Run Alaska! (and Canada…)

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

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

IMGP4694

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

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

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

alaska 3

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

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

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

IMGP4368

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

IMGP4351

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

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

IMGP4526

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

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

alaska 19

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

alaska 13

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

alaska 20

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

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

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

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

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

20170919_114724

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

20170916_125324

 

Up 9th Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish she’d give me the chance.

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

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

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

‘Recurrently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2009)

Peru

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMGP6423IMGP6432

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

IMGP6441

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

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

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

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

IMGP6446

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

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

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

IMGP6463

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

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

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

IMGP6477

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

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

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

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

IMGP6499

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

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

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

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

IMGP6564

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

IMGP6600

IMGP6597

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

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

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

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

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

IMGP6632

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

IMGP6692IMGP6693

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

 

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

Run Tennessee!

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

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

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

IMGP2398

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

IMGP2386

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

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

IMGP2448

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

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

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

20180426_160256

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

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

IMGP2822

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

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

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

IMGP2615