Lost in Florida – Staring Down Charles Bronson

So this is the first of my Lost in Florida series since the time of coronavirus. And yes, this particular adventure was designed by our friend S — he of the famous Tosohatchee trail hike where he didn’t bother looking at the reverse side of the map — which was in color and indicated that much of said trail was blue (meaning under water). For that adventure click on The Lost in Florida Series – The Tosohatchee Wilderness.

Now, in fairness, this time he checked both sides of the map and the 9 mile loop in the Charles H. Bronson State Forest (I kid you not about the name) showed not even a tinge of blue. But, what the map didn’t show was that days and days of rain had turned an otherwise well marked trail into canals worthy of Venice. (Apparently Charles H. Bronson was a Florida public official who worked in the department of agriculture.)

Now, when I say canal, I don’t mean that the water was nicely contained like a Netherlands water control situation. No, first you’d encounter just a little bit of a soggy section on a low part of the trail. Then the soggy section would get wetter and deeper until it overflowed its banks into a bayou of 20 or more feet of brown tannic water which you just prayed was not inhabited by snakes.

There were few choices. Try to find some high ground around the sides and risk the thorns and people traps formed by vines, tiptoe through said water hoping it wouldn’t crest the top of your hiking boots, or just tromp the entire thing saying damned if you do, damned if you don’t. After five hours of slogging through I took the third option.

The area surrounding the trail is very beautiful. Of course, we couldn’t see much of the trail itself since it was under water. J and I and our hiking companions in crime, M and S, started just before 10 am at the Joshua Trailhead. After hiking out a short (and dry) spur to the actual loop, we decided to go right. It turned out to be a good choice because the wettest parts were on that side of the loop and I’m not sure we could have conquered them at the end.

The canopy is high and deep. Creamy petals from small magnolia trees sprinkled the first part of the trail, for all the world as if for a wedding procession. Occasional meadows were covered in wildflowers – fields of perky yellow ones, vivid oranges mixed with ornate pinks, tall blooming yuccas like grapes, and purple thistles as high as my head.

Then the water would come. Slightly oily looking in some places, clear in others, but always with a brown tannic look that you could take as mysterious or menacing. At one point we did hear something that could have been a bear or a boar, and raised our voices accordingly.

Interspersed with the jungle were stands of Florida pines with little underbrush, along which were treeless prairies. The trail narrowed so there was barely room for a person to creep between the tall scrub on either side.

The final slog was not wet but unbelievably hot. It was 95 degrees. We had not brought enough water since we usually have too much and were down to our last sips by mile 9. By then the injury count was high. M had impressive scrapes after she encountered a vine trap apparently designed to capture people; I had a great bruise from clamboring over a fallen tree, combined with multiple bites from mosquitoes who were impervious to DEET; and J and S were both dehydrated.

Our pace was slow, and our survival skills would not have earned us an A in any Sierra Club challenge. Anytime you run out of water in 90 plus degree weather you know you’ve done something wrong. But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. We faced down Charles Bronson and won!

So it took a pandemic…

I’ve been writing this blog for close to six years – which is an eternity in blog world. Can I win a prize, please?

And when all this started I had such grandiose dreams – I wrote about empty Orlando and a follow up; then I was going to write about a hike into the Florida wilderness – and took lots of photos but the post never emerged.

Is it the strange secrecy of working at least half the week in your own little private Idaho – with plenty of communication but all of it virtual? Is there some element of privacy I never experienced before that makes you dole out public viewings in a more abstemious fashion?

Who knows. The world appears to be changing and all I know is I want to see my children and my parents next month. If I need to maintain my semi hermit world to do that – at least for the sake of my parents – it’s worth it.

So, we now have a booking for a cabin (unclear about electricity) that’s a 2.5 mile steep hike up a mountain in NC for three days, followed by a beach week with – I hope – my parents, children, and significant others. Not exactly summits, but in these days of coronavirus I’ll take what I can get.

We were supposed to climb Katahdin in Maine in July. I even have the Baxter State Park permits. But before booking plane tickets I made the sensible decision to check Maine’s visitor rules and discovered we would be subject to a 14 day quarantine. Don’t think that will work.

I have absolutely no idea how that emoji appeared but I can’t erase it without deleting the last paragraph so I guess we are stuck with it. Cheers!

Need a Summit – Acotango?

When last FromSwampToSummit wrote she was wandering through downtown Orlando, contemplating the eerie emptiness of the heretofore bustling streets and plazas. But after her husband questioned the sanity of continuing to go into the office each day, even by foot, the interests of marital harmony (especially under lockdown) took precedence over the walk to work every day goal. So those excursions have been circumscribed to once a week.

But what, you ask, does this have to do with Acotango, a potentially active volcano of over 19,000 feet located in Bolivia? (Photo of Acotango By Gerard Prins – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.) Well, it turns out that it is very difficult to try to stay in shape without some goal ahead. The sheer pleasure of being in shape somehow isn’t enough to put up with the pain. And yes, Katahdin in Maine lies ahead in July, and presuming we can travel by then, I am sure will present a challenge – but somehow, not enough to keep these now 59 year old legs pumping.

Acclimatizing outside Leh, Ladakh, India 2018

Spur of the moment last weekend we picked up the phone and called our adventure companion S in Alaska, of Stok Kangri and Mt. Elbrus fame. See, among others, The Peak – Summit of Stok Kangri, India. He too is looking for that next expedition and between the three of us we have cobbled together the start of a plan.

Based on J’s research, it looks as though a trip through the salt flats of Bolivia and the world’s highest desert, capped by a non technical climb of Acotango could be in order. The landscape is dry and otherworldly – odd rock formations. And Acotango itself may still have life – apparently it erupted 10,000 years ago, which is recent in volcanic terms. So there’s still life in those old bones.

What better way to celebrate my 60th birthday next year and the 10th anniversary of our climbing career! Let the training begin.

A Walker’s Guide to Empty Orlando

It’s been only a few weeks since I last posted – about an adventurous trip to the back country of the Klondike in the Canaveral National Seashore. But – as I’m sure all of us feel – those few weeks have taken us on a journey on which none of us planned to venture. Global pandemic? What? Back in the halcyon days of February it seemed like a far off possibility. Not something where the global case count would rapidly reach six figures, speeding up at ever greater rates, and there’s a grim competition of which state is outdoing which for the highest number of cases. New York obviously wins, but there’s brisk competition for the runners up.

For whatever reason, the legal profession has been designated an essential service in Orlando, and while anyone who wants to work at home can do so, and our office is closed to non employees, there’s a stalwart little band of regulars who show up for at least part of each day, carefully observing a six foot distance from each other. In my management capacity I’ve actually threatened to get out a yardstick.

The Y has closed, as have all my other sources for group exercise activities. I’m discovering that yoga by oneself practiced with a video lacks the energy and community that I now realize is central to my practice. So, once this all started I decided that I should try to walk to and from work as frequently as humanly possible, in the hopes that our July trip to Katahdin will happen and I’ll be ready for it.

It’s an eerie feeling to roam the deserted streets of downtown. Mostly it is me and the homeless population, some mentally disturbed and some not. I don’t think the numbers of the homeless have increased – it’s just with no cars and no foot traffic they are more apparent. It appears no one else has decided walking to work is the way to keep sane in this current madhouse.

Then there are the construction workers who are completely exempt from Orlando’s shelter in place order. And every developer has apparently decided they can get way ahead without all those pesky people around. The construction guys have also clearly concluded that the six feet rule doesn’t apply to them. They are working arm to arm just as closely as before and crowd around the water coolers in the backs of the trucks.

Orlando is unseasonably hot right now, but that doesn’t seem to be making any difference to the virus, and it is to cool off next week. I’ve discovered new routes to walk to work, and know every single parking garage I can cut through, as well as shady little back streets that see little pedestrian traffic in the best of times. I frequently feel I’m starring in the opening scenes of an apocalyptic movie where there will be a flash forward to six months from now, with abandoned cars on the streets and weeds working their way through the cracks of unused streets, while small bands of people scavenge for their next meal.

Well, maybe not that bad. As I walk back home in the afternoon, multiple family groups are out enjoying the lake. I haven’t seen this many people outside and off of their phones for a very long time. And I have virtually connected with old friends who live far away – leading us to wonder why we never tried this before.

There’s swamps and there’s summits and there’s a lot of in between. Let’s just appreciate where we are now – with an appropriate six feet of distance between us!

Castaway on Cape Cavaveral National Seashore – Florida Hiking

For years J and I have puzzled about the Klondike. No, not of Alaskan gold rush fame, but the mysteriously named strip of sand, dune, palmetto, and marsh that lies between the end of the roads at Playalinda Beach (parking area 13, where signs warn of nude sunbathing) and Apollo Beach (parking area 5, which I don’t believe has any similarly salacious signage although since I haven’t been there yet, I’m not sure).

It’s 13 miles between the two beaches. Some internet research had suggested there was actually a trail that veered off the beach, although the post from a year ago cryptically mentioned it “did not seem to be maintained” and was “not well-marked.” A call to the Visitors Center further confirmed that “no one is allowed back there” and whoever had been so adventuring was “doing something they weren’t supposed to.” Being law abiding citizens, we decided we would just stick to the beach, which seemed to be grudgingly accepted as permissible as long as we purchased our back country hiking permits.

The logistics of hiking straight through end to end seemed too daunting, at least for a first attempt. It would have taken two cars, with multiple drop offs and pickups. Thus, the plan was to hike half of the south to north route and turn back; next time we’ll hike the other half, north to south and then reverse; and theoretically, after that, we’ll figure out the logistics to do the whole thing.

Temperatures were in the low 70s, with a little chance of rain despite steely grey clouds, so we knew conditions should be good. Despite the signs promising nude sunbathing there was little to be found in the morning. The hike started off in some soft sand that hardened a bit as we got further away from the road. We soon passed the permit required sign, and the one lone person who had been ahead of us turned around and headed back toward civilization.

Not so us! We kept on going, along a medium wide strip of beach that narrowed to an alarming few feet and backed us up to the edge of the dunes at certain points. We could see points of land ahead, sheathed in sea spray, and had not clue what might be on the other sidet. And not a person around. Eerie is the word that comes to mind.

Glancing over the small dunes, edged with sea oats and palmettos, we could see the lagoon (what in North Carolina we would call the Sound) across a marshy area. But in some places the island itself narrowed, and I was conscious of being on a windswept strip of sand that one rogue wave could easily submerge.

As we continued on, the tide – I think we were at high tide and it turned as we were hiking – brought in a steady stream of human detritus. Full size plastic trash cans. A Gatorade bottle, still full. An air compressor with its power cord stretched out along the beach like a tail. And thousands of pieces of flaked plastic that blended into the white chipped scallop shells. So here we were, on a completely remote and uninhabited beach, yet surrounded by plastic.

Shells or plastic?

It was so bright that I couldn’t really see my Fitbit, except when I synced it to my phone, so we strictly adhered to our time estimates. The last thing we wanted was to be stuck behind the gates after the park closed. As we turned back, at approximately the half way mark, we could see our footprints, except for the spots where the waves had worn them away. There was something reassuring about knowing we’d already walked that way before.

We crushed through seashells, dodging sea suds blown all around us. On the way out, we had only seen pelicans. But the sun had now come out, and so had many small little seabirds, congregating at the edge of the water as though they were attending a convention.

Conventioneers?

Finally we started to see signs of life other than of the two legged and winged variety. I guess you could say it was a little Adam and Eve like, as the first person we saw, striding purposefully along in the surf, caused J to say, “does he not have clothes on?” Apparently the long promised nude sunbathers were now out in full force.

It was a monotonous hike (and a great workout), and it took some mental energy to keep on going (especially given the blisters I discovered I’d developed by the end). But when it’s monotonous – yet scary – you focus on the here and now. A lesson in mindfulness. And we’ve still got the other half to go.

Hidden Things in North Carolina – A New Decade Awaits

A trip to my family home in the Piedmont of North Carolina is always full of the hidden. Shadows of the past; remnants of the present. And Christmas of 2019 was no exception.

Some remnants of the present were literally remnants. There’s a place called the Scrap Exchange in Durham, run by a not for profit organization, that houses bins of about anything you can think of. Egg cartons, for example. Door knobs. Left over and partially used craft projects. I scored 6 Christmas stockings for a dollar each (you can never have too many), two Irish linen handkerchiefs in their original souvenir packaging for fifty cents (my brother had the temerity to ask what I would do with them), and a holiday adorned roll cover for my mother (there is such a thing). The latter two were in a bin optimistically labeled “vintage linens.”

Beyond that, there are always hidden things at Five Oaks, the weekend home my parents bought many years ago north of Durham. There is now only one big oak tree, four having been felled by various hurricanes, but “One Oak” doesn’t have the same ring. Over the years, my father has created multiple vistas designed around one or more objects he’s made from whatever happened to be on hand. But as time has crept (leapt?) by, the underbrush has become above brush and said objects peek forth through a chaos of leaves and branches. Can you see the pot?

The Smokehouse

Five Oaks was also the scene of a hide and seek adventure this year – involving Teddy, my parents’ extremely large furry 8 year old dog, who looks like a Swedish Lapphund. As a dog, he is allowed to be identified by his full name, rather than an initial.

There’s a dog in there somewhere

We all took a walk across the meadow through the woods and down to the bluff that overlooks a creek. Teddy lumbered along beside us, staying quite close, until we reached the bluff. At which point, N (boyfriend of daughter A for those of you who don’t read this regularly) confidently predicted Teddy wouldn’t try to make it down because he’d be worried about making it back up. At which point Teddy decided to prove N wrong and took off down said bluff, across the creek, over and through a neighbor’s pond. Repeated calls by humans were much less tempting than the gobble gobbles of the wild turkey he had decided to chase. It was particularly disconcerting because we could hear loud cracks of gunshot from some nearby hunters.

Ultimately S (as in daughter S’s boyfriend) undertook the task of tracking down Teddy (who by now was a blur in the distance), which required S heroically removing his shoes and socks, wading through creek and pond, and somehow convincing Teddy that he was more interesting than a wild turkey. In the meantime I had run back to the house to get Teddy’s leash to prevent any further escapes. Teddy rather sheepishly made his way back up the bluff and N has now been banned from speaking things into existence.

Downtown Durham itself has turned hidden things into an art form. Who knew that the rundown Jack Tarr motel I remember from the 1970s really wanted to be a fancy cocktail bar all this time?

So as we close out 2019 and roll into 2020 – the beginning of a new decade after all (will they be roaring?) I hope we all appreciate the hidden things around us, whether human, animal, or other. The 2010s were full of summits for J and me, most of them very visible. I hope the 2020s will be the same. But it’s important to remember that not all summits are mountain peaks, and some of those hidden ones are just as significant. Happy new decade, one and all.

My Yoga Summits

Yoga. It’s been an underlying theme to this blog since the early days. In fact, I’ve tried to honor my practice by doing at least a few asanas on mountains and trails through all of our adventures – from the steep treks in Nepal to India to rocky riverbed hikes in Austin, Texas.

Over the last couple of weeks of silence on the blog – I promise I really haven’t been binge watching TV (well, I did finish Succession) – I have been spending at least a little time honing my thoughts on the topic.

I started practicing regularly at the Y back in the early 2000s, when my daughters were old enough that I felt I could take two hours respite from motherly, lawyerly, chief cook and bottlewasher duties on Sunday afternoons. I still remember my first yoga class. I positioned myself in the back row of the 30 or so yogis – that was pre the construction of the Y’s yoga studio and we practiced in the “Fitnasium,” a fancy word for a small gym. You could line yourself up with the various floor markings. My yoga teacher at that class remained my Sunday afternoon yoga teacher for almost 20 years until she recently stepped down. And I’ve been practicing with the guy next to me now for an equivalent length of time. He’s ten or so years older than I and I’m now older than he was when we first met.

There’s a community that forms in a regular yoga practice. Wednesdays and Sundays are my days of choice. While people come and go there been a regular core of us over the years. I refer to them as my yoga buddies. There’s something to be said for the sharing that goes on as you contort yourself into the next pretzel like position. And before or after class we can complain about our latest ache or pain or the state of the world in general. It’s those little interactions that build connection (karma?) that can carry you through your week and up your next summit.

Teachers – and I’ve been blessed with great ones – can add to the practice, but they really are guides, not yoga maestros. It’s the combination of energy and eventual calm of those in class that creates the yogic environment.

How, you may ask, does this relate to summits? Well, aside from the obvious physical benefits – clambering up rock frequently require flexibility – there’s a mindset that goes with you. It’s a degree of determination that you can in fact hold that posture for a few seconds beyond what you thought. It’s a focus on that next step in front of you instead of obsessing about whether there’s a fake summit a few hundred (but oh so long and steep) meters away. It’s keeping an intention in your mind, body, spirit that propels you upward. It works for work, too.

My Wednesday night yoga class is the one that lets me know I really can get through the rest of the week. My Sunday one brings the calm that lets me start a new one. Both summits, of a sort. Namaste.

Three Little Summits – Axes, Duck Pins, and Flowers

Axe throwing, duck pin bowling, and flower cutting. J says it's been my personal triathlon of the last three weeks. It hardly rivals Everest, swimming the English Channel, and riding from the Pacific to the Atlantic (shout out to Rob Lea), but, hey, it's mine.
If I've been silent on this blog recently it's because life has caught up with steps and stairs and summits. How about having graduated from high school 40 years ago? Or a visit to our almost 29 year old daughter in an old Victorian in Providence, Rhode Island, together with longtime boyfriend N and a VERY LARGE CAT who has just joined the family. I think cats can go by full names on the blog. It's Milo. Name came from the cat shelter but it seems to fit.

The 40th year reunion, of course, was part of a trip to the hometown, where the parents still live in the house I grew up in. The city, known to movie and baseball buffs as Bull Durham (yes, I originally and mistakenly posted “the home of field of dreams,” displaying my lack of knowledge of both baseball and movies, as J pointed out), has changed immeasurably from the 1970s when I was last a regular resident. I’m sure none of the rest of us have.  Frankly, most of my high school classmates – about half our class showed up, rather remarkable, looked pretty darn good. I did keep thinking a lot of that may have been the fact I grew up with a privileged group of kids. Wonder what it might have been like if we’d been working minimum wage jobs.

Highlight of the event – axe throwing! This wasn’t the school sponsored activity. The lawyer in me says there could be liability concerns. It’s a more bombastic and less refined version of darts. Instead of a paltry little darts with a few tail feathers to stabilize its flight to a board filled with intricately designed segments with assigned point by point numbers – you’re given a hatchet, with a good sized handle that you simply arch back and hurl, two handed, to a plywood panel with three crudely drawn  concentric circles. I loved it. If you have a high stress job it’s an excellent release.

That weekend was followed by Providence, Rhode Island, the new home of daughter A and  Boyfriend N. Rhode Island has all sorts of things to offer that can fit into a triathalon of weird weekend trips.

First up – two pounds of New Bedford scallops, for free. One of the advantages, apparently, to having connections in New Bedford, home of the scallop fishing industry.

The seafood fiesta was followed by a Providence Day, loosely organized by N and friends. Doughnuts were followed by a trip to a not for profit that’s running a cutting garden out of a bombed out looking area of Providence. The flowers go loose to organizations that help people in times of stress on the theory that making arrangements is very therapeutic. They are then assembled into bouquets for those who need something to get through the day. The former factory on the site had something to do with knives, I think.

You can’t go to Providence without some time at Rhode Island School of Design. Let’s just say that their crafts fair was shoulders above your normal one.

From flowers the only next logical stop was duck pin bowling. Apparently big in Rhode Island (and I believe Maryland also), the alleys are all wood, the pins are small fat little objects, the balls are small and don’t have finger holes, and real human beings are at the end of each lane to reset the pins. I loved it. No possibility of your fingers getting ripped off if they got stuck in the bowling ball. Apparently the one we were at was the original bowling alley at a factory – management had installed it to give the workers something to do on their breaks.

We finished off with a trip down to the South Coast, a nice hike and lunch at a favorite restaurant, The Red Dory. Aside from the fact daughter A might have been bitten by a Lyme disease infected tick, a good time had by all. Plus, trees were in full autumnal garb, always a treat to us Florida folk. And that was topped off by a visit to a farmers market with its own flower cutting field.

So hardly a couple of weeks of real summits. But a good reminder that each little daily activity can have its own summit moment, if you just keep it in perspective.

Continue reading

Balkans Trek Part 3 – A Magic Meadow, A Rocky Descent, and a Boat Ride

Our night in the Albanian kitchen converted to bedroom for four went fairly well and we were excited for the day’s adventure, which had been billed as a trek across an “idyllic meadow.”  Our guide, who had some unusual turns of phrase in English, explained we would pass several  “summer cottages.”  Being from Florida, I naturally assumed that meant the Albanian and Montenegron version of a beach house. But as you’ll see, such was not the case.

We started off about 9, first through the dark and gloomy woods we had trudged through before, encountering a steep uphill slog at the outset.  Then came what I can only call the Land of Berries — tiny wild strawberries, sweeter than store bought, blueberries on the cusp of ripeness. Later we tried a “dude,” a berry from a tree, similar to a blackberry.

We emerged from the berry bushes into the meadows which indeed lived up to their billing — an absolutely idyllic land of long grasses.   A rolling valley, dotted with the so-called summer cottages.  Not vacation homes at all, but small stone dwellings where farmers stayed in the summer to make cheese and yoghurt to bring to town to sell in the winter.  Each little house had a “cold” room, and the occupants took up the rest of the space, sometimes with livestock as well.

It felt as though I was gliding through the grasses, a steady warm wind at my back propelling me forward.  A farmer couple called over to us to offer free raki — there’s a strong host tradition in this area — and several partook despite the relatively early hour of 10 a.m.  Just beyond, and up another hill, we came upon another small dwelling, this time guarded by two mother pigs and their dozen or so very curious piglets.  They were absolutely the cleanest pigs I have ever seen.

This is the Christian part of Albania, and large crosses stood on top of several peaks, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

Donkeys joined us at one point on the descent

Eventually it was back into the woods, followed by the descent.  We’d been warned it was long – and it was – about 1300 m. of altitude loss.  The trail down was nothing but loose rock, reminiscent of what we hiked coming down parts of Stok Kangri.  (See The Descent- Death March on Stok Kangri, India .) It was so hot and sunny that the glare on the rocks reflected back up on our faces. But persevere we did, and finally emerged into an almost alley at the edge of a small village, through some fields, under a grape arbor, and into an “end of trail” café set up by someone on their porch.

After some celebratory beers – this was the last full day of trekking – we piled into our van for the ride back through the gorge. I wasn’t by the window but those who were described it as hair-raising. I hadn’t realized before how high up and remote we had been.  After some hours, we crossed the border back into Montenegro. Unlike our on-foot crossings in the mountains – where not even a natural feature separated one country from the other – this one required quite a wait.

Our next stop was Lake Skadar. Having just been in the isolated beauty of deepest Albania, it was a shock to be in a place packed with hundreds of local tourists.  We made our way to the tiny town center where we stayed at the Pelican Hotel, named for a very rare sort of pelican that nests at the lake and that we didn’t see.  The smallness of the rooms was more than compensated for by the fact each had their own bathroom.  That night we ate fabulous local trout at the hotel restaurant, which was decorated with hats of all types.

After dinner some of us ventured out.  After narrowly avoiding a fight about to break out between some of the more rowdy tourists we ended up in a “handmade souvenir shop.”  The proprietress, who told us she didn’t like all the Chinese-made items being sold in Skadar, had turned her back room into a one woman factory where she made molds, baked her ceramic wares in a kiln, and even melted glass from old bottles to decorate them with.

The following morning instead of our own two feet we used a boat.  Lake Skadar is huge, 500 km or so wide, and is almost Florida-like, with a carpet of lily pads and fields of what looks like bamboo.  But the looming mountains on either side made it clear Florida it wasn’t.  Flocks of birds skimmed low on the water, and we stopped for a quick swim….some of us, A and N in particular, swam more than others!

Back in town it was a scramble to get back in the van, which was illegally parked. This resulted in the loss of daughter S’s backpack, hiking poles, and hiking boots, all of which fortunately caught up with us over the next couple of days, thanks to another tour group following along behind us.

We knew this was to be a busy day.  We drove to Cintje, the original capitol of Montenegro.  Unfortunately none of us found it overwhelmingly exciting, and we also parked right by yet another beer fest and music festival which was doing a very loud sound check. I felt like we’d been following the festival circuit.  There were some nice old Colonial buildings and we ended up at a good place for lunch with the unlikely name of “Scottish Academie” neither of whose food nor décor seemed to have anything to do with that part of the world. I had what must have been my tenth Greek salad.

From there we drove to the national park of Lovcen. The main activity there is to walk up several hundred steps (which by now felt like nothing) to the mausoleum of Peter II Petrovic Njegos – the 19th century unifying ruler of  Montenegro.   It turns out J must have been a descendant – or so he looked when he donned the costume available at the top!

We finished the day with a fairly easy 3 hour hike descending from the mausoleum through the dappled forest to arrive in Njegusi village.  It was mostly leafy trails with a few stony parts thrown in to keep us on our toes.  We eventually made it the cute little village, which turned out to be home to Montenegron prosciutto, cheese, and wine, all of in which we partook liberally. We stayed in little cottages that housed three people each.  The terrible mattresses (don’t ask) were made up for by the view out the window, waking up to the sound of farm animals, and the cheese!

Next up – our trek ends with stay in Kotor Bay.

The view from the window in Njegusi

 

Balkans Trek Part 2 – Albanian Adventures: A Pass and Two Peaks

My travel journal starts off: I am sitting in the warm sunshine on a picnic bench at the Guesthouse Lepushe, in Albania, surrounded by the Accursed Mountains. Several of our group are playing cards, and another is sharing wine made by the nuns at the monastery we visited the previous day – straight from the plastic screw top bottle – with a pasted on label over the original brand. I’m in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Two days ago our first full day of trekking began with a classic Kosovo breakfast on the porch -tomatoes, egg, puffy fried bread, cheese and olives. Somehow all the trekkers at the home stay each got a turn at the one bathroom before setting off. Lunch food was set out so everyone could make their own sandwiches for what was billed as the most difficult of the trekking days.

We took jeeps to the start of the trail, which started with a straight up trajectory. They don’t believe in switchbacks here. We later learned that a lot of the trails were old smugglers’ paths. We hiked through long-grassed meadows where the wildflowers became even more exotic – now shocking blue periwinkles interrupted the yellows, pinks, and purples. Our first stop was a glacial lake – not blue but green glass. A second glacial lake came soon after, this one very low and banded by rock.

We continued onward and upward, finally reaching the Jalanek Pass, with limestone cliffs all about. Walking along the border of Kosovo and Montenegro, ultimately we started to follow the “signs” down, bringing us into Montenegro. It was a very long descent with some rocky spots – we had gained a lot of elevation.

Yoga just before the pass

After 7 hours or so, we could finally see the vans that were to deliver us to that night’s accommodationway below us across some meadows. However, it turned out those fields were the property of an ancient farmer who staggered over to us with a walking stick in each hand while we had stopped for a very brief rest. He was seemingly unable to speak in words but eventually pulled out a piece of paper that made clear he expected tribute for crossing. Our guide quickly rallied us all and we ascended back up the meadows and found a way down through some fields being harvested by a much more congenial farmer who apologized for the behavior of his neighbor.

The next controversy involved deep unhappiness among the drivers of the three vans – too many had been ordered and our guide had had no cell service so he couldn’t let anyone know. Eventually, after a flurry of extremely loud communication – with great umbrage and angst on all sides – we ended up with all three vans, although J was the only passenger in one of them.

Our “tiny houses” in Montenegro

Following our 7-8 hour trek, we had an hour or so drive to some cottages in a national park where we were staying the night. We drove through several small towns, a number with Florida style McMansions planted right next to traditional small concrete dwellings. Nothing is really “quaint” here – the utilitarian architecture of post WW2 USSR left a strong mark. According to our guide, Montenegro is now a good place to house money, and Montenegrans who reside in the west frequently maintain large residences in the Montenegran countryside.

By then, somehow we had assuaged the van drivers and we all loaded into two vans for the final stretch. There were 4 of us in a three person row in the smaller van. The steep uphill on the way to the national park simply proved too much for its engine, and despite several valient attempts (I kept thinking of the little engine that could), it kept stalling half way up the mountain. Eventually four of us got out and finished the day the way we started – trekking up the last hill.

The cottages that night felt quite luxurious. Each couple had their own, with a private bathroom and a little porch. I felt like I was in the tiny house show. There was also a great restaurant, filled with families, many in Islamic dress but an equal number in western garb.

The next day it was time to venture into Albania. As a child of the ’70s, I still found it unbelievable that you were permitted into that country, which was historically one of the most closed off places in the world. The first part was uphill through a dark and gloomy forest. It was overcast and quite humid. Finally the sun started to break out, and we reached the tree line, through more meadows and to the top of the first peak of the day. From that peak we descended along a saddle and back up along a very exposed ridge that connected the peaks. We could see Albania. But there was another peak yet to be climbed!

Sheer drops were on either side of the ridge trail but that didn’t seem to bother the flocks of goats that were cavorting along the hillsides. The Accursed Mountains loomed over the trail, steep sharp crags etched against the sky. The wind finally died down and we were able to stop and take a lunch break on the top of the second peak.

We took our time on the long meandering descent, finally walking into the little village of Lepushe, Albania for another home stay.  There, J, me, A and N shared what must have originally been the kitchen.  It was quite convenient to have our own sink in the room.

We arrived about mid-afternoon on an absolutely lovely day. One other small group was staying but it was clear we were in the middle of nowhere. Boys were racing a donkey and a horse in the dirt street; the owners gave us a tour of the restaurant they were building out of stone next to the house. I’m also pretty sure we say our dinner being butchered on a stone slab.

We watched the sun sink over the Accursed Mountain, suddenly turning the steel grey into a soft pink. I guess that’s sort of how I felt about Albania.