Back on the Trail – Eyes toward Stok Kangri

It may be seven months off, but when you’re headed towards the ripe old age of 57, and there is a  20,000 foot mountain  called Stok Kangri beckoning you, you have to respond to its call with a training regime. Unfortunately I was just gearing up my program when all hell broke loose at work, which has wreaked havoc with my workout plans, but I’m doing my best.

One place J and I re-visited a couple of weekends ago was our old favorite, the Cady Way Trail. We started to hike it back in 2011 when we were preparing for Kilimanjaro and I’ve been meaning to write about it since day 1 of this blog. In fact, there’s still a partially written post in the drafts folder.

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Over the last six years we’ve watched this urban/suburban trail change – almost a microcosm of the larger world around it. Case in point – there was a little rundown house we always used to look at with a slight sense of incredulity. The windows were cracked, the washer and dryer resided in a strange outdoor closet, and my personal favorite was the trough for feeding the owners’ collection of pit bulls. Six years later – the house was gutted, windows replaced, the outdoor washer and dryer vanished, and landscaping has substituted for  the dog feeding trough.

Cady Way is long and hot and winds between the backs of houses, past a little used golf course (or so it seems), by a high school and culminates in a high pedestrian bridge that passes over one of Orlando’s long wide boulevards, studded on either side with Mexican restaurants and car lots. Oh – at the far end of the trail there is a beautiful little memorial area to remind hikers of a couple of brutal murders that occurred there a few years back.

Aside from the normal prurient interest in getting to see everyone’s backyards abutting the trail – the most interesting place is an odd building that was part of the old Naval Training Center. J and I are convinced it’s a listening center for the military – that location that’s monitoring cell phone traffic. All we know is there are never any people present, there’s a loud hum, there’s an odd asphalt track that he runs around a field for no apparent reason, lots of gas canisters and double barbed wire fences. There’s no telling what it really is – but it certainly lends itself to speculation on what can otherwise be a brutally boring hike. (In face, we’ve never photographed it for fear of being observed!)

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Cady Way has no spectacular sites, no vistas, and only a few spots that even qualify as “natural.” But it’s long (10 plus miles round trip), it’s really hot (and hence meets my theory about stressing your body for high altitude), and the little changes that you see year by year create just enough interest. By now it’s like an old friend that’s giving an “atta girl” to help me get up that mountain.

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Lake Apopka Loop Trail, Florida – Amid the Alligators

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We were supposed to start at 9:30. Which still wasn’t early enough given the projected mid-90s temperature – but would certainly have been preferable to 10:30 when we finally set off on the Lake Apopka Loop Trail. I had heard great things about the trail from someone who hiked parts of it in the fall. Her account omitted two facts. 1. It’s not a loop. 2. There is absolutely no shade.

The trailhead (it turns out there are two, since, as mentioned, it’s not a loop), is fifteen miles from downtown Orlando.  It starts in a park in some lightly populated areas.  For years Lake Apopka was one of the filthiest lakes in Florida. Victim to agricultural runoff, the lake was basically dead. But a few years back the state started buying up the surrounding farmland, and recreated the wetlands that had previously existed.

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The birds have come back – I’m not sure about the fish, but the alligators have definitely returned. More in that below.  And there are more dragonflies, grasshoppers, moths, butterflies, and of course mosquitoes than one can count.

The trail goes around the northern part of the lake, and is approximately 14.5 miles in each direction. The part we hiked is compressed gravel and dirt. It follows the top of a narrow levee a few feet high that separates wetlands from the lake. In a few places the water can flow under the levee. In a hurricane, it would be wiped out.

The levee had more significance after we spoke with a couple at the beginning of the trail. They pointed out an alligator head poking out of the green algae and remarked how many they had heard further down the trail. A few feet of elevation was a good thing.

Although you might not technically be in the middle of nowhere, Lake Apopka Loop Trail feels like it. As we walked along the endlessly flat path, the palms and rushes cleared on one side to reveal an enormous vista of the lake. There were hardly any boats – I think we saw one all day.

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Looking up from our boots and the white grey trail provided some variety . Ospreys, hawks, falcons, herons, and anhingas drying their wings. And although we couldn’t see them, to our sides we could hear a remarkable amount of life in the swampy water. Ducks and frogs, but most startling of all were the grunts of alligators. I started to have fantasies about what we’d do if we encountered one sprawled across the path in front of us. And then suppose we turned around, only to find one lying across the trail in that direction also.

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Such thoughts were getting me nowhere. We finally saw an informational billboard with a trail map – and realized the trail did  not in fact go around the whole lake. If we’d planned to hike 14.5 miles, as we had originally planned in the cool of our air conditioned house, we were going to have to hike 14.5 miles back also. Despite the hot noonday sun, common sense kicked in and we decided to hike 5 miles out and 5 back. We stopped at mile 4 at what appears to be the only historic landmark – an old pump house with a shelter where there was at least a vestige of shade. There’s a marshy lake nearby where we counted at least 15 alligators. My Kind bar had completely melted.

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The next mile is open to vehicles for a wild life drive and we finally saw some other humans, most of whom looked at us as though we had lost our minds. By that point we might have.

At mile 5 we turned around and tried an even brisker paced for our return. By now we were completely drenched and the heat index was well over 100. Even the alligators had gone to sleep, and  now the spookiness of the trail came from the eerie silence.

After a couple of miles, we saw a black shadow down the trail, about the size of a bear.  I saw no way that a bear could possibly reside in this environment but J pointed out they habituate easily….as we drew closer, we found ourselves face to face with an older English gentlemen on a motorized scooter. He was hooked up to an oxygen tank, and was apparently just out for a sightseeing ride. He was by himself, which didn’t seem like a good idea in the best of circumstances given the warnings at the beginning that you were to buddy up before starting the hike. In any event, we had a nice conversation- although I couldn’t resist a quip about mad dogs and Englishmen. After he’d had a rest he trundled along, soon overtaking us.

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We finally made it back to the old faithful minivan. J suddenly had a complete dehydration or heat stroke experience that started with nausea and then left him with an enormous leg cramp. I’d moved over to the drivers seat but even in the passenger seat he couldn’t stretch out the cramp. It began to pour on  the 15 mile drive back – one of those blinding Florida rains where you can only see six feet in front of you. But all I could keep thinking was that at least I wasn’t trapped between two alligators! That put everything else in perspective.

A Walk on the West Orange Trail

Cement plant amid abandoned orange groves
Cement plant amid abandoned orange groves

Training has to be in earnest now. The long Martin Luther King weekend  provided the impetus for our first hike with weight since – oh, probably when we were training for Elbrus last year. But with Cotopaxi and still maybe Chimborazo looming a mere six months away, it’s time to ramp up.

Orlando has been working on its urban and semi-urban trails for a number of years, and the West Orange Trail was one of the first. It stretches 22 miles from Killarney to Apopka, running mostly along abandoned railroad tracks.  It passes through suburbia, a high end residential enclave, abandoned orange groves, and, every now and then, glimpses of the pine forests and palm hammocks that graced the state before development threatened to turn it into one giant subdivision.

Husband J and I had hiked the segment from Killarney to Winter Garden last year, so we were already familiar with the classic car show that takes place in Winter Garden on Saturdays. People from all walks of life sit on lawn chairs with everything from Model Ts to 1967 Mercury Cougars on display. Somehow I don’t think my 10 year old Sebring convertible would have qualified.

So this time we decided to load up the backpacks with about 25 pounds and walk the next segment, from Winter Garden to about three miles beyond the Chapin Station by Chapin Park, for a nine mile round trip. Before Ecuador this summer we are going to try to walk the whole length in one day. Hey, if the Romans could march over 20 miles every day, why can’t we?

Not really a walk on the wild side
Not really a walk on the wild side

The first part of the trail cuts through several housing developments. One of the most striking features is the lengths and lengths of white vinyl fences that line the trail. The fences finally stop and you’re treated to a view of backyard after backyard – all of which blend into one another with barely any delineation. Talk about peer pressure to mow your lawn! Notably, I saw not one soul sitting outside on any of these neatly manicured grass strips, even on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. Finally, housing developments give way to abandoned orange groves. As we passed the one with the cement plant rising up out of the middle (see photo above), we heard what at first sounded like a loud rant of some hellfire and brimstone preacher. But as we got closer, in the distance we could just hear an amplified broadcast of MLK’s I Have a Dream speech. Somehow very fitting for the weekend, the trail and our training.

West Orange Trail - J's trademark shadow in the corner
West Orange Trail – J’s trademark shadow in the corner

The next segment did move into something approaching nature, although the sound of the highways nearby was never too far away. A hawk almost strafed our heads as we paused on the bridge shown above, and then settled into the trees, its plump belly blending into the mottled deep green black leaves.  We passed by a specialty crop garden tended by a local high school, as well as what looked like an uninhabited barnyard with a big sign saying sustainable farming.  And at one point, from a warehouse al out hidden by the trees, we could hear the throbbing bass of a rock band practicing. On the way back, it seemed to have transformed into something that sounded like a mariachi band. Same band? Or rented space?

The West Orange Trail even has a few hills – at least by Florida standards. I just kept thinking to myself, “imagine it’s 10 degrees farenheit, it’s a 35 degree slope, and you are at 18,000 feet.” You’ve got to have some imagination to train in Florida.

There's a hawk somewhere in there - use your imagination!
There’s a hawk somewhere in there – use your imagination!

Originally Entitled Motivation – Or Lack Thereof

The Little Big Econ Trail
The Little Big Econ Trail

Yes, the original title of this post was “Motivation or Lack Thereof.” Only a few days ago, when I started this I was overcome by the the fact that as of that moment I had no clear goal in mind. Since 2010, I have trained for Kilimanjaro, Inca Trail, Mt. Hood, Grand Canyon, Mt. Elbrus, the Muliwai Trail in Hawaii (which turned into Mauna Kea). There has always been some journey out there that caused me to climb that extra flight of steps. And I was finding it increasingly hard to climb that extra set, even without carrying any extra weight in my backpack.

But thanks to the Labor Day weekend, and the time to spend messing about with airline reservations, we at least now have a trip to Mt. Washington in New Hampshire planned for mid-October. I am under no illusion that it will be anything like Mt. Washington in winter, when we had really wanted to climb it, but at least it is something uphill! And, in contrast to the Barrels on Mt. Elbrus, we will spend two nights with daughter number 1 and boyfriend at an inn originally built by the Baldwin family – as in Baldwin pianos. Somehow that seems significant. Due, I suppose, to 10 years of piano lessons.

So, in celebration of at least committing to one summit in the foreseeable future, yesterday we donned our faithful hiking boots and ventured out to the Little Big Econ trail. (Econlockhatchee, for you non- Florida readers.) We hiked out the orange trail to what we have always heard referred to as the Boy Scout bridge. It’s the one trail in Central Florida where you are on what could (kindly) be described as a bluff overlooking the river. The river is remarkably still and very red, due, I believe, to the types of leaves absorbed into the water. Didn’t see any alligators sunning themselves on the very white beaches but did enjoy the many wildflowers that somehow were surviving the heat. A yellow gold flower shaped almost like a stalk of wheat, pinks formed like orchids, and all about palms, short, skinny, bushy, spiky, all different shapes and sizes. After the bridge we hiked away from the river on the white trail. Not many people take this path, presumably in part because of the 16 inch grasses that whip your legs as you walk by. But it’s beautifully shady, with Florida pines casting shadows over the undergrowth. Every now and then we went through a semi-cool spot – almost as in the ocean, when you encounter a sudden cool current. We were kept good company by a cadre of spiders who had created their own spider suburbia out there among the pine trees – their webs the equivalent of spider McMansions.

It was good to get out there and rev up the hiking engine again. With Mt. Washington anchored now in time and place, the next stop needs to be the rock climbing wall. I need to figure out if I have the courage to step off a sheer precipice and to trust the rope – both of which appear to be requirements for the Grand Teton climb we hope to do this summer. Motivation back – now if it will just stop raining I will see if I can make myself run a few miles.