I realize that I’ve been silent for longer on this blog than at any other point since I started it in 2014. No posts since January 14. That’s because FromSwamptoSummit has been wallowing in the mire of arbitrations and trials almost continuously since late January. And there’s still another to go.
It’s semi-terrifying to realize that at some point I have to pull myself up out of the quicksand of work and get myself back into my training regimen. Working 24/7 is no way to do it. I’ve been able to maintain a modicum of shorter runs, treadmill 5ks, and some yoga, but I can’t even recall the last time I had a good solid stair workout.
This weekend has offered a slight break before the next work-related event gears up, so at least J and I were able to go back to our old faithful, the Cady Way Trail, for a ten-miler. And today is yoga and I’m going to run back home after.
Everyone thinks that the hardest part of climbing a very high mountain is getting up at midnight, braving the frigid cold, and following the faint glow of your headlight as your crampons bite into the snow and ice, and you try to avoid, at all costs, stepping on the rope. But for those of us who can only fund such trips by working pretty intense jobs – the harder part is to keep your focus on that mountaintop experience that lies ahead and not to be diverted by the detours of work stress and the like.
So, if all this sounds like I’m giving myself a pep talk – well, I am. There are a few major work events between now and our June 23 departure to climb Stok Kangri, an over 20,000 foot mountain in Northern India. But there are also enough days between now and then to get me to where I need to be. Deep breath. Look at the top of that mountain.
I took the photo below yesterday on the Cady Way Trail. New growth coming out of a crumbled old piece of wood. There’s a metaphor here somewhere.
I’ve always felt that the week between Christmas and New Year is one of those odd no man’s land spots on the calendar. I nearly always try to take the full week off work; unfortunately this year due to the vagaries of the calendar and my work schedule I’m stuck working a couple of days of what ought to be a glorious week of nothing.
Christmas and New Years do make the close of the year a double peaked mountain. The first peak comes accompanied by tremendous anticipation; by the time you descend to the pass and face the next peak you start wondering if you’ll make it up. It reminds me of Mt. Elbrus – a long slog up in the wee hours of the morning, hitting a high point – and then a graceful swoop down into the saddle (where I’m convinced I fried my face due to incorrect zinc application). But then you look up – only to see an equally graceful arced curve reaching up toward the summit.
We’ve been in North Carolina this week – not in the mountains but in the Piedmont – itself a spot between the summits of the mountains and the sea. In fact, North Carolina has been called the valley of humility between the two mountains of conceit – Virginia and South Carolina. Apologies to any folks from there but the old saw fit nicely into my theme.
So as we venture through this no man’s land on our way to the next peak of New Year’s, I’m looking ahead to the summits and swamps of the new year. June is the beginning of our Stok Kangri adventure. I read this morning that seven soldiers were killed near the Pakistan border today. That caused me to bring out the atlas attached to my parents’ ancient Encyclopedia Brittanica to confirm that Leh is not too close to the border (it’s not – although it is in and around Kashmir). For those who don’t recall – Stok Kangri is to be our first 20,000 foot mountain and husband J and I will be attempting it at what will then be the ripe old ages of 58 (J’s birthday is on day 2 of our travels) and 57. Challenges for the new year abound; plenty of training yet to be done; and lots of summits out there to conquer.
I’m afraid this blog has suffered over the last few weeks while I have been trudging up what I call Holiday Hill. See for example, Holiday Mountain Part 2 I’m just hoping the downhill comes soon. But in the meantime, here’s a retrospective from November.
This year we traded in our usual Monterey Bay Thanksgiving for an adventure in the swamp – New Orleans, that is. We’ve had an affinity for NOLA ever since we went there on our honeymoon – for no reason other than that I had free tickets on New York Air and they flew to exactly four places, two of which we already lived in. The other two were Detroit and New Orleans. It wasn’t much of a competition.
This time we were rendezvousing with daughter A, boyfriend N, and N’s family including his brother and brother’s girlfriend. A millennial extravaganza. And, of course, daughter S was the impetus for Thanksgiving in NOLA. She didn’t offer to cook dinner for us! But that was OK – since dining out is the sine qua non of New Orleans.
We arrived bright and early to our AirBnb in the Irish Channel. Up Tchoupotoulos (call it Chop) and along a pothole ridden street. Not an auspicious beginning but all NOLA streets have potholes and the AirBnb was very nice. Four bedrooms, sufficient common areas and a great location two blocks off of Magazine.
Rather than a chronology, here are some highlights.
Thanksgiving at the Racetrack. I’ll start with the penultimate day itself – Thanksgiving. When S suggested the racetrack, located in Mid-City, would be an appropriate place to while away the hours before our late Thanksgiving dinner, we all looked at her askance. But it turns out that the racetrack is the place to be. Thanksgiving is the start of the thoroughbred racing season and for years going to the races has been a traditional New Orleans activity. But now it’s spread to what S refers to as the Bywater people, and it’s filled with millenials adorned in all types of race attire. Hats are key. My favorites involved bowls of fruit, a racing scene, and a reindeer head (not just antlers). Top hats were not out of place. Plus I consulted with my friend knowledgeable in all things racing, got some good tips, and doubled my $5 bet. I also loved watching the thoroughbreds prance onto the field, each accompanied by their emotional support pony.
Dat Dog and Pelicans Game. Talk about a cheap night out. Have dinner at Dat Dog where you can get a chefs special hot dog, topped with ingredients as unique as crawfish and whatever else the chef feels like. Pair that with a $15 nosebleed seat ticket to see the Pelicans in the Smoothie King arena.
The Ogden Museum of Art. In all our trips to NOLA I haven’t made it there before. Affiliated with the University of New Orleans, it boasts a very fine modern art collection, this time featuring modern African American artists. There’s also a fascinating film/performance piece about a New Orleans jazz musician who ended up institutionalized…however, I seemed to be allergic to the carpet and didn’t get to see the whole thing.
Bacchanal and Crescent Park Trail. This is a great twofer. Bacchanal, located in the Bywater area, is a wine store, a tapas oriented restaurant, and an eclectic music venue (ranging from gypsy to traditional jazz). You sit in a lush back yard surrounded by oak trees (and there were heaters on the cold day we were there). You can work off those calories with a walk along the Crescent Park Trail, which runs along the banks of the Mississippi, landscaped with native plants, and dotted with sculptures.
Frenchmen’s. That’s what S calls it. She doesn’t even add “Street.” Not even sure which venues we ended up at but there was great music and dancing.
Tipitina’s. Went there on Friday night to hear the Neville Family, who all seem to still be alive and kicking. This is a classic place to hear music in NOLA – I once flew to New Orleans for one night just to hear Rikki Lee Jones there. It’s sort of a free for all, but if you go to the balcony you can usually worm your way to the railing and have a good place to lean. I love the fact there are nets below to catch anything you might drop!
Running along St. Charles and Magazine and thereabouts. One of my great pleasures in New Orleans – when it’s not hot and humid – is running through the Garden District. Yes, the sidewalks are not smooth and it’s a little treacherous, but that’s more than compensated for by the fabulous homes on all sides. I’ve selected at least five or six that would be adequate for my needs, thank you.
Oysters at Superior Seafood. Believe it or not, we had never before partaken of this traditional New Orleans experience. Superior Seafood is an old, dark wood restaurant with a great bar, behind which world class oyster shuckers ply their trade. The oysters at happy hour are cheap and massive- meaning a full two inches. You’re supposed to swallow them all in one but these were so big I was worried about choking!
Mid-City walks. This is a very old area of New Orleans, located near Bayou St. John, and we hadn’t spent much time there before. Many of the houses have steep staircases going up to deep porches and are elevated well above ground, massive stucco structures. There is a lot of West Indies style architecture. You walk right along the bayou and City Park is in the middle of it all. It’s a lovely area and not to be missed.
New Orleans is a comfortable place for us – it’s not home, but we’ve been there so much it feels like it. And especially when surrounded by family and good friends. No better way than to sum it up with a picture of a parade – and a sign for some great New Orleans food.
When I started this blog in April 2014, I regarded it as a quick and easy way to update friends, family, and colleagues about husband J’s and my plan to climb Russia’s Mt. Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe) that summer. I figured the blog would be, at most, a six month phenomenon. Little did I realize – that some three plus years later – I’d still be writing it.
It doesn’t really matter how many people read it. But the fact any read with interest is more rewarding than if I just scrawled my entry into a spiral notebook and placed it under my bed in the hopes that someone would possibly discover – or reject – it after I’m dead.
Because the truth is – I always wanted to be a writer. In the second grade I announced with great conviction to my teacher that I wanted to be a poet. (I was definitely one of those weird, creepy kids.) Mrs. Bell, my second grade teacher, gave me a special lined note pad on which I could memorialize my 4-6 line rhyming poetry, much of which had to do with fish because so many words rhymed with it.
Somehow this all has related to the summit and mountain climbing theme that led to the tag, “steps, stairs and summits.” The reality is that my life isn’t interesting enough to have a steady stream of fascinating travel and climb blogs. I have to spend an inordinate number of hours at a tedious and stress filled occupation to be able to afford just a few weeks of all that each year. And believe me, that is nothing you want to read about on a regular basis. But somewhere and somehow I’m trying to find that summit high and dopamine filled place each day, whether it be a yoga class, planting the garden, or climbing up and down the fire staircase in my office building.
The last few weeks have been particularly revealing. I have had up to three days a week where nary a bit of training takes place. And all I can think about is how the hell am I going to get up a 20,000 foot mountain at what will then be age 57. But in the midst of this I do get to experience some new world orders that are summits of their own. Professionally, a career that’s become a 24/7 calling due to the wonders of technology, where social media casts its shadow of surmise over nearly everything. Personally, the wonders and perils of modern medicine and relatives and friends who grow ever older. And contrast that to the statement of one of my daughters who proclaimed I couldn’t possibly understand something she said simply because I wasn’t a millennial.
These things aren’t particular to me. A lot of us face these and graver issues this Tranksgiving Day. There are summits somewhere in all of this; I just need to learn where to find them. And yes, that is a photo of Mt. Everest, taken from Kala Pattar, at the top of this post. There’s plenty to be grateful for.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
I was on a scallop boat. The young deckhand/engineer/jack of all trades was giving us a detailed explanation and guided tour of life on a scallop boat. Replete with information about the days where you can fish all you want outside restricted areas, the code of ethics that governs which of your competitors you can trust (think, the “codfather”), and what it feels like to be 20 hours out from shore with no cell connection and a questionable satellite phone. He hated, he said, to look at the red survival wetsuit that was laid out for display on the table in the dining area.
This was all part of the Working Waterfront Festival in New Bedford, Mass. Ever since daughter A’s boyfriend N moved there I had been fascinated with the idea of this festival. And when a work obligation was rescheduled – and $100 roundtip tickets were available, fate conspired to make New Bedford next in the adventure roster.
It’s barely three hours from Orlando to Providence RI via JetBlue. And from there, it’s a quick 30 minute jaunt to New Bedford. So as not to defeat the purpose of our remarkably cheap plane tickets, we also rejected the expensive and not very interesting hotels, opting instead for a true Airbnb. Sylvia, our landlady, lives in half of a lovely, 1857 house. Her son, a Unitarian minister, lives in the other half. She couldn’t have been more gracious, the room was lovely, and despite a shared bathroom not for a moment did I feel we didn’t have a private space. $59 per night. This is the real Airbnb – a genuine bed ‘n breakfast.
Friday night was Portuguese food. Turns out you should never have just one but at least two carbs. Rice and French fries. South Beach cuisine this wasn’t. The “stuffies”, stuffed quahog clams, added a bread course to the other carbs. The famed New Bedford scallops lived up to their name – and believe it or not, I had grilled quail.
We had more Portuguese food for breakfast, and topped it off with a visit to the Whaling Museum. The Working Waterfront festival followed. It was largely a local event – I haven’t even mentioned the booths advertising ball bearings or the cooking demonstrations. After, we took a jaunt to and a hike on the Audubon Allens Pond Park. Boggy on the inland side, wildflowers in between, and a classic New England coast. A and N wanted to make sure I explained this was the South Coast of Massachusetts- not to be confused with the Cape or points north. A local brewery visit followed, topped off by another classic New Bedford seafood dinner and a ritzy cocktail bar.
In between dinner and drinks we made our way to a local fort. It was completely fogged over. But of all things a Revolutionary War historical reenactment was going on. It felt like we’d wandered into a wannabe Twilight Zone episode.
Sunday involved more breakfast – this time at a Cape Verde restaurant, Izzy’s. New Bedford has a diverse immigrant population and many people from Cape Verde – in Florida, we think of Cape Verde as where the hurricanes come from. A faculty basketball game for N and J at N’s school was next up, and the meantime A and I ventured off to explore Providence. The males in our party eventually met us there, and we did some further exploration before ending up in the Italian area at a really excellent restaurant whose name escapes me.
A highlight was the outdoor Sinatra concert we wandered into.
It was only a couple of quick hours back to Orlando. And then road construction meant it took half that time again to go the brief ten miles back to our house, for a midnight arrival. This was a totally unplanned and spur of the moment trip. I’d do it again tomorrow.
I wanted to start posting about our next summit plan – which is still in a nascent stage – but events in my home state of Florida have preempted that. We were here for Charlie’s visit in 2004, followed by his pals, Jeanne, Frances, and Ivan Jr. Last year, Matthew decided to call, but he was shy and hugged the coast, never getting up the nerve to come in.
Not so with Irma. One of the stylists at the salon where I got my hair cut the Saturday before the storm (if one is going to go, go out in style) described Irma as a “mean old church lady – the type who stands at the door and makes you spit out your gum.” They were actually boarding up the windows as the last snips were being taken on their clients’ hair.
Well, Irma certainly displayed those characteristics and more. My office closed after work Thursday and remained closed through Tuesday. This was all to allow lawyers and staff to engage in that great Florida tradition of preparing for the storm, living through the storm, and then undoing all the preparations you’ve made. For those of you newbies to hurricane land, this involves things like: Moving all the porch furniture in. We lined our 4 front porch rocking chairs up in front of the front windows – a little slice of porch in the living room. Carrying the canoe from a far corner of the yard and balancing it atop two ladders in the garage where it presently hangs over all the other junk we store in the garage. Bringing at least 25 potted plants inside for temporary shelter in the home office. You get the picture. And let’s not forget making ice and worrying about all the frozen food you just bought at Trader Joe’s.
After days of anticipation the stress level here in Orlando was so thick it could be cut with a knife. And Saturday into Sunday no one could believe it when Charlie’s story repeated itself and Irma decided she wasn’t interested in the Gulf Coast vibe of Tampa and instead would go due north, making almost a beeline for an area just west of Orlando. I awakened about 4 am or so, having heard wind howling and trees crashing for hours. Based on Facebook posts, more people were awake than asleep the entire night.
The wind lasted well into Monday.
We fared well. Believe it or not, we did not lose power. We either paid our dues during our 8 day loss with Charlie and karma was with us this time – or the replacement poles and wires were stronger. We do have a tabebuia tree leaning 30 degrees toward our house and no tree people anywhere in sight to help. And portions of fence are down with not a single 4×4 fencepost to be found. The neighborhood lost multiple hundred plus year old live oaks. But compared to those who still don’t have electricity or whose houses were wrecked by flooding – we were very lucky.
We have just planned a last minute spur of the moment trip to visit daughter A and boyfriend N in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I’m looking forward to some hurricaneless weather. Oh, wait, there’s another guy possibly looking for a place to stay in the Northeast. His name is Hurricane Jose.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.