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.

Me, Myself, I on 20 Miles of the West Orange Trail

FromSwamptoSummit sums up the West Orange Trail. You start in a swamp of poverty, journey through the foothills of mid-income housing developments, and ultimately arrive at McMansions that “start in the $800s.” As we prepare for our upcoming Balkans trek I wonder if there will be a similar journey, albeit in the wilds of the former Yugoslavia.

I like to prepare for a big trek by hiking 20 miles in one fell swoop. If you can walk 20, you should be able to do anything, right? But this time, for various reasons, my husband and erstwhile hiking companion J couldn’t make it. So there was no choice but to go for it on my own.

This is probably the fourth or so time I’ve done the entire trail  and it was familiar enough to me that it felt eerily like coming home in some ways. The Buddhist temple was just where I remembered it; the huge log house with the extensive grounds; the farm animals outside West Orange High.

But doing it solo caused more observation, here and there. I did the first 10 miles with barely a look at my phone, except to take photos. Sights?

  • The number of homeless people I encountered just outside of Apopka. Hiking on your own you are cautious about strangers. An elderly bearded man started to approach, clearly preparing to talk. “Ma’am, can you tell me what day it is?” “Saturday.” “Thank you.”
  • A little later I saw another man in the distance dart off the trail into the woods. As I reached his exit point, I could see a path worn into the woods, strewn with wrappers and other trash. It looked for all the world like a bread crumb trail left by Hansel and Gretal.  Who knew what was at the far end.

 

  • And a trip back in time. It was only in the mid 80s, but grey and humid. Outside one of the modest houses that line the area I think of as “church country” as there are so many of them sat two men and a woman on aluminum folding chairs. The men were wearing short sleeved button up shirts. One wore a tie; he was clearly the visitor. The woman was wearing a skirt and pouring drinks from a pitcher. I bet she even had on stockings. I expected the 1940s station wagon to show up any moment.

I took a 30 minute lunch break in the shade of an overpass at the 10 mile mark. I’d been watching  a very large tortoise slowly move along the trail but fortunately my pace was faster. At the bench I spread out, bandaged my feet again, changed from heavy weight to light weight boots, ate half a sandwich, and drank a lot of water.

A grey haired fellow on a racing bike sat down next to me and complimented my hiking poles (I think they were the only pair of hiking poles on the trail that day and they made all the difference). I apologized for hogging most of the bench with my various and sundry items.  He was wearing a US Postal team racing shirt. It turned out he had just been hiking in Death Valley and was riding 50 miles that day. Later on I encountered him going the other direction.

The last ten miles I gave up on my phone ban. I looked at social media and read WordPress blogs. And I also listened to at least three of the final episodes of Serial – Season 1. I can tell you anything about Anand Syed you want to know.

That internet blitz matched the world I was now walking into – housing developments that had mushroomed in the last year, advertised on huge billboards promising the latest in lifestyle pleasure.

At mile 15 I reached Winter Garden. The rain started to pour down and I sheltered in the bandstand, put my rain cover on my pack, and dug out my raincoat. After a few minutes it cleared and I was on the last stretch.

The final five miles, from Winter Garden  to Killarney, is quite beautiful. You pass through oak forests, meadows, and some small towns. Houses range from charming little cottages just outside Winter Garden to newly built mansions overlooking the surrounding lakes. There’s always something to look at. And I try not to focus on the history of racism that exists in some of those small towns. Just look up the 1920 Ocoee Massacre.

The last mile is always the hardest. But I pushed through and J was there waiting. It was quite a solo journey – under 20 minutes a mile the entire way. I think I’m ready for the Balkans.

The Lost Series – Palm Bluff Conservation Area, Florida

This post was supposed to be the tale of my 20 mile solo hike last Saturday on the West Orange Trail. But it’s July 4 and instead I thought I’d celebrate by a quick addition to the “lost” series. It’s timely because this hike literally only finished about three hours ago!

Fellow hiker and friend S has apparently developed a new hobby – finding the most unknown hiking trails in Central Florida. Today he thought we should all recognize Independence Day by asserting ours and venturing off into the wilds of Volusia County. He and M and their daughter B, all of whom will be leaving with us in two weeks for our Balkan adventure, insisted we get to their house at the ungodly hour of 8:15 am, to drive to the trailhead as heat was a concern. Boy, was it.

When we arrived at the trail head there were only two other cars in the wide flat meadow. One must have belonged to the two mountain bikers we saw early in the hike – they were the only other humans we saw on the trail. Two people were standing by the other car, neither of whom looked as though they had ability or desire to set off on an 8 mile hike. When we finally finished, ours was the only car in that meadow. The fact the grass was long and hadn’t been mashed down should have given us a clue we weren’t exactly on an Everest like climb. (Note – rather remarkable that Everest has become synonymous with crowded trails.)

Anyway, the first part was fine. Flat, grassy, and a number of stiles to go through with stringent warnings to shut gates as “cattle were in pasture.” We were basically circumnavigating a broad swath of power lines – I was hoping walking under them might give us a jolt of energy but it didn’t.

Anyway, as we chatted and walked, we found ourselves walking by a farmhouse, together with quite a few cows. We’d been making fun of how many trail blazes there were on what was really a well-marked fire road when we realized we hadn’t seen any of said red blazes for quite a while. M, pointing out she once had been a professional map reader in her brief career as a fire watch, was sure we’d missed a turn. S, equally confident in his navigation skills, felt sure we were going in the right direction. J and I, aware of our directional challenges, mostly stayed quiet. And B pointed out that there was now absolutely no shade, the sun had come out, the heat index was over 100, and it was so humid we were all leaving puddles of sweat behind us.

It turned out all of the above were true. After slogging on another half mile or so we finally re-encountered the trail, apparently having wandered off through someone’s cow pastures and added an extra mile or so to the trek. The universe had not taken kindly to our jokes at the expense of those who had marked the trail so well (but really – every 100 yards or so? And sometimes with poles that looked like flashers?)!

The remainder of the trail was truly brutal. Yes, it was flat, and pines lined each side, but the Florida sun was beating down with its most Florida like intensity.

After close to 4 hours, we reached our car, which was looking very lonely as it sat isolated in the meadow.

Beers and burgers were up next. Fortunately we were seated far away from anyone else in the restaurant which certainly was a blessing to those around us, given our rather fragrant condition. But, the Balkans approach, and I figure if we can get through this swamp we ought to be ready for those summits!

Slow and Steady – Turtlehead Peak, Red Rock

Three bruises, a blister, and a pair of ripped hiking pants.  But they were all worth it for the views at the top of Turtlehead Peak.  After an amazing dinner at what must be the only calm casino environment in Las Vegas (if not the world) — Sage at Aria — we were up at literally the crack of dawn to start our adventure in Red Rock Canyon.

I had my share of trepidation about this one.  I knew it was 2000 feet of altitude gain in 2 miles, 800 of which were in .4 miles.  Sounded steep, and it has been a full year since I’ve  managed to climb anything other than stairs.  And this was compounded by the fact that I managed to do quite a number on my feet on my last ten-miler and am paying the price of some badly treated blisters.  I was triply concerned when I exited our one-day rental car to start the hike  and realized I was limping!

But the adrenaline of being in the mountains kicked in and soon we were trotting along at a pretty decent pace.  The trail starts at an old stone quarry with monster chunks of limestone on either side.  From there, it gradually rises up.  Well, gradual for a while.

I was expecting a brown, dry, barren landscape.  But that’s not what we found.  A surprising number of low growing green shrubs flanked the trail, but even more remarkably, a ton of flowers – pinks, lavender, some bright yellows, and every now and then a brilliant red, sprouted up all around.  And interesting shapes, too.  Some dripping like crystals in chandeliers, others swollen seed pods, some wispy and feathery.

Turtlehead Peak is famous for its vanishing trail on the way up.  In fact, calling it a trail may be an exaggeration.  Once we got beyond the initial wash, the few trail markers seemed to disappear and we were confronted with a rocky, scree scramble heading toward the ridge. We’d encountered two other intrepid hikers (needless to say, a lot younger than J and me) and they were having an equally difficult time figuring out how to journey from the to the ridge.

I knew we were in trouble when J convinced me to go up and over a bluff – while I was certain the easier route lay below. After all, the lower route is exactly where the other hikers were. Nonetheless, up and over we went, only to be faced with another even steeper section. J, apparently believing left and up was always the right way, pushed on; I, certain a better way lay below, kept going along my own personal trail.  But after a bit – and seeing J well above me and the ridge towering above that – I realized I needed to get onto some semblance of a trail that would carry me on up.

So, with Ossy’s words (Shifting Winds Lead to Cotopaxi Summit) echoing in my ears, I started thinking to myself – right, left, right – just find your next step – and wend your way up the side.  I found myself on a couple of ledges and unstable spots – but shaky legs and all, eventually wound up next to J, with trail markers in sight. I’m pretty sure that little scramble is the source of the arm bruises.

From there, it was simply a steep slog to the summit.  The foliage changed to small scarred trees (sort of like what I remember from the North Carolina coast).  Once we got to the top, and with the elation that even a 6300 foot peak can bring, I totally lost my concentration and managed to stumble on a relatively flat surface. Bruise #3, the leg bruise.

We spent about thirty minutes at the summit, ate our power bars, and took photos of the sculpted peaks surrounding us. A little yoga, of course.

What goes up must come down. Miraculously, we were able to see trail blazes the entire descent – which simply confirmed how far off the trial we (I) was on the way up.  The descent went much faster, but there was the one moment where I realized sitting down and then stepping onto the next rock was the best way down one section – resulting in that unique, not to be replicated – R -I-P – of your hiking pants. I knew it was a risk when I decided on that strategy. Those pants have been with me since Kilimanjaro in 2011, though, so what better way for them to meet their maker.

We hiked back to the parking lot by the sandstone quarry, watching the people who’d decided to try to climb the sandstone cliffs as opposed to hiking on up to Turtlehead Peak. It looked hot and miserable.  In fact, the way down was cooler than the way up, even though it was then close to noon, as the sun had retreated behind the clouds.

After finishing the 13 mile scenic drive through Red Rock Canyon (you have to, because the loop is one way only), we were back in Las Vegas in 40 minutes.  Back to the land of casinos and cards.  A red eye flight to Florida awaited us.  As well as a wedding of the son of dear friends M and S back in the swamp.

 

To the Balkans via Red Rock, Nevada

Turtlehead Peak, photo by Bob Wick

Last Sunday I spent a wonderful 35 minutes running up St. Charles and winding around the Irish channel neighborhood of New Orleans.

The Irish Channel

Yes, after almost a year long break I’ve decided I’m back into the running world. Not sure I’m ever going to make it back to seven milers, but it felt wholly liberating to run up one of the most beautiful boulevards in one of my favorite cities in the world.

But I’ve been having a motivation set back. J and I looked up the difficulty level of this summer’s adventure to the Balkans and it was a whopping 5 on a 10 point scale. Everest Base Camp was a 7. Stok Kangri a 9 (and I think that’s an underestimate). Without some sort of “you might die if you don’t train properly” incentive out there it is very difficult for me to put on the backpack and hike those extra flights of stairs in the office building, much less brave a run in the mid 90 degree weather we are already experiencing.

So, what better than to try to combine work trip number 3 to Las Vegas with a hike.

The mountains in the distance call…

I started off by googling “hardest hikes around Las Vegas.” Uniformly, Turtlehead Peak kept showing up in the search results.

It is a high desert hike with 2000 feet of elevation gain in 2 miles. There’s no shade and “bring lots of water” seems to be the main advice. Start early before it is even hotter seems to be another one.

We haven’t hiked in that environment since Sedona, during the year of the Grand Canyon (see Journey through Time -Out of the Grand Canyon and on to Sedona – Part 3 ), so our desert boots may need some shining.

Frankly, from what I’ve read this hike promises to be more difficult than any we are doing in the Balkans (famous last words; I could be totally wrong). Any difficulty will be compounded by the fact we plan to take a red eye back to Orlando that night to make it to a Saturday wedding.

The upcoming combination of heat and dry desert air, extreme steepness, and lack of sleep should be enough to get me out there. We’re going to hike in the Black Bear Wilderness today. Despite the mid 90 degree heat.

Yes, that is an alligator.

Wandering and Wine in Central California

The Golden Hills were emerald green. No Oz reference here – that’s just the best description of our St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Monterey and Paso Robles.  Even before the flood event of March 5 (see The Swamp Comes Home – Navigating the Blowers), we  had decided to spend part of spring break visiting J’s family in the Monterey area and my BFF in Paso Robles.  But, given the events of March 5, a date that shall live in infamy,  the timing was awesome. Awesome being a word I really don’t like and rarely use, but it fits the bill for this occasion.

So off J and I and our one personal item each went to MCO for our 7:50 am flight to LAX and on to Monterey. The 737 MAX debacle was in full throttle but we figured we were safe as we were on the 800 series (or was it 900) – in any event not the one that had plunged nose down on two prior occasions. You can imagine my comfort level when, just as I turned on my phone while taxiing on the LAX runway I learned that ALL MAX planes were immediately grounded. I figure we were some of the absolute last passengers to fly on that plane.

But that bad karma was about the last bad karma on the whole trip. Brother-in-law S met us immediately on arrival in Monterey – and knowing our hiking obsession – took us right away to an odd stretch of no mans land near the Ryan Ranch and in the general area of Ft. Ord.  Apparently there’s an ambitious development plan for the area, but no one has come through with any money, so as of now there are wide, interconnected dirt trails running up hill and down valley, through mud puddle and thicket, that culminate with a grand panorama of the Pacific. What better way to greet the west coast.

Family and friend activities took up much of the next couple of days, but with one new first for me – a driving range! I have not hit a golf ball that isn’t on a miniature golf course for well nigh 30 years. But our hosts insisted and the next I knew I had two buckets of balls and a club in hand. J thought I should use something like a chipping wedge but that seemed way too lightweight, so I picked the driver. And I have to say – I enjoyed it! I found it extremely zen – in the same fashion as yoga or playing Jenga or hard rock scrambles. And that little crack of the ball when you hit it right – priceless.  My shoulder paid for it the next couple of days but it was worth it.

It was then time to turn our eyes south and make for Highway 1. It had been quite a while since J and I had done that drive, and there have been numerous mudslides and fortifications built since then.  We happened to be in California at the time of a so-called “Superbloom” and the hillsides were blanketed with golden poppies and pink blooms. And instead of the classic California yellow brown, the hills were as green as Ireland.

After stopping at Nepenthe, a family favorite, we turned inland to Paso Robles, one of California’s less known but equally fabulous wine growing areas. My BFF and her husband have recently branched out from the legal profession to invest in a 12 acre vineyard with farmhouse.  Right now it’s filled with newly planted grapevines, but there are big dreams propelling those little buds.

What better way to start that part of the trip than a soak in a natural mineral spring hot tub with a bottle of champagne.  Don’t need to say much more than that.

Shale Oak Winery

The next day involved lots of wanderings – but I’m afraid they were mostly by motor and not by foot.  After a lovely lunch at a winery, we started to explore some of the lesser known spots in Paso Robles.  My absolute favorite was Dunning – you drove along a narrow winding road between two mountains, among ancient oaks to arrive at a clearing like a fairy glen. The winery was in a hanger like structure, and there was a tasting room, and a few small cottages where you could stay overnight. The wines were absolutely classic, and the gold light filtered through the oak trees made it feel like a place you could happily stay for a very long time.

We wrapped our trip the next day with brunch at a place that looked exactly like an old Howard Johnson’s (except the prices were anything but).  The omelets were huge and the waffles cradled in whipped cream.

Fortified, we embarked on the three hour drive through the oh so emerald hills to LAX for our flight back to the swamp.

Arrived at our house hoping beyond hope the flood would be a thing of the distant past. Not so much. The blowers were going strong; our poor old wood floors continuing to suffer the indignities of suction cups and tubes and drying mats. But at least we’d had five days to remember you don’t literally have to live in the swamp.

The Lost Series – Lost in Las Vegas

So the experiential content of my life has been increasing recently – along with an accompanying lack of time to memorialize said content. Let me take you back just a few weeks ago On a journey from the swamp to the desert…that is, to the brown sand, concrete neon oasis that is Las Vegas.

Now, what took me there, of course, was work. LV is a place I’ve not intentionally avoided but it just hasn’t ranked prominently on my radar as a place to aspire to go. In fact, when we went to the Grand Canyon way back when we went through Phoenix.

But there I was – my deposition having finished unexpectedly early and with an entire afternoon and early evening ahead of me before a 6 am flight back to the swamp. I was faced with a choice – take an Uber to the Red Rocks park which another Uber driver assured me was the nearby best place to hike (always take the recommendations of your Uber driver) or venture on an urban hike to see what the heck people really do in Las Vegas. I chose the latter.

So, I ubered from the new millennial style Tru by Hilton hotel (with multiple USB outlets for all your devices) to Mandalay Bay, which appeared to be the northern most edge of the “strip.” I realized, as I emerged from the Uber, that I’d forgotten my sunglasses and was absolutely blinded by the brilliant desert light that hovers over Las Vegas. So what can one do but head into the Luxor casino, next to Mandalay, and buy a pair of sunglasses at a what appears to be a 7-11 in the midst of a casino. I was there with multiple people buying wine in cans and airplane size minis of Crown Royal.

Anyway, sunglasses appropriately purchased, my black pants, tennis shoes and green silk blouse on, I ventured forth for my solo girls night out in LV.

I had a client, who many years ago did all the hard scaping for the Bellagio, and a friend who’d told me it was worth seeing – so that was my goal. I made it beyond Egypt, apparently crossed continents and oceans without realizing it, and found myself in New York, with a full skyline ahead of me. Empire State Building, Chrysler – all there. After wandering around for a bit in what looked like a mall food court I got back on the street- and discovered all the retail stores were below ground!

I’m of an age where I just felt I couldn’t go to the Bellagio wearing tennis shoes. So there was a Marshall’s ten feet down that I thought must have a better pair of shoes. Which they did. After a whopping expenditure of $24 (actually I had to talk the cashier down on the price because apparently I’d picked up the seconds) I made my way back up said stairs to surface level where I sat on the curb next to several homeless people and changed shoes. I spent the rest of the evening carting my belongings around in my Marshall’s bag. So on I went – checking out the King Arthur themed hotel – all the way to the Bellagio – surely this side of Eden.

It was actually pretty spectacular. All done up for spring with an amazing combination of fake and real feathers and flowers. I went to the bar in the main level that was featuring happy hour prices and appetizers, figuring I could certainly find food there. The hostess – asked if I’d like to sit at the bar — and said by the way I love your emerald green blouse. So I and my Marshall bag found a nice spot at the bar where I ordered some salad with some very retro name that totally escapes me but there were beets, cheese, and lots of lettuce.

On my left was a guy who drank nothing but was there, as he told the bartender, for the cheap happy hour prices. Bartender said – – are you local? He said yes. Professional. Bartender – Poker? He – yes.

On my right – a woman who’d been to LV many times – whose husband was off gambling while she hung out at the bar and would meet up with him later. From Wisconsin.

So after my scintillating dinner experience it was time to walk back to where I’d seen the Uber pick up spot near the Mandalay. (I didn’t realize there was another mile of the strip I hadn’t even ventured down).

That led to the exploration of the habitrail overpasses through Las Vegas. Loved the casino Aria giving nature aphorisms in the midst of the neon. Got really lost at that overpass. And back to King Arthur’s palace where I just started to photograph people’s shirts.

Awakened in time for my 6 am flight. I go back in three weeks. Think maybe it will be the red rocks hiking trail next time.

The Lost in Florida Series – The Tosohatchee Wilderness

The swamp has featured heavily in this blog recently. House flood and storms. But at a particularly low point, intrepid hiking friend S found a 30,000 acre wilderness – the Tosohatchee Wilderness Preserve – where we could try to escape the urban grind we’d all found ourselves in.

I was in a particularly sour mood. When you can’t even find your hiking poles you know you are at difficult point. Things started to look up when, after 45 minutes of driving through what can only be described as redneck Florida (I mean that as charitably as possible) we reached the entrance to the wilderness area. There was an ominous sign stating a hunt was in process, but we never heard any gunshot and presumably the hunters were carrying out their activities elsewhere. After all, it is 30,000 acres.

We picked up a map at the entrance but didn’t look at it until much later, relying instead on the black and white map S had printed off the internet. Turns out that made a difference, as you’ll see later.

We’d chosen a route that was part of the Florida Trail, a 1,000 mile path that runs from Miami to Pensacola almost continuously (well, except for 300 miles). Somehow it doesn’t have the cachet of the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails. Nonetheless, we’re from Florida and it’s ours, damn it.

The trail was quite well marked, in stark contrast to the Rock Springs Preserve where we spent hours tromping around the wilderness in no apparent direction. See Lost in the Woods – A Florida Hike. And, where it was dry, it was a nice, well maintained path.

You hear the key words – where it was dry. After meandering through a spectacular shaded forest of palm hammocks and live oaks, interspersed with open sections of slash pines, we ended up in a literal swamp. The trail simply went right through it. We could only assume that it was the remnant of a huge storm earlier in the week, because surely no one would route a trail through a swamp, would they? The water varied from a few inches to quite a bit deeper – and was remarkably clear. We soon discovered that if we aimed toward the clumps of grass there was a good chance it would be shallower – although you did risk the possibility of a suction like effect from the mud and muck. I simply chose not to think about snakes.

We alternated between swamp and patches of dry trail, and eventually emerged into what truly looked like a fairy glen. An open, almost circular area with wildflowers poking through coarse green grass. A spot where you could easily imagine the little folk engaging in their fairy festivities. And a good spot for some yoga. It’s also the spot where I realized the reason my pack was sloshing around and seemed so heavy was that I had forgotten I was carrying around about 10 pounds of water from my last training hike!

And, lest I forget – the flowers! Spring has sprung in Central Florida, and wildflowers were running amok. Wild iris (that sure look a lot like the Apostle Iris we paid good money for!), periwinkles, daisies, Florida style blue bells, thistles.

After a brief respite in the fairy glen, we were back at it. But by then we’d looked at the color map. As we studied the next section, we realized that the trail we’d just walked along didn’t run through the green part- it went straight through a whole lot of blue! In other words, this was no left over from a storm – the trail simply went straight through the swamp. S said he thought he’d sensed a current. I almost titled this post “Fording the Florida Trail” (M’s suggestion).

Armed with that information and having learned trails really do go through swamps, we selected what looked like a more reasonable – or at least drier – way back. But after walking for a while down a dirt road and arriving at Second Cut Trail – we saw it went straight into and along a canal, with no end in sight. Back to the road.

We turned off onto the next possible path back through the woods and went about ten minutes. At that point it became clear that even though well-marked we were basically bushwhacking through overgrowth and stomping through a mixture of mud and pond – and we hadn’t even reached the blue area on the map. Back to the road again.

Ultimately we reached a horse trail that was relatively above water. While longer, I’m sure we made better time.

After 9 miles and about 5 hours – this was slow going – we were back at the car. Someone had stopped us just before we reached the parking area to ask for directions, and S, Good Samaritan that he is, gave them the color map, assuming there would be more back at the entrance. There weren’t.

Guess that means we’ll have more unexpected trips through the blue areas. We definitely plan to go back. After all, where else do you start for a summit but in the swamp?

Lost in the Woods – A Florida Hike

Cue the spooky music.

Our adventure at Rock Springs Run Preserve started off benignly. Theoretically, the trail ran along the side of a major river, which, again theoretically, seemed fairly straightforward. Credit the location to our hiking partner in crime, S. But before we finished (and made our way to Celery City Brewing in Sanford), it wasn’t clear if we were playing Hansel and Gretal or the Blair Witch.

Rock Springs Run Preserve is a well-known canoeing and kayaking spot. Apparently not so much for those who want to hike.

We set off in good time, armed with directions that I’d downloaded from a Florida Hiking site to my phone. I should have been suspicious there wasn’t a map. Our first clue that things might not go smoothly was when the parking area was on the opposite of the road than what the directions specified. Come to think of it, is it possible we hiked the entire thing backwards?

Despite our trepidation that the written directions were already inconsistent with what we were seeing (this little hiking team consisted of three lawyers and a college professor, and dammit, we like things to be clear), we nonetheless plunged forward into a sea of saw palmettos, dutifully following the white blazes that were supposed to mark the trail. According to our trusty directions, a bench on top of a “hill” should have marked the start of the trail – not sure what was intended by the hill reference as everything looked pretty flat. But there was definitely no bench. Cue the spooky music again.

Undeterred, we kept on going and reached an oak hammock where the white blazes simply petered out. After a couple of false starts down rabbit trails, the only other people we saw on the trail that day located a faint white blaze a few hundred yards away, and we all took off in that general direction. We lost them pretty soon – I think they were doing the 3 mile “pond hike.” We had the 12 mile “challenge hike” in our sights – except the few signs we actually saw on the trail indicated it was only 9. Whatever.

The trail continued on through classic Florida wilderness, with just enough similarity to the directions we thought we must be going the right way. That said, the entire trail was totally overgrown (we thought this was the part where the directions said you’d be walking on a narrow path like the Seminoles did). For a couple of hours we hiked through fields of saw palmettos, on six inch trails that looked as thought they’d been designed for rabbits, and across Florida prairies – low waving golden grasses, thick as a carpet, with occasional long leaf pines looking serenely down. We thought we were in good shape, despite some decisions we’d had to make at a couple of forks where the trail merged with fire roads. Oops. In retrospect, not sure those were the right choices.

After a quick lunch, it was time to find the white blazes again. Once again we took off through the saw palmettos – but now what we thought was the trail took us into a heavily forested boggy area. The directions referred to a “dank and earthy smell emanating up from the earth.” That seemed consistent, right? This is the point where M realized she should have worn her high top hiking boots.

After fording a couple of streams and fighting with some very thick over and undergrowth we finally found what we believed to be some white blazes. But these led us back to a white sand road. We walked along it and then saw blazes on a tree way across another field of saw palmettos. But as the trail, according to the directions, was going to rejoin the sandy road we thought were on, we decided not to bother with that particular scenic overlook and to stay on the road for a bit. Turned out the road wasn’t any easier walking as you sank several inches into the sand with each step.

By now we were starting to feel a bit uncomfortable about where we were going and I was thinking we should have left a trail of bread crumbs as we certainly could have been headed to a witch’s house somewhere in the depths of the Florida woods.

Problems compounded as we faced a series of intersecting sand roads, none of which, by now, bore any resemblance to anything in the directions. At that point we suddenly heard a truck, and a ranger pulled up, clearly wondering what our small band was doing in the middle of nowhere. Alas, while I’m sure well-intentioned, he had not a clue about any of the hiking trails and instead suggested we walk down one of the roads to the “horse barn.” Needless to say, we rejected out of hand his offer of a ride back to civilization.

Our meager sense of direction told us we should also reject his directions. And it was a good thing we did, as we later realized that would have added about another six miles to our journey and it was already mid afternoon with. 5:30 pm sunset.

We took off down one of the sand roads that we thought would lead back from whence we’d come. We did run into some “no vehicles allowed” signs, mentioned in the directions; the problem was, there were multiple such signs! By now the thoughts of a Blair Witch scenario were kicking in; time was passing; we were getting nowhere; and the sun was a couple of hours from setting. Those are the moments when you contemplate how much food is left (count: half a sandwich, apple. hard candies) and wish you’d actually bought one of those foil blankets that are supposed to keep you from hypothermia. Yes, it was in the sixties, but we are from Florida.

Finally, in a stroke of what I will modestly describe as genius, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps I could type the general trailhead location into Maps on my phone and get walking directions. Lesson learned – why didn’t I drop a pin when we’d parked? In any event, a blue line miraculously appeared and we seemed to be going in the right direction, this time along a horse trail.

After another 45 minutes or so, we realized we were near a road and a parking lot area labeled number 3. A trail runner was just starting what I presume was to be a quick run given the time of day. He assured us if we walked down the road – we were now on asphalt – we’d get to the our parking lot. Mysteriously, parking lot 3 was on the side of the road specified in the directions….but there still was no bench and certainly no hill.

The car was sitting just where we’d left it, oblivious to the travails of its occupants. We piled in, realizing we were caked in dust, mud, and general Florida grime. Deciding we deserved some reward, off we went for beers at Celery City Brewing. I’m just hoping there wasn’t too much of a dank and earthy smell emanating from us.

Here’s a map I photographed from a bulletin board at the last parking lot. Don’t think it would have helped.