Enchanted Austin and a Scramble Down a Rock

We were welcomed with a rainbow.

Rolling green hills, lightning storms approaching, wildflowers edging the two lane roads. While I could choose to write about 18 miles plodding down the West Orange Trail a couple of weeks ago, it’s more fun to remember this past weekend in Austin, Texas.

Air travel is once again a thing- I reread my blog posts from last summer with some sense of bemusement. How quickly we forget isolation – except for the fact rental cars are more expensive than plane tickets (and those are going up too) and the ubiquitous Uber drivers seem to have all disappeared.

Husband J and I must have increased the median age in East Austin, home of daughter S, by at least a couple of decades. East Austin is inhabited by hordes of 20 somethings scootering between watering holes that are interspersed with eating establishments catering to any variety of tastes.

After a lovely, if late, dinner at the French restaurant Justine’s, on Saturday S and her boyfriend Z took us adventuring in the Hill Country, which starts just outside Austin.

First stop was Enchanted Rock State Park. The route there took us off the interstates and onto a series of two lane roads winding through the hills. It’s been raining and the roadsides are splattered with a palate of colors – yellow and burgundy tickseeds interrupted by sudden bursts of purple thistle. The park itself is centered around a very large granite “mountain” protruding up 472 feet which is surrounded by smaller rock structures and cliffs. The way up is straightforward if a little steep in parts. Easy when it’s dry, but I can imagine if wet it would be extremely slick. The top is pocked with carved out pools in which little oases of grass and cactus flourish, as do funny little water bugs that scat about on the bottom.

After enjoying the views we plowed downward – not paying a lot of attention to direction on the theory it was all down. But shortly we realized we were descending the wrong side of the granite mound and corrected our course – not, however, by returning to the regular trail. Instead we found ourselves facing a decent little scramble that required hands, and in my case an assist from Z as the drop was quite a bit further than my short little legs could manage.

A bit nerve wracking as it’s been so long we’ve been on a true rock face but what better training for Longs Peak. On the other hand I felt strong and except for the mental challenge it was reaffirming to feel I could have done the hike several times in a row.

Once we rejoined those who had chosen a more conventional descent it was time to drive 40 minutes farther, onto Southhold Farm and Cellar. S had treated us all to a wine tasting and small plate experience at one of Texas’s up and coming wineries. We enjoyed 4 different wines with wonderful names such as The Lovers and the Dreamers while watching flashes of lightning in the distance as a storm rolled in across the broad green valley. And I kept wondering about the elegantly dressed woman, wearing a large sunhat and long dress, sitting alone drinking wine on one of the swings. She looked as though she was in the opening scene of a romantic comedy.

A drive back to Austin and Z demonstrated his cooking talents with seared duck breast over a mushroom risotto. A fitting end to an enchanted day!

12, er, 13 miles….Cady Way Cadences

Beginning the Cady Way

Recent training hikes have exhibited peculiarities just odd enough to suggest the world is out of kilter. Perhaps it’s the general euphoria of creeping out of the slough in which we’ve all been dwelling during the year of Covid.

But a week ago or so, J and I decided it was time to return to the Cady Way Trail for a full 12 miles. After all, June 30 and Colorado is getting ever closer. Encumbered by 30 pound packs, we set off, if not bright and early, at least at the respectable hour of 10 (or so). I had a workshop lined up at 4 that I didn’t want to miss. We knew the weather was going to be relatively cool, so that seemed eminently doable, and we were even ambitiously talking about how we’d fit in a quick lunch at one of our favorite breweries.

But alas, things did not turn out as planned. Turned out my Charge 4 Fitbit lost its GPS Bluetooth connection (who else has this chronic and annoying problem) and was underestimating how far we’d walked. Combine that with the fact that neither of us actually recalled whether the six mile mark was on the other side of the concrete mixing plants or by the little bridge where the two teenagers were murdered. Yes, Cady Way has its own sordid stories, mixed with industrial charm.

Anyway, we plowed along, blisters getting ever worse, when suddenly we realized we were at the Seminole County line, by a new public restroom and trailhead, and about to embark on the Cross Seminole Trail! The mileage marker read 7.2.

At that point we also realized I’d forgotten to pack the plastic bag with the energy bars . We were in good shape for water, but not a bite to eat. Plus there are no shops for miles and J had left his wallet behind anyway.

At that point it was also equally clear that we were going to have to achieve a very rapid pace if I was to have a prayer of attending my workshop on time. We exchanged barely a word on the return trip except for my pointing out that any cyclists (of which there were many) could just go around me as my energies were completely concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Most mysterious was the biking couple who seemed to pass us, only to show up again behind us and pass us yet again. It was as though they knew of some Cady Way Trail wormhole which we certainly could have used by that point.

Fortunately it turned out we hadn’t started at the absolute beginning of the trail and had only walked an extra mile and a half or so, making the total trek somewhere just over 13.

We got back home with no time to spare. I grabbed a yoghurt and attended the workshop while sitting on my yoga mat nursing my blistered feet.

After, I felt I more than deserved a martini while we sat on the porch. Only suddenly to feel a sharp sting on my forehead and realize I’d been bitten by a wasp. Not our most successful training hike. But let’s hope all that bad karma manifests itself now and not at 14000 feet while class III scrambling on the Keyhole Route at Longs Peak. Maybe we will be too high up for wasps.

A Tale of Two Trails – White Sand to Red Clay

Into the Klondike, from Apollo Beach

It was the best of times; it was the worst…well, you know how that goes. While my hiking has been curtailed somewhat over the last couple of weeks due to an over energetic reach at the bouldering gym that resulted in an unfortunate and ungraceful fall, the prior two weeks offered hikes into two of Florida’s most opposite landscapes – some of the few remaining miles of undeveloped beach and a stretch of rural clay roads forming a loop amid Florida’s few hills.

Some of you may remember that shortly before the pandemic started a year ago J and I trekked into the back country of Cape Canaveral National Seashore, improbably named the Klondike. Castaway on Cape Cavaveral National Seashore – Florida Hiking. Then we started from Playalinda Beach, at the south end and hiked north six of the twelve miles of completely undeveloped beach. This time, along with fellow hikers M and S, we started from Apollo Beach on the north side and headed south for six miles, hoping that this means we’ve actually done the whole thing. There may be a gap here or there but it’s close enough, IMO.

To no one’s surprise the north end of this narrow strip of sand wedged between the brackish calm of the Intercoastal and the crashing waves of the mighty Atlantic is remarkably like the south end. Mile upon mile of sand that varies between soft and rock hard, flocks of pelicans, and masses of jellyfish.

There were apparently only two other people with backcountry permits that day but we never encountered them. At some point midway in the hike, however, we could see the silhouette, far in the distance, of a figure holding something scythe shaped and standing atop a dune. It was so isolated that all I could think of was that he was either a yogi communing with nature or else a serial killer who lived in the rough underbrush waiting for victims. It’s easy to let your mind wander on beaches like that and S’s fondness for horror movies doesn’t help. I started to wonder whether the scythe shaped thing could be some sort of garrote.

As we got closer, however, we realized he was a park ranger who had clearly been assigned the task of keeping an eye out to make sure that no overly adventurous hiker was going to be cut off by high tide. And the garrote was the strap to his binoculars.

It was truly a long and arduous 12 miles, especially lugging 30 pounds in my pack. But what really made it worse was that I apparently had forgotten all the lessons I learned on Mt. Elbrus in 2014 (Steps on the Summit) and failed to put sunscreen on my lips. For about two weeks afterwards I looked like I had some horrible communicable disease and was very glad I got to wear a mask.

I think you can see the lip sunburn starting

Anyway, not to be put off by mild injury, and feeling the Long’s Peak adventure ever approaching, the next Saturday I convinced J to go with me to hike the 10 Mile Clay Loop in Clermont. (See The Florida Foothills- 10 Mile Clay Loop). Begrudging is the best way I can describe his agreement.

When I’m out in the Florida rolling plains, I personally find it easy to imagine I’m in Tuscany, surrounded by large vistas of fields, gentle hills, and a dramatic grey sky. The fact I’ve never been to Tuscany may assist in this creative exercise. J, however, saw lots of traffic, trucks that seemed to take pleasure in speeding and kicking up large clay dust clouds in our faces, and something that looks like a large sand pit that is being constructed on one part of the loop. The for sale signs for some promised future development are a little ominous also.

It turned it was pick your own strawberries day at the very large berry farm that occupies much of the interior of the loop; hence the traffic. They’d run out of fruit though and instead people were picking sunflowers from acres of brilliant yellow flowers. The last hilly stretch with the lake on one side was as beautiful as always.

You can focus on the worst – the sunburn, the drudgery of trudging through sand and dust, and the blisters. But the best is out there too – the crashing waves, so loud you can hardly hear, the sunflowers and wildflowers and pelicans. It’s sort of like jellyfish – their stings don’t out shadow their luminous, stained glass like glow.

Lost in Florida – Surprises at Sabal Point and How I Got A New Trail Name

On the trail

It started off as an innocent seven mile hike. S assured us that we wouldn’t have to wade through miles of swamp water, and on that point, at least he was correct.

The Sabal Point trail is a surprising natural gem buried amidst a large conglomeration of apartment buildings, houses, and condos of the same name. It’s hardly the place you’d expect to find an untouched spread of palm hammocks, marshes, and oaks. But there it is: the trail head innocuously placed at the end of a dead end street. You do rather feel as if you’ve been invited over to someone’s house.

Our goal for that Saturday was to work on carrying weight and to that end we’d all loaded our packs. M and S have had the brilliant idea of using bags of charcoal so they can burn it once done with training. Since I believe training should never end I’m carrying around a gallon of water, my old weight vest, and various bits and bobs to add up to 25 pounds. Need to get up to 35.

The trail itself is an old railway bed, elevated a few feet above very swampy forest. We are in Florida spring and the trail was dotted with what looked like bluebells, pink star shaped flowers, and red berry bushes whose Christmasy aspect seemed out of place.

Christmas berries?

One of the things about training is to check out your gear and M quickly realized the Osprey pack she’d bought was not for her – too rigid in the waistband and an odd shape that causes your arms to stick out at the side. Fortunately REI has a good return policy so she’s now trying my fav – a tried and true Gregory (I have 3, in all different sizes).

Enough of the gear talk. How did our hike deteriorate into something more sinister? As I was blithely walking along, chattering away, S suddenly yelled out, “You stepped on a snake.” My immediate reaction was, “Oh no, is it Ok?”, to which S (somewhat insensitively I thought), said, “No, it’s dead; you stepped on its head.” Not sure he realized that sounded like the middle verse of a rap song.

I could barely bring myself to look, but as J and S inspected said creature, S looked more closely – and said, “It’s not just a snake; it’s a water moccasin!”

Water moccasin

At that point my guilt over the execution quickly by evaporated and instead I decided I was the hero of the hike. I mean, perhaps I saved countless lives! I don’t know much about snakes, but even I know water moccasins are BAD.

After the excitement of the snake we were looking forward to reaching the river, promised at 3.5 miles. But after a mere 1.75 (according to my trusty Fitbit) we encountered a forbidding metal gate plastered with no trespassing signs warning of prosecution if violated. Whoever posted them looked like they meant business.

So since training called for more miles we simply turned back, hiked back to the cars, and then hiked the same trail all over again to reach our 7 mile goal. The snake was still there the second time around – not unsurprisingly in the same position as before.

Not quite what we’d expected. But it was a beautiful Florida day, we carried our weight, and I now have a new trail name – Snake Stomper.

Be careful where you tread

Long’s Peak Loop, Colorado – Here We Come!

I’ve been promising an announcement – and here it is – Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is to be this summer’s adventure!

This is Ladakh, India but I couldn’t find a free Longs Peak photo to use!

When J and I began mountain climbing and trekking in 2011, we saw no point in starting with something small. So Kilimanjaro, at over 19,000 feet and the highest mountain in Africa, was our poison of choice. We’ve never been to Colorado or climbed a 14-er either – so why not start with one of the most difficult – Long’s Peak via the Keyhole route!

While not the tallest of the so-called 14-ers, at 14,254 feet this summit presents a number of segments of class 3 scrambling. The trail is broken up into sections, each labeled with forbidding names such as the Boulder Field, Ledges, Narrows, the Trough, and the Home Stretch.

J and I have watched any number of YouTube videos, many of which are taken with GoPros and whose goal appears to be to strike terror in the eye of the beholder. My favorite is an 8 minute long one, where the climber repeats at least three times, “it’s not really as bad as the GoPro video makes it out to be.”

While this plan may be slightly insane, we are not so insane as to try this on our own without a guide. We are returning to Wildland Trekking – the company we used for an absolutely perfect trek down the Grand Canyon back in 2013 – see fromswamptosummit.com/2017/02/20/journey-through-time-in-and-about-the-grand-canyon-part-2/

And intrepid hikers M and S will be accompanying us on this latest adventure. Last Saturday after an urban hike we all sat in the porch trying to get our heads around the amount of exposure on this hike – no easy feat when you are looking out at an ever so gentle slope down to a lake and only Florida flatlands beyond.

But where there is will there are ways, and yesterday’s foray to Blue Swan Boulders was the start of a new aspect of training designed to get us to the top. Aside from climbing a rock wall on a cruise ship (remember those?) many moons ago, neither J nor I has ever done any indoor climbing. An indoor bouldering gym consists of multiple walls at various inclines reaching up 15 or 20 feet or so, ornamented with hand and foot holds color coded by level of difficulty. There are no ropes – and you spend a lot of time practicing how to fall.

Only drew blood a couple of times.

Although we were clearly the oldest people there we loved it! Talk about a mindfulness practice – as you swing your center of gravity toward that next handhold while reaching with your foot – not much else you can think about. On day 1 we limited ourselves to yellow and beginning green routes – and may not advance much further – but mastering those should translate well for Long’s Peak scrambling.

We ended up with a few scrapes and are pretty sore today but plan to return on Monday. And the craft beer we rewarded ourselves with at the Ivanhoe Park Brewery afterwards was pretty good too!

Ivanhoe Park Brewing Company

A Retrospective – The Summitless Year of 2020

2020 – learned how to hang my bike in the office parking garage

Not sure summitless is a word, but why not. Everything else was turned topsy turvey by the pandemic, so why not add a non word to the mix.

A year ago – 2019 – we were looking forward to adventures in Maine and a trip to climb Mt. Katahdin, which is the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, with daughter A and now fiancé N. (Yes, for those of you who read this blog, as of December 30 boyfriend N is now officially future son-in-law N)!

Had to include a pic – A and N in the Balkans, 2019

But the summer Covid surge and Maine’s quarantine rules put the kabosh on that plan. In fact, the unused camping permits for Baxter State Park are still sitting on my desk.

So we have trundled through the year with a mixture of Florida swamp hikes and multiple urban hikes. Turns out when there’s a lockdown (I hate that word) looking in closed store windows becomes its own treat. We also experimented with a lot of outdoor lunch places to give city walks a little more flavor.

One of many swamp hikes with friend M and S

And I did manage to walk the three miles to work at least once a week – to the point that the crossing guard by a local daycare asked where I’d been when I took a different route on one of my walking days. Another unexpected lockdown benefit was that the reduced traffic meant I actually rode my bike to work several times without fear of losing life and limb.

Of course, like everyone else my in-office days were severely curtailed – reduced to 2 or 3 during the summer surge and I had only just worked up to 4 in December when I had to quarantine again in order to socially distant visit family. I’m back now, but I may never work in the office on Mondays again. I never knew Sunday nights could be so relaxed.

Another 2020 development has been learning to substitute on line yoga, barre and fitness classes for my thrice weekly Y classes. That experience was a little soured when my favorite on line yoga teacher suddenly died (remember, it’s 2020), but I’m still discovering YouTube videos she’s posted that I’d never done.

We were lucky to have an amazing week with daughters S and A and fiancé N in the Blue Ridge mountains and a beach week in Oak Island in July that even included my parents. That allowed us to escape Florida, then the Covid capital, for the relatively unscathed grounds of North Carolina. Of course, that state is now giving Florida a run for its money, but not to be beaten, in typical fashion Florida is pulling ahead again.

Oak Island, NC

In any event, I’d love nothing more than to be dreaming about the next big adventure. But given that I appear to be toward the bottom of the barrel in the vaccination race it’s hard to count on anything overseas. Not to mention the fact that court calendars are so messed up it is impossible to know when any of your cases might go to trial, just to add another complication to the mix.

I really didn’t intend this post to end up as an extended whine but that’s certainly what it seems to have turned into. I am really hoping for some domestic travel at least – I’ve never climbed a 14er in Colorado and Big Bend in Texas looks highly inviting. But I have the feeling it’s all going to have to be a bit last minute and I’m missing the joy of anticipation.

2021 is here, though. And my resolution – despite my Type A tendencies – will have to be to take it one step at a time and let things evolve as they may. After all, the tag line for this blog is steps, stairs and summits. Happy new year, y’all.

Closing out 2020 with this fine fellow on Lake Ivanhoe

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.