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 My quads feel like the muscle and bone has been replaced by straight lactic acid.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!

 

 

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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

INCAS, AZTECS AND MAYANS! OH MY! (A Short History Lesson That Didn’t Make My 12-Year-Old Yawn)

Let me explain.  Before I visit a new place, I try to learn as much as I can about its history.  Call me a geek, but it makes the whole experience burst with life.  Recently, as I have answered questions from friends, family and even strangers about my upcoming trip to Peru, I noticed what seems like a pervasive disconnect between the notion that it’s a super-cool, exotic vacation (which it is!), and an appreciation for the rich history of a civilization that lived, worked and died there.  I am referring to the Incas, of course, but I knew there was a problem when more than one person told me they’re jealous because they’ve always wanted to see the Mayan ruins.  I tell them they are in luck because their flight will be much shorter than mine.

Turns out, the Incas and the Mayans aren’t the same.  In fact, they didn’t even hang out.  Time and distance kind of got in the way.

Now, I’m no history snob.  A fledgling history buff, at best.  So trust me, I had to lean on Google and a small pile of library books to refresh my own understanding of Incan history.  But I figured I wasn’t the only one with, shall we say, memory lapses.  At times like this, I find starting with the basics prudent.

Feeling a little smarter after my quality time on various history sites, I tried a little experiment.  It involved me cornering people and saying, “Quick!  What’s the difference between Incas, Aztecs and Mayans?”  Moving past the incredulous looks, which I get frequently, the most coherent answer I got was, “Um, well, they worshipped the sun and mysteriously disappeared from Mexico, right?”  (For the record, the least coherent answer involved UFOs.  Okay, so maybe I need new friends.)

The 411, should you ever find yourself on Jeopardy, is that the Mayans didn’t stop with sun worship.  They also bowed to the moon gods, as well as to those of rain and corn.  While they certainly inhabited parts of Mexico, their ‘hood also included parts of modern-day Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Go ahead, look it up on a map.  I’ll wait.

Now, of the three civilizations mentioned, the Mayans lasted the longest (came onto the scene around 1800 B.C.), but they disappeared rather abruptly around 900 A.D.  The big mystery is why.  There are many plausible theories, everything from overpopulation to endemic warfare to the exhaustion of their natural resources.  I’m pretty sure none of the theories involve UFOs.  Just a hunch.

The Aztecs also lived in what is mostly modern-day Mexico about 400 years after the Mayans disappeared.  They, too, worshipped the sun…along with hundreds of other gods and goddesses.  Must have made for some great stand-up comedy:  “So CentzonTotochtin, the god of intoxication, and Tlazolteotl, the goddess of filth, guilt and cleansing walk into a bar…”  You get the idea.

On a less humorous note, there is no mystery surrounding the fall of the Aztecs.  After much I-Can’t-Make-This-Stuff-Up kind of drama, Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés overthrew the Aztecs by force in 1521, razing their capital and building Mexico City on its ruins.  Around 240,000 people died in that conquest.

A few years later, the Incas, way down in the area of modern-day Peru, had their own issues with a Spanish Conquistador by the name of Francisco Pizarro.  Ironically, Pizarro was inspired by Hernán Cortés and his defeat of the Aztecs in Mexico.  In 1533 he too met with a stunning victory for the Spanish flag with the fall of the Incan empire.  Without any assistance from UFOs, I should add.

And so I give my friend credit for the “worshipped the sun” part of his answer.  It’s true.  All three civilizations did it.  They also engaged in ritualistic human sacrifice.  Hey, don’t judge…if you think our contemporary civilizations don’t do equally heinous things to each other, you might want to put down the sports page every now and then.

Speaking of heinous, stay tuned for my next post about Francisco Pizarro and how he overthrew the Incan empire with just 180 men at his side.  The dude makes Voldemort seem like a pussycat…

Incan Sun God

November 27, 2013 – A Little History Behind This Trip (And Maybe A Little TMI)

In October of 2011 my husband and I thought we’d take a little weekend kayaking trip along the Carolina coast.  One of those REI Adventure trips.  I didn’t expect it to change my life.

At the time I was experiencing a very odd, very painful, shall we say “situation” on my face.  The best way to describe it is like having five enormous boils on my face at one time, then having them extend beneath the skin until they joined, forming a grotesque roadmap across my cheeks.  So yeah, it pretty much sucked.  Physically, anyway.  Emotionally, I was destroyed.  My face, that had at one time gotten me modeling jobs, was for all practical purposes dead.  I didn’t feel like the rest of me was too far behind.

We met up with our group along Shem Creek (near Charleston) at the headquarters of Coastal Expeditions.  I kept to myself, my hat pulled low.  My brooding over the fact that there would be no bathrooms, or trees for that matter, on the island we would call home the next couple of nights was second only to my rising panic that someone might actually talk to me.

Of course someone did, and of course I survived.  Nevertheless, I was grateful when we loaded the kayaks, made the short drive to where we were putting in, and commenced our big adventure.  The cool breeze was a balm to my wounded face and pride.  It felt good to glide along the water, listening from a distance as our guide explained how an estuary is the nursery of the ocean and pointed out some interesting looking birds.  I couldn’t tell you what they were because, frankly, at the time, I was too self-absorbed to care.

Once on the island, we set to building our little tent city.  Or I should say, I followed my husband around like a lost puppy dog, obediently completing his step by step instructions.  He was clearly in his element.  And one look around me confirmed that all our fellow travelers seemed to be, too.  So I just stood there awaiting my next set of instructions and feeling dumb.  Dumb and disfigured.  Yeah…good times.

A storm hit that night.  Not a gentle rumble of thunder in the distance or a pitter-patter of gentle rain.  I’m talking about a squall that sounded like Mother Nature herself howling, “How DARE you venture out of your pathetic little comfort zone!”  I shrank further into my sleeping bag.  The fine sand on which we camped poured through the fabric of our tent like water through a sieve, reconvening within its confines as a raging cyclone.  As a spatula of wind and rain lifted the sides of our tent, I thought I sensed fear for the first time in my husband – the rock of my life.  It wasn’t in his voice.  It was just something I felt, which made it all the more disconcerting.  Zipping up my sleeping bag the rest of the way from the inside, I cowered from the driving sand, the shrill screams of the wind, from fear itself.

The next morning, I emerged from my cocoon to find a coat of sand over everything in the tent, my husband and myself included.  Distracted by the soft, inviting song of a flute, we quietly unzipped our tent and stepped out into a glorious sunrise.  Then, sharing a knowing smile with our fellow survivors, we made our way to the water’s edge for sunrise yoga.  Best.  Sun.  Salutation.  Ever.

I don’t know if it was that storm, or the fact that we ended up battling the most horrendous current I’ve ever encountered as we made our way back to camp from Bull Island, or the way we talked and laughed like old friends around the fire in the evenings that made such an impact on me.  Maybe it was the enormous human sail we made out on the water, the “big ass birds” we couldn’t remember the names for, or watching in collective awe as dolphins jumped and played around us, but something magical happened.  I felt at home.  No one was judging me.  No one was expecting anything from me.  No one was disappointed with me.  And the funny thing is, no one even noticed my face.  Funnier still, I’d forgotten all about it myself.

Home should be a comforting place, one where you are known and accepted, but also one where you strive to know your family on a deeper level.   And so began my voracious appetite for knowing every bird, every animal, every tree, and every flower.  I wanted to be able to greet them as family the next time I came upon them.  I still do.  It’s not the kind of appetite that is ever satiated, thankfully.  I saw my first bald eagle in the wild on this trip, as well as my first Monarch butterfly.  Both brought tears to my eyes.  I look forward to seeing them again.

I made some forever friends on that trip, too.  That’s where I met Mo, with whom I will share my Peru adventure.   From the first, Mo intrigued me with her gentle, free spirit, her strength, her mindfulness, and her quiet self-assurance.  She seemed so free of the chains I felt locked around my own soul.  I was only around her for a few days, but it was long enough for me to realize that I could change, that it wasn’t too late, that I could take the time to get to know myself and remain true to that vision for the rest of my days.

Of course our little group parted ways after that weekend, but we still keep in touch.  I was thrilled for Mo when she announced her plans to travel across the globe studying school gardens.  An inspiration once again, she was living her passion.

In the first post on her blog, she said she hoped to see some of her friends with “gypsy blood coursing through their veins” along the way…

Let’s just say I took that as a written invitation!

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That’s Mo in the front of the yellow kayak.  Check out the amazing work she’s doing at http://www.itstimeformetofly.blogspot.com/