You Have to Have a Goal – Balkans Here We Come!

Since starting mountaineering travel in 2011 at the age of 50 – I’ve realized that keeping up with the non ending stair climbing, walking, strength training, and the rest (note the use of the Oxford comma), requires one thing – and that’s a goal. Without that, why the heck am I spending my lunch hour climbing up and down on an interior unairconditioned staircase in Florida. But once that trip’s picked out – game on!

And for the last few years, it seems that each fall is the time to announce the next adventure. This year, credit to Felix Bernard and Richard Smith who wrote Winter Wonderland, it’s Walking in the Balkan Borderlands. Everyone start humming.

This trip is not high altitude but promises to be steep enough. We’ll go through the Accursed Mountains (true name) and through lakes and byways of Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro, and end up in Dubrovnik in Croatia. It’s remarkable to think you can visit Albania. When I was growing up, Albania was completely sealed off behind the most sturdy of iron curtains. I’m wondering what the will be revealed when the veils are pulled back.

This will be an 8 day trek, 10 or so plus miles a day, staying in three guest houses, three small hotels, and a home stay.

And it’s not just us – daughters S and A, A’s significant other N, and M and S of Everest Base Camp fame are all signed up.

There are eight months to go and it’s time to get my walking legs in gear. Yesterday we did a 7 miler at the Black Bear Wilderness Preserve here in Central Florida with M and S (that’ll be the subject of a separate blog post; let’s just say there was a snake involved). Great time – but there are a lot of steps ahead of us to get ready. But, at least, now it’s eyes set toward Kosovo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty wild weekend of revisits and moving forwards. Namaste.

The Descent- Death March on Stok Kangri, India

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As I walked home from the YMCA in a torrential downpour, I kept thinking, well, at least this didn’t happen during the death march. But rain is about the only thing we didn’t endure.

You will remember that our summit attempt was postponed a full 24 hours due to bad weather. The repercussion of that delay was that, after summiting, we were going to have to immediately hike from Base Camp down to Stok Village – where we would pick up taxis to take us the 45 minute drive back to Leh.  From the summit to Stok Village is over 9000 feet of altitude descent.  (It was about 4000 feet of altitude gain from Base Camp to the summit so that gives you some idea.)

The original plan had been to collapse at Base Camp after summiting and have a nice leisurely hike out the next day. Now, only 7 of us remained of our original 11 team members.  We were all dedicated to reaching the summit, and we would probably have accepted any Faustian bargain to make it happen. But we really didn’t know what we’d agreed to until many hours later.

Approaching the ridge

After our few triumphant minutes on the 20,387 foot summit – after all, J, S, and I had made it with a whopping 26 minutes to spare before the 9 a.m. cutoff, came the dread realization – we had to get back down.

To be perfectly honest, I think I’ve lost the memory of the first hundred feet or so down. I presume we went back down the ridge; I do recall being very anxious about locating our backpacks, which we had discarded somewhere below. We obviously found them but I truly have no memory of descending what I had found such a difficult climb on the way up. All I know is it took a really long time.

After we got our packs, we faced the descent of the very steep snow field. Somewhere about then, my contact lenses, which had done oh so well up until that point, decided that 20,000 feet of altitude was not compatible with staying planted on my eyes in any way that enabled 20 20 vision. Hence, my call out to J that my distance eye (I have mono vision) was out of focus and I couldn’t see. I loathed having to stop, but eye drops were a necessity. After successfully managing to squirt some in each eye, we started off again – we were still roped and trying to get a rhythm for the way down.

S told our guides he thought I should go first, based on our Elbrus experience; after all, the three of us had been on a rope together before. I’d also been the first going down Cotopaxi and Orizaba. For some reason I’m good at setting a downward pace on a rope. But our Sherpa guides were having none of it and classically put me in the middle with J in the front and S behind. Needless to say – it wasn’t ideal. J was moving too fast; he’d have to slow down; I’d be too fast and he’d take off again to be too fast all over. Several falls later and I had a few large bruises on my backside that were to be with me for a while.

Finally we reached the snow slope above the glacier and our guides seemed to think we were best off unroping, taking off our crampons, and cross crossing the glacial moraine. I swear they were looking for the trail themselves and I’m certain we made a few needless forays across the rocks on the way down. At that point it was clear we were going way slower than we should be. By then I’d given up on my left contact and was hiking with my eyes completely caddywampus. Should I try to go fast and risk the twisted ankle or just keep on at my own tortoise like pace? I chose the latter.

Just about then, after some consultation in Nepalese, one of our guides took off with S to go much quicker down the moraine. Think dry river bed with huge cobblestones. Moraine sounds kinder than it was. J and I stopped with our other guide for water, some Gus (me) and some of our packed lunch (J).

Back up we got and off again. One of our guides took my pack – the ultimate ignominy but I kept remembering that J gave his pack to a porter on the Kilimanjaro descent and I didn’t. So I felt I could justify it (not to mention that simply Increasing my odds of surviving the descent seemed like adequate justification by then). We finally reached the glacier and toward the other side, near the old and now unused high camp, saw some of the kitchen crew  who were waiting for us with drinks.

We were now about 6 hours or so in the descent, and our main guide, R, had hiked out to see what was going on as we had been so slow. He knew we’d summited in an adequate time – and hadn’t anticipated how long it would take us to descend and was concerned something really bad had happened. He was soon to learn it was just intrinsic age 57 year old slowness! J plowed on with one guide, quite a bit ahead of me, and I walked with R. By now the bizarreness of my out of focus eyesight was getting the worst of me and I put my glasses on. While the contact issues were gone, my glasses are progressive lenses. Thus, I couldn’t look down – I was relegated to the top third of the lens as there was little need of the mid lens computer view where we were, much less the reading portion.

Walking with R, I suddenly realized how incredibly steep what we had climbed up was. It was probably much better that we’d done it in the dark, as it was almost inconceivable to me what we’d climbed. Finally we were back at the prayer flags at the bit of the summit trek that we’d climbed so successfully a couple of days before and could see Base Camp below us.

All would have been well and good, had our adventure stopped there. It was about 2:30 pm or so; we’d been going for about 15 hours. I’d survived on about 5 Gus (I still love those things) at 100 calories each. J had only had some energy blocks and a hard boiled egg out of the packed lunch.

Remember that plan about trekking out the same day? Well, when we reached camp most of the tents were already disassembled. Needless to say, we were the last of our team members. We had about an hour to pack up our tent and participate in the tipping ceremony – which we had single handedly delayed due to our slow descent. Anyway, by about 3:45- 4 we all traipsed off to start the final descent to Stok Village. There we were to meet cars that would take us the 45 minute drive back to Leh. We had an 8 am flight back to Delhi so not getting there was not a choice.

We all took off at once and immediately broke up into about 3 or 4 groups. Super Amazon women J and A were in the front, C and S tag teamed down, I’m not sure where P was, and J and I were convincingly in the rear.

We all knew it was 13 plus kilometers but somehow we had all translated that in our head to a 3 hour hike out. Oh, so not so.

First, we were back on glacial moraine. Somehow the workers from our crew (not to mention the horses) who’d now finished their work could simply fly down the rock on heir way back to their villages. Not so for us mere mortals. Plus, at least at the beginning, I thought Stok Village was going to be around just the next corner and saw no reason for any hurry.

But as the shadows grew long, and one of our crew passed us and offered to carry what at that point was a pretty heavy pack because, as he told us, we had several more hours to go – I realized my time estimates were way off base.

We had descended to the region of the brown serrated mountains – which cut against the sky like knife blades. Evening was falling and the only people we saw now were workers from the camps happy to be going home. They were moving at the twice our pace.

R had stayed behind at camp to see to close out issues, but fortunately caught up with us. So, our little band was J, a non English speaking kitchen helper who’d been sent off with us originally, me and R. I asked if we needed our headlamps and R said no but about 30 minutes later that changed. Luckily I knew where mine was – J’s was mashed in the bottom of his pack and he ended up having to use R’s. R ended up using the flashlight on his iPhone.

We were supposed to only be walking downhill, which is why the hike out and summit the same day didn’t seem so bad. But it was so late that the river was high and we had to scramble up a significant bluff – and descend it – to be safe.

By now we’d been going for 18 or more hours. I truly felt I was sleeping while standing. It was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. The sole of my hiking boot had blown out and I had absolutely no faith in its tread. It was slow, slow, slow on slippery sandy dirt on the way down the bluffs by the river.

We’d waited for the twinkling lights of Stok Village for so long that when we finally saw them I thought it must be a mirage. For the first time ever, I felt what it must have been like in the Middle Ages for travelers to see some signs of human habitation glowing in the midst of a pitch black night. We’d been wandering in the middle of nowhere, with no choice but to keep walking. I kept wondering if there were actually wild animals out there. But even during the most miserable bits, I was conscious of what an amazing experience this was and felt profound gratitude that I was experiencing this time and this place.

Finally, the wilderness morphed into what appeared to be a more formal trail. We passed small houses under various stages of construction and walked through what seemed to be a construction site. We crossed a meadow where our horses – or somebody’s horses – were eating. We passed a home stay guest house.

And then, miraculously enough – the van appeared. It was loaded with our teammates’ duffel bags and had just room enough for R, J, and me. Our other guide had long before peeled off to go home.

It took 45 minutes to get to Leh. We arrived about 10:30 pm. Wake up time for our flight to Delhi was 4 am.

The Peak – Summit of Stok Kangri, India

Summit of Stok Kangri in the distance with Base Camp below

Now that we had made it to base camp at approximately 16,400 feet, the waiting began. The afternoon we arrived we were sent off on a very steep hike up the beginning of the summit trail. Our guide assured us this would actually be the most difficult part of the trek as we’d be doing it in the dark and the cold, so it was a good idea to know exactly what we were in for. It turned out to be a steep dirt trail with decent exposure, but quite doable – at least in the daylight. Plus, it appeared a flat stretch immediately followed, which would hopefully give some incentive to keep on going.

In the meantime, our ranks were dwindling. IB developed an upper respiratory infection and left to hike down to Stok Village the day after we arrived at base camp. M and M started to feel the altitude and after the delay in our summit schedule (more on that below) also decided to make the trek back rather than attempt the summit. This left J and me as the two most senior members of our band of would-be summiteers.

Base camp was bizarre. Lots of tents and any number of other groups, all with varying degrees of acclimatization. A lot of people attempt this mountain woefully unprepared.

There was a tea house selling beer and sundries – I never actually saw the inside; somehow I got it into my head that visiting it would undo everything I’d achieved in the past week and impede my chances of a summit. Such fears didn’t deter a few members of our group who came back with lots of stories about the characters they had met there – some of whom seemed to be suffering from the early stages of altitude sicknesses or else were just genuinely odd people.

Base camp was also home to a collection of toilet tents which kept getting moved to higher locations such that it was a hike even to reach them. Speaking of which, the ecosystem at the base camp is simply unsustainable. There is an entire area pockmarked with latrines  now filled in with dirt and rocks – you have the sense that at any moment your boots could go crashing through into who knew what nastiness below. Think toilet crevasses.

With that charming image in mind – what else happened at base camp? Well, the plan was to rest on day 2 (July 4) and take off about midnight that night. But the weather gods were having none of it. After our walk up the initial portion of the trek that first day there, the weather turned very on and off, with sporadic showers of what can only be described as snow pellets – small round almost gravel shaped things. I felt a long way from Florida.

The next day, July 4, did not greet us with any better weather. It was foggy all day, with intermittent snow and hail. We were supposed to be resting and there really wasn’t anything else to do anyway. We began to gauge visibility by how many horses you could see on the mountainside. In the morning we did some rope travel and crampon training but we basically didn’t move all day, and I was finally starting to feel I’d had a lot of sleep.

By mid afternoon the snow had started to accumulate on our tent and we heard that many groups had decided not to attempt the summit that night – by then you could hardly see your hand before your face. Apparently one group made a different decision and a 29 year old trekker died that night up on the mountain because they couldn’t get him down after he started to experience serious altitude sickness.

We carbo loaded that night with delicious Nepalese dumplings (momos) but with the knowledge that if weren’t awakened between 11 and 12:30 am we would not be going that night and would have to use our buffer day for the summit attempt. Camp was crowded and you could hear horse bells clanging and conversation all night but we slept anyway. At 12:20 am R came by to confirm. We weren’t going and breakfast would be at 8. It was a relief simply to know, one way or the other.

This put our departure on the night of July 5 and summit attempt on July 6, the Dalai Lama’s birthday, so we all hoped for an auspicious day. In fact, the day dawned beautifully and conditions looked great. However, we knew we were in for a long haul because we were going to have to hike out to Stok Village the same day as our summit attempt. More on this later.

That morning we hiked up to about 17,400 (1000 feet elevation gain) just to get ourselves moving. Quite steep but confidence building. Tents were nice and warm and after another huge dinner we settled in to sleep for a couple of hours before our 10:30 pm wake up, trying to ignore the sounds of the pick up cricket game nearby.

Eveyone was tense as we gathered for “breakfast.” J, S and I were in one group and the faster (and younger) climbers were in another. We’d packed and repacked our packs and slept in our base layers (for the second night) so we were ready to go. I ate one of the thick pancakes, little realizing that would be the last solid food I’d have for over 24 hours.

We trekked more or less as one group up to what used to be the high camp. If they still allowed camping there it would have made our day much easier! We then split into our two groups. We were trekking in the dark, so you couldn’t see the exposure and only felt the steepness.

After a couple of hours, we eventually reached the glacier – it truly was a relief to suddenly get to a nice flat area. But on the other side was a very steep snow and rock slope – we stopped at the rocky area, to put on crampons and harnesses and rope up. At first our guide wasn’t traversing but just forging straight up the side of the mountain – but I think he then realized we (or at least I) needed an easier S curve. Next came a series of upwardly sloping river beds (more of that pesky glacial moraine) and steep rock climbs up. There was really very little snow by that point. The air was thin, and getting into a steady rhythm of breath and step and climb and breath was critical.

The sun was rising as we approached the ridge, and there was a spot to drop our packs.  There’s a high level of trust at over 19,000 feet. For some reason I had thought the ridge would simply be an exposed path nicely meandering along the mountaintop to the summit. To the contrary, it was a series of jagged rock formations, each of which had to be climbed up or around. I could never figure out which the super steep wall was supposed to be because they all felt equally damn steep!

At a certain point S looked at his watch and we were already at 19,600 – 300 feet above our prior best on Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Somewhere along the ridge we passed the other group returning – all had summited, although they, like us, were all looking a little the worse for wear. It was now about 8 am and we’d been climbing for 8 hours. R said if we weren’t at the summit by 9 we’d have to turn around.

That gave all of us, including our two Sherpa guides, the impetus we needed.  They set up safety ropes into a series of what S called running (or free) belays, and with their good guiding skills we made our way up, by hook and by crook. We reached the summit with 30 minutes to spare. J, S, and me. About 8:30 am and all 20,187 feet of it.

Sitting on the summit

It was clear and blue and turning to cloudy. The prayer flags flapped their brilliant primary colors, sending mantras out on the winds for all to to receive. We had done it.

But, as we all know, what goes up must come down again. And what a descent it was. The adventure continued.

The Hills of Austin, Texas

So I managed briefly to trade the flatlands of Florida for the hills of Austin, Texas – courtesy of daughter S who has just relocated there for a year long stint. As many of you know she’s been a six year resident of one of my favorite swamps – New Orleans. But I think I’m going to enjoy what Austin has to offer.

Perhaps it should be called Alternative Austin because I have the feeling it’s real different than the rest of Texas. I found it deceptive. As we approached S’s apartment from the airport I had never seen as many apartment complexes in my life. They line Lamar Boulevard, leading toward a cityscape of yet more apartments – this time high rises – and office buildings. But buried between the complexes are what at first blush look like strip shopping centers – but are actually cool little restaurants and cafes. I commented on how few chain restaurants I saw. Of course, there was also a high volume of car repair and automotive focused shops, including a car wash across the street from S’s apartment that starts vacuuming cars very early on Saturday mornings.

But it was the music and the hiking and green areas that spoke to me. Live music is everywhere. Even the tiniest neighborhood bar has a sign up advertising the upcoming show.  On Friday after a dinner of small plates at the Odd Duck – within walking distance of S’s abode – we ventured into the Saxon Pub. Its big neon guitar sign is right outside her window and S had been wondering about it.

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The Saxon Pub features three shows a day, the last at 10:30. It’s been around for 20 years or so.  We arrived in time to hear an Israeli guitarist Oz Noy  – but most remarkably guitarist Eric Johnson just showed up to play a few jazz tunes including some amazing Theloniois Monk. That was followed by the Lucas Johnson Band (no relation) – hard hitting rock and blues from a 20 year old singer songwriter.  This crowd bore no resemblance to the tourists filling lots of venues New Orleans venues. These people were serious about their music and chatting while the musicians played would definitely have been out of place.

The next night was equally amazing. Following sushi at a rooftop restaurant in the warm dry Austin evening we made our way to East Austin. According to our Uber driver it was a low income area now reeling from rapid gentrification. Our destination was the historic Scoot Tavern, a saloon since 1871 that now operates as a bar and music venue. The inside is furnished with crushed velvet sofas and and chairs that S thought would make a good addition to her apartment (which currently has no furniture in it). The opener was a very talented female singer from near Waco. But the headliner was Shinyribs – a large band led by Kevin Russell. If you like music that ranges from a scat singing cover of Bowie’s Golden Years to original music with a music hall quality – all featuring a portly gentleman with a long white beard who plays the ukulele and is surprisingly light on his feet (think Jackie Gleason) – then you’d like Shinyribs. The show culminated with a Congo line led by none other than Mr. Shiny Ribs himself.

The age range at these events was extreme. At Shinyribs there were other mother- child combos, including a tiny woman standing next to me (we agreed it was fair for us to stand in the front row) who explained to me that Florida was for “retirees” while Austin was welcoming and filled with “aging hippies.” The most inspiring person there was an elderly gentleman with an oxygen tank who managed to get up from his folding chair and dance spiritedly around, oxygen tubes moving in sync with his long white beard.

But between our musical Austin adventures we managed to find a sort of summit to keep up my training regime. Austin is surrounded by a Greenbelt – and a mere 7 miles from S’s apartment there are miles of trails running along side and above Barton Creek. This is clearly a popular way to spend weekend days in Austin and practically every swimming hole was packed with revellers. After about 3 1/2 miles we came to the “Hill of Life” – a nicely steep third of a mile or so uphill. Granted it was hot and S and I looked somewhat lost, but I still don’t think we deserved the concern expressed by a woman hiking up who warned us it “was a really steep hill.” I resisted the urge to say something extremely snarky about training for 20,000 foot mountains and Everest Base Camp last year. But then I did climbed it twice (and fast) just in the hopes I would see her the second time!

S didn’t bother with the second circuit and I met her at one of the less populated swimming holes where we ate very spicy prosciutto sandwiches. The highlight was watching a young couple trying to teach their labradoodle to swim. Water dogs they are not!

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My Austin weekend closed out with a Mother’s Day Brunch at Phoebe’s Diner. Blood orange mimosas accompanied by a smoked beet hash. Yes, I spelled that correctly. It sort of sums up Austin.

Under 5 weeks out from India and Stok Kangri. The gear check is coming up next.

The Florida Foothills- 10 Mile Clay Loop

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Foothills is a misnomer- it implies a lead up to something large and here in Florida that’s apparently only a 375 foot mountain called Sugarloaf. But the Ten Mike Clay Loop has an outsized reputation around here – it’s rumored to be the site of many a professional athlete’s training regimen and numerous folks have mentioned it to J and me as a good candidate in our never ending quest to find some topography in Central Florida.

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Lots of abandoned footwear

So now that my weekends are slightly freer than they were in the midst of my trilogy of trials and arbitration, last Saturday we ventured out to try the famed loop. Of course, everything we had read urged an early start but for us that translated into arriving at the small parking area just before noon, when the thermometer was just topping 89 degrees.

Due to the eccentricities of google maps we actually ended up driving most of the loop before we finally located the small parking area, just off of Hwy 27. At that time of day, there was only one other car parked and in fact, on the whole trail we only saw one or two very hot looking runners. We didn’t see any other backpackers.

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The clay roads start off with some gradual uphill through cattle grazing land. If you try hard, you can imagine you’re in some spot more exotic than Central Florida.

But at the same time, there’s a tremendous amount of what appear to be very industrial water reclamation or drainage structures. My favorite was at the top of a small hill – large metal pipes and structures by a hollowed out pond of some type and a sign indicating it’s a recharge area for the Florida Aquifer. I guess it was a large scale version of a rain barrel.

You hike first along Five Mile Road. There are a moderate number of cars but they are relatively well behaved. We enjoyed the high school,students who kept stopping in the middle of the road to take photos on top of their car. Eventually you walk past a never ending tree nursery. If you ever wondered where maples, cedars, and the like some from in Central Florida, we found the spot.

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The orange tree of last resort

Most of the land to the side of the road is cordoned off with barbed wire, but thankfully, there’s an old, unmaintained orange grove without such barriers close to mile 5. I say thankfully because although we had plenty of water we’d brought absolutely no food. Who would have thought a purloined orange could taste so good.

At mile 5, just as you leave Five Mile Road to turn onto SchofieldnRoad I decided to switch into my Grade B2 mountaineering boots, bought specially for the Stock Kangri climb. It seemed a bad idea to me to wear them for the first time on summit day. My costume change was just in time for the hardest and hottest part of the hike. It turns out the steepest hills (and some are quite steep) are during the last three miles. Plus, a lot of it is through soft sand, adding an extra challenge. The other part of the experience is that you can’t tell whether you’ve hiked the final hill or not.  There always seemed to be bigger one just over the horizon. Good training for the “fake summit” experience you find on a mountain, just when you think you’ve reached the top.

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The final hill – as seen from the parking area

So, once again we Florida hikers try to morph sand into snow, hot temperatures into below freezing ones, and the rolling hills of what was probably an ancient seabed into mountains formed from earthquakes and volcanos. It’s worked before and I hope it will work again. We leave two months from tomorrow for Stok Kangri.

A New Year, A New Trail – Seminole Wekiva Trail

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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.

The Man in the Mist – Mt. Jefferson

We’ve all been there. That one thing that keeps you powering on, even when your legs and your mind say this is a really dumb idea.

For both J and me (and maybe daughter A and her boyfriend N – although i haven’t asked them) the man in the mist on Mt. Jefferson in New Hampshire’s White Mountains did just that.

It had taken us forever to find the trailhead, which seemed to veer off of Google maps onto some narrow dirt road. And once there, the hike up the rocky, fog-laden trail was more uncomfortable than awe inspiring. The one overlook was a bleak landscape of grey fog, with none of the autumnal offerings we were hoping for.

We’d just encountered a miserable family of four – two parents, two kids – one of whom was scampering up the rocky cliffs like an energizer bunny while his older sister wept below and threatened mutiny if forced to go further.

We knew we were near the top, but we were still in the fog, The goal was starting to seem less and less significant. A was making serious queries about the rationale for further climbing.

But just at that point – looking for all the world like an older Jamie from Outlanders – a figure emerged through the mist. In a vaguely European accent he said it was no more than 20 minutes to the summit and he  had already come through the pass from the next mountain, which he summited already that morning. At that point, it was only the fact we’d all collectively seen him that reassured us we weren’t having individual delusions.

So we kept on climbing. It took us another 45, not 20, minutes but we got there. Sometimes it just takes a man in the mist. J claimed he was the spirit of adventure. Something most of us don’t get enough of in our lives.

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.