Testing, Trails, and Thanksgiving

Excitement was palpable. The goal was within reach. The long hour and a half of inching my way ever forward almost made worth it. And yes, I had finally arrived at the Covid drive through testing tent!

I wasn’t there for any particular reason, except that the numbers are terrible in Orlando and I feel it’s our civic duty to get tested. And as a plug for the folks organizing free testing (rapid, PCR, or both available, no questions asked), the entire process was unbelievably well organized. Nonetheless, Friday’s triumph at a testing sight was not what I had in mind for whatever quasi adventure we can hope for these days.

Friend S has a book entitled 50 Best Hikes in Central Florida (yes, I’m sure many of you are doubtful there are enough to even create a list of 10) and has been methodically working his way through them.

J on one of many “bridges” crossing the swamps

Yesterday’s trail took S, M, J and me about an hour north of Orlando, to the other side of Deland just inside the Ocala National Forest. The plan was to hike the St. Francis Trail, which supposedly would lead us to the remnants of a pre-railroad days logging town on the banks of the St. John’s River. The Yellow Loop Trail on the way back was advertised as including two artesian wells where we could refill water bottles if we so desired. (We were not about to gamble on that and continued to lug our 64 ounces of water apiece).

Although Florida weather has been just cool enough that the summer wildflowers are gone, the cedar and palm filled swamps lining much of the trail make up for it. They’re covered with beds of what I presume is algae – so sleek and smooth that at first blush it looks like a meadow. Move away from the river, though, and you are walking through fields of tall Florida pines, as straight as pencils, with dry meadows of shoulder high brush.

But despite all this natural beauty – an historical adventure this was not. We never did see the remains of the town – when we took a brief detour to the river banks we found an ancient, rusty seat that had once apparently been part of a car and a beer can but that was it. The artesian wells were nowhere to be located. Oh, and the only hint of the logging railroad that was also touted as a feature might have been this bizarre guardrail stuck in the middle of nowhere?

Really? A guardrail?

It’s a beautiful, beautiful hike. As always (and especially with S’s choices!) it was a bit boggy. But by now anything that includes standing water of less than 6 inches seems practically desert like to us. (If we go down this path much longer, waders are going to be in order.)

Who knows. It’s Florida, after all, and nature overtakes man’s footprints in less than a New York minute.

By the way, this hike is advertised as 7.7 miles. It’s 10.3. But as this pandemic drones on, and Thanksgiving approaches, I’m giving thanks for any extra miles that are out there.

Happy Thanksgiving, one and all.

Returning to Running

Lake Ivanhoe – my regular running route

Among the other things that have taken a pause during the pandemic (this blog included, at times) is my running regime. Mind you, there was never much of a regime there in the first instance – but typically there were one or two 5ks per week on the Y treadmill and a longer weekend run. Just enough to make sure I had some real cardio to accompany yoga and stair climbing for whatever that next big hike/climb might be.

The Y is no more for me, at least until Orlando looks like it’s on the road to recovery. Somehow a gym full of people all breathing deeply on one another just doesn’t make sense. But surely, you say, the wide open spaces are still there for a run?

Well, yes, but I must admit it’s hard to get motivated when when your past plans for adventure (Katahdin in Maine) all fall through and it’s well nigh to impossible to make any plans certain for the future. We were hoping for Bolivia, but now, due to schedules, not to mention an uncertain political situation, that’s not for sure. J dreams of the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco, as do I, but who knows which countries will even allow us in next summer? You get my point. Normally, by October we’d be booking plane tickets.

The olden days of 2019 – flying over Istanbul

Since running for me is instrumental, lack of a defined goal is hard. But one thing that I have discovered over the last couple of months is audio workouts. Chained to my Fitbit as I am (see Chained To My Fitbit, a post from 2015 when I got my very first one), earlier this year I bought the Premium package, which comes with a steady diet of online workouts for every part of your anatomy, mindfulness and sleep meditations, and yes, audio work outs for running, intervals, and walking. And they work! Even without that defined goal, when a cheery voice in your AirPods tells you there’s just two more minutes at threshold pace – you do it!

So off I toddled this morning to try out a new workout – this time a running meditation. I was doing pretty well with it but for the distraction of a witch paddle board event on Lake Ivanhoe. It’s hard to keep repeating a mantra when you’re being entertained by 50 plus paddle boarding witches! In any event, I’m back at the running. And I’ll just keep dreaming of what next summer could hold. Mountains of the Moon in Uganda? Alaska? Rather than think about the current situation as an absence of a plan, I need to consider it a point of infinite possibility.

Mountain dreaming

After the Cabin – A Trip to Switzerland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lost in Florida – Staring Down Charles Bronson

So this is the first of my Lost in Florida series since the time of coronavirus. And yes, this particular adventure was designed by our friend S — he of the famous Tosohatchee trail hike where he didn’t bother looking at the reverse side of the map — which was in color and indicated that much of said trail was blue (meaning under water). For that adventure click on The Lost in Florida Series – The Tosohatchee Wilderness.

Now, in fairness, this time he checked both sides of the map and the 9 mile loop in the Charles H. Bronson State Forest (I kid you not about the name) showed not even a tinge of blue. But, what the map didn’t show was that days and days of rain had turned an otherwise well marked trail into canals worthy of Venice. (Apparently Charles H. Bronson was a Florida public official who worked in the department of agriculture.)

Now, when I say canal, I don’t mean that the water was nicely contained like a Netherlands water control situation. No, first you’d encounter just a little bit of a soggy section on a low part of the trail. Then the soggy section would get wetter and deeper until it overflowed its banks into a bayou of 20 or more feet of brown tannic water which you just prayed was not inhabited by snakes.

There were few choices. Try to find some high ground around the sides and risk the thorns and people traps formed by vines, tiptoe through said water hoping it wouldn’t crest the top of your hiking boots, or just tromp the entire thing saying damned if you do, damned if you don’t. After five hours of slogging through I took the third option.

The area surrounding the trail is very beautiful. Of course, we couldn’t see much of the trail itself since it was under water. J and I and our hiking companions in crime, M and S, started just before 10 am at the Joshua Trailhead. After hiking out a short (and dry) spur to the actual loop, we decided to go right. It turned out to be a good choice because the wettest parts were on that side of the loop and I’m not sure we could have conquered them at the end.

The canopy is high and deep. Creamy petals from small magnolia trees sprinkled the first part of the trail, for all the world as if for a wedding procession. Occasional meadows were covered in wildflowers – fields of perky yellow ones, vivid oranges mixed with ornate pinks, tall blooming yuccas like grapes, and purple thistles as high as my head.

Then the water would come. Slightly oily looking in some places, clear in others, but always with a brown tannic look that you could take as mysterious or menacing. At one point we did hear something that could have been a bear or a boar, and raised our voices accordingly.

Interspersed with the jungle were stands of Florida pines with little underbrush, along which were treeless prairies. The trail narrowed so there was barely room for a person to creep between the tall scrub on either side.

The final slog was not wet but unbelievably hot. It was 95 degrees. We had not brought enough water since we usually have too much and were down to our last sips by mile 9. By then the injury count was high. M had impressive scrapes after she encountered a vine trap apparently designed to capture people; I had a great bruise from clamboring over a fallen tree, combined with multiple bites from mosquitoes who were impervious to DEET; and J and S were both dehydrated.

Our pace was slow, and our survival skills would not have earned us an A in any Sierra Club challenge. Anytime you run out of water in 90 plus degree weather you know you’ve done something wrong. But at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. We faced down Charles Bronson and won!

So it took a pandemic…

I’ve been writing this blog for close to six years – which is an eternity in blog world. Can I win a prize, please?

And when all this started I had such grandiose dreams – I wrote about empty Orlando and a follow up; then I was going to write about a hike into the Florida wilderness – and took lots of photos but the post never emerged.

Is it the strange secrecy of working at least half the week in your own little private Idaho – with plenty of communication but all of it virtual? Is there some element of privacy I never experienced before that makes you dole out public viewings in a more abstemious fashion?

Who knows. The world appears to be changing and all I know is I want to see my children and my parents next month. If I need to maintain my semi hermit world to do that – at least for the sake of my parents – it’s worth it.

So, we now have a booking for a cabin (unclear about electricity) that’s a 2.5 mile steep hike up a mountain in NC for three days, followed by a beach week with – I hope – my parents, children, and significant others. Not exactly summits, but in these days of coronavirus I’ll take what I can get.

We were supposed to climb Katahdin in Maine in July. I even have the Baxter State Park permits. But before booking plane tickets I made the sensible decision to check Maine’s visitor rules and discovered we would be subject to a 14 day quarantine. Don’t think that will work.

I have absolutely no idea how that emoji appeared but I can’t erase it without deleting the last paragraph so I guess we are stuck with it. Cheers!

Need a Summit – Acotango?

When last FromSwampToSummit wrote she was wandering through downtown Orlando, contemplating the eerie emptiness of the heretofore bustling streets and plazas. But after her husband questioned the sanity of continuing to go into the office each day, even by foot, the interests of marital harmony (especially under lockdown) took precedence over the walk to work every day goal. So those excursions have been circumscribed to once a week.

But what, you ask, does this have to do with Acotango, a potentially active volcano of over 19,000 feet located in Bolivia? (Photo of Acotango By Gerard Prins – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.) Well, it turns out that it is very difficult to try to stay in shape without some goal ahead. The sheer pleasure of being in shape somehow isn’t enough to put up with the pain. And yes, Katahdin in Maine lies ahead in July, and presuming we can travel by then, I am sure will present a challenge – but somehow, not enough to keep these now 59 year old legs pumping.

Acclimatizing outside Leh, Ladakh, India 2018

Spur of the moment last weekend we picked up the phone and called our adventure companion S in Alaska, of Stok Kangri and Mt. Elbrus fame. See, among others, The Peak – Summit of Stok Kangri, India. He too is looking for that next expedition and between the three of us we have cobbled together the start of a plan.

Based on J’s research, it looks as though a trip through the salt flats of Bolivia and the world’s highest desert, capped by a non technical climb of Acotango could be in order. The landscape is dry and otherworldly – odd rock formations. And Acotango itself may still have life – apparently it erupted 10,000 years ago, which is recent in volcanic terms. So there’s still life in those old bones.

What better way to celebrate my 60th birthday next year and the 10th anniversary of our climbing career! Let the training begin.

A Walker’s Guide to Empty Orlando

It’s been only a few weeks since I last posted – about an adventurous trip to the back country of the Klondike in the Canaveral National Seashore. But – as I’m sure all of us feel – those few weeks have taken us on a journey on which none of us planned to venture. Global pandemic? What? Back in the halcyon days of February it seemed like a far off possibility. Not something where the global case count would rapidly reach six figures, speeding up at ever greater rates, and there’s a grim competition of which state is outdoing which for the highest number of cases. New York obviously wins, but there’s brisk competition for the runners up.

For whatever reason, the legal profession has been designated an essential service in Orlando, and while anyone who wants to work at home can do so, and our office is closed to non employees, there’s a stalwart little band of regulars who show up for at least part of each day, carefully observing a six foot distance from each other. In my management capacity I’ve actually threatened to get out a yardstick.

The Y has closed, as have all my other sources for group exercise activities. I’m discovering that yoga by oneself practiced with a video lacks the energy and community that I now realize is central to my practice. So, once this all started I decided that I should try to walk to and from work as frequently as humanly possible, in the hopes that our July trip to Katahdin will happen and I’ll be ready for it.

It’s an eerie feeling to roam the deserted streets of downtown. Mostly it is me and the homeless population, some mentally disturbed and some not. I don’t think the numbers of the homeless have increased – it’s just with no cars and no foot traffic they are more apparent. It appears no one else has decided walking to work is the way to keep sane in this current madhouse.

Then there are the construction workers who are completely exempt from Orlando’s shelter in place order. And every developer has apparently decided they can get way ahead without all those pesky people around. The construction guys have also clearly concluded that the six feet rule doesn’t apply to them. They are working arm to arm just as closely as before and crowd around the water coolers in the backs of the trucks.

Orlando is unseasonably hot right now, but that doesn’t seem to be making any difference to the virus, and it is to cool off next week. I’ve discovered new routes to walk to work, and know every single parking garage I can cut through, as well as shady little back streets that see little pedestrian traffic in the best of times. I frequently feel I’m starring in the opening scenes of an apocalyptic movie where there will be a flash forward to six months from now, with abandoned cars on the streets and weeds working their way through the cracks of unused streets, while small bands of people scavenge for their next meal.

Well, maybe not that bad. As I walk back home in the afternoon, multiple family groups are out enjoying the lake. I haven’t seen this many people outside and off of their phones for a very long time. And I have virtually connected with old friends who live far away – leading us to wonder why we never tried this before.

There’s swamps and there’s summits and there’s a lot of in between. Let’s just appreciate where we are now – with an appropriate six feet of distance between us!

Castaway on Cape Cavaveral National Seashore – Florida Hiking

For years J and I have puzzled about the Klondike. No, not of Alaskan gold rush fame, but the mysteriously named strip of sand, dune, palmetto, and marsh that lies between the end of the roads at Playalinda Beach (parking area 13, where signs warn of nude sunbathing) and Apollo Beach (parking area 5, which I don’t believe has any similarly salacious signage although since I haven’t been there yet, I’m not sure).

It’s 13 miles between the two beaches. Some internet research had suggested there was actually a trail that veered off the beach, although the post from a year ago cryptically mentioned it “did not seem to be maintained” and was “not well-marked.” A call to the Visitors Center further confirmed that “no one is allowed back there” and whoever had been so adventuring was “doing something they weren’t supposed to.” Being law abiding citizens, we decided we would just stick to the beach, which seemed to be grudgingly accepted as permissible as long as we purchased our back country hiking permits.

The logistics of hiking straight through end to end seemed too daunting, at least for a first attempt. It would have taken two cars, with multiple drop offs and pickups. Thus, the plan was to hike half of the south to north route and turn back; next time we’ll hike the other half, north to south and then reverse; and theoretically, after that, we’ll figure out the logistics to do the whole thing.

Temperatures were in the low 70s, with a little chance of rain despite steely grey clouds, so we knew conditions should be good. Despite the signs promising nude sunbathing there was little to be found in the morning. The hike started off in some soft sand that hardened a bit as we got further away from the road. We soon passed the permit required sign, and the one lone person who had been ahead of us turned around and headed back toward civilization.

Not so us! We kept on going, along a medium wide strip of beach that narrowed to an alarming few feet and backed us up to the edge of the dunes at certain points. We could see points of land ahead, sheathed in sea spray, and had not clue what might be on the other sidet. And not a person around. Eerie is the word that comes to mind.

Glancing over the small dunes, edged with sea oats and palmettos, we could see the lagoon (what in North Carolina we would call the Sound) across a marshy area. But in some places the island itself narrowed, and I was conscious of being on a windswept strip of sand that one rogue wave could easily submerge.

As we continued on, the tide – I think we were at high tide and it turned as we were hiking – brought in a steady stream of human detritus. Full size plastic trash cans. A Gatorade bottle, still full. An air compressor with its power cord stretched out along the beach like a tail. And thousands of pieces of flaked plastic that blended into the white chipped scallop shells. So here we were, on a completely remote and uninhabited beach, yet surrounded by plastic.

Shells or plastic?

It was so bright that I couldn’t really see my Fitbit, except when I synced it to my phone, so we strictly adhered to our time estimates. The last thing we wanted was to be stuck behind the gates after the park closed. As we turned back, at approximately the half way mark, we could see our footprints, except for the spots where the waves had worn them away. There was something reassuring about knowing we’d already walked that way before.

We crushed through seashells, dodging sea suds blown all around us. On the way out, we had only seen pelicans. But the sun had now come out, and so had many small little seabirds, congregating at the edge of the water as though they were attending a convention.

Conventioneers?

Finally we started to see signs of life other than of the two legged and winged variety. I guess you could say it was a little Adam and Eve like, as the first person we saw, striding purposefully along in the surf, caused J to say, “does he not have clothes on?” Apparently the long promised nude sunbathers were now out in full force.

It was a monotonous hike (and a great workout), and it took some mental energy to keep on going (especially given the blisters I discovered I’d developed by the end). But when it’s monotonous – yet scary – you focus on the here and now. A lesson in mindfulness. And we’ve still got the other half to go.

Stones in My Pockets – Summits Sustained

Glacial beds on Stok Kangri Trek

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

Everest Base Camp

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

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

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

Balancing – Green Belt, Austin

Whatever its source,