To the Balkans via Red Rock, Nevada

Turtlehead Peak, photo by Bob Wick

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

The Irish Channel

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

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

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

The mountains in the distance call…

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, that is an alligator.

Wandering and Wine in Central California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shale Oak Winery

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

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

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

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

The Lost Series – Lost in Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost in Florida Series – The Tosohatchee Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training Twists and Turns on the Way to the Balkans

My “about me” page of this blog, which I wrote back in 2014, describes me as a “mid-50s” person. Born in 1961 and about to turn 58, I’m hoping I still qualify. But one of the things I’ve noticed as I take this journey from swamp to summit – which started when I was 50 – is the subtle or not so subtle changes in my training activities over the ages. Some due to sheer boredom. Some, unfortunately, due to years, painful as that is to admit.

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When I first embarked on this journey, I was a regular yoga attendee, both Bikram and what I call “regular” yoga, two to three times a week. Then we decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2011 for my 50th birthday and it became clear yoga alone wasn’t going to get me to the top of that mountain.  Hence, my now famous office building stair climbing regime. That’s the one thing that’s remained constant, even though my office has moved to a different floor and side of the building, which mysteriously is one extra floor in height.

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But the rest of it? Not so consistent. After our experience climbing Mt. Elbrus, I realized I needed way more heavy duty cardio. (See Steps on the Summit for our adventures on Europe’s highest peak.) Thus, I swallowed my disdain for running and embarked on a regime of a long (I worked my way up to 6-7 miles) run once a week, combined with a treadmill 5K at least once a week. But then my Wednesday yoga class was pushed to an earlier time and it became well nigh impossible to fit in a 5k between work and yoga. And then, after Stok Kangri, I realized I was all out so bored with running I couldn’t stand it, not to mention I was starting to obsess over my pace to the point it was becoming really stressful. Thus, my invention of the walk – run.  Letting Up the Pressure – Running and Walking Through the Holidays – memorializes this latest training technique!

Bikram fell victim to the closing of the studio (which probably wasn’t helped by Bikram’s own fall from grace). Although I still love it, and there are a few classes here and there, the times are terrible, so I rarely make it. Instead I’ve picked up Barre to accompany my yoga classes. Of course, I do it at the Y, so there’s no real barre and we have to use chairs. I can only imagine what we look like to onlookers as we plié and relevee clinging onto the backs of our chairs.

Weights have been an off and on thing. Right now they are on – I learned after Kilimanjaro that the only way to strengthen your knees is to strengthen your quads and I think there is going to be a high need for strong knees in Albania’s Accursed Mountains.

But my newest invention is a treadmill variation that I discovered while watching mountaineer and photographer Cory Richards’ training regime on Instagram. He put the treadmill on its highest 15% setting, strapped on a heavy pack, and proceeded to walk uphill for hours at about 2.8 miles an hour, not holding on. At that incline, if you tried going any faster without holding on you’d probably fall off. Now, my dirty little treadmill secret had been that I was a “holder”. I reasoned it was all about the legs, right? But when I tried Cory’s technique , sans pack, no hands, I suddenly realized I was actually using a whole different set of muscles – and they were the ones you use on a real live mountain.

So I guess the whole point of this is ebb and flow and just go with the tide, to keep the metaphor going. Training is going to change depending on your age, the boredom factor, and where you’re going. I tend to be a creature of habit; at least I’ve learned a bit of flexibility on my swamp to summit journey.

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The Economics of Adventure Travel

Trekking in Nepal

When people ask about our next adventure, I know the real question they have is…how much does all this cost? I’ve been thinking about answering it for a long time, but perhaps it’s less awkward to do so in a blog post.

The internet is filled with blogs from twenty-somethings who grab their backpacks, buy rail passes, stay at youth hostels, and make their way around the world before embarking on a more sedate life to come, all apparently on the proverbial shoestring.

Backpacks are required – on the Speyside Way

But suppose that you’re well beyond your twenty-somethings, are well established on that more sedate life to come, and are now ready to do all the things that you didn’t do way back then. And while you may have more resources than you did years ago, you don’t want to spend every last bit of your savings on the possibility of making it up a 20,000 foot mountain somewhere — that is, unless you’re planning to retire on top of one.

So here are a few hints as to how we’ve managed over the last eight years to climb Kilimanjaro and go on a safari in Tanzania, climb Mt. Elbrus and visit Moscow, hike the Speyside Way in the Scottish Highlands, trek the Inca Trail in Peru and the Everest Base Camp Trail in Nepal, climb the Ecuadorian and Mexican Volcanoes (ok, we didn’t summit the Mexican one!), and make it to the top of Stok Kangri in India. And how we’re planning to trek through Montenegro, Croatia, Kosovo, and Albania with family and friends this summer.

  • Consider using a U.K. based company. While we have had fantastic experiences with some well-known U.S. companies, the reality is they are more expensive. You’re typically paying for a U.S. guide to be with you at all times, and I’m sure they would argue that there are higher standards of accommodation, safety, etc etc. And while on our beginning climbs we certainly wanted that, as we became marginally more experienced, we felt a lot more confident.
  • Our last few trips have been with three different U.K. companies that utilize English-speaking guides local to the area. They have been great. In Nepal our guide was the son of a gurkha. And in India our guide was a native of Ladakh, the site of Stok Kangri. Nothing could beat making a special trip to Upper Pangboche to celebrate Buddha’s birthday at an ancient monastery with our Nepalese guide.
Monasteries on Buddha Day in Nepal
  • Be flexible about accommodations. You really don’t need a five star hotel everywhere you stay. With the less expensive companies, we’ve typically had a very nice hotel in whatever major city we’ve been in, followed by a mixture of small guesthouses, tea houses (well, that’s all there is on the Everest Base Camp Trail), and this summer’s trip to the Balkans promises whatever are called “home stays.” I think one’s on a farm.
Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu
Our accommodations in Ladakh
  • Don’t worry about the food. It’s fine. Quite frankly, I haven’t noticed any difference between the food on the more expensive trips than the less expensive. It’s really more a function of what the food is like in that location to begin with. On Mt. Elbrus, you’re stuck with whatever the cook decides to serve to the barrel dwellers that day regardless of who you’re traveling with. Some of the best food we ever had was in India, provided by a head cook and his two sons.
Barrel dining
  • Be willing to fly economy! I’ve travelled for 24 plus straight hours in economy class. On international flights there are free drinks. There are plenty of movies. It’s going to be miserable anyway, so you might as well wallow in misery in economy rather than spend thousands of extra dollars. (Ok, for those of you who are adept at frequent flyer points I do acknowledge there’s probably a better way, but I’ve never been able to make it work.
  • Gear is a one time cost. Admittedly, there’s a certain outlay to begin with, but the more you use it, the cheaper it is! HOWEVER, do not skimp on the cost of 1. hiking boots, 2. backpacks, and 3. hiking poles. You will be sorry if you do.

So how much money are we really talking about? Let’s get down to dollars and cents. Exclusive of international airfare, we paid less than $2500 each for a 12 day trip to India, inclusive of three nights at a hotel in Delhi, four plus nights at a hotel in Leh, domestic flights to and from Delhi, and trekking/camping with a team of 20 horses to lug our stuff around, not to mention a host of guides and cooks. As for Nepal, we paid less than $2500 per person for two weeks, inclusive of all lodging, food, and domestic flights (the famous flight into Lukla on the world’s shortest runway at 11,000 or so feet) for a private trip with J, M, and S, one main guide and two porters, arranged at dates of our convenience. And this summer? Eight days in the Balkans for $1,240 each.

It’s doable, both financially and practically. Don’t let the idea you can’t take two straight weeks off daunt you. I’m a lawyer and I connect via email for all but a few days on these trips, as I find that determining the world hasn’t ended without me actually reduces my stress. In the immortal words of Nike, just do it.

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 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!

Traveling in Style on a Greyhound Bus as a Hurricane Approaches

FromSwampToSummit has one of those rare treats this week – a guest blogger! But not just any guest blogger – someone who’s been one of my mother’s closest friends for over 60 years….and made her way to North Carolina from New Mills, near Manchester, England, just as Hurricane Florence approached. Her adventure involved a boutique hotel in Washington DC, a Greyhound bus, and a truck stop. Now in her eighth decade, M has had many occupations, from working in journalism to teaching. There are both swamps and summits here! Bracketed commentary is mine.

It’s a long way from the North of England to North Carolina

Here I am back in England and ready at last to give you the story as promised of my over-eventful trip to visit M and E [my parents].
The plan was a flight from England to Washington D..C., two nights in a hotel and a train to Durham N.C. The first hiccup was when Amtrak cancelled my train, but that was O.K., I booked a Greyhound bus. [My brother T was horrified at this thought and offered to drive to DC to rescue M from the potential dangers of a Greyhound bus. Being more naive, I just thought it was a cool idea.] I also heard that there was a hurricane around, but not to worry.
I arrived at my hotel in D.C. – an interesting old building called The Architect – at 7 p.m. on Tuesday the 11th. I phoned M and was told the hurricane was about to hit and I must get out of Washington on an earlier bus. My phone wouldn’t work so the helpful young man on Reception got me a taxi and I went to find the Greyhound bus station. The Greyhound office is two floors up in what seems like the roof space above Union Station, a great dark cavern of a place with a small glassed-in office in one far corner. The only earlier bus was at 11.30 p.m. the following day and I had to change at Richmond, Va., so I booked it.
Back at my hotel I started to get a series of messages, from my neighbour at home I – you must come back to England, a hurricane is coming; from M that it was not safe travelling on a bus at night; yet another message from I that I must stay in Washington because the hurricane was going to hit Durham; then again from M saying I must sit near the bus driver. So after all that I went to bed and slept quite well.
The next day was hot and humid, the sun beating down, fairly normal D.C. weather I think, though I found it exhausting. I had a walk about, not easy to find something to eat though eventually I found a few restaurants near Dupont Circle. I made sure I had breakfast and some lunch. I wandered down to the White House and back. Back at the hotel I had a shower, packed my bag again, and checked out of the hotel about 9 p.m., my helpful young man downstairs getting me a taxi again.
At Union Station I ate a slice of pizza on the main floor of the station, before going up to the great shed above where in the dark corner was a lit-up glass waiting room. I was about to go to the rest room before boarding at 11.10 when I looked up at a clock and found it was already 11.10 and my watch had stopped.
This whole journey was a chapter of accidents and miracles. I got on the bus, I had a seat to myself though not near the driver [as my mother, no doubt at my brother’s urging, had encouraged], and off we went into the dark still night, no sign of a hurricane yet.
At Richmond it was a proper bus station, a big hall with a cafe and toilets at one end and a desk at the other. I sat down and looked up at an indicator, which said that the Atlanta bus – my bus – was cancelled. I went to the desk where a very large man with dreadlocks was impassively fending off a crowd of chattering people. I found it difficult to understand his very strong accent but he seemed to say that the bus was not cancelled but it would not stop in Durham, my destination.
There was a young girl who I had noticed in the bus queue at Washington; she stood out because she was blonde and pretty, looked like a student.
She told me the bus was stopping at Greensboro and that was not too far from Durham.
I sat down again.
There kept being announcements which I could not understand, but then I found the bus was not stopping till Charlotte. I was miles from anywhere in the middle of the night, Richmond was unknown to me and I couldn’t go back to Washington, so I got on the bus. I only managed to do that because the young girl saw me sitting and came to tell  me a line was forming at the other end for the Charlotte bus. She was another of the miracles that happened to me that night. And I was lucky with the bus driver who was a helpful young man whose accent I could understand. I sat at the front of the bus this time.
Off we went into the dark again. I slept a bit and whenever I woke I saw a dry empty road stretching ahead between a wall of unmoving trees and I wondered where the hurricane was. Then I woke and began to see words I could recognise – Raleigh-Durham Airport one mile, Chapel Hill, then even Durham. And on the bus went. A woman passenger came to front and spoke to the driver. He said he was looking for a rest stop, so she got out her phone and directed him to one. We stopped at a gas station with a shop, and we all got off and went in to use the toilet. I saw that the young girl was getting her bag off the bus and she said we were not far from Durham. So I asked the driver to get my suitcase off too. He wrote down for me on a piece of paper:
Exit 165 off I-85 BP Station County Road.
The girl lent me her phone. I rang M [my mother] and read out the direction. It was 5.30 in the morning. The girl was going to Greensboro to a wedding but the friend she phoned was still in bed and did not answer. So we stood there outside the gas station as the odd car and truck pulled up and went away. A woman came up and asked if we were stranded and  could she help. I hope she stayed with the girl because I felt bad leaving her when she had been a lifesaver for me. The next car that came up had familiar figures in it and M got out. I nearly wept on her shoulder, I was so glad to see her.
It was not far to drive. When we crossed the Eno River I realised how close I had been to safety. Very soon we were sitting down having breakfast. We spent a few days waiting for Hurricane Florence but she did not trouble us much.
Sorry this has been a so long. I got a bit carried away remembering it all.
[Should we all have such adventures when we make it to our 80s!]

And back in England, At long last.