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!

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Throw Backs and Forwards – The Swamp and the Horses and Namaste

So this weekend has had enough unusual experiences to delay, yet again, my stories of Delhi. Because how often does one revisit activities that were very important in years gone by – and then push them forward into the future?

That was this weekend. It started last week, when my long time Bikram yoga teacher Joe posted he was going to be teaching at a local studio on Friday afternoon, following his most recent trip to Australia. I hadn’t taken a Bikram class for at least 18 months. I left work early on Friday just to get there.

And oh how I’d missed it! You talk about mindfulness. When you are in a Bikram class your entire mind and body is focused on following the dialogue and moving each muscle in accordance. There’s nothing else there but that moment in time, in the hot sticky sweaty spot that is an interstices between the then and the future – the now.

The next day started with our raincheck horseback riding experience. A few weeks ago, husband J and I realized we’d ridden horses – poorly and only on trail rides – in places ranging from Hawaii to the Caucasus Mountains, but never in Florida, where we’ve lived for the past 29 years or so. Time to change that.

So we ventured off, a good 55 miles away, to Forever Florida, a combination cattle ranch and ecotourism preserve. There are zip lines, horseback riding, and lots of alligators. It’s truly a throwback to old Florida. Lots of the horses are Florida cracker horses who have to be DNA tested to show they really are descendants of those brought by Ponce deLeon. But the first date there was for a 2 pm ride. We should have known better. It’s Florida in the summer for heaven’s sake, in the days of global warming. We were totally rained out.

Hence, our trip back yesterday on one of those beautiful Florida bluebird days – an azure sky decorated with white puffy clouds, like mounds of whipped cream splattered onto the sky.

But what we didn’t know about the ride was that a lot of it was underwater – it was truly swamp. We went through multiple Florida ecosystems- prairie to slash pine forest to palm hammock – and into the Bull Creek slough. That’s where my very short horse and I got quite wet – water up to my thighs and his chest. I suppose I could have pulled my feet out of the stirrups and pulled them up high as others did – but I felt a lot more balanced staying in the stirrups – and frankly, the dank brown water felt remarkably refreshing in the 90 percent humidity. It wasn’t that hot – but, boy, it was humid.

It was probably 2014 when I was last on a horse – way back when I started this blog.   Horseback riding in Russia, following the Mt. Elbrus ascent. https://fromswamptosummit.com/2014/07/11/a-wild-card-day-or-summits-dont-end/

That was Saturday. Sunday was supposed to just be my regular – as in 15 years or so regular – 2 pm yoga class at the Downtown Y. But as I walked in, I was told that teacher E (she’s ok) had just gotten into a car accident and wouldn’t make it and there was no instructor but we could have the space. So I was going to practice regardless – about 20 of us were still there and someone asked if I would lead the class. So I did. We all got into a circle (or a version thereof) because I didn’t feel qualified to act as though I were a teacher and somehow a circle is less authoritarian. But I must say – the dialogue from my Bikram class on Friday and the many years of yoga kicked in and I was amazed at how natural and good it felt to lead a class. Not sure how everyone else felt but I’m hoping it was ok. I’ve frequently considered taking teacher training but most recently have thought I should just recognize I’ll only be a participant. But now I’m wondering if my initial instinct was right – and I really should do the teacher training. Some food for thought on a Sunday.

Pretty wild weekend of revisits and moving forwards. Namaste.

FromSwampToSummit Goes Snorkeling

And now a brief detour from adventures in India to some time spent snorkeling in the Florida sun. If you can call what I did snorkeling. During the four weeks since our return, we’ve been to the beach three separate times for various reasons. Sort of remarkable, given it had been about a year since our last beach visit.

Most recent was my foray into the world of snorkeling. As you can probably tell from this blog, as a good Taurus I am an earth as opposed to a water person. Even swamps have some dirt in them. Embarrassing though it is to admit, it took about two years of lessons for me even to learn to swim.

Note the boat – the reef was somewhere out there

But we found ourselves on the beautiful shores of Palm Beach for a firm retreat, and the afternoon activity we signed up for was a “guided reef tour.” Now from that innocuous description – wouldn’t you expect a boat to drop you off at a reef, where you could gently bob about above the fishies to your heart’s content? Not so! I started to get cold feet in the morning when it was explained to me that we would be swimming out to the reef, which was “just off shore.” And my feet got even colder when we got to the meeting place and learned that not only was there no boat but the only resting spot would be one little yellow buoy hauled along by the guide that only two people could hang onto. There were a lot more people than that in our group.

Nonetheless, I waded into about 3 feet of choppy water, struggled into my flippers and got the guide to help me with my mask. I could tell he was regarding my lack of proficiency with a certain degree of trepidation.

We “took off.” I tried to relax – remembering from past snorkeling trips where I really was dropped off by a boat that was key. But with the waves continuing to roll, my mask not clear, and my arms flailing even though I knew I was only supposed to use my legs – I could feel myself starting to panic and gasp for breath.

So you know what? After about seven minutes of this, I told our guide – probably to his great relief – that I was going in. One of the things I have learned from mountain climbing is that you have to know when you’re maxed out. At a certain point you’re not proving anything and you’re not having any fun. Stopping isn’t giving up – it’s simply exercising some good old fashioned common sense.

It’s one thing to train and suffer a little. It’s one thing to suffer a lot when you’re on the way to hitting that 20,000 foot altitude goal. But it’s another thing entirely to be miserable doing something you don’t even like that much. I’m glad I escaped this one with only a crick in my neck and a sore hip from my underwater gymnastics!

I like the hilly parts of the beach!

Mantras and Mountains – Stok Kangri Training

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Views from the West Orange Trail

As we embark on the two week countdown and our final chances for that one last training run, I’ve been thinking lots about mantras.

The last couple of weeks I’ve tried to vary my training routine. We celebrated Memorial Day with what’s now become a talismanic 20 mile hike – the entire West Orange Trail. Years ago we started hiking it in sections starting at each end (see A Walk on the West Orange Trail, West Orange Trail – Starting from the Other End’) but the last few years we’ve simply started at the Apopka trailhead and hiked to Killarney Station. Last year’s erstwhile travel companions, M and S of Everest Base Camp fame, joined us at mile12, with no more incentive than dreaming of treks to come.

By now the West Orange trail has its own rhythm for husband J and me – there’s the area of bizarre churches, the warehouse ruins of the fern industy, the “development” (that is the nastiest bit, involving uphill along a hot busy road surrounded by look alike housing developments), the Buddhist temple, followed by the golf course and memorial gardens (somehow that has always seemed apt to me), and finally, the wooded trek into Winter Garden, Oakland, and Killarney.

I’ve balanced the pleasure of 20 mile hikes with six mile runs in 80 plus degree heat – and literally hundreds of flights of stairs in my office building.

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So what does any of this have to do with mantras, you ask? Last year, on the Everest Base Camp Trek, I was forced to confront one of my greatest fears – the incredibly high swinging bridge. And it wasn’t just one. There were a LOT of them. Our guide told me just to keep my eyes on the prayer flags that lined the steel cables atop the flimsy chicken wire sides of the bridges. I did that – and for whatever reason the phrase “God is in the prayer flags” came to mind. I repeated it, sometimes aloud (with the whistling wind no one could hear) while focusing on the flags and M’s white hiking shirt billowing in the breeze as she strode along in front of me. It got me over a lot of bridges.

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We were on the top one

And on these runs – and many of you know running is not my favorite thing – I’ve kept myself going by finding similar mantras, especially when I’m getting to that point where I’m tired and starting to focus way too much on whether I’ve gone even another tenth of a mile. With a mantra, I can become almost hypnotized by the passing cracks in the pavement, I can slow my breathing down, and those tenths of miles pass by much less knowingly. In fact, yesterday, another runner came toward me from the opposite direction and I was so lost in my present he startled me!

I don’t think these mantras have to be “religious.” Just something that speaks to you and gives an image that you can fall back into in those hard times. As if you’re on a giant fluffy cloud that propels you along effortlessly. I’m picking out my mantras for Stok Kangri.

20,000 Feet of Fear – Stok Kangri and Other People’s Blogs

IMG_0069We leave for India, more specifically Stok Kangri, in just under 4 weeks and it’s time to stop. Time to stop reading other people’s blogs and trip reviews.

You know you’ve read too many over the top accounts of bad weather, deep snow and almost vertical walls when you find yourself repeatedly googling whether the steepest gradient is really 40 degrees (according to the one and only detailed trekking guide I’ve found) or 75 degrees (according to anecdotal accounts by multiple trekkers at varying levels of inexperience). The next clue you’ve gone too far in internet research is when you start googling all the mountains you’ve previously climbed for comparison purposes to see where they rank in this doubtless highly imaginary world of guessing gradients to try to determine if that will give you a clue as to whether you can do this. And that is followed by a good dose of wondering just how good your training can actually be when you live in Florida and a feeing you better rapidly add even more stairs to the stair climb in the office, not to mention increase the distance of your runs.

I guess fear can be a great motivator – for a bit. But I think I’ve hit the point where reading more about this trek/climb is about to backfire. I need to spend these few last weeks getting my head ready to focus on the present moment and the here and now. That’s what it’s going to take get up that mountain. One foot in front of the other; one at a time.

It’s the opposite of the planning and strategizing and analyzing I have to do in my day job lawyering. Sure, there are the logistics – the gear check, travel arrangements, picking out your GU selections – those are fine. But trying to psych out the mountain beyond a certain point – that’s no good. On a trek, typically the guides will not even tell you what the next day holds until the evening before. I’ve figured out the reason for that. You need to focus on where you are and what you’re doing – not where you’re going to be and whether you can make it.

Right now should be a yoga practice. I need to take the space created on the mat…and let that sense of the present be my guide for these last three weeks. And not read any more first hand versions of “how I survived Stok Kangri.” Namaste.

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.

Wallowing on the Way to Stok Kangri

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I realize that I’ve been silent for longer on this blog than at any other point since I started it in 2014. No posts since January 14.  That’s because FromSwamptoSummit has been wallowing in the mire of arbitrations and trials almost continuously since late January. And there’s still another to go.

It’s semi-terrifying to realize that at some point I have to pull myself up out of the quicksand of work and get myself back into my training regimen.  Working 24/7 is no way to do it. I’ve been able to maintain a modicum of shorter runs, treadmill 5ks, and some yoga, but I can’t even recall the last time I had a good solid stair workout.

This weekend has offered a slight break before the next work-related event gears up, so at least J and I were able to go back to our old faithful, the Cady Way Trail, for a ten-miler. And today is yoga and I’m going to run back home after.

Everyone thinks that the hardest part of climbing a very high mountain is getting up at midnight, braving the frigid cold, and following the faint glow of your headlight as your crampons bite into the snow and ice, and you try to avoid, at all costs, stepping on the rope. But for those of us who can only fund such trips by working pretty intense jobs – the harder part is to keep your focus on that mountaintop experience that lies ahead and not to be diverted by the detours of work stress and the like.

So, if all this sounds like I’m giving myself a pep talk – well, I am.  There are a few major work events between now and our June 23 departure to climb Stok Kangri, an over 20,000 foot mountain in Northern India.  But there are also enough days between now and then to get me to where I need to be. Deep breath. Look at the top of that mountain.

I took the photo below yesterday on the Cady Way Trail. New growth coming out of a crumbled old piece of wood. There’s a metaphor here somewhere.

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A New Year, A New Trail – Seminole Wekiva Trail

 

The day before New Years Eve seemed the perfect time to check out a new urban/suburban trail. We’ve hiked Cady Way more times than I care to remember – entire housing developments have mushroomed in the seven plus years we’ve been hiking it.

It was time for a change. So we invoked the trusty google search to see what trails might be be lurking in our back yard, or close thereto.

Now, Wekiva State Park itself is an oasis of wilderness surrounded by a sea of suburbia. But you can follow a 14 mile trail through multiple ecosystems and feel you are truly in the wilds (except for that one area where you can hear the gun shooting range and become convinced a serial killer is pursuing you).

Even though it parallels the outside perimeter of parts of the park, the Seminole Wekiva Trail is anything but wilderness. In fact, it makes the West Orange Trail look positively fierce.  For multiple adventure on that trail, see  West Orange Trail – Beginning to End.

After following some very poor directions from one of the Florida Trail associations’ internet sites, we finally resorted to Google Maps and with only a little less difficulty were able to locate the parking area. The trail itself, which runs along an old railway line, is a walk through suburbia. You pass a softball center, a park, a church, and wind between the backs of many houses. At one point you emerge onto a road lined with McMansions.  There is perhaps a couple of hundred feet of elevation gain. At a certain point, there’s a sign commemorating the fact you are standing at a former railroad flagstop location – leading to much discussion about the relationship between flagstops and whistlestops.

Lots of families were biking –  Santa apparently brought a many bikes this year. Loved the older brother helping out sister (even if he did inadvertently almost pull her over).

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After a few miles the backyards are all enclosed with wooden privacy fences which some good soul decided to paint. It’s called the “Art Wall” and each panel is ornamented with scenes ranging from rock stars to endangered animals to movies. Apparently the artist has another few miles to go. It provides a welcome addition to an otherwise rather boring stroll.

 

We managed about ten miles, five out and five back.  Not sure it did a whole lot for our Stok Kangri training. Part of the challenge of climbing high mountains when you live in Florida is simply finding a way to train. Oh well, still five months to go.

 

 

A Valley Between the Holiday Summits – Looking toward the New Year

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Mount Elbrus, Russia

I’ve always felt that the week between Christmas and New Year is one of those odd no man’s land spots on the calendar. I nearly always try to take the full week off work; unfortunately this year due to the vagaries of the calendar and my work schedule I’m stuck working a couple of days of what ought to be a glorious week of nothing.

Christmas and New Years do make the close of the year a double peaked mountain.  The first peak comes accompanied by tremendous anticipation; by the time you descend to the pass and face the next peak you start wondering if you’ll make it up. It reminds me of Mt. Elbrus – a long slog up in the wee hours of the morning, hitting a high point – and then a graceful swoop down into the saddle (where I’m convinced I fried my face due to incorrect zinc application). But then you look up – only to see an equally graceful arced curve reaching up toward the summit.

We’ve been in North Carolina this week – not in the mountains but in the Piedmont – itself a spot between the summits of the mountains and the sea.  In fact, North Carolina has been called the valley of humility between the two mountains of conceit – Virginia and South Carolina. Apologies to any folks from there but the old saw fit nicely into my theme.

So as we venture through this no man’s land on our way to the next peak of New Year’s, I’m looking ahead to the summits and swamps of the new year.  June is the beginning of our Stok Kangri adventure. I read this morning that seven soldiers were killed near the Pakistan border today. That caused me to bring out the atlas attached to my parents’ ancient Encyclopedia Brittanica to confirm that Leh is not too close to the border (it’s not – although it is in and around Kashmir). For those who don’t recall – Stok Kangri is to be our first 20,000 foot mountain and husband J and I will be attempting it at what will then be the ripe old ages of 58 (J’s birthday is on day 2 of our travels) and 57.  Challenges for the new year abound; plenty of training yet to be done; and lots of summits out there to conquer.

Thanksgiving Reflections on a Blog (and Summits)

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When I started this blog in April 2014, I regarded it as a quick and easy way to update friends, family, and colleagues about husband J’s and my plan to climb Russia’s  Mt. Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe) that summer. I figured the blog would be, at most, a six month phenomenon. Little did I realize – that some three plus years later – I’d still be writing it.

It doesn’t really matter how many people read  it. But the fact any read with interest is more rewarding than if I just scrawled my entry into a spiral notebook and placed it under my bed in the hopes that  someone would possibly discover – or reject – it after I’m dead.

Because the truth is – I always wanted to be a writer. In the second grade I announced with great conviction to my teacher that I wanted to be a poet.  (I was definitely one of those weird, creepy kids.) Mrs. Bell, my second grade teacher, gave me a special lined note pad on which I could memorialize my 4-6 line rhyming poetry, much of which had to do with fish because so many words rhymed with it.

Somehow this all has related to the summit and mountain climbing theme that led to the tag, “steps, stairs and summits.” The reality is that my life isn’t interesting enough to have a steady stream of fascinating travel and climb blogs. I have to spend an inordinate number of hours at a tedious and stress filled occupation to be able to afford just a few weeks of all that each year. And believe me, that is nothing you want to read about on a regular basis.  But somewhere and somehow I’m trying to find that summit high and dopamine filled place each day, whether it be a yoga class, planting the garden, or climbing up and down the fire staircase in my office building.

The last few weeks have been particularly revealing. I have had up to three days a week where nary a bit of training takes place. And all I can think about is how the hell am I going to get up a 20,000 foot mountain at what will then be age 57. But in the midst of this I do get to experience some new world orders that are summits of their own.  Professionally, a career that’s become a 24/7 calling due to the wonders of technology, where social media casts its shadow of surmise over nearly everything.  Personally, the wonders and perils of modern medicine and relatives and friends who grow ever older.  And contrast that to the statement of one of my daughters who proclaimed I couldn’t possibly understand something she said simply because I wasn’t a millennial.

These things aren’t particular to me. A lot of us face these and graver issues this Tranksgiving Day.  There are summits somewhere in all of this; I just need to learn where to find them. And yes, that is a photo of Mt. Everest, taken from Kala Pattar, at the top of this post. There’s plenty to be grateful for.