The Night Before the Night Before; India, Here We Come

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So we are count down 72 hours or so. I had a great work out last night – but that’s the last one. At this point, on the countdown, I’m not going to get any better; I’m just going to get hurt.

We celebrated J’s upcoming 58th birthday tonight with dear friends; I’ll work a half day tomorrow; we’ll get our house ready for our housesitters; go to a cocktail party; and get up at 3am or sooner to Uber to the airport.

Our travel companion, S from Alaska, who is featured in the beginning of this blog in 2014 when we met him on our Mt. Elbrus (Russia) climb, has already left for Delhi. We will all arrive on Sunday – Delhi time.

On the level of things to worry about I realized today that I’ve been so focused on the summit I forgot about the river crossings – several of them. As some may know, I was almost swept out to sea crossing over to Z Trail on the Muliwai Trail on the Big Island in Hawaii. I am not a water person.

So I think I’ll use that for distraction. I can focus on whether my Costco water sandals will be ripped off my feet as before. The list of things that can seemingly go wrong is insurmountable. I could worry about all of them or none.

The only choice to make it to 20,147 feet is to put one foot in front of the other. I’m as ready as I’m going to be. And I’ll report back on the river crossings.

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Mantras and Mountains – Stok Kangri Training

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Views from the West Orange Trail

As we embark on the two week countdown and our final chances for that one last training run, I’ve been thinking lots about mantras.

The last couple of weeks I’ve tried to vary my training routine. We celebrated Memorial Day with what’s now become a talismanic 20 mile hike – the entire West Orange Trail. Years ago we started hiking it in sections starting at each end (see A Walk on the West Orange Trail, West Orange Trail – Starting from the Other End’) but the last few years we’ve simply started at the Apopka trailhead and hiked to Killarney Station. Last year’s erstwhile travel companions, M and S of Everest Base Camp fame, joined us at mile12, with no more incentive than dreaming of treks to come.

By now the West Orange trail has its own rhythm for husband J and me – there’s the area of bizarre churches, the warehouse ruins of the fern industy, the “development” (that is the nastiest bit, involving uphill along a hot busy road surrounded by look alike housing developments), the Buddhist temple, followed by the golf course and memorial gardens (somehow that has always seemed apt to me), and finally, the wooded trek into Winter Garden, Oakland, and Killarney.

I’ve balanced the pleasure of 20 mile hikes with six mile runs in 80 plus degree heat – and literally hundreds of flights of stairs in my office building.

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So what does any of this have to do with mantras, you ask? Last year, on the Everest Base Camp Trek, I was forced to confront one of my greatest fears – the incredibly high swinging bridge. And it wasn’t just one. There were a LOT of them. Our guide told me just to keep my eyes on the prayer flags that lined the steel cables atop the flimsy chicken wire sides of the bridges. I did that – and for whatever reason the phrase “God is in the prayer flags” came to mind. I repeated it, sometimes aloud (with the whistling wind no one could hear) while focusing on the flags and M’s white hiking shirt billowing in the breeze as she strode along in front of me. It got me over a lot of bridges.

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We were on the top one

And on these runs – and many of you know running is not my favorite thing – I’ve kept myself going by finding similar mantras, especially when I’m getting to that point where I’m tired and starting to focus way too much on whether I’ve gone even another tenth of a mile. With a mantra, I can become almost hypnotized by the passing cracks in the pavement, I can slow my breathing down, and those tenths of miles pass by much less knowingly. In fact, yesterday, another runner came toward me from the opposite direction and I was so lost in my present he startled me!

I don’t think these mantras have to be “religious.” Just something that speaks to you and gives an image that you can fall back into in those hard times. As if you’re on a giant fluffy cloud that propels you along effortlessly. I’m picking out my mantras for Stok Kangri.

20,000 Feet of Fear – Stok Kangri and Other People’s Blogs

IMG_0069We leave for India, more specifically Stok Kangri, in just under 4 weeks and it’s time to stop. Time to stop reading other people’s blogs and trip reviews.

You know you’ve read too many over the top accounts of bad weather, deep snow and almost vertical walls when you find yourself repeatedly googling whether the steepest gradient is really 40 degrees (according to the one and only detailed trekking guide I’ve found) or 75 degrees (according to anecdotal accounts by multiple trekkers at varying levels of inexperience). The next clue you’ve gone too far in internet research is when you start googling all the mountains you’ve previously climbed for comparison purposes to see where they rank in this doubtless highly imaginary world of guessing gradients to try to determine if that will give you a clue as to whether you can do this. And that is followed by a good dose of wondering just how good your training can actually be when you live in Florida and a feeing you better rapidly add even more stairs to the stair climb in the office, not to mention increase the distance of your runs.

I guess fear can be a great motivator – for a bit. But I think I’ve hit the point where reading more about this trek/climb is about to backfire. I need to spend these few last weeks getting my head ready to focus on the present moment and the here and now. That’s what it’s going to take get up that mountain. One foot in front of the other; one at a time.

It’s the opposite of the planning and strategizing and analyzing I have to do in my day job lawyering. Sure, there are the logistics – the gear check, travel arrangements, picking out your GU selections – those are fine. But trying to psych out the mountain beyond a certain point – that’s no good. On a trek, typically the guides will not even tell you what the next day holds until the evening before. I’ve figured out the reason for that. You need to focus on where you are and what you’re doing – not where you’re going to be and whether you can make it.

Right now should be a yoga practice. I need to take the space created on the mat…and let that sense of the present be my guide for these last three weeks. And not read any more first hand versions of “how I survived Stok Kangri.” Namaste.

An Announcement- Stok Kangri, India

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Stok Kangri is a snow covered mountain 6153 meters, or 20,187 feet, high. Yes, that is a reference to Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and I don’t expect to see a snow leopard, dead or alive, anywhere up there.  It’s supposed to be pretty arid.  And, it’s only partially snow covered. But Kilimanjaro is what started J and me on this summit journey, seven long years ago. God willing and the creek don’t rise, we’re off to Stok Kangri in the Kashmir region of India starting on June 24 of 2018.

To top it off – it’s not just the two of us, but our friend SB, from Alaska, is going too! I sent a casual Facebook post to him about our tentative plans, and within 72 hours he’d committed. SB is the person who gave me that last push – and I mean a literal push – to get up that last steep incline to the top of Mount Elbrus in the Caucuses region of Russia when I started this blog in 2014. Ever since, J and I have said how much we’d like to climb with him again –  and now we are! He’s climbed Denali and Aconcagua and actually knows what he’s doing. Provides a lot of confidence for J and me.

This is going to be a first. We’ve made it to 19,347 feet on Cotopaxi in Ecuador in 2015. But we’ve never made it to that elusive 6,000 m/20,000 ft. peak. This is our one chance, before we go totally grey and spend our time sitting by the fire – although in Florida that would mean before a cool air conditioner. There will be a lot of more details to come.

The training begins.

Everest Base Camp Trek – Under the Eaves of the Roof of the World

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It had now been eight days since we left Orlando, and we were finally ready for our trek to Lobuche at 16,180 feet.  This took us well above the tree line into a very barren area, through valleys occupied only by grazing yaks (who seem able to eat anything), and what can only be described as a stone hobbit house for the yak herders. Everest peeked through clouds and mountains in the distance.

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We had lunch at a tea house on the other side of a slightly less scary swinging bridge, which was followed by a very long uphill, culminating in the many memorials placed in honor of those who have died on Everest. They reminded me in some grim way of the above ground tombs you see tthroughout New Orleans.

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From there, it was more up and down and finally into Lobuche. We were by now completely out of village culture and into trekking culture. We kept running into the same people everywhere – the guys from India, the nurses from Florida who were working in Nepal, the Australian couple. And I think I forgot to mention that he who hogged my seat on the flight to Katmandu ended up staying across the hall from me in Dingboche!

The Oxygen Altitude Hotel was our next residence and one of the worst bathroom experiences yet – even though by then we had adapted to the fact that the existence of an ostensibly normal looking toilet meant nothing about flushing. Instead, flushing was correlated to the barrel of water with the plastic jug floating on top that was placed next to the toilet – and usually in just a spot to make it hard to close the door. But when you realize how difficult it was just to get that water there it becomes much more understandable. At that height – despite the surrounding glaciers – there’s no easy water source. There’s also no source for fuel. Yak dung fed the one stove in the dining room – and it was the only source of heat.

After we arrived,  J and I went with our guide for a short acclimatization hike up the nearby ridge to look at the Kumbo Icefall. I forgot my poles and it was dicy on the way up and started to snow on the way down. The Icefall itself looks like someone took a big bag of snow covered ice cubes and dumped them down a slide.

None of us slept well that first night at over 16,000 — and the next day was to be the trek to Gorak Shep and EBC. We started at a reasonable hour but the team wasn’t moving very fast – it’s a lot harder to get oxygen at that altitude – and we ended up going first to Gorak Shep, checked into our tea house and had lunch. This was a much smaller lodging – our rooms were up three flights of completely uneven stairs – some almost 20 inches high – and I found getting to the room as hard as the trek itself. To add insult to injury, due to the water issues the inside bathrooms were barricaded off during the day!

The trek to EBC – theoretically the talisman of the trip – is challenging. You hike alongside the glacier – mostly stone-covered but with deep divots through which you can see tens of feet of blue ice and frozen lakes.  Lots of rocks to pick your way between and finally you reach what feels like a natural levee between two valleys that you hike along.

 

IMG_0410The creepiest part of the experience was to hear avalanches and rock fall by Everest and the surrounding g mountains. J and I were hiking by ourselves ahead of the team. At first I heard a sound like thunder – a slow roar, a rush, and then I heard someone yell from across the valley. I think it was on Lhotse. We heard several more similar soundtracks – and on the way back I saw a huge rock become dislodged and start a slide.

We waited for M and S at the levee just before base camp so we enter together surrounded by prayer flags. It’s very spread out and I wish we’d had the time to poke about. Weather had been terrible at the summit so most of the climbers were still at base camp.

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After photos, we headed straight back. Exhausted and early to bed – especially since J and I were rising early to climb Kala Pattar – 18’200 feet – which was our main mission.

We got up at 5, had a coffee and a Cliff bar, and met up with our guide. Our tea house was very close to the beginning of the trail. Very steep dirt for the first part and my fingers were absolutely numb. The ground was frozen solid. Then, there was sort of a tundra area and another steep uphill, this time through black stone (which is what kala pattar means). A tiny bit of scrambling, especially at the top – and we were there. Surrounded by the panaramic view of the highest of the Himalayas – I finally I had that over 18,000 feet of altitude nothing will get to you feeling that happens only  at serious height and after days of trekking. I was happy.

Descended, and had breakfast with M and S. We headed back to Lobuche, for lunch at the Oxygen Altitude. We were about to start the trek for the long way home. (More to come in that front.)

M and S had never done anything like this before. They did great. But it’s nothing to do with the training or  physical discomfort you endure. The outcome of trekking at high altitude takes a while to sink in.  The reality is – no one and nothing can ever take away it away from you. We had stood in the attic just under the roof of the world.

Seeing the Summit – Getting Ready for Everest Base Camp

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I’m not sure I’ve formally announced the next choice of mountain…but the winner is – Trek to Everest Base Camp! Now I realize for you purists out there it’s technically only a trek up part of a mountain, but for those of us who took up mountaineering in our 50s it’s probably as close as we’re going to get to that particular summit. And there are a few peaks along the way, so surely that counts. Much more to come on this latest adventure in the coming months.
But the title of this post is Seeing the Summit and that has particular meaning at the moment. For – for the first time since the reading eye following my lasik for monovision in the early 2000s stopped reading – I can see without glasses!

The secret – a little thing called contacts. I haven’t worn them since the late 90s, but suddenly the glasses were just too much and too heavy. You need a light touch for summits and the glasses weren’t doing it.

It’s quite disconcerting to see your face close up without glasses for the first time in years. I definitely have more wrinkles and grey hairs than I realized. But the ability to read something whenever I look down (ok- I still can’t read the directions on cleaning products) – is amazing.

There’s got to be some clarity in that. And as I resume the type of training regime I think I’m going to need to reach the highest overlook of Everest – Kala Pattur- at almost 18,500 feet –  and to spend about 10 days at over 12,000 plus feet…some clarity is sorely needed.

You can see a lot looking down from a summit – but getting ready to look at one up can be equally as important.

Election Year – Hurricanes, Presidentials and Mt. Jefferson

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This wasn’t the summit but it looked just about the same!

For the last several years, we’ve spent that most politically incorrect of all holidays, Columbus Day, either in New Hampshire or Maine, together with Boston and New Bedford residents Daughter A and Boyfriend N.

And despite hurricane force winds in Florida, courtesy of Hurricane Matthew,  this year was no different.  Of course, we had planned for a Friday departure, but after even my office announced it would close for both Thursday and Friday, I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen.  But it still took our So Budget It Shall Remain Unnamed airline until 4 am Friday to cancel the flight. For some unknown reason I’d woken up almost at the precise moment of flight cancellation and hence was able to have rebooked us before 5 – after which I immediately went back to sleep, lulled by the 60 mph wind gusts.

Saturday we woke bright and early to inspect the debris in the yard. The wind had howled most of the night, but Matthew’s 20 mile jog to the east had made all the difference. We made it to the airport, our one checked suitcase within one pound of an excess weight charge.  All was going as smoothly as it could for a 24 hour delayed flight, until we learned that our Unnamed Budget airline had apparently forgotten to tell the first officer he was supposed to be on that flight. After about an hour, said Unnamed Budget airline snagged two pilots who had just arrived from Texas and who agreed to rearrange their schedules to fly us to Boston.

We finally arrived in Boston about 7 pm. After dinner at a nearby Peruvian restaurant (with Pisco Sours!), N drove us through the night in the old faithful Previa to Jackson, New Hampshire.

We had left our reservations late and knew we weren’t staying at a quaint New England B&B. Instead we were booked at an old style motel, run by a crusty elderly man who had clearly been asleep when we had to ring the service phone after we arrived at midnight. I must admit to a brief moment of panic when I saw all the lights off in the office and the no vacancy signs at every establishment in town.

But we managed to get ourselves checked in and even to wake up  by 7 or so. Well, 7:30.  Our original plan had been to climb Mt. Jefferson and then go over the ridge to summit Mt. Adams. But given the late start and the overall hassles of the last few days, even we recognized that perhaps that was overly ambitious.

We gave A the choice between a shorter and steeper climb or a longer and more gradual one.  Ever the pragmatist, she went without hesitation for the shorter one – Caps Ridge.

It was about an hour drive to the trailhead, which was quite well hidden down a dirt logging road. It was a relief when we finally found the small parking lot and saw other hikers getting ready to start.

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The trail starts with a fairly steep climb through thick woods. It was overcast and grey and proceeded to get more overcast and grey the higher we climbed.  After a bit, the trees turned into skinny short birches, their white trunks looking vaguely unclothed with ribbons of grey bark hanging off them.

From the birches we climbed through scrubby pines and finally above the tree line. At that point, the bit we hadn’t been expecting – some real scrambling and rock climbing – suddenly appeared. Frankly, I thought it was harder than Mt. Washington up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail – although it certainly was shorter.  There were at least three sections where we were looking for cracks to scale and I made good use of the shrubs growing on the sides as handholds. A had neglected to bring any gloves and J ended up doing it all bare handed.

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Toward the top there was a section of big boulders, covered in lichen, where you balanced along the edges of one rock holding on to the one above. It was like some crazy jungle gym that you had always wanted to try in kindergarten.

By that point it was all slippery and even greyer and A was showing tremendous resistance to the idea that a summit was really necessary, wisely reminding us all that what goes up must come down. But at that point, striding out of the mist, came a European climber who looked as though he’d just left the Matterhorn. According to him, the summit was only “10 or 15 minutes” away.  Despite the fact we were now experiencing sharp dry pellets of hail, that gave us the encouragement we needed for that final push up.

Of course, it took us 30 minutes, and the view from the top was as grey as the view from the bottom — but it was still the summit!

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Summit!

We had made a commitment not to waste time at the top because we had all those sections of rock to slide down. And slide we did. My favorite part was when I saw a foothold several feet below my legs, and figured if I just started the slide I could grab on to a nearby branch halfway down to break my fall. Not very elegant, but it worked.

I ended up climbing a good portion of the way down solo. As I’m usually the slowest going up, I feel I must make up for it on the way down. I had a good head start and it seemed a mistake to intentionally reduce my pace. But voices don’t carry well in the mountains; I couldn’t hear my fellow hikers; and I spent a fair amount of time worrying I had drifted on to a rabbit trail or a dry stream bed and would plow further into the wilderness, never to be heard from again.  And, I was without a phone since J had forgotten his and was holding mine to take photos.  Big  note to self. One group should not have all the phones!

Regardless, it was back through the scrub, the birches and the woods, and I was sitting on a log waiting for the other side when they reappeared not too long thereafter.

We were all absolutely filthy and wet. Back to our little motel, showers, and out for a short walk and dinner. The weather cleared and the brilliant fall foliage that we’d been hoping to see all day was finally reflected in the orange pink sunset.

And how better to conclude our climb in The Presidentials than by watching the presidential debate. Jeffersonian it was not.

Orlando, June 12, 2016 – Swamps and Summits

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It’s a thinly veiled secret on From Swamp to Summit that I’m from Orlando. That Central Florida city where one looks in vain for a hill to train on and ends up resorting to staircases. Staircases have been good to me. I’ve made it up Kilimanjaro, Mt. Elbrus, Illiniza Norte and Cotopaxi. And more to come. I hope.

I may not have grown up here, but Orlando and Florida reach out to you with their sticky sweaty humid hands and hold you close to their hearts. I moved here in the middle of 1989. Sight unseen.  True story.  It was a snowy night in New York and husband J, who was finishing his Ph.D.  at NYU received a tenure track offer at a small liberal arts college here. I’d never even been to Florida on spring break but after J interviewed in Orlando and described the smell of orange blossom, I was sold.

So after a brief diversion through Greece and Turkey (another blog post in and of itself) we found ourselves, our one room of furniture, and our cat Chelsea in this city we’ve called home for over 25 years.

A swamp does describe life in Orlando this week.  But not the life giving jungle green of the Everglades wetlands.  More the  brown slough of  despond. Exactly one week ago I awakened early, despite having been out in downtown Orlando the night before at a concert. And across my phone came word that at least 20 had been killed at the Pulse nightclub, not far from where we had been and a few blocks from my office. By mid morning the number had increased to 50. 49 victims and the gunman.

This massacre was framed by the Friday night shooting of a singer from the Voice, followed by the suicide of the killer, and the tragedy a day after the Pulse shootings of the drowning of a two year old by an alligator at a theme park lagoon.

The City Beautiful, as Orlando likes to call itself, didn’t look so beautiful anymore. On Monday evening I found myself at one of many vigils around the city at a makeshift memorial that has sprung up in front of the Performing Arts Center. There’s not enough public space in Orlando and what has happened there shows why people need to have a place to come together. There are candles, ribbons, photos, posters, notes written on paper chains. People standing are reverent. Nearly everyone I know has made a trip there.

On Thursday, President Obama and Vice President Biden arrived. I watched the motorcade from my office window, together with some of my partners. I’ve seen many grown men cry in the last few days.

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That night, J and I went back to the memorial. A motorcycle club had its bikes lined up, illuminated in rainbow colors. They revved their engines, and a speaker for the club stepped forward and asked the several hundred assembled there to hold hands and observe a moment of silence. Everyone did.

Rainbow flags are flying all over the city and practically every public building has been illuminated in the now familiar red, yellow, orange and blue colors. Tonight is a city wide commemoration that is supposed to be non religious, non political, and non branded. Just a time for people to be together. We’re going to walk down there.

Perhaps after today, and the symbolism of one week later, healing will start.

It’s a long way up any mountain. And it’s going to take Orlando a while to slog up this one. But I know that Orlando and its people have what it takes.

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Gear Check #? – The Scottish Highlands

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Ok, so Speyside Way isn’t much of a summit. In fact, much of it seems suspiciously close to a river bed, and it’s still unclear to me how much above the ocean rivers can be anyway. I mean, they run downhill, right? Where do they start?

Regardless, the Speyside Way is so darn far north on the globe that it should still count as a summit of some sort. I can’t rid myself of  this vague idea that things to the north must be higher  than things to the south. And, of course, if you live in  Australia you must get very tired clinging onto the earth for dear life so you don’t fall off.

Yes, there are true mountains for us in the future including Katahdin in Maine. And we hope Mont Blanc next summer.  But for now – it’s four weeks to our multi generational trip to Scotland and England. More on all that to come in future posts.

As six of the eight of our traveling party will be engaged in a 67 mile hike in the Scottish Highlands during week one …. there’s still got to be  a gear check. Admittedly, this is luxury back packing (glampacking?). Our luggage will be  carted along by a taxi between b’n’bs and  small hotels and we only have to carry daypacks. A far cry from the barrels on Mt. Elbrus. (Yes, for those of you new to this blog – you really do stay in converted (but large) oil barrels on Mt. Elbrus.)

Nonetheless, we’ve learned from experience – there’s still gear that must go with you even while glampacking   So what does this trip entail?

  1. Hiking poles. Everybody but me on the trip rejects them, but after day 3 they will be thanking me.
  2. Headlamps. Who would have thought you needed them in Mt. Washington in October but after a late start and letting all the French Canadians celebrating Canada  Day pass us, it was a pretty dark descent.
  3. Hard candies. I’ve sworn by these since Kilimanjaro. Cinnamon is the best but husband J swears by cherry.
  4. Everything waterproof. I have a strong feeling that there is is a lot of rain to be experienced north of Aberdeen. As we celebrate Tropical Storm Colin here in Florida this week the wet theme is definite front and center.
  5. Gloves. Need I say more. Cold hands. (Not small hands.)
  6. Ibuprofen. It will make everything feel better. Especially after a couple of 15 mile days.
  7. A kindle. Weighs nothing. Battery lasts for months. And you can cart an entire library with you. There’s a lot of down time on hikes. You need a good book to read.
  8. Less than four weeks now. Ready for vacation!

Contrasts

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The last couple of weeks have involved being sick, attending graduation, Mother’s Day, out of town business trips and a serious lack of any sort of exercise. And no blog post last week.

It all started almost two weeks ago Monday when “she who never gets sick” felt and was sick as a dog that night. (I wonder where that phrase comes from. My cat does just as good a job as getting as sick as the dog.) Work was out of the question the next day as I knew I would be about as welcome as  an ant at a picnic.  And of course being sick then led to the inevitable “I shouldn’t exercise until I am really and truly better” – which, while doubtless good advice, is sort of a nice excuse for a little break.

But all breaks must end — not to mention the profound fear of every 55 year old that if you stop exercising you’ll never be able to start up again – that spinning tire will just slow down and there won’t be any gas in the engine to start it up again. So Saturday I was back at it – only for a four mile run since it has been an entire two weeks, after all.

And not very fast. Last time I ran it was a beautiful dry day. And today it was a beautiful humid day with temps, I’m sure, in the mid 80s. The contrast is huge. Those of you who run in dry air don’t know what it feels like to run through a sponge. I have to believe it’s good for you. Somehow? Maybe?

The other remarkable thing about running in this weather is the difference between shade and sun. On days like this I find myself criss crossing streets and paths to find that 12 inches of shade. It may only be a few degrees but it makes a difference.

I’ve been following #EverestNoFilter on Snapchat. (Ask someone under 20. They can tell you how to do it.) It’s a real time account of Adrian Ballinger and Cory Richards’ attempt to climb Everest without oxygen and is probably as close as I’m going to ever get to that summit. One of the things they talk about is the sun/shade contrast on the mountain. A T-shirt on one side; a down suit on the other.

Those contrasts can be a pain to deal with. But without one we certainly wouldn’t appreciate the other. Some might characterize it as meaning the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. But, for those of you old enough to remember Erma Bombeck – the grass is always greener over the septic tank. Now, that’s a contrast we can all appreciate.