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.

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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.

A Ribbon of Wild – Black Bear Wilderness Loop Trail

I’m going back a couple of months now, to a post I promised some time ago where I hinted snakes might be a feature of the next one. But one thing led to another and while I’ve published cogitations on this and that since then, the poor old Black Bear Preserve was left in the lurch.

No longer. Here’s a quick little primer on a strip of wilderness surprisingly close to downtown Orlando.

Friends M and S of Everest Base Camp, Iceland, and soon to be Balkans fame had hiked a portion of this trail previously. They were of the impression the trail ran through a beautiful wooded area but then cut across shadeless power easements – you know, those big, semi-mowed, grassy swaths that house power towers and high voltage electrical lines just when you think you are actually in the countryside. But in reality the trail crosses just one of those areas and then guides you right back along side the St. John’s River.

The expedition to find the trailhead started with a few wrong turns, thanks to moi. I have to learn not to read maps so literally. But we eventually found the beginning of the trail, only to encounter various other hikers warning of snakes along the way.

The trail is surprisingly shady, and would make a great choice even in the dead of summer (contrast this to the death march around shade free Lake Apopka). See Lake Apopka Loop Trail, Florida – Amid the Alligators

We saw one quite large snake – I think poisonous – but S turned his hiking pole into a quite effective snake pusher to encourage it off the trail. We paid the favor back and warned the next hikers we saw about the friends they might encounter along the way.

Snakes weren’t all the wildlife. Aside from turtles (see photo above) there was lots of evidence of what we believed to be turtle eggs.

Not to mention the flora and fungi.

And because it’s Florida you have to have an alligator.

All in all about a 7 mile or so hike. Some rocky terrain and a nice change from the urban hiking that is our easy go to. We spent a lot of time puzzling about cypress knees. Based on a quick Google search their function still seems to be a source of some mystery. See photo below.

Gotta go back. Next trek is only seven months away! Time to train!

A South Coast Weekend – Massachusetts

Indigenous People’s Day, as Columbus Day is known in Somerville, Mass., has been a regular time for J and me to venture to Boston to see daughter A and boyfriend N. Lots of times we’ve combined it with a summit or two in the White Mountains, but this time made it more “swamp”-like with a weekend at the South Coast. Not to be confused with the many South Shores of multiple other states (including Massachusetts itself), the South Coast is an area of coastal farmland south of Boston. It’s got a complicated coastline, bordered by Buzzard’s Bay and Rhode Island, which makes orienting yourself quite difficult, and is the starting point for people taking the ferry to the much better known Cape.

We were fortunate that our Spirit flight to Boston was on time. Flying Spirit is always a gamble, as proved true on the way back when our flight was not just delayed but canceled! Following a nice evening in Cambridge, which included a brisk walk, dinner at Craigie’s On Main, and breakfast at a well known bakery, we took off for the South Coast, Dartmouth, Mass. to be precise.

N had put together an extensive itinerary, only a portion of which we completed, despite a valiant effort. First stop was lunch in Westport at Back Eddy. It’s a beautiful setting, right on the calm bay – blue skies and lots of boats. It’s also quite expensive and is frequented by lots of New England ladies.

Next stop was Gooseberry Island. I’m not sure if it’s an actual island or a peninsula, but it is a stunning area of uninhabited shoreline. A trail wends its way around the area; we were tempted to go bush whacking but didn’t for fear of getting stuck at some inaccessible point. The weather was superb. Lots of wildflowers and birds; seas of tall golden grasses.

Topped off our afternoon with beers at the Buzzards Bay Brewing Company. We’d been there once before, and it’s always a scene. There’s a farmers market, live music, a meadow packed with families — some of whose parents seemed to be quietly drinking themselves to oblivion while their kids ran around like banshees. I’ve always wanted to use the word “banshee.”

Our AirBnB was advertised as an “Artist’s Farmhouse”, located outside Dartmouth. It is owned by a rather well-known ceramicist, whose enormous, three chambered kiln occupies quite a bit of the back yard. His studio is next door. All the tiles in the house are handmade, as are all the dishes, and interesting collections of memorabilia from different places furnish the rooms. There’s also a fire pit, and an extremely large and friendly cat lives close by. And there was enough room for frisbee playing and for A to hone her new-found skill of juggling.

The Kiln

After dinner at Little Moss and breakfast at the Farm and Coast Market, both in Westport, we were fortified enough for our adventure to Newport, Rhode Island. We arrived just as a marathon was ending, but nonetheless were able to find a parking spot near the beginning of the famous Cliff Walk.

The Cliff Walk runs several miles along the shore – needless to say, along the top of the cliffs, past huge and ornate Gilded Age mansions. I was staggered by how many there were. Some occupied, some now museums. We stopped to tour The Breakers, which is the Vanderbilt mansion. The opulence is overwhelming.

The walk itself ranges from smooth paving to scrambles over some large areas of rock toward the end. Apparently there has been a fair amount of damage from various storms. As you near the end, the mansions took on a spookier feeling, and I could imagine an ancient widow sitting in her rocking chair, looking out the window at the ghosts of long passed guests.

We stopped at Red Dory (not sure where that name come from) for dinner on our way back. We arrived just as the sun was setting and were treated to a psychedelic light show of reds and pinks and oranges. It was a fitting end to a weekend filled with art and color and sea and shore. And almost made up for that canceled Spirit flight on the way back to Orlando.

You Have to Have a Goal – Balkans Here We Come!

Since starting mountaineering travel in 2011 at the age of 50 – I’ve realized that keeping up with the non ending stair climbing, walking, strength training, and the rest (note the use of the Oxford comma), requires one thing – and that’s a goal. Without that, why the heck am I spending my lunch hour climbing up and down on an interior unairconditioned staircase in Florida. But once that trip’s picked out – game on!

And for the last few years, it seems that each fall is the time to announce the next adventure. This year, credit to Felix Bernard and Richard Smith who wrote Winter Wonderland, it’s Walking in the Balkan Borderlands. Everyone start humming.

This trip is not high altitude but promises to be steep enough. We’ll go through the Accursed Mountains (true name) and through lakes and byways of Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, and end up in Dubrovnik in Croatia. It’s remarkable to think you can visit Albania. When I was growing up, Albania was completely sealed off behind the most sturdy of iron curtains. I’m wondering what the will be revealed when the veils are pulled back.

This will be an 8 day trek, 10 or so plus miles a day, staying in three guest houses, three small hotels, and a home stay.

And it’s not just us – daughters S and A, A’s significant other N, and M and S of Everest Base Camp fame are all signed up.

There are eight months to go and it’s time to get my walking legs in gear. Yesterday we did a 7 miler at the Black Bear Wilderness Preserve here in Central Florida with M and S (that’ll be the subject of a separate blog post; let’s just say there was a snake involved). Great time – but there are a lot of steps ahead of us to get ready. But, at least, now it’s eyes set toward Kosovo!

Days 1/2 – The Stok Kangri, Ladakh, India Expedition

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This series of blog posts starts in medias res – right in the middle.  Since it’s the trek itself that I’ve been training for – why not start there and circle around to the rest of the trip later? If that technique was good enough for Homer in the Odyssey, it’s good enough for me. I’m writing this during 2 hours of free Wi-Fi on Emirates somewhere over the North Atlantic, although it’s going to be uploaded later.

I could start with a rundown of current and various minor injuries from the trek, which range from multiple bruises to swollen numb feet – but instead I’ll start with June 29, a Friday and the first day of our trek. We were awakened about 4 am or so at the Hotel Mogol in Leh by a family that apparently felt everyone around them should also participate in their departure from Leh. I couldn’t help but think where they would fit in on the Wheel of Life we’d been studying at a monastery the day before.

Our group of ten started with a drive to the very large Thiksey Monastery. It’s perched on a hill and consists of many white and orange buildings. Monks and nuns in their ancient red robes come and go; odd contrasts between their garb and the vehicles they are driving. The temples date back to the 1500s; the oldest contains a very serene Buddha that glowed in the dark setting. Another more recent temple houses a huge Buddha of the future surrounded by colorful Tanka paintings – many monks and nuns paying their respects.

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Back in the cars for a drive through the valley to our first camp. At first on paved roads; then a sharp right into an unpaved road through yet another valley. Rose/green stone mountain walls on either side reminded me of the striation in the Grand Canyon. Suddenly the road improved a bit and we turned into a meadow, separated into several areas by stones, with the brown/green/rose mountains surrounding us on all sides (Shang Sumdo, 12,467 feet). When the sun comes out, the mountains glisten, reflecting the tufts of green in the meadow and the high, pink flowering bushes that line the campsite.

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The pack horses arrived with their three “horsemen” and wandered around the campsite, bells jangling like a carillon.

What is the set up, crew and tents, you may ask. There are two toilet tents, basically canvas walls surrounding dug out latrines (one with a commode perches over the hole); a kitchen tent, dining tent, and sleeping tents. The kitchen staff consists of a Nepalese father and his three sons who are learning the trade (the food was fantastic), 3 Sherpas (2 Nepalese including one who has climbed Everest 3 times, and 1 from Darjeeling). We have an extra Sherpa due to the calamities that had befallen our group before we even set out – but more on that later. That’s part of starting in medias res! Ages of our fellow trekkers range from 27 to 61.

After we established ourselves in our tents,we took a “gentle” acclimatization hike. It turned out to be an extremely steep climb up loose dirt and rock to 13,467 feet. Then we did a little bit extra at the end without packs. Feeling very good with acclimatization.

Tea and biscuits follow at 4, with dinner at 7:30, which is apparently early for India.

First nights in a tent are always hard and it’s remarkable how things go missing in such a small space. The night included a horse bell clanging (one horse had to wear a bell all night although they were removed from the others), and a braying wild donkey that practically walked into our tent. The next morning it tried J’s coffee when he left his cup sitting outside.

Tea and coffee are brought to the tents at 6:30 am, warm water at 6:50 and breakfast is at 7:30. I managed to spill my tea in the tent immediately and was punished by having to travel with two wet towels for the next few days.

The trek on our first real day started on a road with a gradual rise. We passed an Army training camp where we saw a class being taught – it is very clear we are near disputed borders and there’s a strong military presence. We walked by the little village of Chang, a striking white monastery up on a hillside, fields of green barley and yellow mustard. Then we hit what I affectionately refer to as a river bed death march, although it’s technically glacial moraine where you have to pick your way over rocks of all varying shapes, sizes, and colors. Little did I know how well I would get to know glacial moraine on this trip!

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We eventually made our way to a lunch spot – an enclosed stone area with a shrine in the middle of it, ornamented with what looked like burned yak skulls. Our guide, R, immediately lit a butter lamp. We are completely alone on this trek. We’ve seen no one but locals (and very few of them).

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After a long lunch to wait for the horses to catch up and go on ahead of us, we were back on the trail, steeper, and you could start to feel more altitude. Suddenly we were at a meadow that was to be our next campsite, Shang Phu (14,380 feet). There was a shepherd’s hut where some small items were sold, but nothing else but  incredible views of layers of mountains, sun glinting off stone.

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The Hills of Austin, Texas

So I managed briefly to trade the flatlands of Florida for the hills of Austin, Texas – courtesy of daughter S who has just relocated there for a year long stint. As many of you know she’s been a six year resident of one of my favorite swamps – New Orleans. But I think I’m going to enjoy what Austin has to offer.

Perhaps it should be called Alternative Austin because I have the feeling it’s real different than the rest of Texas. I found it deceptive. As we approached S’s apartment from the airport I had never seen as many apartment complexes in my life. They line Lamar Boulevard, leading toward a cityscape of yet more apartments – this time high rises – and office buildings. But buried between the complexes are what at first blush look like strip shopping centers – but are actually cool little restaurants and cafes. I commented on how few chain restaurants I saw. Of course, there was also a high volume of car repair and automotive focused shops, including a car wash across the street from S’s apartment that starts vacuuming cars very early on Saturday mornings.

But it was the music and the hiking and green areas that spoke to me. Live music is everywhere. Even the tiniest neighborhood bar has a sign up advertising the upcoming show.  On Friday after a dinner of small plates at the Odd Duck – within walking distance of S’s abode – we ventured into the Saxon Pub. Its big neon guitar sign is right outside her window and S had been wondering about it.

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The Saxon Pub features three shows a day, the last at 10:30. It’s been around for 20 years or so.  We arrived in time to hear an Israeli guitarist Oz Noy  – but most remarkably guitarist Eric Johnson just showed up to play a few jazz tunes including some amazing Theloniois Monk. That was followed by the Lucas Johnson Band (no relation) – hard hitting rock and blues from a 20 year old singer songwriter.  This crowd bore no resemblance to the tourists filling lots of venues New Orleans venues. These people were serious about their music and chatting while the musicians played would definitely have been out of place.

The next night was equally amazing. Following sushi at a rooftop restaurant in the warm dry Austin evening we made our way to East Austin. According to our Uber driver it was a low income area now reeling from rapid gentrification. Our destination was the historic Scoot Tavern, a saloon since 1871 that now operates as a bar and music venue. The inside is furnished with crushed velvet sofas and and chairs that S thought would make a good addition to her apartment (which currently has no furniture in it). The opener was a very talented female singer from near Waco. But the headliner was Shinyribs – a large band led by Kevin Russell. If you like music that ranges from a scat singing cover of Bowie’s Golden Years to original music with a music hall quality – all featuring a portly gentleman with a long white beard who plays the ukulele and is surprisingly light on his feet (think Jackie Gleason) – then you’d like Shinyribs. The show culminated with a Congo line led by none other than Mr. Shiny Ribs himself.

The age range at these events was extreme. At Shinyribs there were other mother- child combos, including a tiny woman standing next to me (we agreed it was fair for us to stand in the front row) who explained to me that Florida was for “retirees” while Austin was welcoming and filled with “aging hippies.” The most inspiring person there was an elderly gentleman with an oxygen tank who managed to get up from his folding chair and dance spiritedly around, oxygen tubes moving in sync with his long white beard.

But between our musical Austin adventures we managed to find a sort of summit to keep up my training regime. Austin is surrounded by a Greenbelt – and a mere 7 miles from S’s apartment there are miles of trails running along side and above Barton Creek. This is clearly a popular way to spend weekend days in Austin and practically every swimming hole was packed with revellers. After about 3 1/2 miles we came to the “Hill of Life” – a nicely steep third of a mile or so uphill. Granted it was hot and S and I looked somewhat lost, but I still don’t think we deserved the concern expressed by a woman hiking up who warned us it “was a really steep hill.” I resisted the urge to say something extremely snarky about training for 20,000 foot mountains and Everest Base Camp last year. But then I did climbed it twice (and fast) just in the hopes I would see her the second time!

S didn’t bother with the second circuit and I met her at one of the less populated swimming holes where we ate very spicy prosciutto sandwiches. The highlight was watching a young couple trying to teach their labradoodle to swim. Water dogs they are not!

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My Austin weekend closed out with a Mother’s Day Brunch at Phoebe’s Diner. Blood orange mimosas accompanied by a smoked beet hash. Yes, I spelled that correctly. It sort of sums up Austin.

Under 5 weeks out from India and Stok Kangri. The gear check is coming up next.

The Florida Foothills- 10 Mile Clay Loop

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Foothills is a misnomer- it implies a lead up to something large and here in Florida that’s apparently only a 375 foot mountain called Sugarloaf. But the Ten Mike Clay Loop has an outsized reputation around here – it’s rumored to be the site of many a professional athlete’s training regimen and numerous folks have mentioned it to J and me as a good candidate in our never ending quest to find some topography in Central Florida.

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Lots of abandoned footwear

So now that my weekends are slightly freer than they were in the midst of my trilogy of trials and arbitration, last Saturday we ventured out to try the famed loop. Of course, everything we had read urged an early start but for us that translated into arriving at the small parking area just before noon, when the thermometer was just topping 89 degrees.

Due to the eccentricities of google maps we actually ended up driving most of the loop before we finally located the small parking area, just off of Hwy 27. At that time of day, there was only one other car parked and in fact, on the whole trail we only saw one or two very hot looking runners. We didn’t see any other backpackers.

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The clay roads start off with some gradual uphill through cattle grazing land. If you try hard, you can imagine you’re in some spot more exotic than Central Florida.

But at the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of what appear to be very industrial water reclamation or drainage structures. My favorite was at the top of a small hill – large metal pipes and structures by a hollowed out pond of some type and a sign indicating it’s a recharge area for the Florida Aquifer. I guess it was a large scale version of a rain barrel.

You hike first along Five Mile Road. There are a moderate number of cars but they are relatively well behaved. We enjoyed the high school,students who kept stopping in the middle of the road to take photos on top of their car. Eventually you walk past a never ending tree nursery. If you ever wondered where maples, cedars, and the like some from in Central Florida, we found the spot.

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The orange tree of last resort

Most of the land to the side of the road is cordoned off with barbed wire, but thankfully, there’s an old, unmaintained orange grove without such barriers close to mile 5. I say thankfully because although we had plenty of water we’d brought absolutely no food. Who would have thought a purloined orange could taste so good.

At mile 5, just as you leave Five Mile Road to turn onto SchofieldnRoad I decided to switch into my Grade B2 mountaineering boots, bought specially for the Stock Kangri climb. It seemed a bad idea to me to wear them for the first time on summit day. My costume change was just in time for the hardest and hottest part of the hike. It turns out the steepest hills (and some are quite steep) are during the last three miles. Plus, a lot of it is through soft sand, adding an extra challenge. The other part of the experience is that you can’t tell whether you’ve hiked the final hill or not.  There always seemed to be bigger one just over the horizon. Good training for the “fake summit” experience you find on a mountain, just when you think you’ve reached the top.

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The final hill – as seen from the parking area

So, once again we Florida hikers try to morph sand into snow, hot temperatures into below freezing ones, and the rolling hills of what was probably an ancient seabed into mountains formed from earthquakes and volcanos. It’s worked before and I hope it will work again. We leave two months from tomorrow for Stok Kangri.