It’s perhaps a little misleading to characterize the final part of the Balkans saga as a trek. Perhaps a journey in a time machine is more like it – we were about to move from a world where our dinner was being butchered before us into the land of tourists and suntan lotion.
We started our next to the last day with a very beautiful and less terrifying drive to Kotor Bay. Kotor Bay, located in Montenegro, is filled with domestic tourists, all of whom were enjoying spectacular weather. We were also celebrating the end of the trek with much nicer accommodations – J and I even had a room with a balcony and a view of the bay. Prices went up accordingly. No more Pristina like lunches for 8 for $20 with drinks.
Once settled into the hotel we all walked down to the beach and found a restaurant with the unlikely name of Jet Ski for lunch. After yet another Greek salad, we walked into Old Town and visited several churches, both Catholic and Orthodox. Lots of relics (think silver gloves with a small aperture through which there is theoretically a nail clipping of a saint). Turned out to be a good place for souvenirs as well – particularly intricately embroidered linens.
It was then time for a boat ride to Perast. For once, our legs truly weren’t our main mode of transportation. Kotor Bay is basically a fjord. We sailed down one side, past two islands, one of which was manmade, very crowded, and housed a church that looked Orthodox but was Catholic, and another that was natural, privately owned, and was the home of a church that was Orthodox but looked Catholic. So much for architectural sterotypes.
We ended up in the pretty village of Perast. the houses were uniformly built of light colored stone with red rooves (as everywhere in Montenegro), and dotted with colorful window boxes. At the end of the village was a narrow strip of concrete and gravel beach, dominated by a huge bar. It was quite the scene – a mashup of 20 year olds in bikinis and speedos, and families out for the afternoon.
That night, our guide B had picked a very nice restaurant where we ate on the outdoor terrace – mussels with a tomato sauce was the specialty and the salad had real lettuce as opposed to cabbage! Or just tomatoes and cucumbers.
After dinner we walked down y the water. Lots of people, bars, and music, and J from Newcastle bought everyone a round of flavored raki. So strange that the last time it was offered was at 10 a.m. in a remote Albanian meadow.
On the final day of the “trek” – I use quotes on purpose – we journeyed via a large van to the border of Croatia, where we had quite a wait. We watched as one poor soul, a middle aged man in a fedora, had to get off a bus while everything in the vehicle was searched. Not clear whether they let him back on or not.
We bid farewell to our guide and travel companions at the Dubrovnik airport. We were now having to use kuna instead of euros. Made our way to a very unique Airbnb in Lapad Beach, and quickly found our way to a bar located in an actual cave at the Hotel More. The trek was over, but we still had four days in Dubrovnik to go.
Our night in the Albanian kitchen converted to bedroom for four went fairly well and we were excited for the day’s adventure, which had been billed as a trek across an “idyllic meadow.” Our guide, who had some unusual turns of phrase in English, explained we would pass several “summer cottages.” Being from Florida, I naturally assumed that meant the Albanian and Montenegron version of a beach house. But as you’ll see, such was not the case.
We started off about 9, first through the dark and gloomy woods we had trudged through before, encountering a steep uphill slog at the outset. Then came what I can only call the Land of Berries — tiny wild strawberries, sweeter than store bought, blueberries on the cusp of ripeness. Later we tried a “dude,” a berry from a tree, similar to a blackberry.
We emerged from the berry bushes into the meadows which indeed lived up to their billing — an absolutely idyllic land of long grasses. A rolling valley, dotted with the so-called summer cottages. Not vacation homes at all, but small stone dwellings where farmers stayed in the summer to make cheese and yoghurt to bring to town to sell in the winter. Each little house had a “cold” room, and the occupants took up the rest of the space, sometimes with livestock as well.
It felt as though I was gliding through the grasses, a steady warm wind at my back propelling me forward. A farmer couple called over to us to offer free raki — there’s a strong host tradition in this area — and several partook despite the relatively early hour of 10 a.m. Just beyond, and up another hill, we came upon another small dwelling, this time guarded by two mother pigs and their dozen or so very curious piglets. They were absolutely the cleanest pigs I have ever seen.
This is the Christian part of Albania, and large crosses stood on top of several peaks, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
Eventually it was back into the woods, followed by the descent. We’d been warned it was long – and it was – about 1300 m. of altitude loss. The trail down was nothing but loose rock, reminiscent of what we hiked coming down parts of Stok Kangri. (See The Descent- Death March on Stok Kangri, India .) It was so hot and sunny that the glare on the rocks reflected back up on our faces. But persevere we did, and finally emerged into an almost alley at the edge of a small village, through some fields, under a grape arbor, and into an “end of trail” café set up by someone on their porch.
After some celebratory beers – this was the last full day of trekking – we piled into our van for the ride back through the gorge. I wasn’t by the window but those who were described it as hair-raising. I hadn’t realized before how high up and remote we had been. After some hours, we crossed the border back into Montenegro. Unlike our on-foot crossings in the mountains – where not even a natural feature separated one country from the other – this one required quite a wait.
Our next stop was Lake Skadar. Having just been in the isolated beauty of deepest Albania, it was a shock to be in a place packed with hundreds of local tourists. We made our way to the tiny town center where we stayed at the Pelican Hotel, named for a very rare sort of pelican that nests at the lake and that we didn’t see. The smallness of the rooms was more than compensated for by the fact each had their own bathroom. That night we ate fabulous local trout at the hotel restaurant, which was decorated with hats of all types.
After dinner some of us ventured out. After narrowly avoiding a fight about to break out between some of the more rowdy tourists we ended up in a “handmade souvenir shop.” The proprietress, who told us she didn’t like all the Chinese-made items being sold in Skadar, had turned her back room into a one woman factory where she made molds, baked her ceramic wares in a kiln, and even melted glass from old bottles to decorate them with.
The following morning instead of our own two feet we used a boat. Lake Skadar is huge, 500 km or so wide, and is almost Florida-like, with a carpet of lily pads and fields of what looks like bamboo. But the looming mountains on either side made it clear Florida it wasn’t. Flocks of birds skimmed low on the water, and we stopped for a quick swim….some of us, A and N in particular, swam more than others!
Back in town it was a scramble to get back in the van, which was illegally parked. This resulted in the loss of daughter S’s backpack, hiking poles, and hiking boots, all of which fortunately caught up with us over the next couple of days, thanks to another tour group following along behind us.
We knew this was to be a busy day. We drove to Cintje, the original capitol of Montenegro. Unfortunately none of us found it overwhelmingly exciting, and we also parked right by yet another beer fest and music festival which was doing a very loud sound check. I felt like we’d been following the festival circuit. There were some nice old Colonial buildings and we ended up at a good place for lunch with the unlikely name of “Scottish Academie” neither of whose food nor décor seemed to have anything to do with that part of the world. I had what must have been my tenth Greek salad.
From there we drove to the national park of Lovcen. The main activity there is to walk up several hundred steps (which by now felt like nothing) to the mausoleum of Peter II Petrovic Njegos – the 19th century unifying ruler of Montenegro. It turns out J must have been a descendant – or so he looked when he donned the costume available at the top!
We finished the day with a fairly easy 3 hour hike descending from the mausoleum through the dappled forest to arrive in Njegusi village. It was mostly leafy trails with a few stony parts thrown in to keep us on our toes. We eventually made it the cute little village, which turned out to be home to Montenegron prosciutto, cheese, and wine, all of in which we partook liberally. We stayed in little cottages that housed three people each. The terrible mattresses (don’t ask) were made up for by the view out the window, waking up to the sound of farm animals, and the cheese!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What does one bring on an eight day trekking trip to the Balkans, followed by a several day sojourn in Dubrovnik, you ask? Well, here’s some of what our merry band of hikers thought appropriate:
a deflated basketball (because one of us has a theory that former Yugoslavian countries will be rife with basketball courts and eager players), a pin to inflate said basketball, massive amounts of immodium (I had to convince that one that 48 tablets really would be sufficient and he didn’t need the 96-pack), reading materials to include Rue Morgue (I leave it to your imagination) balanced out by an astronomy magazine and Foreign Affairs, and a laser helmet (whose purpose I also leave to your imagination).
And here are the destinations from whence we are all coming (some of us took some pre-vacations, as you can tell) – with the hope that we will all converge within a 12 hour window in the town of Pristina, located either in Kosovo or Serbia, depending on what map you are looking at: Orlando, Austin, Boston, Athens Greece, and Istanbul.
This is a live and happening blog post as I write from the patio at The Golden Hotel in Pristina, likely one of the least touristy cities there is. And correspondingly cheap. Lunch for six was under 20 euros. The first wave of arrivals has all made it successfully, even though two mistook the sign for the prayer room at the Istanbul airport for the rest room sign. Oops. We are all going on over 24 hours with nothing but airplane sleep, but still managed to stagger down through the neighborhood we are in to the main drag.
It’s a pedestrian area, low rise buildings in various states of renovation and dilapidation. Kosovans seem happy to see us. Note the 4th of July banner!
But it’s an absolutely beautiful day and I believe it to be Saturday. The main activity in Pristina seems to be hanging out at cafes drinking coffee or beer or wine. So, we are appropriately entering into the spirit of it all as we recover from what can only be described as a grueling day of travel.
This post was supposed to be the tale of my 20 mile solo hike last Saturday on the West Orange Trail. But it’s July 4 and instead I thought I’d celebrate by a quick addition to the “lost” series. It’s timely because this hike literally only finished about three hours ago!
Fellow hiker and friend S has apparently developed a new hobby – finding the most unknown hiking trails in Central Florida. Today he thought we should all recognize Independence Day by asserting ours and venturing off into the wilds of Volusia County. He and M and their daughter B, all of whom will be leaving with us in two weeks for our Balkan adventure, insisted we get to their house at the ungodly hour of 8:15 am, to drive to the trailhead as heat was a concern. Boy, was it.
When we arrived at the trail head there were only two other cars in the wide flat meadow. One must have belonged to the two mountain bikers we saw early in the hike – they were the only other humans we saw on the trail. Two people were standing by the other car, neither of whom looked as though they had ability or desire to set off on an 8 mile hike. When we finally finished, ours was the only car in that meadow. The fact the grass was long and hadn’t been mashed down should have given us a clue we weren’t exactly on an Everest like climb. (Note – rather remarkable that Everest has become synonymous with crowded trails.)
Anyway, the first part was fine. Flat, grassy, and a number of stiles to go through with stringent warnings to shut gates as “cattle were in pasture.” We were basically circumnavigating a broad swath of power lines – I was hoping walking under them might give us a jolt of energy but it didn’t.
Anyway, as we chatted and walked, we found ourselves walking by a farmhouse, together with quite a few cows. We’d been making fun of how many trail blazes there were on what was really a well-marked fire road when we realized we hadn’t seen any of said red blazes for quite a while. M, pointing out she once had been a professional map reader in her brief career as a fire watch, was sure we’d missed a turn. S, equally confident in his navigation skills, felt sure we were going in the right direction. J and I, aware of our directional challenges, mostly stayed quiet. And B pointed out that there was now absolutely no shade, the sun had come out, the heat index was over 100, and it was so humid we were all leaving puddles of sweat behind us.
It turned out all of the above were true. After slogging on another half mile or so we finally re-encountered the trail, apparently having wandered off through someone’s cow pastures and added an extra mile or so to the trek. The universe had not taken kindly to our jokes at the expense of those who had marked the trail so well (but really – every 100 yards or so? And sometimes with poles that looked like flashers?)!
The remainder of the trail was truly brutal. Yes, it was flat, and pines lined each side, but the Florida sun was beating down with its most Florida like intensity.
After close to 4 hours, we reached our car, which was looking very lonely as it sat isolated in the meadow.
Beers and burgers were up next. Fortunately we were seated far away from anyone else in the restaurant which certainly was a blessing to those around us, given our rather fragrant condition. But, the Balkans approach, and I figure if we can get through this swamp we ought to be ready for those summits!
Three bruises, a blister, and a pair of ripped hiking pants. But they were all worth it for the views at the top of Turtlehead Peak. After an amazing dinner at what must be the only calm casino environment in Las Vegas (if not the world) — Sage at Aria — we were up at literally the crack of dawn to start our adventure in Red Rock Canyon.
I had my share of trepidation about this one. I knew it was 2000 feet of altitude gain in 2 miles, 800 of which were in .4 miles. Sounded steep, and it has been a full year since I’ve managed to climb anything other than stairs. And this was compounded by the fact that I managed to do quite a number on my feet on my last ten-miler and am paying the price of some badly treated blisters. I was triply concerned when I exited our one-day rental car to start the hike and realized I was limping!
But the adrenaline of being in the mountains kicked in and soon we were trotting along at a pretty decent pace. The trail starts at an old stone quarry with monster chunks of limestone on either side. From there, it gradually rises up. Well, gradual for a while.
I was expecting a brown, dry, barren landscape. But that’s not what we found. A surprising number of low growing green shrubs flanked the trail, but even more remarkably, a ton of flowers – pinks, lavender, some bright yellows, and every now and then a brilliant red, sprouted up all around. And interesting shapes, too. Some dripping like crystals in chandeliers, others swollen seed pods, some wispy and feathery.
Turtlehead Peak is famous for its vanishing trail on the way up. In fact, calling it a trail may be an exaggeration. Once we got beyond the initial wash, the few trail markers seemed to disappear and we were confronted with a rocky, scree scramble heading toward the ridge. We’d encountered two other intrepid hikers (needless to say, a lot younger than J and me) and they were having an equally difficult time figuring out how to journey from the to the ridge.
I knew we were in trouble when J convinced me to go up and over a bluff – while I was certain the easier route lay below. After all, the lower route is exactly where the other hikers were. Nonetheless, up and over we went, only to be faced with another even steeper section. J, apparently believing left and up was always the right way, pushed on; I, certain a better way lay below, kept going along my own personal trail. But after a bit – and seeing J well above me and the ridge towering above that – I realized I needed to get onto some semblance of a trail that would carry me on up.
So, with Ossy’s words (Shifting Winds Lead to Cotopaxi Summit) echoing in my ears, I started thinking to myself – right, left, right – just find your next step – and wend your way up the side. I found myself on a couple of ledges and unstable spots – but shaky legs and all, eventually wound up next to J, with trail markers in sight. I’m pretty sure that little scramble is the source of the arm bruises.
From there, it was simply a steep slog to the summit. The foliage changed to small scarred trees (sort of like what I remember from the North Carolina coast). Once we got to the top, and with the elation that even a 6300 foot peak can bring, I totally lost my concentration and managed to stumble on a relatively flat surface. Bruise #3, the leg bruise.
We spent about thirty minutes at the summit, ate our power bars, and took photos of the sculpted peaks surrounding us. A little yoga, of course.
What goes up must come down. Miraculously, we were able to see trail blazes the entire descent – which simply confirmed how far off the trial we (I) was on the way up. The descent went much faster, but there was the one moment where I realized sitting down and then stepping onto the next rock was the best way down one section – resulting in that unique, not to be replicated – R -I-P – of your hiking pants. I knew it was a risk when I decided on that strategy. Those pants have been with me since Kilimanjaro in 2011, though, so what better way for them to meet their maker.
We hiked back to the parking lot by the sandstone quarry, watching the people who’d decided to try to climb the sandstone cliffs as opposed to hiking on up to Turtlehead Peak. It looked hot and miserable. In fact, the way down was cooler than the way up, even though it was then close to noon, as the sun had retreated behind the clouds.
After finishing the 13 mile scenic drive through Red Rock Canyon (you have to, because the loop is one way only), we were back in Las Vegas in 40 minutes. Back to the land of casinos and cards. A red eye flight to Florida awaited us. As well as a wedding of the son of dear friends M and S back in the swamp.
Last Sunday I spent a wonderful 35 minutes running up St. Charles and winding around the Irish channel neighborhood of New Orleans.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.