Long’s Peak – Down Down Down in Colorado

Since you can’t stay at the top of a mountain forever (or near the top, in our case), it was time to start the clamber down through the rock boulders. Being significantly shorter than the others in our group, I have developed a wedge yourself into a crack, slide down, squat and start it all over again technique. It’s not fast but it’s undoubtedly safe. The sun was scorching down on the reddish rocks and we were all glad when we finally reached the Boulderfield. J managed to get totally dehydrated but was better after some electrolyte tablets.

Once we packed up the tents and ourselves, we finally got on the “road”. We had another 4 plus miles to our next campsite, but at least the trajectory was downward, which certainly helped ease the weight of the packs. We climbed over and through lots of rock, and then emerged onto a broad expanse of rocky grasslands. We stopped for lunch where we were joined by another hiker we had met at the Boulderfield- he had gotten to about 100 feet below the summit but had to stop at that point because of ice. A number of large and well fed looking marmots also participated in our dining activities – or attempted to!

We reached the Boulder Brooks campsite in decent time. It’s situated by a rushing stream and consists of three very spread apart sites. Of course, as soon as we got the tents up it started to pour with a hard rain, which seemed to be the pattern of this trip. J and I hunkered down in the tent and I finished my book. My kindle is truly worth the extra few ounces on trips like these.

The location was beautiful and I sat outside for a bit in the early evening. Unfortunately a multitude of mosquitoes found it equally enjoyable and ultimately chased me back into the relative safety of my tent, where an early bedtime – combined with more rain – made for a very good nights sleep.

The next morning our tents and any possessions stored outside were all quite soggy. We had stayed dry inside but the exteriors were soaked. After a pancake breakfast we dried everything out as best we could and then started a three mile trek out to the pick up point.

The trail followed the same creek we had camped by and we criss-crossed it several times on narrow log bridges just above the water. A far cry from the high swinging bridges of the Himalayas. The Douglas firs soon gave way to silvery white barked aspens. Although they are beautiful I appear to be allergic to them and snuffled and snorted my way the last few miles to the pick up point.

Made it!

The guide company van met us, and delivered a gourmet picnic lunch which we devoured at a nearby state park. The drive back to Estes Park went quickly, and we were deposited at the back of The Stanley Hotel, of The Shining fame, where we were to spend the night. S, J and I were each given a large black garbage bag to serve as a receptacle for the by now extremely dirty contents of our backpacks. The rooms weren’t ready yet so we and our very muddy and smelly possessions found a discrete corner on the porch of the hotel to while away a few hours. We met back up with M and her sister D, who politely refrained from too much commentary on our bedraggled state.

I couldn’t help but think that a haunted hotel was just the right spot to conclude the first part of a magical trip.

Stanley Hotel. Redrum.

Long’s Peak – Through the Keyhole

See the Keyhole in the background

I felt like Alice. Going through the Keyhole was as though we’d walked through the looking glass, only to find ourselves in the netherworld. But we aren’t there yet on this journey – let me resume where I left off, at the Goblins Forest.

We woke up on time, about 6 am after an adequate nights sleep – except for the part where I thought J’s shadow as he reached for a drink of water was a bear…

After a filling breakfast of eggs, bacon, and potatoes we started hiking about 8:10. The first section was what we had done the day before – but this time with over 35 pound packs. As I had feared, an 18 inch step up is a lot harder with 35 pounds on your back – especially as you are working your way up a couple of thousand feet of elevation gain.

It took about five hours to get to the next campsite – the infamous Boulderfield, the real start of the Keyhole Route. We started by disassembling our tents etc, and once fully laden with our packs and the ever constant bear cans, started to hike, up, up, and more up. We made decent time to the junction we’d reached the day before, but definitely slowed down after that and as we went above the tree line.

Weather was moving in, and we all got out our rain gear. The sky turned progressively grayer as the thunderclouds rolled in. The rain came first. Then, just as we reached an even more exposed traverse, the hail started. This was larger than the Twin Sisters hail – almost buckshot sized pellets aiming at us as if fired from shotguns.

The stone steps kept going up and up. I only kept going by focusing on my office building stair training – each time there was a brief leveling out I pretended I was on a landing.

Eventually the stairs turned into an uphill field of boulders, and after a few wrong turns we finally made our way to the “campsite.” It consisted of a square gravel and sand base outlined by small rock walls. Stark, to say the least. No vegetation to speak of except for a few clumps of grass peeking up between the rocks – leading one to wonder what in the world all the marmots are surviving on.

Once there, we got the tents up just before the next rain storm arrived. J was very dehydrated and we just hunkered down in the tent. I amused myself by trying to video the tent interior as he slept. Eventually our guide T delivered carrots, hummus, and cheese to each tent for a mid afternoon lunch – which revived J considerably.

Finally the rain stopped and we emerged from our tents to take in our surroundings. Our guides had suggested in lieu of the Keyhole we could climb Mt Lady Washington if we wanted. After we asked what it looked like and they pointed to a high pile of what can only be described as a rubble heap, there was not even any discussion among the three of us. The Keyhole it was!

We were up at 4:30 am on what appeared to be a true bluebird day. The Keyhole is visible from the Boulderfield and each clamber up another boulder brought it closer and closer. Just below the Keyhole is a stone monument to the first woman to summit Longs Peak in winter – she died on the way down.

I wasn’t even aware of the precise moment I went through the Keyhole – it’s a steep bit and you’re looking down. But once through, suddenly a previously unseen mountain range spreads out before you, towering over a dark, stony valley. It was as if we had entered another world, some magical kingdom populated by giants and goblins and ghosts.

We ventured out onto the Ledges, the next section of the route. There’s a fair degree of exposure, but I felt comfortable- able to lean into the wall and move fluidly. We followed the bulls eye markers almost to the end of the Ledges section, which is marked by a piece of rebar. At that point you have to step around a fairly intense rock – it was slippery and you have to move around it without being able to see to the other side. It was clear our guides weren’t going to let the 60 year olds under their charge go any further.

But the elation of reaching that other world – paired with a lot of adrenaline and endorphins, I’m sure – brought back all my summit experiences. It always makes it worth it.

But – we couldn’t stay there forever. The descent had to begin.

Colorado – Up, Up, and Away in Estes Park

On the road

After the angst of packing and extracting ourselves from work, we were finally on our way to the Rockies. Despite all the horror stories of Uber unavailability and cost, we obtained one with no issue and made it to the airport with time to spare. In fact, we were there ahead of M and S, which is an unusual circumstance, to say the least.

We had a relatively uneventful flight to Denver, which is always a good thing. The airport entry into Denver is surprisingly industrial, and looks more like Elizabeth City, New Jersey in the ‘80s than a gateway to the Rockies (no offense meant toward New Jersey). It’s not helped by the massive interstate construction project that has created a literal bombscape for much of the way.

But very shortly the cloudscapes of mountains start to appear in the distance. We took a toll-free route that led us right through Boulder (I kept thinking of Mork and Mindy), where we had a nice lunch of ceviche tostados at Wahoos. Not sure why I opted for a salad with tofu.

It wasn’t too far from Boulder to Estes Park, at elevation 7522’. The directions to our Airbnb were confusing, to say the least, but after many twists and turns, largely centered around looking for the Bank of Estes – which was the main landmark – we found our way to a very nice small house, just a short walk to town, with mountain views and a great night vista of the illuminated Stanley Hotel.

Estes Park itself is populated by throngs of tourists of all shapes and sizes, small restaurants, and an extraordinary number of candy shops (indulgence in which did not seem like a good idea as a precursor to Longs Peak). There’s a lovely river walk that goes along the banks of the Big Thompson and Fall Rivers, and ultimately we ended up at a pizza place just off the river for dinner. The pizza offered some truly unusual toppings. I treated myself to smoked trout, capers, and cream cheese, while S experienced a little bit of Hawaii with pineapple and red sauce. J and M had something more conventional.

The next day it was time to start some acclimatization hiking in preparation for the Keyhole Route. S had picked out the Twin Sisters trail, which reaches just over 11,000 feet with about 2475’ of elevation gain. Rocky Mountain National Park has timed reserved entries from 9 to 3, so it’s key to get there early – and that’s a necessity for Colorado weather anyway – as you’ll see.

We hiked up a dirt road from the parking area to the trail head. The beautifully maintained trail starts in tall Colorado pines and firs, with a sprinkling of wildflowers. Each uphill stretch was met with a period of relatively flat recovery, a far cry from the straight up treks in the Balkans.

We finally broke through the tree line and the terrain turned rocky, but it was still easy to pick our way through the boulders. Walking through clouds we reached the saddle between the two small summit peaks that were a few feet higher and just a short scramble. But we decided the saddle was summit enough as we started to hear the first claps of thunder.

Being good Floridians and heeding the warnings about exposure and lightning we decided it was time to go down. We were a little concerned about the youth group that we encountered close to the top. They’d broken up into several dispersed groups and the last we saw of them the youngest seemed to be scrambling to the summit as the rain started. Apparently they didn’t take to heart our admonitions that they might want to think about starting down.

Just as we approached the tree line, the real rain started. We managed to get our raincoats on but not our rainpants. Soon the rain turned to pellets of hail, which was to become a weather theme for our trip, although we didn’t know it then. It turns out hail really hurts when it starts to hit your face and hands.

J and I moved fast through three different sessions of hail, all the way to the bottom where, naturally, the sun was now emerging from the clouds. M and S were slightly ahead and we were all soaked. Fortunately the house had good laundry equipment which we took full advantage of.

We had a late lunch at a very informal spot called The Local. I tried the elk stew, which seems to be a specialty of the area. It was good, but frankly anything would have tasted good by then.

We managed to relax in the afternoon as more rain poured down, and did some additional gear shopping (which seems to be an integral part of such trips). I scored a great $13 long sleeved hiking shirt. It helps when you can fit into a boys large.

Despite large lunches we forced ourselves to choke down a good dinner at Claire’s, a nice restaurant where we could sit at the bar without a wait. We had read that Twin Sisters was a great training hike for Longs Peak, and were pretty pleased with our prowess. We were all feeling very ready to go. Were we?

Long’s Peak Loop, Colorado – Here We Come!

I’ve been promising an announcement – and here it is – Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is to be this summer’s adventure!

This is Ladakh, India but I couldn’t find a free Longs Peak photo to use!

When J and I began mountain climbing and trekking in 2011, we saw no point in starting with something small. So Kilimanjaro, at over 19,000 feet and the highest mountain in Africa, was our poison of choice. We’ve never been to Colorado or climbed a 14-er either – so why not start with one of the most difficult – Long’s Peak via the Keyhole route!

While not the tallest of the so-called 14-ers, at 14,254 feet this summit presents a number of segments of class 3 scrambling. The trail is broken up into sections, each labeled with forbidding names such as the Boulder Field, Ledges, Narrows, the Trough, and the Home Stretch.

J and I have watched any number of YouTube videos, many of which are taken with GoPros and whose goal appears to be to strike terror in the eye of the beholder. My favorite is an 8 minute long one, where the climber repeats at least three times, “it’s not really as bad as the GoPro video makes it out to be.”

While this plan may be slightly insane, we are not so insane as to try this on our own without a guide. We are returning to Wildland Trekking – the company we used for an absolutely perfect trek down the Grand Canyon back in 2013 – see fromswamptosummit.com/2017/02/20/journey-through-time-in-and-about-the-grand-canyon-part-2/

And intrepid hikers M and S will be accompanying us on this latest adventure. Last Saturday after an urban hike we all sat in the porch trying to get our heads around the amount of exposure on this hike – no easy feat when you are looking out at an ever so gentle slope down to a lake and only Florida flatlands beyond.

But where there is will there are ways, and yesterday’s foray to Blue Swan Boulders was the start of a new aspect of training designed to get us to the top. Aside from climbing a rock wall on a cruise ship (remember those?) many moons ago, neither J nor I has ever done any indoor climbing. An indoor bouldering gym consists of multiple walls at various inclines reaching up 15 or 20 feet or so, ornamented with hand and foot holds color coded by level of difficulty. There are no ropes – and you spend a lot of time practicing how to fall.

Only drew blood a couple of times.

Although we were clearly the oldest people there we loved it! Talk about a mindfulness practice – as you swing your center of gravity toward that next handhold while reaching with your foot – not much else you can think about. On day 1 we limited ourselves to yellow and beginning green routes – and may not advance much further – but mastering those should translate well for Long’s Peak scrambling.

We ended up with a few scrapes and are pretty sore today but plan to return on Monday. And the craft beer we rewarded ourselves with at the Ivanhoe Park Brewery afterwards was pretty good too!

Ivanhoe Park Brewing Company

After the Cabin – A Trip to Switzerland

Well, it’s Little Switzerland, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Lest anyone be concerned we somehow managed to weasel our way into Europe despite our perceived status as coronavirus carriers. No such luck. But Little Switzerland seemed about as far away from the plague-ridden swamp of Florida in late July 2020 as the actual country would have been.

Following our idyllic two days without electricity in the cabin on Sandy Mush Bald – one of the most beautiful places we’ve been and our explorations of the “balds” – it was time to venture north. Even though our summits were severely curtailed this year, there was a chance for one – Mt. Mitchell – the highest mountain east of the Mississippi at a whopping 6,684 feet. It was an easy (if seriously winding) drive from Asheville along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which, despite its reputation for summer traffic jams was practically deserted this year.

We’d planned to do the “easy” hike up to the summit, only to find it was closed, so there was no alternative but the “harder” “Old Mitchell Trail.” We had a quick picnic lunch at the welcome area which normally houses a restaurant – needless to say, this year it was closed. By now our daughters A and S  were quite tired of the picnic food we had lugged from Florida and had been dutifully eating for the last several days, and were questioning their parents’ fondness for non refrigerated cheeses (read Laughing Cow), not to mention the other dietary staples of life without electricity (read dried salami). A’s boyfriend N, however, was quite polite and ate his salami and laughing cow sandwich without comment.

In any event, we all ate enough to fortify ourselves for the couple hours hike to the top. It was a very beautiful trail, a bit too crowded for my taste, but had some fun moments of easy clambering up and down some steep cliffs and rocks. But the Razers Edge at Katahdin in Maine – where we were supposed to have been in a pre-pandemic world – it wasn’t.

Regardless, a good time was had by all, and it was time to journey on along the rhododendron-bordered parkway to our next stop – the Skyline Village Inn in Little Switzerland. J found the place on the internet (where else) and it was reasonably priced. Things we didn’t know about it:

  • The inn has been around for decades, backs up to a cave, and was used as a site for transporting moonshine during prohibition;
  • It’s a well known spot for motorcyclists and has a special open air garage for parking bikes;
  • The rooms are small but are wood paneled through and through, including the ceilings. I’ve never seen more wood in one room in my life, short of a log cabin.
  • There’s a great game room with darts, pool, and an elderly mannequin sitting at the bar dressed in her motorcycle garb; and
  • We were the only non bikers staying at the entire place.

And the other thing – the Skyline Village Inn offered one of the best meals I’ve had recently, which was enhanced by the view of the mountains from the outdoor patio where we ate.  There were only a few items on the menu and steak was the order of the day. Cooked by the owner on a grill on the patio – just as if you were at a neighbor’s cookout, the steak was accompanied by a potato salad that I can only describe as  a deconstructed baked potato, sour cream and bacon included. The green broad beans tasted like they’d just been picked from the garden. And the three desserts offered included homemade strawberry pie. Goes to show that when you offer a few items and prepare them remarkably well, you create a remarkable meal.

Breakfast was equally good and gave us the strength we needed for a complicated day. A, boyfriend N, and S were driving south to Oak Island, North Carolina south of Wilmington to open up the AirBnB beach house we’d rented for the week. We were driving north and east to pick up my parents in Durham and then immediately turn south again to meet everyone in Oak Island. Mountains, meet beach. It was time for the next leg.

A Cabin in the Woods – Sandy Mush Bald, N.C.

Once it became clear that our permits to camp in Baxter State Park and climb Katahdin in Maine were going to linger, unused, in my desk drawer – thanks to the fact that Floridians are generally unwelcome in many spots – a Plan B was in order. Where could we go for a few days before venturing to the North Carolina beach that would allow at least a semblance of adventure?

J stumbled across a website with the improbable name of Hipcamp – an Airbnb type application for those who are interested in staying in yurts, tents, RVs, tiny houses – basically anything that might cause most people to ask, but “why?” It seemed to list the perfect spot for J, me, daughter S, daughter A and boyfriend N – a cabin with no electricity reached via a steep uphill hike of a couple of miles. Just the thing, we said! Well, J and I said. The girls were not enthralled with the lack of electricity and N wisely made no comment.

After a logistical puzzle that involved an automobile adventure from Florida to Asheville, plane flights from Austin, Texas and Providence, Rhode Island, and a rendezvous in an Aldi’s parking lot where A and N met us with a rental car, we organized ourselves and all our mountain gear into the appropriate back packs to head off for adventure. There’s something inherently difficult in packing for both beach and mountains.

The parking area for the starting point of our hike was about 45 minutes from Asheville, past lots of large estates that ultimately morphed into much more modest dwellings. Eventually we ended up at our turnoff where a large homemade sign announced that we were about to start a 24 mile drive on “The Rattler.” The road lived up to its name but after miles of literally hair raising turns we found the mailbox that marked a small parking area. I had worried about leaving things in the cars for two nights – but we were so far in the proverbial boondocks there was no need to fear.

The trek to the cabin lived up to its reputation, at least as memorialized in the online reviews. It was seriously uphill; probably 1500 to 2000 feet of altitude gain. J and I were carrying about 30 pounds apiece (started to wonder about bringing beer at a certain point!), but we persevered nonetheless, and it felt so good to be away from Covid and the generally sad state of the world for a while.

Rhododendrons were in full bloom and wildflowers edged the trail, interspersed with meadows of tall wavy grass. It reminded me a little of the rhododendrons on the lower part of the Everest Base Camp trek, but instead of splashes of fuscia, these were white, fading into a pale pink.

Once we reached the cabin, our hosts, a young couple who lived in two small rooms on the bottom level of the cabin greeted us. Their goal was ultimately to farm, and they had several ambitious looking gardens planted at the 4500 foot or so elevation. They also had an absolutely adorable part Siamese cat, Kasmar, who provided an endless source of entertainment.

The cabin was originally a 19th century barn. Its owner was a 99 year old, former pilot and physician to coal miners who had bought up old barns and similar structures in the Appalachians and turned them into rental cabins. The downstairs had a kitchen and living area and one of the cleanest bathrooms I’ve ever seen. An old claw foot tub with a shower, and plank floors that absorbed water with no need for any mat. Despite the lack of electricity there was a propane stove for cooking with a full range, and a large hot water tank, so we felt we were living quite the life of luxury.

The five of us slept in the upstairs loft, up a ladder to a semi divided attic with dormitory style beds. Very reminiscent of some of our Balkans accommodations.

The porch overlooked a meadow – little Sandy Mush Bald (more about balds in my next installment). The ridges of the Blue Ridge were iridescent against the sunset. And the NY Times recipe for ramen noodles, eggs, and precooked bacon, all of which we’d lugged up the mountain, actually made something approximating mac’n cheese. Who knew that dried Parmesan would actually turn into cheese. That, with some boxed wine, boded well for the start of a pandemic vacation.

Stones in My Pockets – Summits Sustained

Glacial beds on Stok Kangri Trek

I will confess. I have a stone in my coat pocket, purloined from some exotic spot, I know not where. It could be from Ladakh, India on the way to Stok Kangri. Or I might have surreptitiously slipped it into my pocket on the trek to Everest Base Camp. Perhaps it dates even further back, to the more domestic but no less adventurous White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Everest Base Camp

Whatever its origin, I get enormous pleasure from touching its rough edges, rolling it between my fingers. The rock of unknown ancestry is the descendant of the lucky pecan I kept in my coat pocket for years. My lucky pecan was picked up on Minerva Avenue (what a name of a street to grow up on) and resided in my old Michael Kors jacket – bought at a Tuesday Morning, no less – until the sad day that said jacket disappeared, I think in California. I believe I was as upset about the loss of the lucky pecan as I was by the loss of the jacket. By then the pecan had grown smooth as silk from my rolling it around in my hand as I walked, like an organic worry stone. And I figured if I were ever stranded on a desert island perhaps I could eat it and survive, or plant it as a sign of hope for the future. Although admittedly, the latter probably wouldn’t improve my chances of survival.

But regardless, those talismans in my coat pockets make something concrete out of the virtual world in which we live. Our lives are comprised now of internet virtuality even more ethereal than the wispy clouds you zoom through when taking off in an airplane. There’s nothing to touch, and the world becomes like a memory.

One of my yoga teachers brought small polished stones to class the other day, for people to hold as they chose in class. I guess the same concept as my purloined rock. It makes those past summits real, just like the lucky pecan anchored where I grew up. And this small rock is now inspiring me to return to the stairs, backpack and all, to get ready to climb Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

Balancing – Green Belt, Austin

Whatever its source,

Between the Summits in the U.S.A.

Point Lobos, California, 2019

People keep asking me, “What’s the next one?” The reality is that we are in a between year. Trying not to make it sound like the doldrums (what a great word), but when I looked at my schedule for next year, I simply can’t find a spot for a two week trip plus weekends on either side. I am usually able to preserve that period of respite but this year’s judicial system apparently had other ideas in mind. Hmm.

Mauna Kea, Hawaii, 2013

We haven’t had a between year for a while. In fact, I think since 2013 which somewhat inadvertently turned into one due to a virulent flu attack on J as we were about to embark on our Hawaii backpacking trip. Since then, we’ve climbed Elbrus, Ecuador’s volcanoes, hiked the Scottish Highlands and the Peaks of the Balkans, and summited Stok Kangri at all of its over 20,000 foot splendor.

Our home at Mt. Elbrus, Russia, 2014

So what will 2020 hold? The year itself – with its parallel numbers – must mean something. Thus far, the idea is a throwback – a week at the North Carolina beach with family and friends. Haven’t done that for years. And hopefully the daughters are now old enough to avoid sea kayaking accidents like the one many years ago that caused me to call 911 to everyone’s great embarrassment since they’d hauled themselves out of the ocean by the time the rescue team arrived. I suspect we are still black listed at the sea kayak rental place.

But as fun as that will be, there have to be some actual summits somewhere. It looks like work will take me to Seattle over spring break – and there appear to be some nearby hikes with a good 3500-4000 feet of elevation gain. And N, A’s boyfriend, has suggested we hike the northern part of the Appalachian Trail and summit Mt. Katahdin. It’s the highest mountain in Maine and he promises he knows the way to reach its 5,267 foot peak.

That sounds appealing. Given that the odds of our hiking the entire AT are probably close to nil we might as well cross the finish line first.

So, I may wrap the decade of my 50s with local summits. They are just as important as the others. But 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the start of all my mountaineering and related adventures. Entertaining suggestions for another non (or at least mostly non) technical, over 20,000 foot mountain for my 60th birthday next year! Got to keep looking toward the future!

A and N looking toward the future from Mt. Washington, New Hampshire

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.

Balkans Trek Part 1 – In and Around Kosovo

My last post started with things brought on the trek. Things We Brought to the Balkans – We’re On Our Way  But things were acquired also; among them a large antique plate that daughter A’s boyfriend N presented me with from his three day stay in Istanbul.  This plate became my companion for the remainder of the trip, wrapped in Turkish newspapers, bounced between packing cubes in my duffel, up mountains and down hills; by the time it arrived back in Orlando safe and sound it felt like an old friend.

And from that you can tell all of the travelers did in fact arrive in Pristina, Kosovo on time.  The next day, we were due at the airport by 11 to meet up with our guide, B from Croatia, and the two other members of our group, who turned out to be L from Glasgow and another J from Newcastle. Experienced travelers, they were quite tolerant of the group of Americans they found themselves stuck with.

We piled into one large van to make the trip to Peja, Kosovo, home of a beer of the same name, which featured prominently for the rest of the trip.  The flowery meadows soon turned into low mountains as we reached Peja.  Many low buildings, lots with the top floors incomplete while people lived in the lower ones.  The Accursed Mountains loom over the town in the distance.

The Skanderbeg

We checked into our small hotel and walked down to the town center. Three small child menaces on bikes terrorized groups of pedestrians (something that seems common in small towns throughout the world!). A river runs through the center of the pedestrian streets that comprise the main part of the city.  We found a café for lunch, where some of the braver (and hungrier) members of our crew ordered the local specialty of “Skanderbeg,” a breaded and fried meat roll stuffed with cheese and covered in a white dressing.  It’s named after an Albanian military leader who led a rebellion against the Ottoman empire. Appropriately enough, if you didn’t eat it, you could definitely use it as a billy club.

We then walked another mile of so through town to the 13th century monastery, a UNESCO site under the jurisdiction of the Serbian Patriarch. You had to show your passport to enter, but when the guard saw a U.S. passport he just waved us all in. I’m not used to such treatment! The monastery consists of 4 churches built to honor various saints and patriarchs, all of which are connected to form a whole. Frescos adorn the walls and ceilings, some quite beautiful, and others, as the voice on the audio tour said, by “artists of modest talent.” Besides a smattering of tourists, there were numerous nuns, visitors in military uniforms genuflecting and kissing relics – a fragment of arm bone encased in a silver sleeve, a bit of finger housed in a gold glove. I was struck by how the Byzantine ornamentation resembled Celtic knot designs.

The hotel had a large patio area and was near a playground and concert area as we soon found out. Our otherwise quiet evening started with the sounds of an Albanian wedding.  It then transitioned to what turned out to be part of a six day animation and music festival, which featured pulsing Turkish and Eastern Euopean traditional and house music played at a volume that literally shook the windows of our room.  I could see the light show well enough to make out the name, Kocani Orchestra, during one of the rowdiest pieces. Look it up. There’s a YouTube video. I know because I found it about 3 a.m.

Light show outside my window in the wee hours of the morning

After a disrupted night, we had a formal visit to the monastery with our guide. From there, it was into two “off road jeeps” for a drive through the Rugova Valley to start the trek.  Steep granite (?) walls rose up on each side of the canyon. After a series of hairpin turns, we stopped at a hut and began.  The trail started off at a very steep uphill grade (not made easier when we lost the trail and had about an extra half hour of bushwhacking through the woods). Meadows alternated with evergreen forests, and the variety and quantity of wildflowers was spectacular. I wish I knew the names (a quick Google search didn’t help), but here’s as close as I can come to equivalents – yellow and purple daisies, white and purple clover, tall thistles, blue bells, pink and white Queen Ann’s lace, periwinkles, yellow buttercups. Ridge upon ridge of purple mountains provided a backdrop.

It was hot and sunny and we ate lunch by someone’s empty log home, isolated atop a peak. Hard to see how it was built, much less how it was of any practical use. The last few hours were all downhill to the village of Liquenat. We started the descent in ever increasing rain and thunder; once it let up we had a half mile of sheer mud to slog through.  Amazing how much weight mud can add to your hiking boots! But the vistas made up for all of it.

We finally reached our first “home stay” –  which turns out to mean someone who has turned their home into a hostel. This one had several bedrooms, housing 6-8 people each and an extreme shortage of bathrooms. After downing some Peja beer, our group and the other few hikers staying had a great dinner – salad and fresh cheese, spinach and cheese phyllo dough pies, a small bit of lamb, potatoes, peppers and a date cake.

Playing cards in LIquenat

A map was posted on the property showing that what we are really trekking is sections of the Peaks of the Balkans Trail.  Tomorrow we will walk the border of Montenegro and a high pass.