Road Trip! Cape Cod to Bar Harbor: Giving This Empty Nest Thing A Test Drive

The awkward airport hug dispensed with, my husband and I wave goodbye to our son, watch his first steps toward what promises to be a grand adventure across The Pond. There may or may not have been a few sniffles. Funny how things always seem to get in my eye at times like this.

I remind myself that this will be for real next year when The Kid leaves for college.

Damn. Wouldn’t you know, there’s something in my other eye now.

Saying Goodbye
Going our separate ways…

But Jeff and I come to this parting prepared! Armed with a full itinerary and myriad confirmation numbers, we have our own grand adventure planned. Let’s just say all the lobsters in New England await our arrival with quivering claws!

BOUNCING IN AND OUT OF BEANTOWN:

Boston greets us with crisp, cool air and a bright, shiny morning. A good omen. Piling our bags into our rental Jeep, we dash from the city – for now. We’ll spend some quality time in Beantown on the return trip.

A note about driving in Boston: Everyone seems to have a cautionary tale about Boston drivers. We call jabberwocky! Ain’t nothing we haven’t seen or honked at in Atlanta!

CAPE COD:

I have a confession.  Cape Cod is the foremost reason I planned this entire trip. For I am an unabashed Henry Beston groupie.

Beston Book and Mug

Yes, he’s dead. Yes, he was married. As am I. (Married, that is.) But how can you not crush a little on a man who writes, “To see the night sky in all its divinity of beauty, the world beneath it should be lovely, too, else the great picture is split in halves which no mind can ever really weld into a unity of reverence.”

[swoon]

Henry Beston was thirty-seven when he bought fifty acres of duneland on what is currently Nauset Beach, near Eastham, Massachusetts. He had a small two-room cottage built there, which he intended as a vacation home. That was 1925. The following September, he came for a two-week retreat at the cottage. He stayed a year. By himself. An aficionado of nature and artist of words, his book, The Outermost House, is the product of that year, and a classic in American nature writing.

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Beston’s Outermost House, or, Fo’ Castle, as he called it

My husband politely ignores my gasp as we roll up to the Inn at the Oaks. A charming B&B built in 1870 (back then it was called the Overlook Inn), it also happens to be where Henry Beston stayed (and wrote!) while his Fo’ Castle was under construction on the beach below.

Inn at the Oaks
The Inn at the Oaks

It hits me: I will be sleeping under the same roof Henry Beston slept under! And writing, too, no doubt.

Captain Room at Inn at the Oaks
Our Room at the Inn

After checking in, it’s time to explore! We head to Coast Guard Beach where the old Coast Guard station still stands. Henry (I think I’ve earned the right to call him by his first name by now) was good friends with the surfmen stationed there in 1926-27. They invited him to meals, delivered his mail, and stopped in at the Fo’ Castle from time to time to check on him. An admirable lot these men were! Given the 1,000+ shipwrecks along this stretch of coast over the years, their amazing rescue efforts were nothing short of heroic. Henry tells some of their tales in his book.

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The Old Coast Guard Station – Oh, the stories it could tell!

As we top the hill next to the station, we see Harbor seals bobbing in the shallows ahead. Even at a distance, they’re playful – dodging Jeff’s camera lens just as he snaps the pic!

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A curious seal greets us!
Jaws Is Real
By the way, JAWS is real!!

The sand is course and loose and quite beautiful. A little challenging to tred, though, as we walk the mile north to Nauset Light (another of Henry’s haunts).

Lucky us! Today, and today only, the Lighthouse Preservation Society is offering free tours inside Nauset Light. Does it look familiar? The lighthouse is featured on Cape Cod brand potato chip bags!

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Nauset Light (a.k.a. the Cape Cod Potato Chips Lighthouse)
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Winding Staircase In Nauset Light
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View from Nauset Light

Our stomachs growling, we walk back to the car and head for the Friendly Fisherman, a local favorite for seafood, as recommended by the friendly folks at the B&B. They also recommended pairing our food with some local cider made in Provincetown on the northern tip of the Cape.

Dinner at Friendly Fisherman
Dinner at the Friendly Fisherman. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Approximately two hours after this pic was taken, we decided we are entirely too old to eat like this.

My head is a little fuzzy from said local cider when we realize we need to hurry over to the bay side of the Cape to catch the sunset at First Encounter Beach. Jeff, being an efficient drinker of beer, is finished with his bottle. Not wanting to hold us up, I make for the car with the remainder of mine. Jeff stares at me aghast.

“At least hold the bottle next to your leg while you walk.”

“What? Why?”

“You are familiar with open container laws, right?”

“Oh. Yeah. Okay. But it’s not like I’m driving”

Jeff looks doubtful. “Sheesh.”

“I’m not very good at trying to get away with things,” I add.

“I noticed.”

Minutes later, we pass two cops questioning a motorist they’d stopped. I point at the scene, oblivious to the bottle still clutched in my hand.

“Oh my God! Put that down!”

“Oops. Sorry.”

We look at each other. Then laugh til our sides hurt.

Less than a mile later we stand on the shore of the bay, awestruck by the spectacular visage taking command of the evening sky. Oranges, purples, blues, and reds stretch overhead with a great, colorful sigh. All is still, enveloped in a hush, save for the lazily lapping waves. Breathing, blinking, we do not speak, lest we interrupt the Divine.

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Cape Cod-ese for “Good night and pleasant dreams!”

Day 2 on Cape Cod finds us strapping on helmets at Little Capistrano Bike Shop. A few minutes and a few turns later, we’re sailing down the Cape Cod Rail Trail toward Nickerson State Park. I use the word sailing because the terrain is quite flat, as you can imagine. Not so much in Nickerson.

While Jeff continues sailing over both hill and dell, I am huffing along in granny-gear, trying not to topple over. (Guess which of us rides more often.)  I persevere, red faced and sweaty. A stroller-mom brigade shouts out words of encouragement. I must look downright pathetic. But then…the downhill!

On one particularly thrilling descent, I belt out a high-pitched “wheee!” Unfamiliar with the noise, Jeff calls over his shoulder, “Guess that bird wasn’t too happy with us!” “That wasn’t a bird! It was me!” I call back. He shakes his head, laughing as he pedals away.

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Lunch break in Orleans!

After a quick lunch stop in Orleans at the Sparrow Café (If you ever find yourself at the Sparrow, treat yourself to a caramallow. You’ll thank me later.), we ride back to Eastham, turn in our bikes, and drive twenty minutes south to Harwich to see the Cape Cod Lavender Farm.

A total bust.

Not the farm. Our timing. Turns out the lavender doesn’t bloom for another two weeks. Still, it’s a lovely place. We had originally planned to bike here. I’m glad we didn’t; then I’d be both disappointed and in pain!

Lavender farm
This is what Cape Cod Lavender Farm WOULD have looked like if we’d just been a couple weeks later. (sigh)

Returning to Eastham, we stop at the Visitor Center for the National Seashore. Another little Henry Beston tidbit: it was Beston’s The Outermost House that inspired the establishment of the National Seashore. JFK happily signed the bill in 1961. Thanks, Jack!

From the Visitor Center, we hike six miles through woods and marsh, and finally, across the sand to the end of Nauset Spit. A spit, in this context (noun), is simply a finger of land just off the coast, as opposed to something you generally shouldn’t do into the wind (verb).

Looking Over Marsh from Guard Station
Overlooking the Marsh
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Sand Formations on Nauset Spit

We watch the hilarious antics of the gulls and terns on the spit. Tis nesting season! Like ventriloquists, we add our own commentary to the unfolding dramas around us until we’re laughing too hard to carry on. I’d say we’re easily amused, but it takes stalwart practice and talent to add voices to erratic animal behavior!

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Laughing Gulls (naturally!)

What’s the difference between a gull and a tern, you might ask? In general, gulls have slightly curved, or hooked, beaks, whereas terns tend to have sharp, pointed beaks. Gulls’ legs tend to look longer, too. Terns dive for their dinner, whereas gulls tend to scoop theirs from just below the surface, sometimes hanging out on the water afterward like a duck. Also, a gull is more likely to check out your picnic leftovers, while a tern’s taste tends to be more discerning.

We’re almost back to the old Coast Guard Station when we see it: a Piping Plover! As in, the plover currently on the Endangered Species List! I like to think that was a little gift from Henry.

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Piping Plover (an endangered species)

Back in the car, we drive to Provincetown, which is the northern most point of Cape Cod. We snap a few pics of the Old Harbor Life-Saving Station, take a turn through charming little Provincetown, then return to Henry’s old stomping ground (the B&B) for a hot shower and a well-deserved night’s sleep. Our time in Cape Cod is nearly done, but there’s plenty of adventure ahead!

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Old Harbor Life-Saving Station at Race Point Beach (northern most point of the Cape)

The next morning, I sit on the porch with a blueberry scone and coffee, studying the colors in the garden before me and doing value sketches in my head. Cadmium yellow – Phthalocyanine blue –Burnt Sienna –a touch of Titanium white for the spent iris stems below the rock wall.

But I don’t stay in my own head for long. A couple from New Jersey with a black lab pup named Hazel return from their morning walk. Hazel is a seeing-eye dog in training they tell me, as Hazel gnaws contentedly on my arm.

Not long after they disappear up the stairs, a young man – a meat cutter from New Bedford, he says proudly − stops by. He is waiting on his wife, for they too are leaving the Cape today. They are expecting their first child, a son, in August. The young man would like to buy a house, but doesn’t want to put down roots where they currently live because of the drugs and crime. He tells me about losing several friends to opioids, how his own cousin died of an overdose the week before the young man’s wedding, and how he wants more for his son. Our conversation turns to Asheville, North Carolina, where he and his wife went for their honeymoon. He seems quite enamored with the south. I smile and nod. I don’t have the heart to tell him there are just as many problems in my part of the country. I guess we all have to do our fair share of running before we realize it’s just best to bloom where you’re planted sometimes.

Hanging Basket
On the porch…just ’cause it’s lovely

A note about art. I recently started painting. Acrylics, mainly. Landscapes. I don’t know that it will ever amount to anything, but it restores my sense of wellbeing when I need it most. Naturally, I appreciate art more than ever now, so I was delighted to find works from the Eastham Painters Guild hanging in the common areas of the B&B. I was even more delighted to learn they were for sale. And so…I do a thing. I purchase some art.

Nothing big. Nothing crazy-expensive. But something that, to me, captures the simple beauty of Cape Cod. Mark, one of the innkeepers, wraps the painting  in a box that at one time contained a case of yogurt. My husband is concerned about how to get it home safely. I assure him it will share my seat on the plane ride home. He doesn’t roll his eyes. Not while I’m looking, anyway. And from that moment on, the piece is known as My Precious. (If you don’t get the Tolkien reference, well, bless your heart.)

My Precious
My Precious! (a.k.a. “The Lighthouse” by Cape Cod artist Pat Nickerson)

PLYMOUTH:

My Precious safely secured in the car, we head to Plymouth, Massachusetts − home of Plymouth Rock. I should probably mention here that I am seldom impressed with things I am supposed to find impressive. Plymouth Rock is no exception. Sorry folks, but it is essentially an underwhelming slab of granite currently residing beneath a Roman-esque enclosure…with trash floating in the water around it.

Identified as “the spot” 121 years AFTER the Mayflower landed, a large shadow of doubt looms over whether or not this particular slab is worthy of its fame. But hey, everyone loves a good myth, right? (I invite you to do your own research on it. You won’t have to go far to find it.)

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That’s a BIG assumption, Massachusetts, but sure, I’ll play along…
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Plymouth Rock (looking a little worse for wear)

Also of note – and slightly morbid – in Plymouth is the Pilgrim Sarcophagus, containing the remains of Mayflower Pilgrims who died the first year after their arrival.

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Pilgrim Sarcophagus

And the statue of William Bradford, the English Puritan and Mayflower Pilgrim who became leader of the colony when the original leader, John Carver, died.

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William Bradford (but you already knew that, right?)

Oh, and the memorial to the brave Pilgrim Women! Well-deserved, no doubt!

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Memorial to Women of the Mayflower

SALEM:

We scoot on up the coast to Salem to see the Salem Witch Trial Memorial.  A little backstory is in order: Back in 1692, two young girls (the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris) began having strange, mysterious fits. The doctor concluded the girls were the victims of witchcraft. (One wonders how much of this was to cover up his own ineptitude. I don’t know what’s wrong with them, so it must be witchcraft!) The girls played along, of course, and when pressed by the doctor and their parents, named those supposedly responsible: the so-called witches.

It snowballed from there. Other residents began claiming they too were afflicted. Accusations flew back and forth faster than broomsticks until over 150 people – mostly middle-aged women – stood accused of participating in satanic practices. In the end, fourteen women and five men, all innocent, were executed by order of Chief Justice William Stoughton.

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Salem Witch Trials Memorial (dedicated in 1992, about 300 years too late)

Bridget Bishop was the first to be executed. Apparently, by Puritan standards, she was a little on the loose side with her fashion choices, plus, she’d been married a few times. Low-hanging fruit for anyone wishing to be rid of “her kind.”

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If you’ve read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, let this sink in for a moment:

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John Proctor (hanged August 19, 1692)
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Rebecca Nurse (hanged July 19, 1692)
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Sarah Good (hanged July 19, 1692)
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Giles Corey (pressed to death September 19, 1692)

We don’t stay long in Salem. Frankly, I am appalled by the commercialization of such a national disgrace. Get your tee-shirt, have your pic taken in the stocks, walk through a witches’ haunted house, visit the “witch sites.” They even have green “Witch City” taxis. Think it would be disgusting if people starting doing “haunted” tours around any of the 9/11 sites? Give ‘em a few hundred years.

Bye, Salem. Can’t say I’m sad to see you in our rearview mirror.

KENNEBUNKPORT:

Much, MUCH better! Love this town! Charming, clean, picturesque, and all-around stunning. I can see why the Bush family chose this as their home away from home.

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Kennebunkport, Maine

We stop at Walker’s Point and take a pic of their compound and wouldn’t you know, but George H.W. Bush is there! No, I don’t actually see him, but I do know if the Maine, Texas, and American flags are up, the former first family is in residence. (The Secret Service is also somewhat of a giveaway.)

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George H.W. Bush is home (his Maine home, that is).
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St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, where George and Barbara Bush worshipped

PORTLAND:

Our stop for the night! Before we run out of sunlight, we drive to Fort Williams Park to see the famous Portland Head Lighthouse – the most photographed lighthouse in the country. It did not disappoint.

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Portland Head Lighthouse in Portland, Maine

Running my hands over the rough surface of the core, I think back to my childhood, to a time when I thought lighthouses were just somewhere else, somewhere I’d never get to go. Life is full of surprises, isn’t it?

Portland Head Lighthouse Up Close

The rocks below the lighthouse almost look like petrified wood, but they are alternating layers of quartzite and dark gray phyllite.

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Rocks below Portland Head Lighthouse (quarzite and dark gray phyllite)

From here, we can see three other lighthouses:

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Ram Island Ledge Light
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Portland Breakwater Lighthouse (Bug Light)
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Two Lights State Park

Of course I take a turn sitting on the rock where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is said to have sat for inspiration. I’m always up for a dose of inspiration, after all!

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Sitting on Longfellow’s rock

After a long day of driving, pizza is in order! We pull in to an adorable little service station-turned-pizzeria called Otto’s, order a couple of locally brewed beers, and toast to a day worth remembering.

Beer and Pizza at Otto in Portland
Refreshments!

BAR HARBOR/ACADIA NATIONAL PARK:

Between the lush swaths of lupine and an apparent billboard ban, I-95 offers up a beautiful drive all the way to Acadia National Park.

Lupine along I-95

Parking under a quaking aspen, we start down the Jordan Pond Trail. A perfect day. Not a cloud in the sky as a firm breeze bunches up the surface of the clear water.

Jordan Pond with the Bubble Mountains in the background

We stop to watch frogs, writhing groups of tadpoles, a garter snake, and to admire the handiwork of the local beavers.

Eastern Garter Snake
A beaver calling card

Jeff scales up South Bubble Mountain while I scope out the wildflower offerings.

Jeff’s view of Jordan Pond from atop South Bubble Mountain
Beach Heath (I think)
Blue-eyed Grass

By the time we reach the end of the trail, it’s time to drive in to Bar Harbor and check in at the Holbrook House, a gorgeous B&B run by innkeepers Eric and Michelle. We’re staying in the newly renovated Seafarer’s Room and it’s lovely!

Holbrook House Bed and Breakfast

Heading to the center of town to scout out a proper lobster dinner, we stop at the sand bar leading from Bar Harbor to Bar Island. During low tide, which it just happens to be, it is possible to walk between the two.  Among the periwinkle clam shells and assorted rocks, we spot a tiny starfish.

Beach combing on the sand bar between Bar Harbor and Bar Island
Tiny starfish stranded on the sand bar

Bar Harbor is lovely. Sadly, it’s starting to get overrun with tourists, thanks in part to the cruise ships that have started docking here. But still…

Bar Harbor Life
More Bar Harbor Life
And still more Bar Harbor Life!
Me and a REALLY Big Puffin
Gold Chain Tree (just part of the beautiful flora around Bar Habor)

Dinner is at West Street Café: Sautéed lobster, baked potato, and cole slaw. The food was heavenly! The service, not so much.

Lobster Dinner in Bar Harbor

On our way home, we score some dessert to go (blueberry pie for me, thanks!) and spend a little quality time in the rocking chairs on the front porch of the Holbrook House.

We sleep through the rain the next morning, but make it downstairs in time for Michelle’s extraordinary blueberry pancakes. It’s twenty degrees cooler today, but good enough for a hike!

Checking the tides, we determine we’d better get to the Thunder Hole on Ocean Path sooner rather than later. If all the conditions are met and the stars in the cosmos in perfect alignment, air will get trapped in a cavern beneath one of the boulders as the tide comes in, bursting forth with a sound very much like thunder. On this particular day, the stars are clearly not aligned. No matter. The view is gorgeous with or without sound effects.

Waiting for the non-event at Thunder Hole

We climb the Beehive next. I should clarify for those not familiar with it, that it is most definitely not a beehive, only shaped like one. And for those who are familiar with it, we chose the trail up the back, not the straight-up-the-cliff route.  Give me a break. I climbed Half Dome in Yosemite last year. I don’t have to prove my bad-assedness anymore. Besides, my knees asked me not to.

Heading up the Beehive Trail surrounded by aspens (my most favorite tree in the whole, wide world!)
Jeff standing on the Beehive
View from the summit of the Beehive (not too shabby, eh?)

From there, we hiked to The Bowl, which was basically a pond surrounded by mountains and boasting a rather impressive beaver hut in the center. The song of a Black-throated Green Warbler accompanies us, just as it has pretty much everywhere we’ve been on this trip!

The Bowl (note the beaver hut on the left)
Bunchberries on the trail around The Bowl
Mountain Laurel

Back up we go to more breathtaking views, this time via the Gorham Trail.

Scenes from the Gorham Trail
Gorham Trail
Jeff surveying the breathtaking coast of Maine

We finish the hike, but we’re not finished exploring this astounding national park! Winding our way around Somes Sound and past Southwest Harbor, we come to the end of the land – marked by Bass Harbor Lighthouse. I’m loving all these lighthouses! Like people, they come in all shapes and sizes, some more weathered than others.

Bass Harbor Head Light

We stumble into a delightful Irish pub back in Bar Harbor for dinner. In honor of our son’s travels, of course. And the Guinness.  Afterward it’s time to hit the proverbial hay. Our alarm is set for 3:40 a.m. (Yes, you read that right.)

At 4:06 the next morning we creep out of the B&B to catch sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain. At certain times of the year, it is the first point in the continental U.S. to be touched by the sun’s rays. This is particularly special to us because we have an agreement with our son: we’ll wave at him from New England the moment those first rays hit (4:46 a.m. our time) and he’ll wave back from “Olde” England (surreptitiously, no doubt) at 9:46 a.m. his time. We’re silly and sentimental like that.

The very top of Cadillac Mountain is covered with fog, so we, along with a hundred of our “closest friends” park along the side of the road where we all perch, cameras in gloved hands. A lone White-throated Sparrow coaxes the sleepy eye of the sun open. A glorious daybreak, albeit marrow-chilling cold.

Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain (waving across The Pond to The Kid!)
Encore Pic (because I couldn’t decide on just one)

By 5:30, we’re pretty much the only people on Cadillac. With a dismissive shrug, we set off exploring the summit, quite pleased with ourselves when we find the elusive summit marker. (Incidentally, Cadillac Mountain is not named for the car, but for the French explorer, Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac. Might come in handy next time you play Trivial Pursuit.)

Summit Marker on Cadillac Mountain (Note: Feldspar makes Cadillac Mountain look pink. My apologies if you now have that Aretha Franklin song stuck in your head.)
Acadia National Park as seen on our way back down Cadillac Mountain

Back at the B&B, we’re met by the Holbrook House dog, a little cotton ball with legs named Pookah. Eric tells me it’s an old Gaelic word for mischievous. I don’t know about mischievous, but Pookah is pretty down with the belly rubs.

Pookah, the Holbrook House Dog

After a hearty breakfast of Monte Christo sandwiches, we’re back on the road. This time to the Acadia National Park Visitors Center so that Jeff can add more stamps to his National Park passport book. By lunchtime, we’re bumming around Bar Harbor again, killing time before our 1:15 nature cruise, which turns out to be a big ole bucket of awesome!

Well, perhaps I should qualify that statement.

The truth is, the ocean is choppy. Angry might be a better adjective. Okay, downright diabolical, if it pleases the pedants reading this. Because within the first ten minutes of our three and a half hour cruise, everyone seated on the starboard side of the boat is baptized by full immersion. Or looks like they have been, anyway. We laugh it off as a rogue wave. Such is the wisdom of landlubbers.

BUT…the big ole bucket of awesome comes later in the form of PUFFINS and Razorbills and Eiders – OH MY!! All firsts on my birding life list! Add in the gray seals, harbor seals, and a lighthouse, and voila! A HUGE bucket of awesome!

Playful Puffins!
A Puffin Take-Off!

 

Razorbill
Common Eider
The rest of the Eider family!
Arctic Bird Mixer!
Petit Manan Lightouse
Winter Harbor Lighthouse
Harbor Seals: Mom and Pup
The Three Stooges
Curious Pup
“Huh?”
Egg Rock Lighthouse

By the return trip, the winds have picked up, sending sheets of water across both bow and stern of the tiny vessel. Everyone crowds into the hull, about twenty-five us in a space made for fifteen. The man to my left suddenly runs for the door – water be damned – his face growing greener with each step.  Next up with her offering to the sea is the woman seated to my right. (I am starting to get a complex.) Across the way, a woman stands, then folds like she’s been kicked in the stomach. She’s trying to make for the door in that position when another “rogue” wave crashes against the boat, slamming the poor woman’s head against the wall. Somehow she makes it outside. Jeff is seated near the center. He looks questioningly over his shoulder at me. I nod. I’m fine. For now.

So, yeah. A big ole bucket of awesome! For which the courageous crew earned a big ole tip!

Getting our land legs back, we venture back into town for our final Bar Harbor dinner. Translation: Gotta get a lobster roll!! Stewman’s Lobster Pound it is!

BOSTON:

Boston bound, baby! We’re up at the crack of dawn, which, for the record, isn’t so painful when the sun is already up.

By 11:30, we’re standing in front of Cheers (as in, the classic sitcom from the 1980s and early 90s) having our picture taken by a British couple. We’re all there for the same thing: a beer and a burning desire to see if everyone knows our name. They don’t, of course, but it’s still a fun place to eat. The inside is nothing like the set used for the show, but there’s still a bar, ample seating, and no one judges if you suddenly blurt out, “Norm!”

Waiting for Sam and Diane to show…

After consuming beer before noon on a Saturday, we march across Boston Common, past the swan cruises, the ducks, the street musicians, and the laughing children, to the start of the Freedom Trail. Marked with a narrow brick path, the Freedom Trail is two and a half miles long, with sixteen historically significant points along the way. Pretty cool in theory. In reality, it’s…well…kind of a letdown.

Walking the Freedom Trail…where the stops are not necessarily free

Here’s the rub: I’m not a big fan of the whole “nickle-and-dime” routine. (Funny, that’s exactly how the patriots felt about all those taxes England tried to cram down their throats.) Of the sixteen historical stops along the Freedom Trail, three charge admission, two expect a donation (and watch for it like they’re taking names), one isn’t even a site anymore (Chipotle, anyone?), one has a 20-minute wait to go through security, and at one a man thrusts a worn yellow folder into my hands containing information he’s printed from some Google searches, as well as a pocket in which one is expected to leave a donation when returning the folder (same exit as entrance, and the dude parks himself in the middle of it like a seedy bar bouncer – quite the racket, as I see numerous yellow folders floating through the crowd). The other stops are interesting, but fairly unremarkable. In short, Washington, D.C. this is not.

As far as cities go, I can take or leave Boston. I’m not particularly impressed, nor am I particularly disgusted. It was just kind of…I don’t know…meh. That said, here are some of the sights from the Freedom Trail:

Massachusetts State House (The dome was wood originally, but Paul Revere & Sons covered it with copper in 1802 to prevent water damage. The gold leaf was added in 1874.)
John Hancock’s Grave (Granary Burying Ground)
Paul Revere’s Grave (Granary Burying Ground)
Samuel Adams’s Grave (Granary Burying Ground)
Burial Site of the Five Boston Massacre Victims (Granary Burying Ground)
King’s Chapel (George Washington sat in the canopied Governor’s Pew during his visit in 1789.)
Benjamin Franklin Statue at First Public School Site
Old State House
Balcony of the Old State House where the Declaration of Independence was first read publicly in Boston. Queen Elizabeth II stood here during her visit in July, 1976 to commemorate the bicentennial. She was greeted by a cheering crowd, and while she did say a few words, she did NOT read the Declaration of Independence aloud (fake news).
Site of the Boston Massacre (just below the balcony of the Old State House). The Boston Massacre was not a massacre, per se, but it certainly came across that way after Paul Revere put his spin on it. And how’s this for ironic? John Adams and Josiah Quincy were the attorneys for the British soldiers on trial for the “massacre.” All but two were acquitted, and those two had their thumbs branded. Ouch!
Paul Revere lived here from 1770 to 1800 with at least 8 of his 16 children, his mom, and both his first and second wives. (No wonder it’s a construction zone!)
Mr. R himself
Old North Church where, on April 18, 1775, Robert Newman hung two lanterns in the steeple to warn the patriots in Charlestown of the advancing British troops. Contrary to popular belief, the lanterns weren’t FOR Paul Revere (although he came up with the idea); they were meant to serve as a back up warning in the event Revere was captured and unable to deliver the warning in person. The “one, if by land, and two, if by sea” we’re all familiar with comes from a Longfellow poem titled “Paul Revere’s Ride”.
Copp’s Hill Burying Ground: Tombstone of Daniel Malcom, a member of the Sons of Liberty. Funny story: A French family was standing there reading the stone when we approached. They asked if we are Americans. (Yes.) And then, pointing to the stone, asked if Mr. Malcom just simply refused to pay his taxes. I smiled. “That’s an understatement.” I also thanked them for the solid the French did us in the Revolution.
The U.S.S. Constitution (a.k.a. Old Ironsides): During the War of 1812, British cannonballs seemed to bounce off her sides. She is the oldest commissioned warship in the world.

 

The 221-foot Bunker Hill Monument (it looks like a miniature version of the Washington Monument in D.C.) commemorates the Battle of Bunker Hill, one of the bloodiest in the Revolutionary War. “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” was the battle cry of the ill-equipped Patriots.

And that’s all I really have to share about my time in Boston.

Tonight, in the quiet of our hotel room, we reflect on our New England adventure.  Cape Cod and Acadia National Park (and by extension, Bar Harbor) tie for our favorite stops. We’d also like to spend more time exploring both Kennebunkport and Kennebunk. Come to think of it, Portland was pretty, too. As for Boston, we can at least say we’ve been here, and that we walked the Freedom Trail.

But our biggest takeaway from this New England adventure?

This empty nest thing might not be so bad after all.

Cheers!
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Making Like A Knickerbocker: NYC April, 2018

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What began as a simple trip to the Big Apple to meet my literary agent for the first time blossomed into a “sampler” tour of NYC for our 17-year-old son. A memorable spring break. Family time before he heads off to college. Etc., etc., etc.

That’s what I told people, anyway.

As for the nostalgic yearning that had been humming in the back of my mind for years, I kept that to myself.

I have never lived in New York. I’ve only visited a few times. To be honest, I generally loathe big cities. But this particular city – its people and streets and sights and sounds and smells – ensconced itself in my memory decades ago.

My father lives in that memory. Side by side we roamed the avenues, skipping up the steps of St. Patrick’s, squinting at the inscription behind Prometheus at Rockefeller Center, flipping through our playbills for A Chorus Line – a show he probably shouldn’t have taken me to (I was on the young side), but did anyway. This makes me laugh, for in my purse are the tickets I bought for my own family to see the irreverent musical, The Book of Mormon, on Broadway. I probably shouldn’t have, but did anyway.

The following is a chronicle of our whirlwind tour of NYC, from the somber to the silly, the historical to the hilarious.

Disclaimer: Everything we did on this trip is considered “touristy.” Get over it. And get over yourself while you’re at it. Or, in NYC terms, “da fuck outta here!”

Since we spent Day 1 in the Atlanta airport because of snow in NYC, let us begin with Day 2…

9/11 Memorial & Museum:

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Cold, gray, and bleak. The weather is as much a shock to our senses as the scene before us: the memorial fountains at the former World Trade Center site. I have seen so many photographs, so much footage – from that terrible morning in September of 2001, to the final unveiling of the memorial, but still the tears come. To stand on that hallowed ground, to feel the fountain mist mingle with my tears, to touch the inscribed names of those who never for a moment expected that beautiful fall morning to be their last – it transcends words, roiling into raw emotion.

My husband and I come back later that night to see the fountains lit up. I gasp. Unseen in the daylight, there are reflections leading off in all four directions like ethereal pathways from the epicenter of the horror. They disappear into the mist, to a place we are not yet meant to follow. Truly, this memorial speaks loudest at night.

 

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Do you see them? The “ethereal” pathways?

Also nearby is the Survivor Tree, the last living thing recovered from the rubble of the WTC towers. Singed and broken, the Callery pear tree was taken to a nursery in the Bronx for a long convalescence before returning to its home at the WTC site in 2010. Branches covered with hopeful young buds reach from the scarred trunk this night – a poignant symbol of resilience, survival, and rebirth, indeed.

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The Survivor Tree

Turning our gaze across Liberty Street, we see Fritz Koenig’s Sphere – now battered and worn – watching over the plaza from Liberty Park. The twenty-five foot high bronze sculpture was located between the North and South Towers. Ironically, it was meant to symbolize peace through world trade.

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The Sphere at its new home in Liberty Park
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The Sphere as it looked before 9/11

We shuffle in to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum for our tour. (Note: If you plan on going, plan ahead and book the tour. Trust me on this.) The first thing we see as we descend the stairs into the bedrock are two steel tridents, both from the North Tower. My eyes sting. I pat my coat pocket to make sure the tissues I’d tucked in it earlier are still there.

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These “tridents” (so named because of their shape) were welded to box columns anchored at bedrock 70 feet below street level.

Waiting for the tour to begin, we sit on a bench in the lobby area. It is dim and sober. A place to reflect; a place to steel yourself. People are talking and moving, each in their own world. Just as people did that fateful morning, I think to myself.

Our tour guide Marcus bears heartfelt witness to the events of that day and to the people lost. He is not here to put us at ease. Against the advice of his supervisors, Marcus draws our attention to  a now familiar photograph and tells us the name of the woman standing at the gaping hole in the North Tower. Her name was not “Tumbling Woman.” It was Edna Cintron, and she worked on the 95th floor.

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Edna Cintron

We walk past a series of photographs: the last known photograph taken of the skyline just minutes before the first impact, followed by a time-lapse series of photos. From the dark ceiling above us come the voices of survivors, recounting their experiences. I pull out my first tissue.

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The last known photograph taken before the first plane hits.

Part of the memorial addresses the ongoing health crisis for those who worked/lived near the WTC. They were told the ash and debris would not harm them. Turns out, the dust, ash, jet fuel, and human remains they breathed in had the same pH level as Drano. Sixty different types of cancer. That is the horrible legacy of September 11, 2001, as experienced daily – still − by these people and their now adult children. It took eighty – yes, 80 – testimonials before Congress to even begin helping these people. Words, phrases play in my head:

On behalf of a grateful nation…”

Never forget…”

But they are just words.

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They suffer still…

Our tour ends in front of the only artwork in the museum, a watercolor mosaic by Spencer French consisting of 2,983 tiles in different shades of blue. A visual representation of the lives lost in the 1993 and 2001 attacks. Appropriately, the work is titled “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning.” In the center of the mosaic is a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid: “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.” Each letter was crafted by artist Tom Joyce from WTC steel. Behind this wall is the repository for unidentified remains.

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“Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning”

Free to roam the rest of the museum on our own, we walk past enormous pretzeled chunks of metal. The once unbreakable, now contorted and grotesque. We walk past a timeline of events, shuddering to learn there was an announcement encouraging people to return to their offices because the buildings were stable.

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This is what is left of the radio and television antenna that was on top of the North Tower. All transmissions ceased at 10:28 a.m. when the tower collapsed.

We saw dust-covered artifacts – personal items, airplane parts, crushed fire trucks, whole store-fronts. In one corner was a television re-playing footage from CNN. I noticed that those of us old enough to remember that terrible day gravitated to it, just as we had back then. For days on end.

The Vesey Street stairs, the only way out for countless survivors still stand in place. The museum was built around them, which gives you an idea of how much higher the new plaza is.

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The Vesey Street Stairs

A young lady, maybe eight or nine-years-old, and her dad stop next to me at a photograph of United Airlines Flight 175 plowing into the South Tower. She is confused by this. “You mean, that’s another plane?” Her dad nods. She looks from him to the photo and back again. “On purpose?” I listen to a father explain terrorism to his young daughter.

I have no tissues left.

One World Trade Center:

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One World Trade Center (104 stories) – At 1,368 feet, it is the same height as the North Tower, which was the taller of the two that collapsed on 9/11

We came! We soared to the 102nd floor in a really fast elevator! And we saw…absolutely nothing! Unfortunately for us, the tallest building in the western hemisphere happens to be shrouded in cloud this afternoon. I’m sure it’s an astounding view on a clearer day, but we already had our tickets and only a little window of time in which to cram a very full schedule. Still, the view from the outside is pretty darn astounding!

Oculus:

On our way from the WTC site, we step inside the relatively new (2016) Port Authority Oculus Hub terminal. Architect Santiago Calatrava’s design is evocative of the Greek Phoenix myth of rebirth from ashes. The $4 billion structure connects eleven subway lines and a shopping mall.

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Exterior of Oculus Hub Terminal
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Inside the Oculus Hub Terminal

Wall Street and the Terror Attack You’ve Probably Never Heard Of:

Wall Street. Home of the New York Stock Exchange. Also home of the worst terror attack on American soil prior to the Oklahoma City bombing. The deep pockmarks on the façade of 23 Wall Street whisper a story few have ever heard. At noon on September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon full of explosives detonated in front of the building, killing 33 and injuring 400. Those responsible were never caught and no one ever claimed responsibility.

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New York Stock Exchange
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The J.P. Morgan Building (a.k.a. The House of Morgan) took a hit in 1920.

 

Federal Hall (26 Wall Street):

Outside Federal Hall, a bronze statue of George Washington watches the comings and goings on Wall Street. He is not amused.

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The disappointing thing about this building is that while it IS the location where George Washington took the oath of office, is NOT the same building. The original was demolished in 1812 and sold for scrap to the tune of $425. (No, I didn’t forget any zeroes there.) THEY ACTUALLY TORE UP THE PLACE WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON TOOK THE OATH OF OFFICE FOR $425! It was also where the first Congress was held and the first Supreme Court convened. Surely that was worth another buck and a half!

Fortunately, they kept the slab on which he stood. Unfortunately, they still managed to break it.

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George Washington stood here.

The Inaugural Bible is sometimes on display here. Occasionally. When the mood strikes the St. John’s Mason Lodge No. 1. Not sure what’s up with that, but I can tell you it pretty much sucks for the general public who’d like to see it.

Trinity Church (74 Trinity Place):

Moving to the end of Wall Street, we duck into Trinity Church, where our first president went to worship after the inauguration. It’s beautiful. The flowers are spectacular, with grand cascades of roses and lilies.

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George Washington’s view of Trinity Church as he headed down Wall Street after the inauguration (minus the big buildings on either side, of course).
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Inside Trinity Church

Outside, we find the grave of Alexander Hamilton and his exceedingly patient wife, Elizabeth (Eliza) Schuyler. The author of the Federalist Papers, member of the Continental Congress, and first Secretary of the Treasury was quite a character. I won’t bore you with that here, but look it up when you get a chance. His life was anything but boring! A little shady at times, but never boring.

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A Duel Gone Wrong: Alexander Hamilton’s grave

St. Paul’s Chapel (209 Broadway) – a.k.a. The Little Chapel That Stood:

A few blocks up from Trinity is St. Paul’s Chapel, where George and Martha regularly attended. They sat in the Presidential Pew, which, of course, has since been removed. (New York is great, but it sure lacks reverence for anything of historical consequence.)

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Inside St. Paul’s Chapel

The chapel is the oldest surviving church in Manhattan, escaping both the great fire of 1776 that burned down Trinity Church, and the 9/11 terror attacks, without so much as a broken window. In the days after 9/11, St. Paul’s served as a kind of “home base” for those working in the rescue and recovery efforts. During that time, thousands of visitors left messages, notes, and keepsakes on the chapel’s wrought-iron fence, transforming it into a temporary memorial.

The Second Presidential Mansion (39 Broadway):

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How about that? We actually got a “George slept here” plaque! Well done, NYC! Well. Done.

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The Second Presidential Mansion (eh-hem)

Granted, it’s not terribly impressive, but the Washingtons thought it a heap-load more impressive than the FIRST presidential mansion on 1 Cherry Street. They couldn’t even make it a whole year in that teeny-tiny place! Of course, what did they expect for rent of $845 PER YEAR? (By the way, you can’t actually see the first presidential mansion. It was torn down to make way for the Brooklyn Bridge. Imagine that.)

The Bowling Green (home of the Charging Bull and Fearless Girl):

Bowling Green was the first public park in New York and has shrunk exponentially over time (there will clearly be no bowling here today!). According to legend, Peter Minuit purchased the island of Manhattan from Native Americans in 1626 for what now amounts to $24. (Nope, didn’t forget the zeroes here, either.)

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The Bowling Green

In other historical news, hours after the Declaration of Independence was publicly read on the steps of Federal Hall (the old building, that is), rioters came down here and toppled a statue of King George III. The story goes that it was melted down to make bullets used in the Revolutionary War.

The 7,000-lb. Charging Bull has been grazing on the Bowling Green since 1989, a creation of sculptor Arturo Di Modica to celebrate America’s “can-do” spirit. Mr. Di Modica was NOT amused when the 50-inch-tall Fearless Girl was installed in front of the bull last year. He didn’t like the way it portrayed the bull as something that should be stopped, nor did he like the commercialization of the whole spectacle. Understandable, I suppose. The Fearless Girl was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors to advertise a new index fund comprised of gender-diverse companies (NASDAQ ticker symbol: SHE). It doesn’t get much more commercialized than that. Still, I like her. Lots of people do, apparently. She might not stay in Bowling Green, but NYC is deciding on a permanent home for her. (Is that a nod to posterity I detect???)

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Now THAT is a buncha bull!
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Fearless Girls!

Castle Clinton/The Battery:

Day 3. It’s windy and rainy and only slightly less cold as we set out from the hotel. First stop: The Battery and Castle Clinton National Monument to pick up our tickets for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Castle Clinton is The Battery’s main structure and takeoff point for ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

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Castle Clinton National Monument

Funny place, this. It used to sit 200 feet offshore and was erected during the War of 1812 to defend the city. As NYC grew, construction dirt and debris was dumped into the harbor, thereby expanding the island and engulfing the landmark. Kinda gross, when you think about it.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island:

We go through yet another round of security before boarding the Lady Liberty for the trip to Liberty Island. (Given all the security-related radiation we’ve been exposed to thus far, we’ll be lucky not to bring back tumors as souvenirs.)

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Waiting to be herded onto the boat. Literally.

We cannot see the statue from the dock. Or from the boat. Or even when we dock on Liberty Island. Looks like the clouds are messing with us again.

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Well…this sucks.

Undaunted, we head right for the pedestal and museum.

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A full-scale copper replica of Lady Liberty’s face
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…and her foot

But wait, there’s more! I planned ahead and got tickets to climb ALL THE WAY to the crown! Flashing our special green bracelets to the park rangers, we shed our jackets and begin the trek upward. It’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. It is, in fact, a narrow, cramped, steeply winding staircase. And given just enough of a gale-force wind, Lady Liberty sways – sometimes up to three inches. No extra charge for that experience.

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The winding staircase to the crown. It goes on and on and on…

We make it to the crown! YES! We came! We climbed up the equivalent of a 22-story building! We saw…absolutely nothing! Again.

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A rather lovely view of the torch and her arm, don’t you think?

Well, that’s not entirely true. We can see the bottom of the torch from our vantage point over Lady Liberty’s right eye. And each other. “Take a picture of me,” I say to my husband. “But you can’t even tell you’re in the−” I shush him with a look. “Just take the damn picture.”

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“Just take the damn picture.”

Back on the pedestal level, we look up to see the tangle of supports keeping the statue upright. It’s amazing, really.

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Lady Liberty’s spine, for all intents and purposes

Check out the size of those bolts!

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One of the bolts inside the statue

By the time we head back outside, the sun is poking through the clouds in fits and starts. It’s enough to see the statue and enough to finally see a proper view of the Manhattan skyline. We are pleased. So pleased, in fact, we take entirely too many pictures.

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“Liberty is not the power to do what one wants, but it’s the desire to do what one can.” – Jean-Paul Sarte

Not to be outdone, the clouds come back with a vengeance, flinging rain on us as we wait for the boat to Ellis Island. I remind myself that it’s a silly inconvenience compared to what so many immigrants endured while crossing the same water.

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Ellis Island

Ellis Island is interesting. I don’t feel a personal connection to it, as most of my ancestors were here long before it opened, yet I try to imagine what it must have felt like to be in a strange place with strange people speaking a strange language, and to be that exhausted and wrung-out. I think about those who were turned away for various reasons, and what that must have felt like. Especially when the rest of their family was cleared to stay. I think about how different things are now…and how much is the same.

Surviving a Car Ride Through Manhattan 101:

Don’t look. Really. Just don’t. Or, if you must, look up at buildings, or at people on the sidewalks. If you are truly fearless and decide to gaze unblinking at the traffic around you, know that the lines on the street are suggestions and nothing more. And that the horn is as integral to the trip as the steering wheel.

Otherwise, the experience is fairly educational. After all, we saw Madison Square Garden, and my son saw his first transvestite. Not exactly on our bucket lists, but it’ll do.

Rockefeller Center (and surrounding area):

Dropping our bags in our next hotel, we set out to explore Rockefeller Center. Along the way, we pause to snap pics of Radio City Music Hall, NBC Studios, and The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.

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Radio City Music Hall, home of the world-famous Rockettes
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The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
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NBC Studios

Once we get to Rockefeller Center, we realize we’re standing on the exact spot where they put the enormous Christmas tree.

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The circle marks the spot!

Watching the ice skaters below, we make our way to the other side, so we can get a better view of the golden Prometheus. My husband and son are snapping away on their cameras when some random guy comes around the corner and yells, “HOLY SHIT!” Without a beat, he walks off, hands in his pockets. We tourists (because let’s face it, only tourists go to Rockefeller Center) look at each other and laugh. Apparently that was New York-ese for “Welcome to Rockefeller Center!”

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“Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.” (the words inscribed in the red granite)

St. Patrick’s Cathedral:

On a slightly more reverent note, we cross over 5th Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

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St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Inside the 19th century gothic style cathedral are three altars; two were designed by Tiffany; the third, by a Medici. The Pietá in the southeast corner is twice the size of Michelangelo’s. We exit out the same door through which my dad and I entered so many years ago. I whisper, “Hey, Dad.”

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Inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Inching our way down 5th Avenue, we come to Tommy Bahama, where we have a delightful dinner with my husband’s cousin (first cousin once removed, for you genealogists out there). A bright and lovely young woman just starting out in the “big city” with an exciting new career.

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Dinner with a rising star at Tommy Bahama on 5th Avenue

After dinner, all four of us head to Times Square, where the lights are bright and the energy crackling!

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Times Square on a Wednesday night

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This is the part of New York that truly never sleeps. And with good reason. There is so much to see! The M&M store, for instance…

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Lady Liberty – M&M edition!

Broadway Sights:

Day 4. Truly, there is no better way to get to know a city than to walk its streets. And so we did. Not only did we cover most of the area from the WTC to Battery Park to Wall Street and back in one day, we also walked from Times Square to Gramercy Park, back up to Central Park, through the maze of walkways in Central Park, then back to our hotel near Times Square. Had we taken the subway, we would have missed so much! Besides, the last time I took the subway in NYC, a homeless man walked up to me, unzipped his pants, and relieved himself right there on the platform. As you can tell, it scarred me for life. In any event, I didn’t relish the thought of a repeat performance.

By ditching the subway, we get to see cool stuff like the Flatiron Building, a 22-story wedge of a building at the junction of Broadway, 5th and 23rd. Completed in 1902, it resembles a clothing iron.

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The Famous Flatiron Building

And Madison Square Park, where, in 1876, the Statue of Liberty’s right arm and torch were put on display to help raise money for completion of the statue. Today, the Eternal Light Flagstaff – dedicated on Armistice Day in 1923 − still stands in commemoration of army and navy troops returning home from WWI.

My son and I stop to gawk at the bronze statue of William Seward. Who is that, you ask? Only Lincoln’s Secretary of State. The one who was also attacked by one of Booth’s conspirators the night Lincoln was assassinated. The one who brokered the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Come on, people! Brush up on your history!

With a turn down 20th Street, we reach our true destination: The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

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28 East 20th Street – Theodore Roosevelt’s Birthplace (a reproduction of it, anyway)

It’s an obscure little brownstone nestled between buildings, and if you don’t know to look for it, you’re probably going to miss it. But I do know to look for it. I’m a fan of T.R. All three of us are, actually, but for slightly different reasons. To me, Theodore (he HATED being called Teddy) was somewhat of a real life super hero. I mean, who else but a super hero can get shot at close range, then go on to deliver a 90-minute speech? (The bullet was never removed, by the way.) And the dude could read three books A DAY! I could go on, but it’s time for the tour…

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The Parlor
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The Library, where young Theodore spent a lot of time
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Room Where T.R. was born (original bed)

In typical New York fashion, the original house was torn down in 1916 in order to build some sort of commercial building. However, following Theodore Roosevelt’s death at the age of 60 on January 6, 1919, his two sisters started a movement to re-purchase the site. They succeeded, with a little help from their friends, and in 1923, the fully reconstructed home was opened to the public. It was donated to the National Park Service in 1963. Sixty-percent of the furnishings are from the original house or provided by family members. The other forty-percent are from the time period during which the Roosevelts lived at 28 East 20th Street.

After our tour, we trek up 5th Avenue toward Central Park, stopping for a close up view of the Empire State Building. No giant apes shinnying up the side today!

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A bit later, we come to the New York Public Library, which is guarded by the lions, Patience and Fortitude, out front.

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New York Public Library
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Patience. Or maybe its Fortitude. I can’t tell ’em a part.

Off to our right, we eventually catch sight of the Chrysler building.

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The Chrysler Building

And other various and sundry establishments…

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Finally, we come to something I’ve never seen in the south: a gold-leaf covered statue of William Tecumseh Sherman.

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They don’t have many of these back home in Atlanta…

We have officially arrived at Central Park, which is, to be honest, kind of underwhelming this time of year. But we do our tourist duty and make our way to Bethesda Fountain, which is currently void of water and sporting an abundance of workmen.

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Bethesda Fountain – Angel of the Waters was designed by Emma Stebbins in 1868, making her the first woman to be commissioned for a major art work in NYC

Crossing over the scenic Bow Bridge (it might look familiar if you’ve ever seen When Harry Met Sally), we make our way through the Ramble to Belvedere Castle, where we are met with chain-link fence and Keep Out signs. Surprise, surprise…it’s undergoing a renovation.

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The Bow Bridge
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Belvedere Castle (what we could see of it)

We exit Central Park about mid-way up on its west side. Long enough to see the American Museum of Natural History (Night at the Museum, anybody??) and get a close up of my beloved T.R.

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The Museum of Natural History
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Theodore Roosevelt started the Museum of Natural History as a young boy in his bedroom at 28 East 20th Street

Next door is the New York Historical Society, where my son humors us by allowing himself to be posed AND PHOTOGRAPHED next to a life-sized Abraham Lincoln. (This is not the kid’s first rodeo. He knew he could either cooperate or endure another “Do you know how long I was in labor with you?” story.)

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Showing Abe how to get to Central Park

 

Full of morbid curiosity, we scamper down the street in search of the Dakota apartment building. We find it. And we find the spot where John Lennon was shot, according to a security guard, anyway. There is no marker, no plaque, no nothing. Perplexed, we cross the street back into Central Park to Strawberry Fields. There we find our marker…

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A memorial to John Lennon, who was shot and killed across the street at the Dakota apartment building on December 8, 1980.

I split ways with the guys here, meandering my way down through the park to 6th Avenue for coffee with my agent at Maison Kayser, while the guys head back to the Historical Society to check out the 3,000 square foot exhibit on Vietnam.

Running a little early for my appointment, I take a turn up West 57th to Carnegie Hall. How I wish I had time to go to a concert here! Still, it’s a thrill to see the building from which so much of my “writing music” comes. (I often stream WQXR, New York’s classical music radio station.)

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Carnegie Hall

I meet up with the guys at the hotel. They show me their pics from the Vietnam exhibit, including the Pentagon Papers (very cool, given we watched Spielberg’s The Post recently) and a jeep.

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The Pentagon Papers
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Jeep used at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon

With little time to waste, we head to a little Italian spot on 48th for our last dinner in New York. I check my purse a second time. Our tickets to The Book of Mormon are still there. I smile, remembering my date with Dad to see A Chorus Line. I suspect Dad is smiling, too.

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Waiting for the show to start at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre
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A great way to end our stay!

Yosemite, Half Dome, & the Day the Badass Almost Blinked

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When you have a choice, be a badass…

 

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And remember, you always have a choice!

Day 1:

We creep into Yosemite National Park, a single link in an endless, jostling chain. A ranger waves us through the gate with a sheepish smile. Apparently the NPS has decided against stopping the flow of traffic – such that it is – to collect entrance fees. A square deal, given my bladder is about to spontaneously combust.

Happily, we find both bathroom and parking place, in not-so-short order, and don our daypacks to explore Yosemite Falls. People are everywhere, like ants on a lollipop that’s been dropped in the dirt. But hey, it’s summer. And this is a mere blip of inconvenience on our way to the backcountry. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.

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Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls: Five hundred other people have this same photo. I know this because they were all standing next to me, snapping away.

All grouchiness aside, the falls are indeed something to behold. I may or may not have smiled a little bit when the cool mist from the Lower Yosemite Fall christened my sweaty brow.

Taking our turn on a standing-room-only shuttle, we start our ascent to Vernal Fall via the Mist Trail. I like the name. Sounds refreshing. Turns out it’s a bit of a misnomer after a winter with a lot of snow pack. Far from being refreshed, we emerge at the top of Vernal Fall looking like we attempted to drink from a fire hose.

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Heading up the Mist Trail
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See all those little ants – I mean, people – on the left? They’re climbing the Mist Trail.
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Vernal Fall as seen from the Mist Trail…if you dare take your eyes from the slippery rock steps.

It’s in the midst of the Mist Trail that the leg thing happens. My quads feel like the muscle and bone has been replaced by straight lactic acid. Or battery acid, to be more precise. I reach down and touch them, amazed they’re still thigh-shaped. This has never happened to me before. I’m talking way beyond the normal muscle burn we all feel when doing our bi-ped thing over hills and up stairs. And to be honest, I’m more than a little freaked out.

So I do what I always do when I’m freaked out: I lash out.

I inform my husband that I’d rather fling myself over Vernal Fall than retreat back down the Mist Trail, so he, in his usual good-natured and quick-thinking manner, suggests we take another route. It’s more of a climb, but it’s dry and…cue the angel harps…much less crowded! So we join up with the John Muir Trail at Clark Point, pausing for our traditional “boot photo” along the way.

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Legs be damned, we climb higher still, eventually looking over Vernal Fall. I appreciate it a whole lot more when it’s not pissing on me.

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Vernal Fall from a much drier vantage point

Let’s put this day out of its misery with a quick re-cap: The Mist Trail far behind us, we hop on another shuttle bus, only to be delayed when the said shuttle bus removes the bumper of an unsuspecting parked car rather abruptly. Dinner is an overpriced pizza in Happy Isles (you get the irony of that, I expect), for which I stood in line for over an hour. We make it to an over-crowded backpacker’s campsite after dark, where we pitch our tents in the glow of our headlamps (mosquitoes apparently see this as a neon sign announcing an open buffet).

Then, just as I’m flicking the last of the ants off my tent footprint (another advantage of pitching one’s tent during daylight hours: anthills are more visible), two glowing eyes bounce through our campsite. At this point, I’m almost disappointed it’s too small to be a bear. But alas, it is a juvenile raccoon. It shinnies up the tree next to my son’s tent and proceeds to scold us from above. I zip myself into my tent and pretend not to notice.

Day 2:

I wake to a moth beating itself senseless between my tent and the fly. Hurrying into my clothes, I shudder at the sight of my leg:

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Wondering what this is? Join the club.

It doesn’t hurt or itch, so I shrug it off. The other leg thing – that burning in my quads – concerns me a whole lot more.

My husband, the very picture of efficiency, already has his tent packed and is making oatmeal. I unzip my tent and ungracefully tumble out, only to clamber back in for my mosquito netting. Eating breakfast with one’s head covered in mosquito netting is tricky…and fairly pointless, in case you are wondering.

We break camp at break-neck speed, hike back to the car, reclaim our toiletries from a communal bear box*, and get the hell out of “Happy Isles.”

*Riddle me this, my backpacker friends: Why will a bear tear a car door off its hinges to get at something with the slightest hint of a scent, but won’t bother things left in a thin metal box with a chain latch?

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A Communal Bear Box (Note: None of the items in or around the box belong to us. Thank God.)

Anyway, we are Glacier Point bound, baby! And…

oh lovely…

just look at all the people here. (pulls handful of hair from head)

On the other hand, check out this view:

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I decide to concentrate on the latter.

No daypacks now! It’s the real deal! Full packs, full weight, and we are on our way down the Panorama Trail, en route to Little Yosemite Valley.

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Panorama Trail

It’s called the Panorama Trail for a reason!

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Nevada and Vernal Falls from the Panorama Trail
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Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls

The trail is mostly full sun, and as we descend into Illilouette Gorge, we pass some backpackers on their way up. They don’t look like happy campers. We make a note of it and decide to start that upward trek as early as possible on our last day.

After crossing Illilouette Fall, it’s our turn to make a steep and steady climb upward. And there go my quads again. Damn it!!!

Okay, for those who think I’m just being a wimp:

  1. You clearly don’t know me.
  2. Screw you.
  3. Go set your own legs on fire and then we’ll talk. (I’ll even supply the matches.)

I lag behind my boys. Way behind. They’re good sports, waiting for me to catch up every now and then, but I’m embarrassed and ashamed. And scared. This does not bode well for me summitting Half Dome.

About a mile and a half from camp, I plop down on the banks of the rushing Merced River and strip off my shoes and socks.

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The Merced River in a big hurry to go over Nevada Fall!

 

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Backpacker Pedi

Plunging my feet into the ice cold water, I welcome the numbing sensation.

But it’s short-lived. The boys are anxious to get to camp, so I pull on my boots and climb the rest of the way to our campsite in Little Yosemite Valley.

 

 

 

Most of the backpackers have cleared off, so we get a choice site, complete with a big “table”:

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Our Table

And on one of the stumps at the communal fire ring, this:

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Not something you see every day…

We conclude it must be from an overzealous backpacker. Or, judging by the way the squirrels are eyeing us, the result of not taking them up on their generous offer to “hold our bags” for us.

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I can watch your bags if you’d like…if you know what’s good for you.”

This, of course, is what happens if you take them up on their offer. Or turn your back on them for more than thirty seconds:

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Thug Squirrels

But there are visitors of the kinder, gentler sort, too:

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And you gotta love trees big enough to produce cones this size:

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Granted, we prefer camping by ourselves, but this stop makes sense with our route to Half Dome in the morning. And it’s a pretty decent backpacker’s campsite, even if our neighbors – a group of guys from Los Angeles – like talking until the wee hours of the morning. (Our 2 a.m. wake up call: “Holy shit! It’s a deer!” Clearly city boys.)

Day 3:

Hey, Half Dome! You ready?

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Bring. It. On.

Thanks to my husband’s impeccable planning, we only have 3 ½ miles to get to Half Dome from here. And (drum roll, please!) my quads are feeling normal again, further fueling my courage.

Why do I need courage, you ask?

Open another tab in your browser and search on Half Dome cables. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

So now you understand when I say:

Half Dome Meme

As we climb the approach trail, a ranger stops us for our permit, which we proudly wave in her face. Getting a permit to climb Half Dome isn’t easy. You have to plan months in advance, take your chances on a lottery system, and cross your fingers. My husband did that a total of five times. The sixth was the charm.

The backpackers coming down the trail seem almost giddy. “Keep smiling!” one lady chirps. “Just keep smiling.” My stomach lurches a little. Here is a woman who has clearly accomplished something significant. A survivor.

We meet other backpackers on the way up, including a young lady and her boyfriend. She has quite an impressive hiking/backpacking résumé and is interrogating my husband on his experience summitting Mt. Whitney. She’s planning on doing it later this year. My shoulders droop a little. I feel so inept. I mean, hell, I’m just happy my thighs aren’t melting into puddles of goo on the trail.

At some point, we get separated from the young lady and her boyfriend, but that’s hardly at the forefront of my mind. No, that stage is currently reserved for the monster looming before me. And it’s not even Half Dome. It’s the Sub Dome, which, for the record, should have its own set of steel cables.

Need a visual? Search on Sub Dome Yosemite.

I put my nose to the proverbial grindstone – or, in this case, granite – and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Trekking poles are no help here, so we put them away and resort to half-crawling/half-stooping up the side. I make the mistake of looking up at the summit of this beast. It’s daunting enough without knowing what’s on the other side of it.

The badass in me almost blinks. Almost.

But we make it.

And then this:

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Staring up at Half Dome from the Sub Dome

I marvel at the range of exclamations from my fellow hikers as they crest the top of Sub Dome:

“Nope!”

“That’s INSANE!”

“Holy shit!”

“No f’n way!”

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Ascending Half Dome…ain’t no turning back now!

As for me, I slip on my heavy work gloves. No sense in dancing around inside my own head. Let’s do this thing.

The cables are maybe three feet apart, a narrow passage through which climbers going in opposite directions must maneuver. They feel solid in my grip. Ready to do their job. Now I must do mine.

My boots slide down the rock every few steps and I must rely on my arms, my grip, to keep from backsliding into my husband. Wooden planks lie perpendicular to our path every six feet, providing a respite. Everyone seems to be whispering the same mantra: Just get to the next plank.

We are about a quarter of the way up when I realize the young lady with the impressive hiking/backpacking résumé is two people ahead of me.

And she’s in hysterics.

Despite the harness she’s brought to attach herself to the cables, she is now huddled on a plank, frozen in place and weeping. Part of me is relieved (and more than a little shocked) that it’s her and not me. The other part of me tells that first part to shut the hell up because I feel the exact same way, I’m just reacting differently. She’s losing her shit and I’m speechless.

“I can’t do it,” she wails. “I’m coming down.”

But her boyfriend, who stands firm on the plank between us, talks her through the rest of the way up, his voice calm and soothing. I let his words wash over me as I gaze up at the sliver of moon in the sapphire sky. I whisper to myself, “Okay.” And I am. I totally got this.

My reward:

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Panoramic View from Top of Half Dome

And this…

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Top of Half Dome

And this…

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The Diving Board…if you’re so inclined.

And wouldn’t you know it? There’s a damn squirrel offering to hold our daypacks while we explore the summit!

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Smiles everywhere. High-fives pop all around me like firecrackers. The very air, while thin, is electrified. WE DID IT!

I walk up to that young lady’s boyfriend and thank him for helping me, as well as his girlfriend. And to her I say, “Girl, I was so with you!”

Too soon, it’s time to make our descent. To be honest, a lot of people feel like going down is worse than climbing up. That is not my experience.

Yes, it is more or less a controlled fall, but I feel very in control. I take it one plank at a time, just like I did on the way up, and encourage every single person I pass. The way I see it, we’re a team. It requires communication to move past one another on the cables, so why not give folks a kind word to hold on to?

At the bottom, I look at my gloves. The steel cables have worn holes clean through them.

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Almost down! (That’s me in the peach-colored shirt and gray cap)

Back at camp, I’m still wearing a stupid grin. Turns out two of those L.A. guys didn’t summit. One got freaked out by Sub Dome and turned back. Half Dome itself sent the other one packing. I excused myself to go take a dip in the river, lest they see my smile grow a little.

Day 4:

The original plan was to hike up to Clouds Rest today, but the water situation – or, lack thereof – makes us reconsider. After carrying extra water to Half Dome yesterday and still running out, doing a hike nearly four times as long with the same amount of water (there are no viable water sources from which to filter) seems like a pretty stupid move.

Remembering the “unhappy campers” we saw backpacking up to Glacier Point, we decide to split the trip up and overnight near Illilouette Fall. Climbing the rest of the way out tomorrow should be a snap. A hot snap, but a snap nevertheless.

About a mile and a half out of camp, the boys see a Northern Pacific rattlesnake on the trail. Well, they hear it before they see it, which generally isn’t the best possible scenario to hope for, as it’s snake for “get the hell out of my air space.” Fortunately, they all parted ways no worse for the wear. I’m a little jealous, as I’ve never seen a rattlesnake in the wild before, but I was lagging behind – pretty much the usual story at this point.

At every turn out of the valley, it’s like Half Dome is watching us. Maybe it’s saying, “I’ll get you next time, my pretty!” I don’t know. But it’s nice not to be afraid of it anymore. To know I actually stood on the head of that beast.

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Half Dome and Liberty Cap see us off
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Been there, done that!

We settle into a “preemo” campsite in the Illilouette Gorge, along the river.

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Our “preemo” campsite by the river!

The smoke from the Mariposa County wildfires descends on us, turning the evening an eerie shade of orange and blocking the distant mountains from view.

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Illilouette Gorge (orange tint courtesy of Mariposa County wildfires)

A woman is already there solo backpacking, but a giant redwood log divides our camps. She is pleased to see us and happy to have company. I smile and nod, eager to set up camp and catch up on my journal writing.

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Trying to capture every detail in my journal!

Afterward, I walk past the redwood “partition” into the lady’s camp. She invited us to join her at her campfire earlier. Her eyes light up when she sees me and she leaps up to re-kindle the dying flames. Karina is her name, and this is the first campfire she’s ever made. She is thrilled to have someone to share it with. To be honest, I’m quite thrilled she asked! We talk and talk, like two old friends catching up after a long separation.

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Me and my new soul sister!

A soul sister is someone you don’t have to see or talk to every day because your memory of her never dims. She makes the fount of your heart spring to life because, from the moment you meet a soul sister, that’s where she lives large. Karina is a soul sister to me, and continues to inspire me to take care of myself, nurture my art, and live fully and deeply.

By the time I return to our camp, the boys are zipped up in their tents. My husband has left the backpacking equivalent of a flower by my boots:

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Nothing says ‘I love you’ like a pine cone left by your boots. (It’s a backpacker thing.)

Day 5:

Karina left around 5 a.m. to hike the two miles to Glacier Point where the loveliest of sunrise over Half Dome shots are to be had. I take the pinecone my husband left by my boots last night and turn it into “Paula Pinecone”, which I leave by Karina’s tent. She’ll get the message.

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“Paula Pinecone”

We leave camp at a leisurely pace, enjoying some hot chocolate before our two-mile ascent to Glacier Point. (One of the best parts of backpacking is the hot chocolate. Just sayin’.)

The leg thing seems like it’s about to start up again, but quickly dissipates, first from one leg, and then the other. Before we know it, we’ve reached the crowd at Glacier Point. I stand on a rock above them, watching as they push and shove – iPhones in hand – for the best view of Half Dome.

No, I think to myself, that will never be enough for me. For I’ve seen the best view of Half Dome, and it’s more beautiful and terrible than they can ever imagine. As for Yosemite, I’ve bathed in its rivers, breathed in its essence, and counted stars in the Milky Way from its rockfaces.

No, nothing short of that will ever do again.

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Yosemite National Park
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Standing on the head of the beast!

 

 

Shady Dealings Underground and a Former U.S. President (a.k.a. Spring Break 2017)

Travel and Kulture:

Spring Break 2017 finds us heading north to south central Kentucky, destination Mammoth Cave National Park. For the record, anyone who doubts the earth is overpopulated has never driven I-75 to I-24 through Chattanooga. The upside: Nashville’s skyline is pretty cool. God knows we’ve had enough time to stare at it.

But we make it!

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Nearly two hours past our original ETA, we arrive and check in to our hotel. Admittedly, the “Go-Kart” track next door gets a raised eyebrow from all three of us. It seems deserted, though, like many other tourist bait establishments dotting the hillside west of us, all of them diminutive under the imposing shadow of Dinosaur World. (Yes, there is such a place. No, the fading fiberglass specimens did not entice us away from our itinerary.)

Not ones to tarry, we head to the park to explore the Visitor Center, where we meet a cheerful park ranger. I stump her with my first question: Where is Stephen Bishop’s grave?

I should probably stop and explain a couple of things:

  1. I’m a history nerd.
  2. Stephen Bishop was a slave who served as both tour guide and explorer in the 1840s and 50s. Self-educated and witty, Bishop was a favorite guide among the well-to-do visitors he shepherded through the tunnels and shafts by candlelight. He loved exploring the cave, which he often referred to as “grand, gloomy, and peculiar.” Among his many expeditionary accomplishments (all done while he was a slave), he was the first person to cross the Bottomless Pit portion of the cave.

 

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Stephen Bishop (photo courtesy of the NPS)

 

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Stephen Bishop’s Grave

Turns out the ranger is new to Mammoth Cave herself, so after she asks another ranger, we both learn where Stephen Bishop is buried: In the Old Guides Cemetery on the Heritage Trail behind the Visitor Center. Check that one off my list!

It’s getting late and the Visitor Center is about to close, so we head back out of the park in search of local fare. But not before taking a double-take at the name of this cemetery:

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Irony

 

The guys indulge me in a little game of “Find the Oldest In Residence” and they, of course, beat me to it. The winner is Mr. James Robinson, born in 1777. Sorry dude, you JUST missed the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

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Dinner is at Bucky Bee’s BBQ (when in Rome, right??) where the lack of macaroni-and-cheese as a side item is forgiven only because of their superior sweet tea.

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Bucky Bee’s BBQ…where I spotted Elvis not once, but twice!

Not wanting to miss out on the local culture, we wander over to a nearby store – an eclectic assortment of junk, geodes, homemade jams, and other inexplicable oddities. I mean, where else in Cave City, Kentucky, can you pick up a raccoon head, a cast iron skillet older (and arguably more seasoned) than me, and a confederate flag all in one stop? Clearly, it’s not for the faint of heart or the easily offended.

I stand in the doorway, taking in the scene. Behind me, I hear my husband whisper, “Don’t touch anything.” He’s being ridiculous, of course. I’m sure the yellowed, not-so-gently used ball caps were washed thoroughly before being placed on the sale rack.

My son points to a pyramid of tiny cans containing Vienna sausages. “What is that stuff?” he asks. I explain that Vienna sausages are merely the spines of the Spam animal.

Before I can slink away and laugh, the proprietor catches my eye and smiles. “Where y’all from?” she asks.

“Atlanta.”

Her eyes grow big. “Oh, were y’all ‘round that interstate when it fell?”

I explain that, no, we were fortunate enough not to have been anywhere near it. She thanks God on our behalf, pops a pork rind into her mouth, then launches into what I’m sure must be her one and only Atlanta story:

I was headin’ back from Florida when my radiator started bubbling over in, wouldn’t you know it, Bolingbroke, Georgia! I kept hoping some good ole boys would drive by and come help me out, but nobody stopped. I walked to the next exit – because I didn’t want to get any closer to Atlanta, ya know – and lo and behold I found me some good ole boys. They had me up and out on the road in no time.

“Whew! That was lucky,” I concede, still silently debating the merits of seeking any type of stranger for help.

That’s when I see them. The collection of old presidential campaign buttons, ranging from Roosevelt (Theodore, that is) to Nixon. I float over, barely containing my glee. (I did mention I’m a history nerd, right?) The proprietor breaks my rapt attention. “Just a dollar a piece,” she says. I want to clap my hands together and do my Snoopy dance, but I refrain. Better to keep calm in these situations.

“Really? I’ll give it some thought,” I say nonchalantly. Moving to the next row, I start deliberating which buttons I want most. I can’t decide, so I move in for a second gander.

She watches me scan the collection for a few long moments. “A dollar a piece, you said?” I ask.

Dangling a pork rind over her mouth, she shakes her head. “No, five bucks a piece – crunch, crunch, crunch –  or $40 for the whole thing.”

“Oh.”

Never trust a woman chain-chomping pork rinds.

Long story, short, I got the whole thing for significantly less than $40. Not exactly a steal, but apparently witnessing my negotiating skills was priceless. So says my dear husband.

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A History Nerd Kind of Happy

Mammoth Cave Tour: Domes and Dripstones (or, Drones and Dipsticks, as we like to call it)

We arrive bright and early for our tour with Rangers Autumn and Eric and two busloads of what will prove to be our “closest” friends for the next two hours. I do not mean closest in a congenial sense.

To give a bit of perspective, Mammoth Cave is 405 miles worth of cave tunnels compacted into seven square miles. On our two-hour tour today, we will be covering less than two of them.

The tour starts at the “New Entrance,” which was blasted into existence in 1921. It’s a little eerie approaching the door to the netherworld…

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Ranger Eric watches as we file in to whatever awaits us…

…and a whole lotta NOPE when the official, hand-sized greeter does its thing (read: moves).

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The Netherworld Bouncer

But, as you may recall from past posts, I am a badass. So I entered the cave. I may or may not have shuddered a little when the door slammed shut behind me.

280 steps down, we start to see some cool stuff:

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Beneath Frozen Niagara

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Cave Bacon

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Crystal Lake

 

President Lincoln’s Birthplace (with the Big Oops Inside) and Boyhood Home:

After the cave tour, we head north to Hodgenville, Kentucky, to see where Honest Abe made his grand debut into the world.

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Fifty-six steps symbolize Lincoln’s fifty-six years

Abraham’s mom, Nancy, was pregnant with him when she and his father, Thomas, bought the Sinking Spring Farm in December of 1808. It seemed like such a bargain, buying 300 acres for $200. But, as was quite common at the time, a title dispute forced the Lincolns to move ten miles northeast to Knob Creek in 1811.

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Housed inside, is a one-room log cabin that was originally believed to have belonged to the Lincolns. The inscription at the top of the monument reads: Here – Over the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born destined to preserve the union and free the slave, a grateful people have dedicated this memorial to unity, peace, and brotherhood among these states.

Unfortunately, forty years after the memorial was dedicated by President Taft, it was discovered that the logs used to reconstruct the cabin could not, in fact, have been those belonging to the Lincolns. Since that time, it has been considered a cabin symbolic of that of Abraham Lincoln.

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Oops…
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Not the real deal, but it does the trick!

Much to my delight (again with the history nerd stuff), Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the memorial on what would have been Lincoln’s 100th birthday. So yeah, I got to touch something that Theodore Roosevelt touched. (Although I have toured the White House, I don’t count that because I didn’t touch anything there – it’s generally frowned upon by the Secret Service.)

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The Sinking Spring Farm got its name from this sinking spring, where President Lincoln most likely had his first sip of cool, clean water.

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Sinking Spring

Lincoln’s first memories, however, are from his family home at Knob Creek, just ten miles away. Unfortunately, one of those memories was of his baby brother, Thomas, dying from an unknown illness.

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While living at Knob Creek, a very young Abraham fell into the raging waters of the nearby creek. Thankfully for all of us, his friend Austin Gollaher pulled him to safety. The cabin on the grounds is reconstructed using logs from the old Gollaher cabin.

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Cabin at Knob Creek – reconstructed using logs from the old Gollaher cabin

Returning to the Mammoth Cave National Park, we did a little early-evening exploring of our own:

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Dixon Cave exhales a  cold chill. At other times of the year, it inhales!
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Garlic Mustard (Alliara petiolata) and Lady Bug
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River Styx Spring (so that’s what the River Styx looks like!)
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Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata)
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Fire Pink (Silene virginica)

Mammoth Cave Tour: Grand Avenue

This morning we’re doing the four-hour/four-mile Grand Avenue Tour. Oorah!

A short bus ride takes us to the Carmichael Entrance.

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The Carmichael Entrance

We descend into darkness once again, making our way down the mile stretch of Cleaveland Avenue (named for some dude named Cleaveland who never actually visited this area).

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Descending into darkness

While on Cleaveland Avenue, we find a magnificent gypsum formation referred to as Last Rose of Summer.

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Last Rose of Summer

Check out some of the old-school graffiti!

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Honestly, there are just so many photos one can take in a cave without them all sort of running together. So, rather than bore you to tears, I leave you with one final cave creature. We found it waiting patiently for us at the Frozen Niagara exit,  waving a long, gossamer antenna as if to say, “Y’all come back now, ya hear!”

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Cave Cricket (Y’all come back now, ya hear!)

Pura Vida! Our Costa Rican Odyssey (and Tales from the Tour Bus) – December, 2016

Warning: With the exception of my husband and our tour guide, all names have been fictionalized to protect both the innocent and the stupid. If you are reading this and suspect I might be referring to you, congratulations. Good luck proving it.

SUNDAY:

Let’s get this party started! Hopping a southbound plane, we escape the cold rain at home and land about 10° north of the equator…where it’s still raining, only warmer.  Welcome to Costa Rica, baby! Pura Vida!

Undaunted by the downpour, we ditch our bags in Room 242 of the lovely Barcelo – San José and scamper down to the pool bar. Clinking together a couple bottles of Imperial (a Costa Rican lager), we smile. There will be no whining about the weather today, mis amigos. We are here to celebrate our 20th anniversary!

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For this momentous occasion, we’ve chosen to take a guided tour through the Costa Rican countryside on a big green bus with forty-one complete strangers, most of whom are 20+ years older than us. Why, you might ask, would we choose to spend our anniversary like this? Here are the top five reasons, in random order:

  • I remember just enough Spanish to be dangerous (please, thank you, bathrooms, and a few swear words), while Jeff’s mastery is, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing he likes tacos (¡Sí, tacos!).
  • We’d both rather lose a limb than drive in a foreign country.
  • Most of our friends are older anyway. They’ve traveled more, experienced more, read more, and have generally outgrown the pretentious, petty bullshit so many of our fellow Gen-Xers have turned into a national pastime.
  • We wanted to see as much of the country as possible, but were too busy to plan out each leg of the trip. (Sure, we could have gone down there and flown by the seat of our pants. We could have also set ourselves on fire, but elected not to.)
  • The nice glossy brochure said it was a tour for nature lovers. A little pampering for our special occasion and a whole lot of nature. Perfect.

Our tour guide is Juan Diego. “Call me Diego,” he says. A lady standing in front of me turns around and whispers, “Ohh, like in that cartoon!” She snaps her fingers trying to recall the name of it. “My grandkids used to watch it.”

“Dora the Explorer?” I offer.

Her eyes light up. “That’s it!”

And there it is. A couple hours into the trip and I’ve already bridged the generational divide!

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Dinner is buffet style in one of the hotel’s restaurants. We are instructed to sit in the area designated for the two tour groups staying here. Romantic, sí?

As awkward conversations start up around us, I smile at a woman sitting at the next table. She smiles back. Before I can say anything, her husband sits down with his plate and she immediately hisses out a litany of complaints. The food, the weather, the room…everything is horrible (pronounced harr-ibble). Everything.

I decide I’m not up for the challenge of conversing with someone so adept at tucking the word “harr-ible” into a single sentence a minimum of five times. Jeff and I exchange a knowing look. There’s a possibility Miss Harr-ibble won’t be on our tour. We can hope.

After dinner, Diego regales our group with interesting facts about Costa Rica.

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Nestled between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is roughly the size of West Virginia. They haven’t had an army since 1948, when then President José Figueres Ferrer took a sledgehammer to a wall at Cuartel Bellavista, the nation’s military headquarters, and declared an end to Costa Rica’s military spirit. The money spent on the military was redesignated for education. Thanks to that philosophy, Costa Rica currently boasts a 97.8% literacy rate.

A few inquiring minds wonder aloud what Costa Rica does when threatened by overbearing neighbors (cough-cough… Nicaragua). Turns out they call their friends in the United Nations. (Here’s looking at you, U.S., Canada, Spain, and Panama!)

But before I step in a pile of politics, here are some other interesting facts about the Rich Coast:

  • There are only two seasons: rainy (May-November) and dry (December-April).
  • The weather is very unpredictable. The country is essentially split down the middle by a mountain range. Winds from both the Pacific coast and the Caribbean side slam into the mountains, causing low pressure areas, which explains the near-constant fog over the mountains.
  • 57% of the land in Costa Rica is protected, either by the government or privately.
  • Their goal is to be carbon neutral by 2021.
  • “Pura vida!” is the unofficial national slogan. It means pure life.

Before we leave, Diego also warns us to steer clear of eating a lot of papaya. Too bad I didn’t know that before dinner.

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Jeff, Diego, and Yours Truly!

By the way, it turns out Miss Harr-ibble is in our group. Estupendo. (Great.)

MONDAY:

First stop: Poas Volcano. At nearly one mile across, it is the largest active crater in the world.

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Poas Volcano on one of its calmer days

Poas is active, but not in a lava-spewing kind of way. More of a sling-water-and-mud-900 feet-in-the-air kind of way, with a side of noxious sulfur fumes. I think #1 on this warning sign is a nice touch…

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Gotta love #1

From the crater, we take the “long trail” to Botos Lake, where the mist is just beginning to obscure the view. The lake is simply a collection of rain water in an inactive crater.

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Botos Lake as the mist rolls in

Back on the bus, we head to the Doka Estate Coffee Plantation for lunch and a tour. Not a bad view, eh?

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Before the coffee ends up in your mug, it starts here…

And check out these basketball-size hydrangeas! Hundreds of them!

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But back to the coffee, let’s follow a coffee bean from plant to cup: First, the beans are picked by hand by pickers (80% of whom are from Nicaragua) who get the equivalent of $2 per basket. Note: The “good” pickers can fill a basket in 45-minutes.

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Coffee beans!

The beans then go through a washing process. Incidentally the “floaters” are considered the poorest quality beans. Makes sense, I guess.

Afterwards, the beans are sorted by size via a machine that extracts the actual beans from the chaff. Thirty-six hours of fermenting time later, they are dried. The highest quality beans (the non-floaters, one would assume) are dried the old-fashioned way: outside, in the sun, for about seven days. Some poor dude has to keep an eye on the weather at all times, raking the beans into piles and covering them when in rains, then raking them back out when the sun reappears. Is there an easier way? Sure. They have a dryer, but apparently it’s inferior to the good ole rake ‘em up and rake ‘em out method.

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Drying coffee beans the old-fashioned way
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Costa Rica exports 97% of its coffee. The beans are roasted “to taste” in the countries that buy it.

Cool stuff I learned about a cup of joe:

  • The lighter the roast, the stronger the coffee! Light is roasted for 15 minutes, medium for 17 minutes, and dark for 20 minutes. So if you need a swift kick in the arse to get you going in the morning, put down that espresso and go for the “light stuff.”
  • Decaf coffee is made by “sweating”the caffeine out of the beans. This involves steaming them at high temperatures. Not ones to let perfectly good caffeine go to waste, the coffee plantations sell it to energy drink makers.
  • Forget the hot stuff. Chocolate-covered coffee beans are the friggin’ bomb! (They also have all their caffeine, so consider yourself warned.)

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Before we climb back on the bus, we stop at the butterfly garden where we find both the familiar (Monarchs) and the beautifully bizarre.

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Because it’s on the itinerary to tour the capital city, we take the “scenic route” back to the hotel. More accurately, we find ourselves planted directly in the middle of rush hour in downtown San José. Traffic, grid-lock, people everywhere…a cheerful sort of hell that only a true city person could love.

So yeah, I’ll be filing this little experience under Things That Suck…

TUESDAY:

Now that the group has had some shared experiences, we are getting to know each other better.  There are lots of smiles and nods as we board the Big Green Machine (a.k.a. the bus) for ZooAve in Alajuela.

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This organization is doing amazing things in Costa Rica. Perhaps you saw the story about Grecia the toucan, who had her upper beak hacked off by a teenaged shit stack that is apparently still roaming free. The fine folks at ZooAve, in partnership with a 3-D printing company from the U.S., fitted Grecia with a prosthetic beak. Check it out:

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Before
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After

To learn more about Grecia and her plight, check out Toucan Nation, which first aired on Animal Planet back in August.

Some of the other “regulars” at ZooAve:

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Scarlet Macaw

 

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Iguana
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Crowned Crane

 

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Black-bellied Whistling Duck & Brown Pelican
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Agouti
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Yellow-naped Parrot
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Spectacled Owl
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An ocelot’s butt
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Keel-billed Toucan
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Gray Fox
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Ostriches
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Golden Silk Orb-Weaver

 

Incidentally, I pass Miss Harr-ibble and her husband on one of the footpaths. “I feel all itchy,” she whines. I glance at her husband out of both curiosity and pity, but our eyes don’t meet. He’s too busy scratching her elbow for her. Oy vey.

All too soon we have to climb back on the Big Green Machine to get to our next destination: Sarchi, Home of the world-famous oxcarts.

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World’s Largest Oxcart

Oxcarts were once used to haul coffee beans to market. Now they’re mostly decorative, but they still make them by hand, just as they did 120 years ago…sans electricity. A huge water wheel powers the tools needed to cut the wood.

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The water wheel powers all the tools used to build the oxcarts

Each wheel consists of sixteen pieces; fifteen are the exact same size,with the sixteenth being the “catch up” piece that completes the circle.

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A wheel in progress

Each oxcart is then hand-painted by skilled artisans who begin training at a very early age. (And I thought my kid’s finger paintings were cool!)

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On our way to Arenal Volcano, we stop in Zarcero with these amazing walk-through topiaries. (Well, they’re amazing unless you’ve read The Shining, in which case they’re kind of creepy):

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The topiary gardens in Zarcero

Also in Zarcero is St. Raphael Church. Believe it or not, those are not bricks on the church. They’re metal slabs welded together! Look closely and you can see them:

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St. Raphael Church

Next stop: Arenal Manoa & Hot Springs Resort at the base of Arenal Volcano, where Jeff and I quickly slip on our bathing suits and into the hot springs to enjoy a couple of little somethin’-somethin’s at the swim-up bar.

Funny, Miss Harr-ibble is nowhere to be seen. Maybe she’s taking an oatmeal bath.

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Arenal Volcano

WEDNESDAY:

December 7th. The “date which will live in infamy” also happens to be our 20 anniversario. So, if you’ll humor me un momento, I just want to say that this husband of mine is my everything and I still love him more than life itself. Not only do we finish each other’s sentences, we often think each other’s thoughts. It’s a beautiful thing. Pura vida!

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Inscribed in Jeff’s ring: Love, Hope, Trust, Friendship – For Life 12-7-96

This is also the tenth anniversary of my dad’s passing. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think of him. I hope somewhere, somehow he knows I’m okay and happy…and that he was loved.

I guess you could say today is bittersweet.

Anyhoo…back on the Big Green Machine, we pass through fields of pineapple, oranges, sugar cane, coconut trees, banana trees, and teak to get to our river cruise on the Rio Frio.

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Rio Frio (Cold River)

In a word, the cruise is excelente! Check out some of our finds:

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Howler Monkey and baby
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Basilisk (a.k.a. Jesus Christ Lizard because of its ability to run across the surface of the water over short distances)
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Three-Toed Sloth
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Mangrove Swallows mate for life. It’s rare to see one without the other, and when one dies, the other usually dies within a week.
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Neotropical Cormorant

 

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Anhinga
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Amazon Kingfisher

We may or may not have crossed into Nicaraguan waters. What happens on the Rio Frio stays on the Rio Frio.

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Oops…

 

Hot, sweaty, and happy, we board the bus again for the two-hour ride to Baldi Hot Springs. Twenty-five thermal pools, ranging from uncomfortably hot in the highest springs, to unbearably cold in the lower springs, await our arrival. After partaking of the extremes, we park ourselves at a swim-up bar somewhere in the middle. The day is still young and there is much Imperial lager to be consumed yet.

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After a quick ride back to the resort, Jeff and I make a beeline for their thermal pool, where I discover a new drink at the swim-up bar: B.B.C. (Baileys, Banana, Chocolate).

It’s gotten kind of late. Late enough that we debate joining our fellow travelers in the dinner line. Ultimately, we decide to sneak in (unshowered, gross from the day’s activities, and slightly inebriated), eat fast, and steal away before anyone notices how “harr-ibble” we look.

Imagine our horror when the lights dim and Diego announces to the whole restaurant the occasion of our anniversary! But horror quickly turns to amazement as a huge cake is wheeled to our table, complete with two trick candles that refuse to go out until a waiter comes to our rescue.

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Surprise! We were a little caught off guard (as you can surmise by our appearance) by this lovely cake prepared for us by the resort staff. And for the record, it was fantástico!

Neither of us have our phones, so the absolutely coolest 84-year-old lady on the entire planet (for our purposes, I will hereafter refer to her as Miss Congeniality) whips out her iPhone 6 and snaps a picture of our nappy heads with the cake.

So much for being inconspicuous! Honestly though, we wouldn’t change a thing. Mucho gracias, Miss Congeniality!

But the real gift comes a few minutes later. The waiter who is helping us cut the cake says, “I am 22-years-old and have my first real girlfriend. Seeing you here tonight – how happy you are – makes me believe that this kind of love is real.”

Wow. We weren’t expecting tears on our 20th

THURSDAY:

“Vámonos!” says Diego. Let’s go!

The group climbs on to the Big Green Machine. People are still congratulating us as we shuffle down the aisle to our seats, making me blush like a new bride all over again.

Today we are heading to the Mistico Hanging Bridges for a tour through the rain forest. Jeff and I choose the “long” hike, which will last about an hour and a half and take us across six suspension bridges. Today is also the day I realize we might have had a little too much “together time” with some of our fellow travelers.

For example, a lady we shall ever after refer to as Loud Mouth, has already been setting my teeth on edge because of the volume (90+ decibels) and quality (nails down a chalk board) of her voice, but I’ve been able to shrug it off.

Apparently she plans to go on the same hike as us. I know this because she is emptying a can of Raid on herself just a couple yards away. Estupendo. We sidle away to escape the fumes.

The local guide begins the tour by asking us to keep talking to a minimum. Turns out, animals are harder to spot when there is a lot of noise. Imagine that.

I steal a glance at Loud Mouth, but she’s talking to someone and doesn’t hear a thing. Imagine that.

Soon into the hike, our guide spots a tarantula (Theraphosidae) in a hole on the side of a hill. He passes a pocket flashlight back so that we can all take a turn at peering in at her (I’m sure she is thrilled.). Loud Mouth, bringing up the rear, screeches over all thirty heads, “Whose flashlight is this?” At least five of us whip around to shush her. She rolls her eyes and jams the flashlight into her pocket.

A few minutes later, we come across a bright yellow eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii), a small, venomous pit viper known for the protective superciliary scales over its eyes. The guide explains that this particular viper gives live birth to babies of many different colors.

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Eyelash Viper (Bothriechis schlegelii)

We hike from the forest floor to the understory to the canopy. The beauty here is wild, mysterious, and fierce. I get the sense we are being watched by hundreds, if not thousands, of unseen eyes. Like standing next to the ocean, it’s a reminder of how small we really are.

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From the canopy of the rainforest
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Soaking in the splendor of the rainforest

Only fifteen people are allowed on the hanging bridges at one time, so we count off and wait our turn. Crossing these bridges is quite challenging and I have to keep my hands on the cables as I go bouncing along.

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Toward the end of our hike, we are lucky to happen upon a long line of leaf cutter ants (Atta cephalotes). Each ant is carrying a piece of leaf 2-3 times its body weight, its personal contribution to the upkeep of the fungal garden that feeds it and about 5 million of its siblings. I wish we had time to follow their trail because I understand their nests can be up to 30 feet wide and 20 feet deep.

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Leaf Cutter Ants (Atta cephalotes)

There is a woman in front of us as we approach the ant highway. She stops, looks down at it, then steps right in the middle of them, crushing a handful of ants. I recognize her immediately…

Loud Mouth (Assis hattis).

“Why’d you step on them?” I wail, as she keeps walking down the path. Stunned, grieved, and enraged, I follow the stench of Raid.

My blood is still roiling as we climb back on the bus. Jeff and I agree to change her name from Loud Mouth to something less wholesome. Not that it makes me feel any better.

After a nice lunch in what happens to be Diego’s hometown, I cool down a bit. But it’s short-lived.

Our next stop is the Leatherback Turtle Conservancy. We watch a video about the catastrophic effects of litter, fishing nets, development, and poachers on these amazing warm-blooded animals and I’m angry all over again. It’s official: people suck. (Hypocrite alert: We are staying in some of those developments.)

Before we trail Diego down to the beach to see the leatherback nesting sites, Jeff makes a donation to the Conservancy. We do what we can to counteract the suckage of humankind on the world, even though our efforts seem like a mouse fart in a windstorm sometimes.

We also approach Diego about taking a taxi back down here either tonight or tomorrow night to help the researchers tag females coming up to nest. He promises to make some phone calls once we get to the hotel.

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Waiting for the Leatherbacks…

Hacienda Pinilla (J.W. Marriott) is absolutely gorgeous, especially when the sun is setting over the Pacific behind its sprawling pool. After getting our keys, we check back in with Diego about returning to the Leatherback Turtle Conservancy. He pulls some strings, but it’s still going to cost us about $150. The idea of being on the road again for the 90-minute round trip is even more of a wet blanket. We decide to forego it. There was only a 20% chance we’d see a leatherback anyway.

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Hacienda Pinilla (J.W. Marriott)

Dinner was eventful tonight. A tiny skunk decided to join us on the dining patio, eventually making its way to Miss Congeniality’s plate to share her dessert. While the staff seemed horrified by the situation, most of us thought it was great fun.

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Surprise dinner guest!

FRIDAY:

After nearly a week of having to have our bags ready and outside our doors by 6:30 a.m., we sleep in on this, our “free” day. I imagine a day filled with beach combing, swimming, reading, and little umbrella drinks.

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The Pacific Ocean

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Cheers!

By the afternoon, however, a steady rain settles in and we retire to our beautiful room and balcony where we look out over the palm trees and let the rain lull us to sleep.

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Time for a little siesta

Later, we catch up with our friends from Florida over a couple mojitos. At dinner, Miss Congeniality is presented with a birthday cake. Turns out it’s her 85th birthday today, and she brought her own candles – the number 85 in Roman numerals!

SATURDAY:

We begin the day trapped at the breakfast table with Miss Harr-ibble and spouse. Escaping to the buffet, I return with a plate of tropical and exotic fruit. I’ve never seen a lychee before (the red spike ball), much less eaten one. And then there’s the passion fruit. Everybody loves passion fruit, right?

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I can’t remember if I took this pic before or after I spit out the passion fruit…

I scoop out a spoonful of passion fruit pulp and drop it in my mouth. ACK! Sweet Mary, mother of God! IT’S HARR-IBBLE! Discreetly, I spit it in the spoon and dump it back into the fruit, where it rejoins the seeded goo from whence it came. It’s like I never touched it.

“You gonna eat that?”

I freeze. Remember Richard “Cheech” Marin of Cheech and Chong fame? I am now looking at a very gray version of his early style – complete with mustache − and this version is pointing at the passion fruit on my plate.

I gulp. “No.”

“Can I have it?” he asks.

“Um, no,” I whimper, offering no explanation. Cheech looks at me like he thinks I’ve smoked a little too much weed. Oh, the irony…

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“You gonna eat that?”

 After that little incident, I am quite eager to get back on the Pan American Highway and get on with our day.  Later in the morning we stop at the Monteverde Co-op for ice cream (make that chocolate milkshakes for us, thanks!), and a pic with a life-size T. rex. Because, well, who wouldn’t want their pic made with a T. rex.?

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This photo has no relevance whatsoever to the history or culture of Costa Rica. Enjoy!

After lunch, we drive another twenty minutes to the banks of the Tárcoles River for our crocodile “safari.” Jeff’s camera shutter sounds like frantic Morse code. Here are some of the locals!

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Wassup?
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So, this just happened…
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Yellow-crowned Night Heron (juvenile)
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Osprey (with lunch)

 

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Black Necked Stilt
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Roseate Spoonbill
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Iguana
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Little Blue Heron
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Great Egret

Home tonight is Hotel San Bada, located just outside the gates to Manuel Antonio National Park. Traffic delays our arrival, but our amazing bus driver navigates the Big Green Machine through the narrow streets to get us there just in the nick of time for the sunset happy hour. It is one of the most magical sunsets I’ve ever seen. No alcohol necessary.

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Sunset from the top of Hotel San Bada

SUNDAY:

We are at the gates to Manuel Antonio National Park first thing this morning and with great expectations! Walking en masse to the beach area by the bay, Jeff and I then set off on the Cathedral Point trail with our Florida friends.

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Playa Manuel Antonio Beach

A National Geographic group happens to be hiking the same trail and we are all caught in an ambush of Capuchin monkeys (Cebinae). The guide warns us not to smile at them, as it’s considered a sign of aggression. Good to know. (And here I was, worried one of them might pee on me à la Dexter in Night at the Museum.)

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Capuchin Monkey (Cebinae)

Their guide is excited to see the emergence of several red-backed squirrel monkeys (Saimiri oerstedii). We are lucky to see them, as apparently they’re quite rare to spot.

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Red-Backed Squirrel Monkey

Also along the way, we find several giant owl butterflies (Caligo eurilochus) that seem to stare at us with an enormous golden eye.

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Giant Owl Butterfly (Caligo eurilochus)

We arrive back to the beach area just in time to witness a three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus) give birth. It was hard to photograph, but amazing to watch.

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The birth of a three-toed sloth
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Mom and baby are doing just fine

Apparently no day at the beach is complete in Manuel Antonio without a visit from these guys:

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The Three Amigos

Soaked to the skin in our own sweat, we make our way back to the hotel for a quick shower and lunch, but not before spotting a masked tree frog (Smilisca phaeota) and a Band-tailed Barbthroat Hummingbird (Threnetis ruckeri). Pura vida!

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Masked Tree Frog (Smilisca phaeota)
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Band-tailed Barbthroat Hummingbird (Threnetis ruckeri)

Our last outing of the trip is a rainforest aerial tram. Each tram holds eight passengers and one interpretive guide. Guess who’s on our tram?

Yep. The Assis hattis herself…Loud Mouth. My blood curdles ever so slightly.

While waiting for our tram, the tram guide asks that if we prefer to use insect repellant to please apply it in the parking lot or near the bathrooms so as not to harm the plants or animals. I notice she is looking past me with an uncomfortable smile plastered on her face. Turning to follow her gaze, I find Loud Mouth, Raid can in hand, giving herself a thorough dousing.

“Oh my God! Did you not just hear what she said?” I bark at her.

Loud Mouth calmly replaces the cap on her can and slips it into her bag. I size her up, wondering if I have the upper body strength to heave her over the side of the tram. I know Jeff does, but the thought of either of us ending up in a Costa Rican prison gives me pause.

Finally, the tram arrives. I’m sitting right behind her. It would be so easy…

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Aboard the Aerial Tram

But I digress. The tram ride is a botanist’s dream, as it turns out. The guide uses a laser pointer to point out poisonous trees, bromeliads, epiphytes, orchids (not in bloom), and strangler figs (a type of Ficus tree). There’s not much in the way of birds or animals, although we spot a hawk of some kind near the top. Loud Mouth asks if there are any big, scary animals she should be concerned about. No, I’m not kidding. Yes, we do in fact laugh our asses off. Raucously.

Exiting the tram, I hope I never have to be in that close proximity to Loud Mouth again. The odds are in my favor since our plane departs at 8:05 tomorrow morning.

The farewell dinner is wonderful. We’ve shared so many good memories together. (Well, most of us, anyway.) But alas, all good trips must come to an end, and so it goes with our Costa Rican odyssey…

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Spiral Crepe Ginger

MONDAY:

Guess who’s on our plane?

scream

Badass In the Beartooth Wilderness

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His and Hers Packs, Poles, and Bear Spray

Five days in the wilderness. Forty pounds on my back. Thirty-five memorable miles. One priceless trip with my beloved. The following chronicles our trip to the Beartooth Wilderness in southern Montana – the good, the bad, the beautiful…and the raw. Consider yourself warned.

DAY 1

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We arrive in Cody, Wyoming!

After checking in to the hotel for what will be our last night of creature comforts for a while, we head toward Yellowstone to do some exploring.

 

Meandering through tunnels carved out of the rocky cliffs, we find ourselves at the Buffalo Bill Dam and Reservoir. When the “damn dam” – as it was not-so-affectionately called, due to its trouble-ridden construction – was completed in 1910, it was the tallest dam in the world, standing taller than the U.S. Capitol!

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Reservoir Side of Dam

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Over a dinner of pulled-pork barbecue, Jeff and I toast to our upcoming adventure with sweet tea (you don’t drink alcohol before a prolonged, high-octane activity like this…unless you’re an idiot). I’m a little nervous. Technically, this isn’t my first backpacking trip, but it is the longest and most difficult.

DAY 2

After two and a half hours and a long stretch of gnarly, pot-holed gravel roads, we get to the East Rosebud Lake Trailhead. The view is jaw-dropping from the get-go, with beautiful East Rosebud Lake, the creek rushing into it, and of course, the mountains beckoning to us in the distance.

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View from the East Rosebud Lake Trailhead (the haze is from the wildfires in Yellowstone)

Time to do this thing!

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Beginning our journey!

We shrug into our packs, bear spray at our hips, and start our steady climb into the towering mountains. Rocky passes, gold and auburn vegetation, sheer cliffs, and rushing rapids all vie for our attention.

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Fire swept through the valley in September of 1996
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Following the creek upward

And the scents! Shrubs with leaves that look like bay leaves envelope us in a sweet-spicy aroma, and as we pass stands of spruce, fir, and pines, it’s like Christmas! The bear bell jingling from the back of my pack completes the image. Its purpose is to alert bears of our approach so they are not caught off guard, but I call it my goat bell because, for the most part, I’m following behind Jeff like his trusty, burden-laden goat.

Lunch is a bagel with peanut butter at sky-blue Elk Lake.

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Lunch…again, and again, and again

Jeff warns me that it’s going to be a bitch of a climb up to the next lake, Rim Rock Lake, but I just smile and channel my inner goat. I got this. Ain’t nothing but a thing.

Eight miles of “up” later, I realize I am not a goat. I am, in fact, feeling every second of my forty-five years. And every pound of my forty-pound pack. Oddly enough, my feet and back are fine. It’s my hip flexors that are threatening to split my skin open and fall out on the trail. They hurt less when I was pregnant.

We reach our destination for the day: Rainbow Lake. With glazed eyes, I watch Jeff rifle through our packs. I should help. I want to help. No, what I really want to do is curl up in a fetal position and cry. I am tired, stiff, cold, and hungry. And I have five more days ahead of me.

Turns out, Jeff doesn’t need my help. As I stand here stupidly, he puts both tents up and is working on our dinner of noodles and chicken – with a smile. He’s watching me warily. I know he wants me to enjoy this trip, to enjoy backpacking. I do, too. I’m just not sure I can.

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Jeff making dinner (note how the bear canisters also make great stools!)

We meet Ranger Jenny, who carries a full-size shovel, as well as a full pack. She asks us how long we will be in the woods and if we know how to properly store our food. Noticing our bear canisters, she nods her head approvingly. She almost glows when we tell her we don’t intend to have any campfires. Then comes the poop discussion. Do we know that we are supposed to bury our poop? (Yes.) Ranger Jenny nearly shivers with glee, and it’s no wonder. Five days a week, for the past five years, she’s carried that shovel so she can bury other people’s poop. How’s that for a shitty job? Before she leaves, Ranger Jenny hands me a little pamphlet, on the back of which, under the subtitle Poop, is the following:

Dig a hole in the dirt 6 to 8 inches deep (or deeper if you know you’re going to fill it up.) Bringing a trowel makes this a lot easier, and if you don’t have one you are going to need extra time to dig with a rock or stick. Do your business in the hole, and then bury it with dirt (don’t just stick a rock on it.) If you have a very small amount of toilet paper, you can bury it in the hole too, but don’t try to bury mounds of tp. Animals love to dig it up and spread it everywhere. Burn it or pack it out with you. It might seem gross to have to carry out toilet paper, but it’s a lot grosser to come across someone else’s on the ground.

Rock on, Ranger Jenny.

Night falls fast and I clamber into my tent. For the first time in years, I have no interest in reading. I just want to close my eyes, click my heels three times, and …you get the picture. Instead, I burrow into my sleeping bag and will myself to sleep. Like that’s ever worked for anyone, ever.

Hours go by, and I’m still staring up at the darkness. The waterfall at Rainbow Lakes sounds like Highway 41 at home. I keep reminding myself that it’s a waterfall, and before long, I have to pee. This is not going to happen, of course. It’s not. I am not leaving this tent until the sun comes up.

Another hour goes by, and I try to think of anything but waterfalls. Finally, I give in and slide my head lamp over my forehead. The silent night is dashed by my tent zipper. I scamper as far away as my nerves will allow to make my peace with Mother Nature.

Safely back in the tent, I zip the sleeping bag all the way up. How can I possibly make it through the rest of the week?  Because I’m a goat, I tell myself half-heartedly, as a single tear slips down my cheek.

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Looking out over Rainbow Lake

 

DAY 3

I open my eyes and it’s light outside! I made it! Not everyone is impressed, however. Three feet from my tent, a squirrel chatters its disgust at my presence.

“Really?” I hurl back. We’re not on good terms after it pelted me with pinecones while I was trying to follow Ranger Jenny’s instructions the night before.

Unzipping my tent, I find Jeff smiling down at me. He searches my face as he pulls me to my feet. “This is fun, why?” I grunt. His face falls ever so slightly. “I’m just kidding,” I assure him. We both know I’m not.

I notice a wet spot on the ground near the back of my tent. Apparently my “nerves” hadn’t let me scamper as far as I’d thought they had last night. Jeff graciously explains that it’s generally not a good idea to pee uphill from one’s tent. Duly noted.

Time for breakfast. Jeff makes oatmeal, and possibly the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. By the time I put my contacts in, he has everything cleaned and nearly packed up. I feel so damn useless, but at the same time, I’m in awe. Twenty years of marriage and I’m now seeing my husband with fresh eyes. Underneath that simple, non-pretentious style of his, he’s deeply thoughtful, solid, and sagacious. The real deal. And the only person who knows me better than myself.

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Journaling…because I’m too damn cold to do much else

With our packs back on, we set off up the trail again, my little goat bell tinkling behind me. I’m stiff and cold, but within five minutes, I have my hiking legs back. I am Goat Woman, hear me bleat.

Before long, we’re looking down on Rainbow Lake.

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The view from above Rainbow Lake

It looks like a picture in a magazine with its sapphire-blue water. And the climb continues. Jeff warned me yesterday that we’d be facing a bitch of a climb (again) from the get-go. I power through it like a boss (or goat), thinking that we’ve come through the worst of our day’s climb. I am about to learn that topo (topographic) maps are bullshit.

We reach Lake at Falls about an hour later, and it’s every bit as breathtaking as Rainbow Lake.

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Lake at Falls

Next up, Big Park Lake – an emerald green lake where we take a GORP (Good Ole Raisins & Peanuts) break.

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Big Park Lake

I feel strangely worse after the break, though. Not sure why, but I suspect it’s because after the “bitch” of a climb that really wasn’t, I was not prepared for the real bitch of a climb that followed. Still, I “goat through” to Duggan Lake, where we drop our packs and eat lunch (another bagel with peanut butter). Impasse Falls pours into Duggan Lake, providing just the right ambience as I snooze on a rock. Jeff rock-hops over to the falls to take pics.

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Impasse Falls at Duggan Lake

After a little rest and a slight adjustment to my shoulder straps, I’ve got my goat on again and we plow through to Twin Outlets Lake, where we are rewarded with even more waterfalls.

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Twin Outlets Lake

Jeff stops every few minutes to snap pics of them. “I can’t stop taking pictures of waterfalls!” he laughs.

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A waterfall bonanza!

We pass through an amazing wildflower meadow splashed with gold, pink, purple, and flame red, to get to our home for the next two nights – Dewey Lake. I’m exhausted, but still able to gape up at the glacier-peppered mountains surrounding us.

DAY 4

Still not sleeping, but the upside is that I am awake in plenty of time to see the sunrise over Dewey Lake – and it is magnificent!

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Watching the sunrise (the bear spray is always in reach)

Today, we’re using Dewey Lake as our base camp and day-hiking up to Fossil Lake. My hips and shoulders aren’t screaming quite so loudly, but I did find some new blisters forming on my toes this morning, so now I’m taping up seven of the ten.

I’m starting to learn the order in which Jeff does everything, and try to help out as much as I can. For example, I set out everything for breakfast this morning. Hey, it’s a start. I’m still cold, stiff, and sore in the mornings, but I’m trying to goat through it.

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Trying to be helpful at our camp at Dewey Lake

Heading toward Fossil Lake, we walk through a traditional alpine meadow, complete with boulders, trees, bubbling brooks, wildflowers, and glacier-covered mountains in the background. There is one glacier in particular that we see all the time, but from different angles. We decide to call it Krivo Glacier.

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Keeping my eye on “Krivo Glacier”
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A close-up of “Krivo Glacier”

The land is other-worldly as we climb above treeline. Huge rocks and boulders litter the ground surrounding Fossil Lake, the source of all those amazing waterfalls we saw.

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Fossil Lake
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The rocky trail by Fossil Lake
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Jeff doing his victory sign at Fossil Lake

Next stop, the cairn at the apex of the trail.

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10,000 feet above sea level

We are now standing at 10,000 feet above sea level. Making our way to the other side of a hill (and a rare instance of shade), we sit down to dine on yet another bagel with peanut butter. An inquisitive chipmunk checks out our packs, chittering his disappointment when he doesn’t find anything edible.

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Our lunch companion

We pass Fizzle Lake and are forging our way toward Skull Lake, when Jeff makes an executive decision to turn back. I worry that he’s dumbing down the route because of me, but he makes a good case for doing so: we are fully exposed above treeline, it’s already hotter than hell, and we were kind of hoping to wash some clothes in the lake before dinner. (Admittedly, the last part was the clincher for me, as I’d managed to pee on my pant leg the night before.) So we turn around. And we wash clothes! How glorious it is to have pee-free pants!

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Fizzle Lake

Noodles for dinner again. I tell Jeff I will never make any kind of pasta immediately after his backpacking trips again. At this point, I’m not sure I will ever eat pasta again. Or bagels.

I am journaling just before bed when a female mule deer shows up to check us out. Those ears are huge! She steps daintily around the perimeter of our campsite, then disappears as quietly as she came.

Tonight I learned not to pee on rocks. Let’s just say I need to dunk my pants in the lake again.

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Sunset over Dewey Lake

 

DAY 5

I finally slept! With dreams and everything! And I’m getting the hang of things, too! I stuff my sleeping bag into its stuff sack and empty the air mattress before I even emerge from my tent. Jeff will be so impressed! After breakfast, I’m feeling so badass, I cut loose a man-sized belch. The goat is back, bitches!

Heading back down to Rainbow Lake today, and judging by all the downhill, we sure did some climbing those first few days! According to Jeff, it was a “shit-ton.” He keeps telling me how proud I should be of myself. I am. But what I really want is for him to be proud of me…and I think he is.

Five miles are done and gone before our daily bagel! We’re camping at Rainbow Lake again tonight, and when we get there, it’s a ghost town. No Ranger Jenny. No other campers. Jeff and I have the whole lake to ourselves! We strip down and wash off, dunk some clothes (pee-free and proud to be!), filter water, eat, laugh, talk, soak our blistered feet in the frigid water, and talk some more. I point out faces of animals and people I “see” in the cliffs around us (kind of like cloud-watching, only rockier) and Jeff laughs. I am in heaven.

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Making our way back to Rainbow Lake
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Our private, “deluxe” camp at Rainbow Lake

 

DAY 6

I am up at daybreak, stuffing my sleeping bag into its sack, emptying out the air mattress, and folding it up to go in its bag. That’s progress, people!

My hips are still a little weird and I’m now wrapping nine of my ten toes, but the rest of me is good!

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Backpacker Pedicure

The cold really isn’t so bad, especially when there’s hot chocolate to look forward to! Our gas runs out with breakfast this morning, though, so this will be the last hot meal. To tell the truth, I’m kind of glad. No gas means no noodles for dinner! We’ll be noshing on crackers and GORP, which sounds divine at the moment.

We get all the way back to Elk Lake by noon.

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Elk Lake

I eat my last bagel. Jeff can’t stomach his, so he starts in on the crackers and GORP early. Technically, we could easily throw down the last 3 ½ miles to the trailhead, but we don’t have reservations back in Cody until the following night and Cody is on the doorstep of Yellowstone…and it’s Labor Day weekend. Fat chance we’d get a hotel room. Besides, we’re used to each other’s stink by now. Plus, I think we both kind of want another night like this – just us and the mountains and a lake. Because, wouldn’t you know it, we have Elk Lake all to ourselves tonight.

After lunch, we lay out a tarp and cloud-watch until an ominous cloud creeps over the rim of the canyon. Jeff determines we should put up the rain tarp, and it’s a good thing – not ten minutes later, we are sitting under it waiting out a five-minute hail storm!

The sun dries everything in minutes and we decide it’s safe to set up our tents. Feeling a little plucky, I insist on setting mine up by myself. Jeff cooperates, mostly.

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Our tents at Elk Lake

Then we set out to explore the area around the lake. After a non-noodle dinner, we walk back to the shore for a little more cloud-watching, followed by a spectacular, grand-finale-to-the-trip sunset.

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How’s this for a fond farewell?

Only, it’s not the end. A buck visits our campsite at dusk.

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Twilight visitor

Then, around 9:30, something very large tears through the brush and flings itself into the lake. Jeff is peering out from his tent, bear spray at the ready. And you know what I’m doing? Sleeping.

DAY 7

I don’t sleep very long. Violent wind gusts sweep through the canyon, rattling the flies of our tents. By daybreak, the wind subsides, and Jeff tells me about the large animal encounter I missed the night before. “It was a B.F.A.,” he tells me. Big Fucking Animal. Once we eat and get our packs ready, we visit the shoreline to look for tracks. We find huge hoof prints, which is preferable to the huge pawprints with claws we expected to see. Definitely a B.F.A., but thankfully not a grizzly.

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Proof that the B.F.A. had been there!

We finish the last 3 ½ miles to the trailhead, my goat bell tinkling happily on my pack. I use the time to reflect on the whole experience, sad that it’s almost over, amused that only days before I wanted nothing more than for it to be over.

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The view as we return to East Rosebud Lake and the trailhead

Back at the parking lot, Jeff snaps my picture in front of the trailhead sign. We pause to write our comments in the trail log, then head to the car. We drop our packs and my goat bell falls silent. As we’re changing into somewhat clean (read: pee-free) clothes for the ride back to Cody, Jeff grins, gives me a high-five, and tells me how proud he is of me.

I smile, as a single tear slips down my cheek.

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The badass goat lives!

 

EPILOGUE:

When you’re in the woods, your standards of social acceptance are lowered substantially. That said, Jeff and I are finding it somewhat of a challenge to re-acclimate ourselves. For example, we stop at the first convenience store we find, and while I’m treating myself to a warm-water hand-washing in the restroom, Jeff pops open a Mountain Dew and takes a swig as he’s paying. I hear the belch from the back of the store. He usually waits for me, but this time I find him in the car wearing a sheepish grin.

It gets better.

McDonald’s seems like a good place to stop for food (did I mention our standards are lower?), so we go inside, wearing our stink like a badge. As we get up to leave, I bark-belch from the table. I’m momentarily stunned, as are most of the other patrons. I look at Jeff. “See you in the car?” I whisper apologetically.

“Yep,” he says, already making for the door.

I am happy to report that my inner goat was safely stowed on the plane ride home. But I don’t think it’ll ever be far from the surface. What can I say? It’s a badass thing.

 

 

 

One Year Later: Greetings from the Chrysalis

Reveling in the pre-dawn silence after my run, I light my meditation candle and attempt to quiet my mind.  I say “attempt” because what I really do is make shadow puppets on the wall in the flickering light.  With a smirk, I close my eyes and settle into position.  But the stillness I seek is interrupted by an insistent buzzing in my mind, a need to take stock of where I’ve been and where I’m going as I stand on the brink of a new year.  I do not fight it.

photo (2)

This time last year I woke up in the Andes, literally and metaphorically.  I left some things there:  fear and doubt, most notably.  My addiction to people-pleasing, most astonishingly.  In the months since, it has been a struggle at times to let them stay there.  No sense in candy-coating that fact.

Indeed, most of this year was spent taking on new challenges and trying different ways of thinking on for size.  For various reasons, nothing really fit, and my old friends Fear and Doubt sent their regards from the Andes.  I almost capitulated and flung myself into their arms again.  Almost.

Momma Monarch

At the beginning of September, I received a stunning gift by way of a female Monarch butterfly.  Mesmerized, I watched her hover over the milkweed in our front yard for two days.  It was ten days later when I learned the true extent of the gift:  the milkweed was covered with wriggling lines of yellow, white and black – Monarch caterpillars!

One of my naturalist friends suggested I take some of the caterpillars to raise indoors.  I balked at the idea, pretty sure it would end badly for my little captives, but upon finding that most of them had disappeared the very next day, I relented.  In a matter of hours, I set up a makeshift nursery in the basement and fell easily into the role of a doting foster butterfly mother.

Photo by Yolanda Santiago White
Photo by Yolanda Santiago White

In mid-September, I awoke one morning to find two of the caterpillars had formed into their chrysalises.  Magnifying glass in hand, I sat for what felt like hours admiring the smooth jade green capsules bejeweled with gold.  Splendorous.  Exquisite.  Perfect.   Soon the other caterpillars followed suit, and I had a menagerie of Nature’s gems to admire.

Like any new mother, I read everything I could about my charges’ stages of development.  To my horror, I learned that while in the chrysalis, caterpillars actually dissolve into a soup of specialized cells, each of which later forms a specific part of the adult butterfly.  Fascinating?  Yes.  But I wondered if it was a painful process.

chrysalis

A few days before my birthday, those first two chrysalises darkened ominously, a hint of orange wings folded impossibly inside.  Then, with a fanfare only butterflies can hear, those wings pushed through the side of the chrysalis, followed by a mass of spindly, probing black legs.  By instinct, the newborn butterfly began to climb upward, its dewy, creased wings unfurling as it went.  Halting near the top of the enclosure, it opened its wings – brilliant masterpieces that had once been part of a caterpillar – and waited.  I could have sworn I saw it take a deep, centering breathe.  Or perhaps it was a sigh of relief.

So yeah, I cried a little.

The other caterpillars made the same miraculous transformation over the next few days.  With shaking hands, I carefully tagged each one then set it free.  For the Monarchs, it was the beginning of an epic journey, a 2000-mile trek to the Oyamel fir forests in central Mexico.  For me, it was the impetus to let my own transformation – the one that began in the Andes -move forward; an invitation into my own chrysalis.  No more running, no more busy-ness to anesthetize the deepest desire of my heart.

Photo by Yolanda Santiago White
Photo by Yolanda Santiago White

Like the Monarchs I set free, I have an unexplainable, unstoppable yearning to reach my destination.  And yet, for the last 15 years, I have given the wheel over to Fear and Doubt, who have gladly driven me into the ditch over and over and over.

I know I’m not the only one to experience this, but here’s what it looks like for me:  I have written two novels, a full-length play, and countless poems.  Those that I’ve even bothered to print out now collect dust on a shelf in the corner of our spare bedroom.  They’re good.  I know they are.  After many exhaustive re-writes, I let a few in my inner circle read them.  They were floored that I never tried to get my work published.  They tried to encourage me, but eventually, after having met with enough of my resistance, they gave up.  Standing at the crossroads now, I can either do the same, or I can triple my commitment.  I choose the latter.

My work...languishing
My work…languishing

Yes, this time last year I woke up in the Andes.  This year I accept the invitation into my own chrysalis.  In terms of New Year’s resolutions, I resolve to dissolve.

In the safety of my chrysalis, I give myself space and permission to evaluate my commitments, habits, and relationships.  I am pragmatic and ruthless.  Those that do not point to my true north are being dissolved from my life.  The people-pleaser in me, the one I thought I shook off in the Andes, is alive, but she’s quaking in her boots.  That’s good.  Not comfortable, but good.  It will get worse as I roll out some of the changes I have in mind.

I suppose no one really knows if the caterpillar’s transformation inside the chrysalis is painful.  I suspect it is, though, and brace myself accordingly.

Admittedly, I’ve been down this road before, and landed in the ditch every time, thanks to Doubt and Fear.  But now I know the secret:  The real magic of transformation is not in my bold, sweeping declaration of its imminence; it’s in the hundreds of little choices that cross my path every day, soft and swift as butterfly wings.

Until, at last, I can unfurl my own wings.

fly away by yo
Photo by Yolanda Santiago White

I DIDN’T SEE A CONDOR IN THE ANDES. I WAS THE CONDOR!

Arriving in Cusco (And How I Learned “Lack of Oxygen” is a Handy Excuse For Most Anything!)

Pressing my nose to the window, I hold my breath as the Andes rise up to greet me – lush hues of green, tear-stained and timeless.  Wispy cloud fingers gently rake the peaks, growing more substantial with every passing mile.  Dazzling snow-capped peaks suddenly burst through the cloud layer, making a grab for the sun in a stunning display of glittering brilliance.  The plane banks sharply to the left, and just like that, these treasures become memory.

The Andes adorned with their glittering finery
The Andes Adorned With Their Glittering Finery

“Maureen!”

Making my way down the corridor from the plane, I hear Mo before I see her.  I throw my arms around her and we laugh.  Those witnessing the reunion smile warmly then look away.  I step back, then hug her again, so grateful she is there, grateful I made it, grateful this is real!

We chatter excitedly as she flags down a taxi.  I am surprised by her command of the language as she leans down to speak to the driver through the passenger-side window.   Shoving my pack into the tiny cab, I settle in next to Mo and allow the sights, sounds, and smells of the city to assault my senses.

We walk the final block or two to Mo’s apartment, which is off a quaint cobblestone alley.  Ducking through the hobbit-sized door, we enter a small courtyard dominated by bushes of red, tear-drop shaped flowers kneeling in worship of their patch of sunlight.

Mo unlocks the "hobbit" door
Mo Unlocks the “Hobbit” Door   
Red flowers in the courtyard
The Flowers In The Courtyard

Mo shows me into her modest loft on the second floor.  An ancient, once-golden sofa rests on the left, flanked by a few shelves built into the wall to its right.  The kitchen consists of a sink, propane stove top, a small round table, and a mini-fridge.  From what I can see, there are a couple of mugs, plates, and a bowl or two at our disposal.

The Kitchen
The Kitchen

Then come the bathroom instructions/warnings:

  • Make sure you are finished showering by 10:00pm because there is generally no water between 10pm and 2am.  That’s when the water tanks are re-filled.
  • If you want hot water, just turn the water on to a slow dribble.  If warm water is acceptable, you can run it a little more.  Run it full on, and you’re in for a cold shower.
  • The shower is electric (a.k.a. the shower of death).  Sometimes when you first turn the water on, the lights will flicker.
  • Do not touch the shower head because it will shock you.  (That’s when I realized the shower, just like the door into the courtyard, was kind of hobbit-sized.)
  • Never flush toilet paper down the toilet…

Wait…what??!!

Mo grins and says, “Welcome to South America!”

I realize right then and there that I am not in for a typical American tourist experience.  Not by a long shot.  I smile to myself.

As Mo boils water for our coca tea, she explains that water must be boiled for 3-5 minutes to get rid of the “cooties”.  This includes the water with which we brush our teeth.  My thoughts go back to the “shower of death” and I make a mental note to keep my mouth shut at all costs while in there.  Even if I get electrocuted.

Taking Mo’s laptop outside(she can’t connect to the internet when she’s in the apartment), I take a minute to e-mail home and let everyone know I arrived safely.  A movement across the courtyard catches my eye and I see a lady smiling up at me.  I call, “Buenos dias!” down to her and she returns the greeting as she starts up the stairs toward me.

It’s all fine until she starts talking in rapid-fire Spanish.  Everything I learned, everything I studied and thought I knew, melts from my brain cells in an instant.  I feel my eyes grow wide.  Mo is in the apartment and here I am standing before this woman like a deaf-mute.  I can tell from her smile and her tone that she is a kind person and no doubt saying something nice, but that’s about all my brain can process, especially when she gives me a big hug.  Mo appears in the doorway, much to my relief, and converses with her expertly for a moment while my head continues to spin.  Then the lady smiles at me.  “Como se llama?”

Hold on…I know this.  I do!  She’s asking me…wait…oh no!!!  What is she asking me?  This is basic stuff!  THINK!!!!

An awkward pause.  Then, in perfect English, the lady asks, “What is your name?”

AAARRRGGHHH!!!

At this point, I’m not completely sure I know the answer to that, either!  Thankfully, Mo bails me out.  Sadly, it isn’t the last time.  I blame it on the lack of oxygen in Cusco.  We are at 11,200 feet, after all!

Oxygen?  Who needs it?  Overlooking Cusco
Oxygen? Who needs it? Overlooking Cusco

 

Exploring Cusco (Talking To Strangers with Rocks In Our Pockets)

Before we set out to explore the city, Mo takes a rock from a small pile on the coffee table and hands it to me.  Slipping one into her own pocket, she explains that it is a precautionary measure against the many wild dogs in the city.  I have a hard time imagining myself ever chucking a rock at a dog, but I bury it in my pocket nevertheless.

Making our way to the Plaza de Armas, I snap pics like the tourist I am:  Flowers, people, Inca walls, murals, architecture, churches, the Andes, food, and a not-so-wild-looking dog.

Inca Wall
Inca Wall
Flowers in the Mercado San Pedro
Flowers in the Mercado San Pedro
Mural in Cusco
Mural in Cusco
Cathedral of Santo Domingo
Cathedral of Santo Domingo
A Not-So-Wild Wild Dog
A Not-So-Wild Wild Dog

Mo leads me through the Mercado San Pedro, a bustling collage of color and smells.  Not all of them are pleasant, however.  As we make our way down the main aisle, my stomach lurches at a particularly pungent odor.  Mo suggests we walk a little faster, pointing out the meat section of the market.  Whole pigs and chickens, as well as myriad other unidentifiable delicacies, are lined up in a macabre, unrefrigerated display.  We hurry out of the market, where I dare allow myself to inhale again.

The next day we continue exploring, making our way through a maze of streets and alleys toward a bus/van stop for the ride up to Cristo Blanco (the White Christ), which overlooks the city.  Our hands ever on the rocks in our pockets, we pass a very ornate, very unusual wooden double-door along the way.  Thinking it would make a cool pic, we both step back and whip out our cameras.  Suddenly the door opens.  A gentleman of around 60 appears, his ankle-biting black dog bolting toward us.  My first instinct is to run like I stole something, but Mo smiles and explains that we were admiring the door.  He smiles and invites us in to see his other work.  I glance nervously at Mo.  She gives a little shrug and we follow the man inside.

I should pause here and apologize to my mother.  Yes, Mom, I know going into a strange man’s home in a strange city in a foreign country where I do not speak the language is reckless and stupid.  And yes, you did indeed raise me better than that.  What can I say?  It was all Mo’s idea! 

We make our way down a hallway that opens to reveal an exquisitely carved banister leading to a second floor.  A woman appears, giving us a polite nod as she walks by.  I wonder if she is the man’s wife.  I also wonder if she is accustomed to him ushering in strange gringas from time to time.

The man shows us to a back room where enormous, elaborately carved pieces stand sentry.  Armoires, tables, wall hangings – all etched with intricate detail.  Pride gleams in the man’s eyes as he explains how the details go straight from his mind to the wood, with nothing planned out ahead of time.  We are standing in the presence of a true craftsman.  He gives each of us his business card and escorts us back to the door.  My fear has been replaced by awe, and I am grateful for the experience.

The Wooden Door
The Wooden Door

We catch the crowded Cristo Blanco van and make our way to the top of the city.  A little boy sits across from us, alternately smiling and burying his face in his mother’s arm.  “They’re so white!” he remarked to her, which made us all laugh.

Standing next to the White Christ (Cristo Blanco), we survey the city.  We snap a few tourist photos then Mo points out the cross at Saqsaywaman on a nearby cliff.  To our gringa ears, Saqsaywaman sounds like “sexy woman”…and so began a bout of irreverent humor, which Mo and I share a penchant for.

Cristo Blanco
Cristo Blanco
"Sexy Woman"
“Sexy Woman”

Making our way back to Mo’s apartment, we wait for our Llama Path guide to arrive for our pre-trek talk.  At 5:00 sharp, a very solemn, business-like, 30-something guy shows up and introduces himself as Juan José.  Very methodically, he explains what we will be doing and when, asks us if we have any food allergies, explains the customary tipping practices for the porters and cook (we nearly choke when he tells us we will have four porters and a cook), then issues us each a red duffel bag with plastic bags inside.   Do we have any questions?  Good.  He tells us he will pick us up in the morning at 7 sharp.  And with that, he is gone.

Mo and I are left blinking at each other.  We’d just been given our marching orders, to be sure!  And what was the deal with the four porters?  Weren’t they just carrying our backpacks and tents?  We set to packing and decide there is one thing we know for sure:  Juan José needs to smile more.

Packs, Boots, and Jackets...Check!
Packs, Boots, and Jackets…Check!

 

And So It Begins…

We meet our porters and cook about 7:05am the next morning.  I’m pretty sure of the exact time, because Juan José showed up exactly when he told us he would, and within 5 minutes are all in the van on our way to Tambomachay, the starting point of our trek.

It rained throughout the night and starts picking up again as we prepare to start.  Mo can I pull out our rain ponchos and laugh as we snap “before” pics.

Our "Before" Pic
Our “Before” Pic

We climb steadily upward for 4.5 miles, crossing streams (or rivers, depending on who you ask) and picking our way over rocky, muddy ridges.  I am captivated by the flora around me and quickly fall behind as I snap pic after pic.  Tucking my camera away, I decide to catch up.  Only, it’s not that easy.

The slightest incline makes my heart thud violently against my chest.  I push onward, mostly out of pride.  I wonder if this is how some of my students feel in my class and decide to be more sympathetic going forward.  We stop for water and I am amazed at how my heart rate falls back to normal with 5-10 seconds.

Pushing on, my leg muscles feel like they are imploding from the lack of oxygen.  We stop more frequently, trying at the very least to remain hydrated.  I inform Mo that my newest 4-letter word is “up”.  “Arriba,” she corrects me.  It is the Spanish word for up.  It makes me think of Speedy Gonzalez, but I don’t want to waste the oxygen laughing.

Onward we climb.  Plod, stop, breathe, repeat.  I think of the song Mo played as we were packing the night before, Breathe, by Ryan Star (“Breathe, just breathe; Take the world off your shoulders and put it on me;  Breathe, just breathe;  Let the life that you live be all that you need”).  And I try.  For nearly five hours.

We crest a ridge and see a group of porters setting up camp.  It must be time for lunch!  We’re almost giddy with excitement.  Then, with a sinking feeling, I say, “I’ll bet you ten bucks that’s not ours.  I’ll bet ours is over that next ridge.”  I don’t think either of us wanted to ask Juan José.  Maybe it was because we didn’t want him to think we were weak.  Although, as I had slowed to a snail’s pace at each “arriba” the last few miles, I’m pretty sure he already doubted us.

I was right about the location of our lunch break.  As it turned out, the first one we saw was for a group of five 20-somethings we kept leap-frogging with along the way.  Jerks.

 

NOT Our Lunch Tent...Ours Is Over That Next Ridge
NOT Our Lunch Tent…Ours Is Over That Next Ridge

And so we persevere over the next ridge, past herds of llamas and sheep.  Finally, we meet the smiling faces of our porters, who present us with some delicious drink made from barley.  We throw down our packs and sit on a tarp as they finish making lunch for us in the tent.  As if on cue, the sun comes out, and we drink in the warmth like nectar.

Juan José motions for us to enter the tent.  We gawk at the spread before us, as it is nothing short of a 5-course meal.  If this is what we are in for during our trek, no wonder there were four porters!  Sure, they are carrying our sleeping bags and tents, but they are also hauling the lunch tent, food, cooking supplies, and their own tents on their backs!  And they handily pass us without the slightest trace of labored breathing!  Mo and I are humbled, to say the least.

With Our Porters and Cook (a.k.a. Rock Stars!)
With Our Porters and Cook (a.k.a. Rock Stars!)

Back on the trail, we have more “arriba” until we reach almost 14,200 feet on the Huchuy Qosqo Pass.  Then we have a few more hours of descent, during which time we pass through several unique eco-regions, from warm, sunny valleys to the village of Pukamarca, from the tropical Hummingbird Canyon to the mist-covered ruins at Huchuy Qosqo.  We stop in the village to give the kids some of the gifts we brought from home.  They are so soft-spoken and polite, and genuinely glad to have the cookies and coloring books/crayons.

Kids From Pukamarca and Their Faithful Pup
Kids From Pukamarca and Their Faithful Pup

During the descent, Juan José stays closer to us.  We talk about history, people, and world views.  We ask him how to say some things in the Quechua language.  He asked us about some English words he isn’t sure about.  We discover we are kindred souls after all.  And the most incredible thing happens:  Juan José smiles!

JJ Rocking A Smile!!
JJ Rocking A Smile!!

It is raining again as we reach the camp.  Unable to hear well with my rain gear on, I narrowly escape being trampled by a few over-anxious horses.  Thankfully, Mo turned and saw them in time to warn me.  The porters, of course, have been there long enough to set up our tents, and start dinner.  We are presented with warm water and towels so that we can freshen up a bit before tea.  (Yes, we had tea.)  An hour later we meet again for another fantastic dinner.  The tent is filled with laughter as we trade funny stories with JJ.  (Somewhere during the course of that meal he went from being Juan José to JJ.)

Time For Some Coca Tea!
Time For Some Coca Tea!
View From Our Camp in Huchuy Qosqo
View From Our Camp in Huchuy Qosqo

The Milky Way stretches overhead as we emerge from the dinner tent.  With no light pollution, the stars seem close enough to touch.  I would love to sit and stare at them for hours, but the chill and exhaustion are taking its toll.  Nestling down in our sleeping bags, Mo and I drift into unconsciousness.

About that time, a wild dog makes its way into the camp and starts barking and howling.  I am painfully aware that I need to relieve myself one last time before going to sleep.  However, I am not about to leave the safety of our tent knowing there is a wild dog prowling around.  In my mind, of course, he is the size ofa puma, with red eyes and gleaming fangs.  So I wait.  For over twenty minutes.  Nothing but silence.  Surely the dog has moved on.

Grabbing my little flashlight, I slowly unzip the tent and walk a few yards away.  Just as I am getting down to business, I hear it – a deep, guttural growl to my right.  I flick on the flashlight and point it in that direction.  Nothing.  Funny, but I don’t seem to need to pee anymore.  Scampering back to the tent, I zip it up and stare at the darkness until the first rays of sun emerge over the Andes.

The next day, we make a sharp 3.5 mile descent into the small town of Lamay.  After another wonderful lunch, we say goodbye to our porters and cook.  Picking up my pack, I feel my back go out with a sharp snap.  I want to cry, but an angry resolve quickly settles in.  I pitch the pack over my back and board the bus for Ollyantaytambo.  The whole ride, I try to ignore the fact that the rest of my trip might very well be ruined.  Once in the town, Mo and I walk around a bit.  The movement loosens my muscles slightly, but I know from way too much past experience that sitting down will soon invite the spasms back.

Ollyantaytambo
Ollyantaytambo

Pain nipping at my lower back, we board the train to Aguas Calientes and the final leg of our trek – Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu.  I am grateful to be in a hotel that night, and a very nice one at that.  Apparently we were bumped up to a 4-star resort from whatever we were supposed to be in.  Indeed, it is very lovely, an oasis of perfection in the middle of a rain forest.  Oddly, Mo and I both feel a bit shell-shocked, perhaps even a little disappointed.  We had been unexpectedly plopped down in the middle of an elegant resort, which was, of course, all sanitized and safe for western tourists.  As nice as that might sound, it is not what we signed up for.  Our hearts already ache for the silence of the mountains.

Nevertheless, we are starving.  Food trumps a hot shower, so we make our way to the restaurant.  I feel like Grizzly Adams at the Four Seasons.  Probably smell like it, too.  We get a few disapproving looks, which makes the whole situation even funnier.  I am grateful for the laugh – anything to take my mind off my back.

But as we cut up and giggle, we notice a long table nearby.  A family vacation, it appears, with the patriarch seated at one end, dressed in designer expedition clothing that he probably never wore before.  Everyone at the table is, in fact, dressed like a Ralph Lauren print ad.  All have impeccable manners, their left hands resting in their laps, their right hands setting down their fork after each bite.  But they aren’t talking.  No one is laughing.  No one looks happy.  They just look…well, perfect.

Sometimes we see people in the depths of poverty and shiver, grateful we are not them.  This is how I feel now, watching this family, their brand of poverty so much farther reaching than those unable to afford such meals.

I look around again.  There are others.  Couples, families with teenagers – all entranced by their iPhones.  The air in the room suddenly feels very thin.  I look down at my boots, the bottoms of which are surely covered with llama dung, and sigh.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.  Thankfully, having the means does not necessarily relegate one to the desire.

Mo and I retire to our room and talk a little more about the adventure in store for us tomorrow.  Honestly, after all the wonders we have seen and experienced to this point, we agree that if something happened and we couldn’t make it to Machu Picchu, it wouldn’t matter.  We would not leave disappointed.

The View From Our Luxury Accommodations...Bring On Machu Picchu
The View From Our Luxury Accommodations…Bring On Machu Picchu

Going to Machu Picchu is like going to Disney World, if you like that sort of thing.  There is an endless stream of busses filled with tourists between the town of Aguas Calientes and the front gates of Machu Picchu.  Once there, you push your way through the crowd, past people yelling at their kids, teenagers stopping to pose for countless selfies, young people heckling each other from atop the terraces.

We sense a change in JJ’s demeanor while we are there.  He endures this all the time, for the sake of his customers – the noise, the shoving, the irreverence.  I feel sad.  I don’t want to be a part of this.  I want to be part of the Andes, the night sky, the clouds, the flowers, the streams, Pachamama…everything we saw until now.  But I see myself as JJ must…another foreign tourist jockeying for that “classic Machu Picchu” shot.  I got the shot.  We all did.  But it is cheapened in my heart.

The Classic Shot of Machu Picchu...For What It's Worth
The Classic Shot of Machu Picchu…For What It’s Worth

We say goodbye to JJ after our tour of Machu Picchu.  On our own now, Mo and I make our way to Huayna Picchu.  I am nervous after all I have heard and read about it.  1,000 feet straight up…but it’s the coming down that wrecks the nerves.  JJ even admitted he didn’t like doing it, which did nothing for my confidence.  By the time we start our ascent, the mountain is swathed in clouds.  My back is holding up, thanks to 800mg of ibuprofen.

Starting Up Huayna Picchu
Starting Up Huayna Picchu

We make our way through a couple of rocky bottlenecks with people coming back down the mountain.  I find myself regretting ever getting on this overcrowded “amusement park ride”.  Thankfully, we do not encounter any more on our way up.

Before long, we reach a dark cave that must be passed through in order to reach the highest part of the mountain.  Fear starts to grip me.  What if my back gives out in the cave?  What if I get stuck here?  Shaking it off, I ask Mo to snap my picture, then I push myself into the darkness.

Entering The Cave
Entering The Cave

I walk on my knees, pressing my hands against the cold, wet stone ceiling as it slopes downward.  There is daylight just ahead and I scramble in a belly-crawl toward it.  From the top, the shroud of white mist obscures our view, yet we all know what lies below us, just a footstep away.

A guy proposes to his girlfriend at the very top and everyone claps.  Pausing to snap a few more pics, Mo and I start the descent.  The stone stairs narrow, the mist swirls around us.  I sit down and scoot from step to step.  Some people are turning around and crawling down as if on a ladder.  I keep waiting for it to get really scary, really difficult, but it never does.  It’s true, what they say – there are no handrails or ropes, but I don’t need them.  I chalk the hullabaloo surrounding the descent to melodramatic past tourists in need of “death-defying” tales.  Puh-lease.

 

The Descent From Huayna Picchu
The Descent From Huayna Picchu

 

We make it down without incident, and I keep snapping pics of the orchids and other flora that catch my attention.   Toward the end, two employees rush past us with a stretcher.  Apparently someone broke their leg or something.   Ought to make for a great story back home!

 

Just One of 3,000 Species of Orchid Found In Peru
Just One of 3,000 Species of Orchid Found In Peru

Time to Think, To Be, and To Transform

I knew I would be different after this trip.  I found out what I was made of and I came back with a clearer understanding of my strengths, as well as my weaknesses.  I have a better idea of who I am, and who I am not.  I caught a glimpse of what is possible.  And I learned a lot about trust and choice.

Up to this point in my life, I have tried to stay one step ahead of the game, always grabbing and clawing for control.  When that doesn’t work, which it most certainly will not 100% of the time, I become reactive…and angry.

To be both controlling and reactive is a perfectly horrible dichotomy, especially when they are roommates within one soul.  Frustration.  Impatience.  Failure to focus.  Anger.  And what is anger but a manifestation of fear?

What am I afraid of?

That is what changed on this trip.  Everything I was afraid of before, I left in the Andes.  Fear of failure.  Fear of disappointing people.  Fear that I might fall apart when things got rough.  Fear I wasn’t good enough.

I am still afraid, but I’m afraid of things like whether or not my loved ones feel cherished, of not being fully present during the most precious moments of life, of wasting my time.

So I am making some changes.  This is what they look like:

When I am introduced to people, I want to remember their name.

When I speak with someone, I want to remember their eye color when we part company.

I never want to start a conversation with a complaint again, even if it’s about the weather.

When I do something as simple as walking to my car in a parking lot, I want to be aware of the cloud formations above me, be able to name the trees around me, and hear which birds are singing nearby.

I want to listen without formulating my next reply, without judging, and with respect for the journey we each face, as well as where we are in it.

I want to ask questions that make people think.

I want to trust and believe in the perfect timing of the universe; to know that I am part of it, not a victim of it.

And so, in the end, I am mindful.  And grateful.  And unhurried.

Because that’s how I roll now…

Let go of the fear, let go of the doubt,

Let go of the ones who try to bring you down

You’re gonna be fine, don’t hold it inside

And if you hurt right now

Let it all come out

(From “Breathe” by Ryan Star)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

BRING ON THE SPITTING LLAMAS! I’M READY FOR THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE!

Yes, I am ready.  And yes, I know that llamas spit, coca tea helps with altitude sickness, and that “cuy” is a local delicacy I’d probably rather avoid. (That’s guinea pig.  Yes, really.)

My Spanish is “meh”, but it’s there.  I can locate the bathroom, ask for the time, and tell someone to shut up quickly and accurately.  Funny story, though.  As I was filling out the online form for our Machu Picchu trek, I clicked on the drop down box under “nationality” and was astonished to find absolutely NO line item for the U.S.  Not USA, not United States of America.  Nothing.  I scrolled down to the N’s in hopes of perhaps finding something under North America when it hit me.  Hey genio, it’s under E for Estados Unidos.  Way to go, gringaAy, carumba.

Let’s see…what else have I been advised /asked about.  Oh yes!  Am I physically in shape for this trip?  Well, besides the fact I run, swim, hike, and kayak, I’m also an exercise instructor.  (We ain’t talkin’ your mama’s Zumba class, baby!) And so, I defer to my students for the answer to that question.  Eh hem.  Okay, that’s all I have to say about that.

For the record, though, succumbing to altitude sickness has absolutely nothing to do with one’s level of fitness, so I will be well-armed with my acetazolamide prescription and a LOT of agua as I hang out in Cusco at around 11,500 feet.  The highest altitude I’ve experienced so far is 10,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains.  I was fine.  But hey, I’m not taking any chances here!

Neither is my doctor.  Upon hearing of my trip, she hammered out two more prescriptions to help if I should, let’s say, accidentally drink the water down there.  I asked if, in the event I start to feel ill, I should plan to take the one for dysentery first and then take the one for parasites if the symptoms don’t improve, to which she kind of half-shreaked in reply, “TAKE THEM ALL!”  Thanks, doc.  Getting the warm fuzzies here.  Hoping they’re not parasites…

No, I choose to imagine instead Mo and me kicking back with a little canela aguita, or coca tea.  Whichever strikes our fancy, as we catch up on each other’s life.

In other news, I successfully whittled away the items in my pack until it reached the magical weight of 17 pounds!  Granted, I will be walking through airport terminals looking like the Michelin Man with hiking boots, but I will NOT be checking any bags for this trip!  It takes three different planes to get me to my destination and back.  Checking a bag is like issuing a written invitation to the airlines to lose my luggage.  Can I get an “amen”?  And I kind of need my gear for this trip, if you know what I mean.

I re-waterproofed my boots, packed some extra pens with my journal, loaded up the Kindle with the likes of Joseph Campbell, Terry Tempest Williams, Charles Darwin, and Homer; and filled my iPod with an eclectic mix of Blue October, Jewel, Celtic Woman, and R. Carlos Nakai.  Now I wait.

But waiting is not wasted time.  It is a gift, a time to be mindful and reflective, not hurried and anxious.  For me, that means casting aside the endless To Do list to which I am so addicted and taking note of the way the lights from the Christmas tree play off my son’s hair, the way my husband hugs me a little tighter and a little longer these last days before I leave.  They have no idea how much I will miss them.

And so, I think it’s time I signed off and enjoy the “wait” with my loved ones a bit more.

¡Adios, mis amigos!  ¡ Estoy saliendo de los Estados Unidos prontos!

Until next year…

Armed with my Spanish books and prescriptions meant to keep my tummy feeling good!
Getting ready is a process!  Here I am, armed with my Spanish books and prescriptions.
Only the bare essentials in an effort to keep the pack weight under 17 pounds!  My secret?  Compression packs!
Only the bare essentials in an effort to keep the pack weight under 17 pounds! My secret? Compression packs!

 

YOU CAN HAVE YOUR REALITY TV. TELL ME MORE ABOUT PIZARRO AND ATAHUALPA!

The big trip is less than two weeks away, so I continue to cram as much Peruvian history into my little brain as possible.  I share a little of it with you here in hopes it will make the photos I bring back from the trip more meaningful for you, as well.  (That is code for “if you are writing a term paper on Peruvian history, you might want to keep searching”.)

That said, let’s talk a little about Franciso Pizarro (the guy with the Voldemort-like tendencies I alluded to in my last post) and Atahualpa, the last king of the Inca Empire.

Apparently growing up illegitimate and illiterate in Spain in the early 16th century didn’t get you much further than the village pig pen.  I suppose you could aspire to head pig herder, but let’s face it, who does that?

After 34 years of such a less-than-glamorous lifestyle, Francisco Pizarro found himself on a boat bound for Colombia with Alonzo de Ojeda.  The expedition was a bust, but Pizarro seized the chance to do something all successful business people instinctively do:  He made himself indispensable.

Three years later, he was a shoe-in for Vasco Núñez Balboa’s crew on the voyage where the Pacific Ocean was discovered.  Five years later, Pizarro led a force to arrest Balboa on trumped up charges by the crooked Governor Pedrarias, which eventually led to Balboa’s execution.

Losing no sleep over the incident, Pizarro happily accepted a position as mayor in what is now known as Panama, and set up housekeeping on a lovely estate there.  Not too shabby for a former swine herder, but it was a temporary placation of his burgeoning greed.  Six years later, he was ready for more.  Much, much more.

In 1524 Pizarro teamed up with navigator Diego de Almagro and the priest Fernando de Luque, who held the purse strings for the three subsequent expeditions they did together.  The first took them only to what is now known as Ecuador.  They reached Peru with the second, which is where they first heard about the riches of the Inca Empire.   Pizarro must have returned from that trip with his eyes glazed over with gold because his next step was a little cruise over to Spain to convince Emperor Charles V to let him lead an expedition to conquer the Inca for the Spanish flag.  Pizarro returned to Panama having secured the emperor’s blessing, as well as his word that Pizarro would receive the lion’s share of the profits.  Of course, Pizarro kept the latter part of that deal away from his traveling compadres.

On November 15, 1532, Pizarro’s path finally crossed that of the Inca Atahualpa.  I imagine it might have been rather awkward, given Atahualpa was bathing in the hot springs in Cajamarca at the time.  He was celebrating his recent victory over his half-brother, Huascar, for control of the Inca Empire, and preparing to march on Huascar’s former capital of Cusco.  The conniving Pizarro gave Atahualpa a big ole “atta boy” by inviting him to a feast to be held the very next day in celebration of his recent victory; an invitation Atahualpa readily accepted.  Atahualpa showed up to the feast with several thousand men, all of whom were unarmed.  Probably not his wisest move.  Pizarro brought 180 men to the party, complete with artillery and guns.

Atahualpa was probably taken further off guard when a Spanish priest presented him with a Bible and pressed him to accept both Christianity and the sovereign reign of Emperor Charles V.  He flung the Bible to the ground, and let’s just say it was on.

Pizarro attacked, capturing Atahualpa and killing thousands of his men.  Trying to keep his head, literally and figuratively, Atahualpa offered what turned out to be the richest ransom in the history of the world:  A large room filled half with gold and twice over with silver.  Pizarro was quite agreeable, and soon treasure started pouring in from all over the Andes Mountains.  The conquistadors made sport of breaking up the gold so that it took longer to fill the room.  In the end, after it was all destroyed and melted down, they had about 24 tons of gold and silver.

At that point, Pizarro apparently decided the goose that laid the golden egg was no longer useful.  So, in true Governor Pedrarias fashion (remember Balboa’s downfall?), Pizarro charged Atahualpa with plotting to overthrow the Spanish (as if!), having his half-brother murdered, plus a few other lesser charges for good measure.  I think you can guess what happened next.  Atahualpa was sentenced to death.

Apparently Atahualpa was a pretty likeable guy, despite the fact he had been rather ruthless in his own ascent to power.  During his months in captivity, some of his captors had come to know him better.  They respected his bravery, intellect, commitment to ruling (which he continued to do after his capture), and the strong bonds he had with his children.  So on August 29, 1533, the day Atahualpa was sentenced to die, some of them had a pretty hard time with it.

On that day, Atahualpa was tied to a stake and given a choice.  He could be burned alive, or he could convert to Christianity and be strangled by garrote.  Atahualpa believed, as did his people, that mummification was necessary to get to the afterlife, so he stoically did what he had to do to ensure his body would remain intact and unaltered.  It is said he stared directly into Pizarro’s eyes as the life left him.

Now, for those who like to see people get what’s coming to them, take heart.  Remember how Pizarro cheated his old friend  Almagro out of his share of the Incan spoils?  Fast forward a few years.  It turns out Almagro regrouped and seized Cusco during a civil war in 1538.  Unfortunately for Almagro, Pizarro had his half-brother track Almagro down and kill him.  BUT Almagro’s son broke into Pizarro’s palace in 1541 and killed him as he ate dinner.

Who needs soap operas when we have history, right?!  Time marches on, of course.  Unrest continued in the area, thanks mainly to the fighting between conquistadors, until the late 1550s.

I understand from Mo, who is already in Cusco, that many of the Spanish structures were built on the ruins of the Inca.  That is mostly what I will be seeing.  But in my mind’s eye, I will see the Incas in their glory and imagine what life might have looked like – before the invasion, before a foreign belief system was forced on them, before their home was desecrated by strangers.

On a side note, Machu Picchu, which is about 46 miles northwest of Cusco, was never discovered by the Spanish – to which I say, “Bully for the Inca!”  It was built around 1450 and mysteriously abandoned by 1572.  It is not known exactly what Machu Picchu was used for, but we do know it was built on and around mountains of great religious importance to the Incan civilization.

I am grateful for the chance to stand on sacred ground left unblemished by the greed, hate, and cruelty of the Spanish Conquest.  Of course, I can’t help but imagine how it would torture Pizarro’s very soul to know such a close treasure eluded him!  You know.  Kind of like the Cruciatus Curse.

Francisco Pizarro
Francisco Pizarro