty darn impressive and interesting after all. I was wrong to judge without empirical evidence, though I’ll probably never learn that lesson. I guess that’s all I have to say about that.

That night it did indeed snow, and several inches at that. I woke up around Lake Sheridan, motivated to cook up some coffee and breakfast burritos in spite of the white, and decided to head into Rapid City to figure out what I should do next. Spent the day there, later spent the night near Deadwood, and due to the snow elected to skip the couple of other things I would have liked to do in South Dakota and head west the next day instead.

Drove into Wyoming in full sunshine which quickly turned into a dense fog as I headed north from the freeway the hour or so to Devil’s Tower. Entered the monument having yet to see anything resembling the famous formation, which is usually visible from miles 20170426_120121out. The parking lot and visitors center are at the base of the tower, where you still couldn’t see any rock at all despite being only a couple hundred yards away. There was lots of snow everywhere including at least 6-7” on all the boughs of all of the conifers making for stellar winter scenery and also neck freezing dump hazards when walked beneath the limbs (personal experience). After about an hour things cleared up enough to get some decent views. I walked the mile loop around the base listening to large sheets of ice breaking up and sliding off the columns terminating in small explosions. Saw a pair of peregrine falcons on the far side, and enjoyed the stroll through the quiet snowy landscape. Was nice to experience winter again after several years without.

The next day was driving into Montana across large swaths of green ranchland and through flurries of humongous snowflakes. Made it to Billings in the early morning, and spent a half-day there looking around town and going for a run on some trails down by the Yellowstone River. From there it was over to Livingston, which is about an hour-and-a-half north of Yellowstone NP and a half-hour east of Bozeman. Spent the next several days reconnecting with a couple of old friends that I hadn’t seen in years. They don’t know one another, and lead disparate lifestyles, but it was convenient enough to get to spend a few days with my friend Matt L, who I shared a house with for years in Colorado, and then head south to Emigrant to hang out with Sean H, who I know from the military and have kept in touch with over the past couple decades.

Matt, once a founding member of PETA when we were going to school at Ft. Lewis in Durango, now manages a mechanic shop, recreates motorized, and stockpiles guns. Full force Montana, in other words. He and the owner of the shop, Drew, treated me to a redneck weekend spectacular. We took off on Friday afternoon, drove across Yellowstone and over to Cooke City. Saw a couple bears along the way, lots and lots of bison, eagles, osprey, hundreds of elk, and plenty of early season tourists. I was quite surprised to arrive in Cooke City, the end of the road in the winter, and see that the mountains were indeed still packed with untold feet of snow.

Those guys go out on their snow bikes, a cross between dirt bike and snowmobile with one ski in front and large track in the back, almost every weekend and ride like banshees through the trees. When we arrived that afternoon, they gave me a conventional snowmobile with an absurd amount of horsepower and away we (well, they) went. I putted along behind somewhat nervous to see what the sled was actually capable of (this machine, by the way, had just been repaired since a throttle-sticking incident which ended up leaving one of their mechanics with a broken femur some months earlier). We rode around most of the afternoon, had a big fire and wild game BBQ that evening, and then went back out the next morning for a long ride into the mountains. While I still prefer to burn calories over fuel when in the wilderness, I ended up having a great time and kind of getting the hang of things as far as getting on the gas went. I also managed to avoid crashing into any trees and destroying myself or the recently rebuilt snowmobile, so success overall. Was also fun watching Matt and crew disappear into the trees and fly off the occasional snowberm.

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The next afternoon we met up at Drew’s place for some shooting and basically blasted away for several hours. Target practice, skeet shooting, a fantastic tannerite explosion (look up on YouTube if you haven’t seen this (why is this legal? Not sure, but if you have some extra cash and a high powered rifle I’d recommend seeing it for yourself at least once.)), and some experimenting with Matt’s self-smithed black powder rifle. Crazy to imagine that people were once proficient with these weapons as you have to aim, fire, hope the flint ignites the powder, which it often doesn’t, keep aiming through the smoke when the powder does light, and finally hold steady once it actually fires. Anyways, hell of a weekend. Ye-haw everybody.

From Drew’s house it was a short drive south to meet up with Sean outside of Emigrant, MT. He bought an amazing piece of property some years back, and lives way up on a hill backed up by Forest Service land. Most of the ‘neighborhood’ consists of empty multi-million dollar houses owned by rich folks who are seldom home. The views are stunning, and with the access he has to the wilderness there’s almost no reason to leave the place on his days off as he can just walk around the hills next to his house and spot more wildlife than you would likely see in the national park. I only got to hang out there for a couple nights, but we did a lot of walking around and catching up. Also, thanks to Sean’s hospitality and hunting success, I ate a lot of elk meat. The second day we headed over to Tom Miner Basin to look for grizzlies, one of Sean’s hobbies along with wildlife photography and, again, Montana, shooting (both targets and in-season game). Still seemed a bit early for the bears to be really active, but we did follow some tracks through the snow for a while. Also caught sight of a couple moose, a herd of bighorns, and loads of white-tail and mule deer.

Sean works in the park and had to take off at dawn the next day. I followed him out and made it to Chico Hot Springs for an early morning soak before spending most of the day driving north. I had originally considered spending a few days paddling around Yellowstone Lake, but access was still closed in early May due to snow, and reportedly a lot of the lake was still frozen. As such, changed plans and decided to take advantage of my (relatively) close proximity to the Missouri River Breaks, a canoeing section of the Upper Missouri I’d only heard of earlier this year. Made it into Ft. Benton later that evening after a ridiculous misadventure on some incredibly muddy roads leading to a rural ferry operated by a surly old man with the nose of a lifelong alcoholic. I’ll skip the details. I’ll also go ahead and skip a lot of the details of the week long trip, which was awesome, but will tell you that it started with a lot of uncertainty as to how I could run my own shuttle and which sections I would be able to do due to limitations pertaining to that problem.

In the end, I elected to take a big chance and hitchhike on remote county roads for 150 miles across northern Montana. That allowed me to stay out of the treacherous mud as well as paddle the entire Wild and Scenic stretch of river, though, as before in Nebraska, most officials suggested I might just want to do the more popular sections of the run. They were right, of course, but most times I like to find out for myself. Woke up at 5 in the morning, left my canoe and belongings at the boat campground in Ft. Benton, drove to the take out arriving around 8:30. Sharpied up a cardboard sign and packed a possibilities bag, knowing I could be spending the night out there somewhere, walked across the road, tried to smile, and stuck out my thumb. In the end, I got super lucky. The first car that picked me half-an-hour later dropped me off at a junction about 20 miles down the road, and then, for the first time in my life, a slowing semi pulled over to let me in. The driver, Frank, told me that he was eventually going to Ft. Benton, however, first ‘we’, I was immediately part of the team, which was sweet, would have to detour a few miles in order to pick up a load of fertilizer, but that I could hang out if I wanted instead of getting off where I’d originally requested. I considered myself incredibly fortunate to be in motion at that point, and didn’t need to think about that one at all. On the ride, Frank told me all about the agricultural industry in that part of the world, ‘we’ got our 84,000 lbs. of fertilizer, I got to see a slightly different route than I’d driven that morning, and Frank dropped me in town around 1 pm. An auspicious beginning to the Upper Missouri.

Put in that afternoon and made it almost 20 miles before arriving at camp. Spent seven days floating 150 miles of river, doing a fair amount of hiking, and admiring all sorts of changing scenery and wildlife. Plenty of sunshine most days, but also got to see a couple big thunderstorms roll through, and experienced some major wind at times – though on this stretch of the Missouri the standard pattern actually results in the wind blowing primarily – and what seems like miraculously after all these years on desert rivers – downstream. The first 50 miles or so was mostly farmland and rolling hills, followed by the White Cliffs section, replete with its namesake formations (and also impressively juxtaposed intrusive black dykes) for the next 40, and the Badlands stretch for the final 60 miles. This section, though not as popular as the White Cliffs, was my favorite for its distinctive wilderness feel. The riverbanks also hold lots of history in the form of century-old homesteads to visit, and all along the way the guidebooks offer tidbits of information pertaining to the Lewis and Clark expedition which used the river enroute to the Rockies and beyond.

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From the Missouri it was north again, and then west. A couple days later, I was in Glacier NP, most of which was still closed due to snow. Camped two nights, and caught a couple of sunsets from the banks of Lake McDonald. The one full day I spent there, I rode my single-speed bike 25 miles through the park, up over and down a steep pass, and then along the North Fork of the Flathead River on the western boundary to the locally recommended Polebridge Mercantile, famous for its baked goods, where I had a cup of coffee and a fritter before turning around and riding back.

Westbound now, I checked out White Fish for a morning, had some food at a brewery in Libby, stopped by Kootenai Falls for a while, stayed the night at Bull Lake, and then strolled around the Ross Creek Cedars before leaving Montana a couple days later. Did a run along Lake Pend Oreille and some shopping in Sandpoint, ID, and then kept moving. Ended up cutting back south after Spokane and taking a somewhat circuitous route which eventually led over to Tacoma via the Columbia Wildlife Refuge and Mount Rainier. I loved the refuge. Lots of streams and reed filled lakes/ponds, tall grasses, columnar basalt cliffs, and fantastic colors as the light shifted each evening. Stayed one night along the Tieton River, and then did a slow early morning walk through a grove of old-growth trees at the base of Mt. Rainier while sipping coffee the next day.

In Tacoma, I visited another old Army friend and stayed with him and his 4-year-old son for a few days. From there it was up to Bellingham to catch the ferry to Haines through the Inside Passage, a route I’ve longed to travel for years now, and am thankful to have had the opportunity to do so. Within an hour of leaving port, a pod of orcas swam within view, and that’s basically about how good the whole trip was in my mind. All sorts of weather, from dense fog to belting sun to pounding rain, and I loved every minute of it. Spent three days on the ship and slept each night in a tent on the upper deck. Lots of narrow channels, waterfalls, and marine life. Eventually managed to briefly transcend the solitary travel mode I’d slipped into and have some interesting conversations with some interesting people. The second full day the ship landed in several coastal Alaskan towns, Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg. Each time it stopped a couple of guys and I would grab our bikes and go tearing about seeing everything we could before having a quick drink at a local pub, and then furiously pedal back again before the ship’s departure. Three days after boarding we arrived in Haines and drove off the ferry. 20170521_211040I did some short hikes there, and ended up camping out at a state park surrounded by glaciers with a few of the folks I’d met onboard. The next morning everyone went their separate ways, though we’d later pass each other a few times on the way through Canada and beyond. I stayed to run around the park trails a bit (back to yelling for grizzlies every few steps), then headed north again, this time up the Chilkat River, across the border, through BC, and into the Yukon. Camped one night in Canada next to a little creek and re-crossed into Alaska the next day. Spent the morning looking at birds in the Tetlin Refuge, messed around in Tok a bit, and then kept moving.

The last week of travel was a day at the Chena hot springs, north of Fairbanks, where I toured their thermo-generated power plant and impressive hydroponic greenhouse (9,000 lbs of tomatoes last year, along with a variety of greens and more, all used in the restaurant) before soaking for a few hours in the outdoor pool. The next day I biked around Fairbanks all afternoon, cruising around town and checking out the sandhill cranes on their summer grounds. Spent Memorial weekend on the Chatanika River doing some training with a company that runs trips in the arctic, hoping to guide one later that summer, though things fell through in the end due to cancelled reservations. People talk. From there it was south again, down to Denali to have dinner with my old boss at Denali Raft Adventures, and then further south still to Palmer, AK and back to the Matanuska. And then there I was, 5500+ miles later and hanging out at the NOVA camp getting ready to throw on a drysuit and run some whitewater…