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Dog Sledding Through the Colorado Flat Tops

We all know the saying, a dog is a man’s best friend. My Christmas gift this year proved this saying to be true!  For the holidays, John and I both gave each other the gift of adventure. My specific gift was to go dog sledding in the Flat Top Mountains outside of Steamboat, Colorado. Now you might be asking yourself, how did he come up with dog sledding? It is somewhat of a long story, but we had been researching to reserve a dog sledding trip in Alaska’s backcountry and had talked to several outfitters. He knew that this was something I was very interested in doing. It turned out that John’s daughter came across this dog sledding outfitter, Snow Buddy’s, in Oak Creek, Colorado. They specialize in taking dog sled teams up into the Flat Top Mountains, plus they train you to be the mushers (drive the sled).

The week before our reservation, it had been frigid cold in Colorado, but the morning we were to meet our crew and dogs at Dunkley Pass, it turned out to be a Colorado blue-sky sunny day. We couldn’t have planned it any better. While waiting for everyone to arrive at the designated meeting spot, I was getting nervous, thinking, can I do this? I had never done anything like this before and kept imagining all kinds of catastrophes. Once I saw the trailer truck pull up with these handsome dog faces hanging out of holes cut from the side of the trailer, I knew this was going to be a lot of fun!

Snow Buddy is a unique outfitter. It is owned and operated by a husband and wife team, Dan and Sarah, and their dogs are all rescue dogs. Many of the dogs have several years of dog mushing experience. Through the connections Dan and Sarah have with dog sledding associations in Alaska and the Yukon, the dogs eventually find their way to Oak Creek.  What I found interesting about the dogs was how pampered and loving they all were. The health and well-being of the dogs are Snow Buddy’s top priority. They monitor the dogs all the time to ensure they are not pushed beyond their limitations. Our specific team consisted of 8 dogs, and each one had its unique personality.

As Richard, our guide, walked us down the line, introducing us to each dog, he told us of their stories, how they arrived in Colorado, and some of their characteristic quirks. Our team was made-up of Perch and Mojo, the pack’s leaders, Yukon, Berlin, Brooke, Chubs, Runi, and Rivers. Anyone that has more than one dog knows that dogs heed to a hierarchy within the pack. These dogs are not any different, and because of this, Richard explained that some dogs run better together than others. For instance, in our team, Chubs insists on running next to Brooke. Runi is a smaller older dog, so they put her with Rivers, a strong younger dog. There is a strategy for putting the right team together to get the best results, and we witnessed the guides moving dogs around to achieve just that.

After we met the dogs, it was time to get down to business and be trained on how to drive the sled. Our trainer spent 30 minutes going over the sled’s footboard and brake and how we had to be agile enough to move from side-to-side. He instructed us on when to apply the brake and how to help the sled and dogs move up a steeper incline. The dogs react to voice commands and specific words. We were told to keep our voice pitch level but assertive and directed to the dog leads. It is also important to praise the dogs throughout the ride. On completing our training session, the trainer then had us take a turn on the sled, practicing moving from side-to-side, and go through the voice drills. One of the questions that we all asked was how fast do the dogs move?   Once the dogs start moving, we were told they stay at a constant trot which equals around 10 MPH. By staying at this pace, they can endure mushing for an extended period. 

Our reservation was for 4 hours, so the first half of our ride, I would take my place in the mushing position while John rode in the sled, and then at the halfway point, we would trade positions to ride back to our starting point. We helped harness the dogs in place, got situated ourselves on the sled, and waited our turn to take off. Richard told me to yell out my command to let Perch and Mojo know it was time to go. I did, but nothing happened. I said Perch, Mojo, HIKE, and again, nothing happened. Mojo looked around at me with an expression on his face, what do you want us to do, lady? Well, the third time was a charm, and we took off.

I loved the experience! Mushing among the Aspens and Douglas Firs, all glistening with snow, was spectacular. I truly felt like I was riding through a winter wonderland.  Our halfway point was a chance for us to warm up in a warming tent with some hot chocolate and cookies while the dogs were allowed to roam and get head pets and belly rubs from all of us. We even had a photo opt with the dogs before hitching them up and getting on our way back to the starting point.

After we completed our journey, John and I hung around to help unhitch the dogs and talk to Richard, Dan, and the other guides as they prepared food and water for the team. It was a wonderful experience and a gift I will cherish.

Life Experiences, Looking Forward

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I am later than usual in writing my thoughts for the New Year. 2017 was a year of accomplishments and first-time experiences for me, but it also was a year that I did some soul-searching. On reflecting back to the memories created, it sometimes surprises me which moments stand out to be significant. The past six months I have had two life experiences that could have had very different outcomes.

The first was being on a plane coming out of Africa when a bird flew into one of the engines and the pilot had to do an emergency landing in Kenya. I stayed in Kenya for two extra days before I could start my journey home again. The second was a more recent incident during my New Year’s stay in Key West. I was in a four-man dingy with two other people, groceries and supplies heading back out to the sailboat we had been staying on for the past four days. A storm that had been predicted to come in 24 hours later came in early with high winds that caused four-foot waves to crash over us, thrashing us around in the harbor. Being hit in the face with salt water with only enough time to gasp for air and trying to hold onto the seat while the waves rocked us violently side-to-side was more than a challenge. As I looked around to assess our situation, I realized that the waves coming over the front of the dingy was filling the boat up. Water was to the top of the rubber sides, groceries were floating in the water and who knows what got swept out to sea. We did finally convince the skipper to move into a Coast Guard pier area that had six-foot cement piers for their large ships. The cement piers did protect us a bit from the winds, enough time that we could continue to bail water with our ball caps so as not to sink. Fortunately, a Coast Guardsmen that was doing his perimeter security check happened to be on top of one of the piers, spotted us and yelled down to us to get out of the dingy. He could see we were not in the best situation and he made a distress call where several other Coast Guard personnel showed up to help. On the request of the Coast Guard, the skipper manoeuvred the small craft to the far end of the piers where there was a ladder to climb up the cement wall. I scampered up the ladder without being told; I wanted to get the hell off that boat! John followed suit with the backpack in hand that carried all of our camera equipment. The rest of the supplies stayed on board along with the skipper that decided to defy the Coast Guard and head out on his own to the sailboat.  At that point, we didn’t know if he made it, or what condition the sailboat was in if he reached it. All turned out fine except some personal items lost at sea and soaked electronics.

In the heat of the moment, I tend to just react to whatever I need to do. It is after the adrenaline subsides that I can sit and reflect on the potential danger and how if things would have been slightly different, I might not be here to share the story. The quote from Soren Kierkegaard says it perfectly, “Life can only be understood backwards; but must be lived forwards”.  It is also other people’s stories that reinforce how much all of our lives are intertwined, and the decisions we make can affect others and in some cases put others in danger.

On arriving home I met with a close a friend to catch up, she told me one of those stories that just broke my heart. It was a story of a loving family that had only gathered together to celebrate Christmas and on the way home was struck head-on by a van driven by a 90-year-old man going the wrong way entering the interstate. The daughter, 24-years old, died instantly while her parents witnessed the whole thing being in the car following them.  Just an hour before they were laughing and teasing each other while celebrating the holiday.

As one reflects on these messages from the universe, the conclusion is, life is too short! I know this is a cliché that we all say, and situations happen in life that does cause us all to stop for a second to think this but it is indeed the way we all should be living life every day. Recognizing and taking those opportunities and experiences that come our way. Don’t wait until you have the time or the money to do it. If it is something that you’re passionate about and could have regrets in not accomplishing, DO IT! Surround yourself with your family and friends that mean the most to you and tell them daily that you love them. Anthony Bourdain said it best; “Travel isn’t always pretty”. For one to grow from the experiences, one has to accept the negative with the positive and learn from it all. Life isn’t what you are given, it’s what you create, what you overcome, what you achieve that makes it beautiful. Both of the trips I took this past year created memories that I will cherish, taught lessons I would use and built friendships that will be close to my heart.

Key West was a first for me. I had never been to the area and was taken aback by the unique beauty of the islands. The aqua water that transitioned into many shades of greens and blues depending on the depth of the water was breathtaking. I also experienced fishing for the first time while standing and walking on the flats. What an experience, walking in 2-3 feet of warm water out where there is no land in sight. While exploring the flat wetlands the abundance of life was evident everywhere. We encountered a young Bonnet and Hammer Head Shark that swam toward us but then got spooked and took off in a different direction. We saw a Stingray burying himself in the sand among seashells and sponges. We saw a Manta Ray do a graceful flip out of the water just 50 feet in front of us.  One evening anchored in a secluded calm bay where we had watched the tide go out, we were all wakened by the sound of repetitive slapping of the water. We went topside and out in the dingy to find ourselves in the middle of a Key West 008school of a fish feeding frenzy. For this landlocked girl, just watching the smaller silver fish jump and skip over water trying to escape the larger Jacks who were furiously attacking the school. Seeing the Pelicans swarming overhead patiently waiting to dive into the school of fish as the Jacks drove the silverfish closer to shallow water was something I had never witnessed. All of this took place as the sun was breaking the horizon casting a gorgeous orange glow on the water. Talk about a life experience! I know I was supposed to be casting my fishing line into the school of fish, but honestly, I just wanted to sit in awe and take it all in. The quote from Oscar Wilde comes to mind as I relive the memory, “to live is the rarest thing in the world, most people just exist”. At that moment in time, I was living life!

I know my lifestyle isn’t for everyone. I have had friends and family question why don’t I slow down, why do I put myself into these different situations? For me, it is about living my life in the fullest way I can and using the experiences to witness this incredible world that is just waiting for us to explore. It is about learning from these experiences while meeting people from all walks of life creating lifelong friendships. As we all go into 2018, I wish each of you a full life of experiences and adventure to witness and explore the passions that make you happy. I hope you all have the wisdom to know when to abandon ship and grow from the experience but don’t let a negative detract from the good. I wish you all the blessing of good health, love and joie de vivre.

Flat Stanley’s Letter to Shaylyn

IMG_8390Dear Shaylyn,

Flat Stanley here!

I just recently returned from my trip with your Grammie from Africa, and it was so Map_of_Africamuch fun! The trip was like two trips in one, the first was spending nine days on Kilimanjaro Mountain trekking up to the summit, and the 2nd part was spending time in the Serengeti on a safari where we saw all kinds of animals.

Let me first tell you about my trek up Kilimanjaro. Grammie put me in her backpack where she keeps her water supply, so I got a bird’s-eye view of the four areas of the mountain that had different environments and climate that we walked through.

The first area we walked through was a jungle or rainforest with very tall trees and giant ferns. We saw a black and white Colobus Monkey sitting high up on some branches. These monkeys have such a long flowing tail, and they would sit up in the trees and watch us as we walked past them.

Once we emerged from the jungle, we were in the Moorland area which is mostly grasses and low shrubs. We saw many beautiful flowers in this area.

The 3rd area was called the Alpine Desert, and it consisted of more volcanic rocks and scree. Did you know that Kilimanjaro is a volcano? It erupted a million years ago under the earth’s crust and pushed up towards the sky to create this free-standing mountain. It is dormant now, but it does give off some sulphuric gas around the ash circle, which we got to see.

IMG_0429We met many people along the trail all climbing to the top of the mountain. I met one father that was carrying his son’s sock monkey and another son’s teddy bear on the back of his backpack.  Grammie introduced me to sock monkey and teddy bear, and we took some photos together.   I found out he was from England. We met people from all over the world, Germany, Denmark and South Africa.

The last day of hiking to the top of the mountain was the hardest for Grammie, but I kept encouraging her and telling her she could do it. I was so excited when we got to the top. It was fun to be so high up at 19,341 feet that we were above the clouds. The last time I was ever above the clouds was when I was on an airplane! Our guide told us that the top of Kilimanjaro used to be all snow and ice. Some people think that the name Kilimanjaro means “white top.”  We saw several ice glaciers at the summit but Julius, our guide, said they are melting and eventually will go away.

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Volcanic Ash Circle

The night we summited was very special because we got to climb down 1000 feet into the volcanic crater and that is where we slept for the night. We stayed in tents along the IMG_9218way, and Grammie made sure I was tucked into the sleeping bag to keep warm. The morning in the crater was magical since we opened up our tent flap to newly fallen snow. Before we started our climb down the mountain, we did stop at the crater rim and viewed the volcanic ash circle. The ash formation is where you can still see some gas come up through the ground from deep in the earth. Not everyone gets to see this, so I felt very lucky. The trek up the mountain with Grammie was a lot of fun. The crew that helped carry our packs and set up camp and feed us were so nice. They taught us all kinds of Swahili songs and how to count to ten in Swahili. Swahili is the language spoken in Tanzania where Kilimanjaro is located.

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Flat Stanley at the Kilimanjaro summit

After the trek, we said goodbye to the mountain crew, and we met our new guide, Amani IMG_9136Amson who was going to drive the jeep and help us find animals in the Serengeti. We had to drive 8 hours to get to the Serengeti National Park entrance, and along the way, we drove through many villages of the Maasai people. The Maasai tribe has been in this area for hundreds of years, and they were the ones that gave the Serengeti its name that means “Endless Plains.” The Serengeti is mostly grassland that goes on for as far as the eye can see.

There are so many different animals that call the Serengeti home. Amani drove us around to find and view the animals. We saw Elephants, Giraffes, Cheetahs, Hippos, Zebras, Wildebeest, Baboons, Water Buffalo, Monkeys, Hyenas, and Lions, lots and lots of Lions. What is your favorite animal? My favorite is the elephant, but I told Amani I wanted to see a leopard. He told me that they are hard to find since they are usually up in trees or sleeping in the rock caves. He told me to wish for the leopard and guess what?  The 2nd day on the Safari we came across a leopard laying on the branch sleeping. Grammie got a great photo of the leopard to show you. We also saw so many different birds. I thought the funniest birds were the Ostrich and the Storks. The Ostriches were so big, and they would flap their wings when they were reaching down to the ground to eat. The Storks would be high up into the trees on small branches, and I kept thinking they would fall, but they didn’t. The baby monkeys were also fun to watch. They would run around playing with each other but then jump onto their mommies backs to get a ride to the next tree. I hope you like all of the photos of the animals. It was exciting to see them in their natural habitat.

Click here to view African Safari slide show. 

(Once on the Flickr site you can go to slideshow icon in right-hand corner and view slideshow) 

I want to thank you for allowing me to go with Grammie on this trip. I had never been to Africa. It is exciting to see other places in the world and to meet people who live far away from us. I can’t wait to see where my next adventure takes me.

Your friend,

Flat Stanley

Where in the World is Flat Stanley?

Being a grandparent has to be one of the greatest gifts you receive as a parent. To see your own children grown and now raising and being responsible for their little ones allows you to sit back and reflect on where you were in life doing the same thing. In some respect when watching my girls interact with their own children, I do see similar parenting skills I used during their childhood and other situations require something completely different. This might be due to change in time and the way the world is now from when they grew up. It could possibly be because they were both much older than I was when I was raising them. Whatever the influences are I am still in awe with how much energy, time and love it takes to raise a child. I am also very thankful to be in their lives and to be a grandparent to my four lovely grandchildren.

One of the duties of raising a child is to help out wherever you can with their education, to help shape them into understanding the world and to prepare them to be a better citizen. So when my daughter Jennifer called to ask me a favor for my granddaughter, Shaylyn, of course, I said YES! Shaylyn is 5 and started kindergarten this year. In Kindergarten they are reading a series of books that includes a character called Flat Stanley. Now you all might be very aware of who Flat Stanley is but this Grammie had to ask, “who is Flat Stanley?” Back in my days in kindergarten, we were reading Dick and Jane, remember those books? Jennifer went on to explain that Flat Stanley is this character who is flat as paper and because of his unusual shape he can get into all kinds of situations to help out his friends. The Flat Stanley project was designed originally to help children with writing as well as reading. The character was brought to life so it could accompany children and their families on their travel excursions around the world. The children then could write and share about their journeys and adventures that they experienced. Well, you probably now know where this is heading….

Flat Stanley

Jennifer asked me if Flat Stanley could go with me to Africa. What kid wouldn’t want to see their Flat Stanley character on top of Kilimanjaro? I agreed immediately and after thinking about it thought this is going to be a lot of fun. When I brought this up to my 3 trekking companions, they all laughed and thought it was great. My friend Lynn just recently retired from years in teaching so as an educator she was 100% for this. We were all having so much fun in deciding where we should pose with Flat Stanley that some of the talks took us down more adult avenues that probably wouldn’t be appropriate for a kindergarten class. It was all done in fun! I promise I will keep it appropriate and follow the teacher’s guidelines for Shaylyn to share with her classmates.

Shaylyn created her Flat Stanley by cutting him out of paper, coloring him and had him laminated to ensure he could withstand the travel he is about to embark on. Flat Stanley has already made his way back to Iowa for a short stay and we are eagerly waiting to see where he went in Des Moines. Maybe the capital building? Once back in Denver he will be joining me for a three-week trip to Africa. I am so thankful I can do this for my granddaughter and it allows us to create stories and memories that hopefully she will cherish when she gets older.

If you want to see where we go, be sure to follow my blog where I will post the Flat Stanley series of photos. Wish us luck on our climb to the top of Kilimanjaro and who knows we might find that perfect photo opp at the fork in the road.

Journey to the Top of the World

 

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Kilimanjaro photo courtesy of Google Stock 

 

Once the plans were confirmed back in January to set out on this quest, I knew it was going to take a lot of time and dedication to summit Kilimanjaro, one of the Seven Peaks in the world. My story doesn’t start a year ago, but rather the idea was put into my personal yearly goal sheet as far back as 2010. Even as a young girl, I have always had a dream of going on an African Safari, so being a hiking enthusiast, it doesn’t surprise me at all that Kilimanjaro came up in my trip research and appealed to me in my decision to travel to Africa. Seeing this lone mountain peak rise from sea level at 19,341 feet is stunning. No wonder Disney used Kilimanjaro as the back drop scenery in its music opener of the “Circle of Life” in the movie The Lion King.

Kilimanjaro stands as a lone mountain in the country of Tanzania and it has three volcanic cones, Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. Kibo is the only cone that is dormant and still has the potential of erupting. The other two cones have long been extinct. There are 7 different trekking routes to reach the summit and the route we are taking is called the Lemosha route which will take us to the highest point called Uhuru Peak on Kibo. The Lemosha route is considered one of the more scenic routes and most people doing this route take a total of 8 days to complete. Our group has requested a 9th day added to the trek so that the night before we summit we camp inside the crater which was recommended to us by several people who have done the trek before us. In my research I have also read that many people doing the trek say if you can summit during a full moon do so, which on October 4th, the day we will summit, it will be done under a full moon.  After gathering all of this information from friends and fellow hikers, I pitched the idea back in October 2016 of climbing Kilimanjaro with a  5-day safari added on after the trek to a few friends that I know who are also outside enthusiasts to see if anyone would take me up on this trip of a lifetime.

To my surprise, three friends came forward saying they were in and wanted to go on this journey with me. On our first meeting to discuss and decide on the details of the trip, it was interesting to discover that each of us had some milestone we were celebrating in 2017. All of us were looking for that connection and journey of discovery that can be accomplished when one sets out to conquer a mountain. I also loved the fact that our trekking group would consist of four individual women that possessed the “we can do this” attitude!

How does one prepare themselves to be in the best situation for reaching the summit? I did a lot of research! I talked to a lot of fellow trekkers that had done Kilimanjaro, both that had completed the summit and some that didn’t quite make it, asking them what they had done to prepare. The biggest challenge isn’t necessarily the hike, the mountain isn’t considered that technical from a hiking standpoint but the high altitude can be deadly. All of the guide and adventure companies tote their summit success rates to secure business. In my research, I have found the longer treks allow your body to acclimate and consequently the better your chances of summiting. We are taking seven days to reach the summit with two days for the descent. In my data search for percentages of successful summits, it is hard to find accurate stats due to them being so skewed, but every site agrees that the longer you take to acclimate the higher your chances of successfully reaching the summit.

Obviously, in training, you need to be physically capable of hiking and it helps to be in Colorado where I can hike at higher altitudes, but I have always believed that enduring any type of challenge in life is a 70/30 split in reaching your goal, with 70% mental preparedness and 30% physical.

Even going by those rules, since January, I have logged over 260 miles with an altitude gain of over 60,000 feet. In January I discovered a global movement called the 52 Week Hike Challenge where it encourages everyone to get out and hike once a week for a year. This spoke to me in the sense that not only would I be able to use my physical training toward reaching this goal, but it also gave me a community of like-minded individuals to share photos, read stories and get encouragement. As of this writing, I have finished my 42nd hike of the year and will continue right up to the time I leave for Africa, and will finish my goal with my Kilimanjaro summit. If you are interested in learning more about the 52 Week Hike Challenge, here is a video on the inspiration behind the movement; 52  Hike Challenge Documentary Teaser.

With all of the planning and training, deep down I also knew doing Kilimanjaro this year was much more than a bucket list destination vacation. In January, I hit a milestone birthday and have been restless for a couple of years. What I mean by restless is there is something that stirs in your soul that is telling you to look within, reflect on where you are in life, and where you want to be.  This reflection might require a change to stay on course. I have had this happen one other time in my life and that is what eventually brought me out to Colorado 17 years ago. This journey is different in the sense that I feel it is more about a spiritual journey of self-discovery. When I am on top of a mountain, looking out over nature’s incredible beauty, or watching the clouds cumulate engulfing the peaks in the distance, there is an inner peace that comes over me. This is my place where I can let go of personal and world worries and focus on what my body, mind, and spirit are telling me. In the words of John Muir, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than we seek.” October 4th I am planning to summit the highest peak in Africa and on returning I know I will be a changed person from this experience.

I am hoping you all will follow my journey up the mountain. I will be capturing my experience through photos and journaling my thoughts in my journal that I take on every trip.  If you’re interested in following along you can find my stories about my experience in my blog, Left Hand Road.  

As I continue on this journey, I will be keeping my eyes wide open for my fellow trekkers and friends that I believe I’ll meet at the fork in the road on top of the world.

 

 

Video

Moab, Utah

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but by the moments that take our breaths away!

Moab, Utah is a town situated at the confluence of the Colorado River and Green River. It is known as a hiking and mountain bike mecca where outdoor enthusiasts can bask among the vibrant desert colors of the rock formations. The most popular way to view nature’s art work is by going to many of the national and state parks that dot the area.  Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park are probably the two largest national parks in the area. Both parks are similar with their stunning landscape but also are different due to their geological features. The ancestral storytelling through petroglyphs are found throughout the area and show us how Indians and early settlers created a life in the higher plains.

I have always been intrigued with the stunning photography of locations surrounding Moab and because of this, it has been on my radar as a place I wanted to visit. With 6 days off over the 4th of July weekend and no real plans, John and I decided to be spontaneous and do a road trip to Moab. He has been there several times before so right away he suggested that we take the more scenic drive into Moab which is Highway 128 that follows the Colorado River. This was an excellent suggestion and one I would recommend to anyone planning a trip to the area. On our way to Fisher Towers, which is situated off of Highway 128, we stopped to observe petroglyphs on boulders overlooking the highway.

Fisher Towers was our first hike of the long weekend and it was so peaceful to wander back through the canyons taking in the large sky-scraping rock that towered above us. In total we hiked 15-17 miles over the few days, climbing our way back over boulders and tight-roping our way across ledges to stop in awe of the gigantic sandstone sculptures and arches. Moab is a desert community that only sees a few inches of rain a year so being there in July the temperatures were scalding hot. The temperatures reached degrees of 102-106 during the day and that was the air temperatures, the rocks have a tendency to hold heat so I would guess in some of the canyons we were hiking the temperatures had to be closer to 120 degrees. My advice whenever hiking or biking in these outdoor conditions, be PREPARED with sunscreen, hats, and plenty of water! We took every shade opportunity that we found along the hike just to get out of the direct heat.

After experiencing one full day out in the hot afternoon sun we decided for the 4th of July we would go to Canyonlands National Park early in the morning to witness the sunrise at Mesa Arch. Watching the sun creep up and bring light into the canyon highlighting the colorful canyon walls was just spectacular. Both John and I sat there in the morning quiet just taking it in. I always associate nature with superior energy and witnessing how the light pushed the darkness out of the canyon gave one a sense of new beginnings, a fresh start. That is probably why I have always been drawn to the morning hours. The rest of the day was spent hiking through Canyonlands National Park, viewing the vastness of the deep canyons.

We also got a treat by stopping by Dead Horse Point State Park which is on the same road to the entrance to Canyonlands. A friend had noticed from my Facebook posts that I was in Canyonlands and he immediately suggested to stop by the state park. We are so glad he made this suggestion and I would reciprocate the same suggestion to anyone else that is making plans to visit the area. Dead Horse Point State Park borders Canyonlands but I have to say the views of the Colorado River meandering through the canyons are just as spectacular if not better.

Now you might be asking yourself just like I did, how did they come up with the name Dead Horse Point? Well, the legend goes like this….

Back in the 1800’s, there were herds of Mustang horses that ran wild on the mesas overlooking the Colorado River. The cowboys would round the Mustang up and force them into this unique promontory of land that protruded out over the Colorado River creating a natural corral. The Cowboys would then choose which horses they could break and sell to the market back East. The horses not selected would then be left on the land to find their way out through a narrow strip of land connected to the main fields.

According to legend, there was a group of Mustang that was left behind on the point and for whatever reason, they never found their way off the promontory and instead died of thirst. The irony and sadness of the whole story were that the Colorado River was 2000 feet below them but out of their reach. In some of the photographs in my video, you can see the promontory as it is today and visualize the Mustang in this natural corral.

Even though we saw a lot during our three days exploring the surrounding areas of Moab, there is still more to see. I already know where I would want to explore on our next visit. I hope you enjoy the photography that John and I took during our visit. I put it to a video to make viewing a bit more interesting. If you are planning to visit don’t forget to plan a trek back into some of the remote canyons and roads of the parks to view all of the beauty this landscape has to offer. If you go, I would love you to share your experiences with me.

Who knows we might find ourselves meeting at the fork in the road.

Home On The Colorado Range

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I have always loved the mountains and being in the outdoors, but for this city girl to spend a weekend on a working cattle ranch in the Colorado Mountains, well, let’s say it had a profound influence on me.

There was a lot of anticipation during the 2-hour drive to Fairplay, Colorado where in three weeks we will be staying while we attend a true ranch style wedding, which is a first for me. The wedding preparations are what brought us to the ranch this past weekend. A working cattle ranch is never short on projects that need attention but then you add a wedding to this mix and the owners were needing John’s help to get these tasks completed on time. This gave us or should I say me, an opportunity to not only meet John’s friends but also get a chance to take in the ranch without any distractions.

The 2800 acre ranch sits at 8800 feet of elevation and is situated in a valley in the Mosquito Mountain Range in Central Colorado. There is a 1.5-mile section of the Middle Fork of the South Platte River that snakes its way through a section of the ranch, providing much of the water needed for the cattle. Being there in early spring the water was running high and starting to rise as a result of all of the snow still at the higher elevations. Probably one of my greatest fascinations of the ranch was just the eco-environment that included the river, the land, and the mountain ridges that surrounded us. As I spent hours just walking along the river or hiking up onto the ridges, the land was just busting with life. I saw all kinds of birds, antelope, deer and we even had an encounter with a young bear one evening while eating dinner. The land was beautiful, all different shades of green and many of the wildflowers were just starting to bloom. Even though there are a certain hustle and bustle at the ranch, it still seems to give one a sense of inner peace and tranquility. Once immersed into the day-to-day routine of the ranch you do get a sense how one can completely lose themselves and would have to make an effort to stay connected to the outside world. This was referred to in many of our conversations as two worlds, one’s lifestyle on the ranch vs. the grind that you and I experience every day. I also got a real sense of the “circle of life” in nature while walking up through the woods on the mountain ridges. We hear that phrase all the time and know it is nature’s way of taking and giving life back to earth, but seeing it firsthand represented to me the infinite energy of nature. As John and I would walk through the woods we would come across animal skulls, bones and spines spewed out on a hillside where the carcass obviously helped sustain another animal as food to survive.  When we discovered these bones, I was always compelled to say a little eulogy to the universe.

Our days generally started with a hearty breakfast and coffee, tea for me, on the outside deck. There we not only had hummingbirds buzzing around our heads to get to the nectar in the feeders that were suspended from the house, but we watched swarms of swallows swooping onto the pond to pick up mud to take back to the barn where they were building nests in the loft. In the early morning, you could see Pike’s Peaks snow cap as a backdrop against several hot air balloons that were ascending over the mountains while the cows were grazing just over the fence in the open prairie. In some ways, I suspect this picturesque start of the day has probably been very similar for the past 150 years.

The ranch, which dates back to 1874, has been put onto the National Register of Historic Places. The present owners have spent the last 20 years renovating and restoring the home, cabins, and outbuildings back to their original state including periodic furniture and fixtures. As a guest, the work and attention to detail was apparent in the home and made it so warm and inviting. It was fun to hear the history of the homestead and see some of the old photos that they have collected from their research on the ranch over the years. One historical piece that caught my attention was that it has been noted in the history and confirmed by archeologists that Lt. Zebulon Montgomery Pike had camped on the ridge surrounding the ranch while on his exploration of the area. Since my maiden name is Pike, I have always had a fascination in doing my family lineage to see if I was a descendant of Zebulon Pike. History tells us that Lt Pike and his men set out in the early 1800’s to explore the American West. This was also about the same time that Lewis and Clark had been on their exploration that ended up locating what is now the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Even though both explorations were going on at approximately the same time and initiated by the US government, Lewis and Clark have definitely been given more honors and recognition than Zebulon Pike. There is currently an effort to establish the Pike National Historic Trail to recognize Zebulon Pike’s contribution during his explorations. The trail would be 3664 miles long (2697 miles in the US and 967 miles in Mexico) covering 7 states and 3 provinces of Mexico. For now, I consider myself a descendant and I am hoping once I get the opportunity to do my ancestral research I will get the proof to officially say I am from the Pike lineage.

Just like Zebulon Pike learned in his exploration of the Rocky Mountains, the Colorado weather can change drastically and be harsh and unforgiving. Our last night on the ranch during dinner we started getting readings on this weather device that there were lightning strikes happening all around us. Our curiosity took us into the backyard to witness these crazy cloud formations that were circling the ranch. You could see in the distance the storm wall that was not only producing rain but also the lightning.  With the play of light from the setting sun along with the storm, we all stood there in awe watching Mother Nature’s art and light show. Unfortunately, the storm never did produce rain where we were located but we did enjoy a cool evening for peaceful sleep.

All good things have to come to an end and Monday morning brought with it the reality that we had to head back down the mountain and enter the other world. I was so grateful not only to meet John’s friends and experience their passion for ranch life but to get out in nature and explore untouched territory that allowed us a glimpse into such a natural habitat. If you ever get a chance to explore a working cattle ranch, I would highly recommend doing it. As Albert Einstein once said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” I will guarantee you won’t be disappointed and who knows our paths might cross at the fork in the road.

White Water Rafting In The Grand Canyon

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When I was 10 years old visiting the Grand Canyon on a family vacation, I remember looking over the cliff at the South Rim mesmerized by the shiny green ribbon of water that weaved its way through the canyon far below.  As I got older, I remained intrigued by the stories people told about their great adventures rafting the Colorado River. These stories inspired me to pursue a Grand Canyon rafting trip in my lifetime. Timing is everything and now was the perfect opportunity to check this off my bucket list.

Five years ago at a class reunion, several of my high school girlfriends reconnected. We were all in the same place in our lives with children growing and leaving the nest, relationships changing, contemplating retirement for some, and nearing the perfect time to revisit old friendships and adventures.  We decided at that time that we would enjoy a girls’ weekend each year. Since this time, we have spent one weekend a year in different places and although the group of women changes slightly each time given other commitments, we always cherish this time together and have taken away many fond memories. It has been wonderful reconnecting with friends I have grown up with—friends who have helped shape my life today.  Revisiting my roots and reconnecting with old childhood friends has not only helped ground me but has shown me that I can always be myself, as these women are my tribe. There is always a sense of genuine and unpretentious honesty. Because 2017 is going to be a big year with many milestones for us, we wanted to plan a trip that represented the spirit of living and offered adventure while allowing us to celebrate this time in our lives. Several of us had envisioned rafting the Grand Canyon and had identified the trip as a “bucket list,” must do. As we  discussed several different options, it  seemed to always come back to rafting the Grand Canyon as our top choice.… at that point, I said, “LET’S DO THIS.”

Back in November, the plan started to materialize and the research began. We contracted with an adventure outfit company called Wilderness River Adventures. They were amazing018aa2a98051fcde9351dcb3f2a8f207f1809b83c5 from start to finish. Not only did they provide the equipment for both rafting and camping but they cooked meals along the way. We just had to determine the best time of year to go and for how long. We chose to go in September hoping that the canyon would not be as hot as it is in earlier months. We also wanted plenty of time to train for the required hike out of the canyon that would follow our 3 days of rafting. The 10-mile hike would occur on the Bright Angel Trail with an elevation gain of 4380 feet and a trail averaging a 10% grade. For all of us, we faced our own uncertainties and challenges. There were a few times as the trip drew closer to reality, we had to encourage each other to stay on task and remind each other that we could do this. 019538328e16f5b832c321053d2bf65c84abebbddeAs a bonus for the time of year we selected, we were able to sleep under a full moon. I couldn’t believe how much the moon illuminated the camp site. The guides kept telling us it was going to be like sleeping with a flashlight shining down on our camp, and they were right.

The 3 days of rafting lived up to what I expected. We were on a large pontoon motorized raft that held 12 people, 2 crew guides and all of our gear. For our particular adventure, we had a group of 27 people and two rafts. We became friends very quickly with the group members to which we were assigned due to being in such close proximity with them over the course of several days including sharing meals, drinks, and sleeping quarters. Each day started around dawn at 5:30 AM. We woke to a billowing voice of one of our guides yelling, “Good Morning Grand Canyon!” After we tore down our cots and bedding, we made our way to where they were serving  bre011283d90475e08f8d6b06c57e56f8011ff261e41dakfast along with hot coffee and tea. Dry bags were brought down to the boats and secured, with the plan for us
to be on the river by 8:00 AM every morning. Those early morning hours on the boat were downright cold because it never failed that we hit rapids almost immediately from taking off from camp. Rain gear became normal in the mornings. Let’s just say when 50-degree water hits you in the face that early in the morning, the drenching from cold water provided a nice wake-up call if we were not fully awake or had not gotten enough of our morning cup of coffee. Honestly we took it with stride because we w01b2a274e72763339e5f93f4e86c2fe8d8277bb37dere so enamored with the beauty that surrounded us, just experiencing the sheer size of the canyon walls, the rock formations, the incredible colors between the canyon walls, water and sky along with the glimpses of wildlife along the shores, was enough to forget about being a bit cold.  We never realized how truly small we were in the world until we experienced a trip like this.
Of course with any outdoor wilderness adventure, there were certain gastrointestinal functions that had to be 01d8454cb6146f28928533c1073d96b8825a33245baddressed and any sense of modesty went straight out the window. One of the first talks our guides gave us centered around how to use the restroom while rafting all day and upon arrival to camp. The adventure companies were very particular about anything we packed for camp—everything we took had to return with us to keep the National Park at its finest and to ensure others could also enjoy the park. They explained that #1 had to go into the river and #2 had to go in a bucket fitted with a toilet seat called Oscar. Every night Oscar was set up behind a rock or tree and we had very specific directions on how to use it appropriately. In the mornings, members of the crew drew straws to determine who would be on Oscar duty. It became a joke among us that we were riding on the turd boat since Oscar was secured in our boat’s lower storage area. We also carried all the booze in another lower storage area so it was determined we still had the cool boat.

01a953106603db66af4508c9bd2595716ea4470af2Day 3 seemed to have the most adventure. On this day we stopped where the Little Colorado River meets the main Colorado River and hiked in about half a mile. The Little Colorado has the most aqua blue water due to mineral deposits and the water cascading down white rock was just stunning to view. The water was a bit warmer than the main river and most of us went in immediately. The area truly was nature’s waterslide allowing a perfect situation for friends to create a body train by interlocking legs with each other to ride the rapids down laughing and giggling all the way. We all spent time frolicking in the water soaking up the gorgeous surroundings.

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Once we returned to our boat and continued rafting, we were told that we were about to meet the granddaddy of all rapids. From a technical standpoint, it was classified a 10 on a scale from 1-10. I had rafted before and have always heard these classifications but it wasn’t until this trip that they were explained to me. The rapid classification is based upon the technical skill needed to maneuver the rapids more so than how intense the rapids are for the rider. Once we started getting closer to Sockdolager Rapids we noticed that the canyon walls were closing in. We were in a much narrower strip of water, making it more difficult to motor through. As we started to slow down on our approach of the rapids we 01b60d10b9ea914d529f7c3e3691c633f5c8262557noticed our two guides, Kale and Shawn, were in the back of the boat brushing their teeth. We all were watching and laughing at this! They informed us of their tradition asking the universe for a clean ride. We wanted a clean ride too!

Well…..it was a roller coaster of a ride! The first wave included a huge five-foot drop and an intense amount of water swept over us and the entire boat. I was sitting towards the front on the left side of the boat and while watching and waiting for the next move, I noticed that the boat was getting awfully close to the canyon wall. I remember looking at Diane sitting next to me and questioned, “Are we supposed to be this close to the wall?” The answer was NO! The wave of water had caused the motor to stall and Shawn was intensely trying to get it started again while the boat was at the mercy of the rapids. As our boat was tossed about in the short time it took for Shawn and Kale to get the motor going, we did crash into the canyon wall causing the left front corner of the pontoon to bend straight up in the air. I couldn’t believe it didn’t crack but again these boats are built to withstand this type of beating. With our motor going again, Shawn was able to gain control of the boat and we made it safely through Sockdolager Rapids all intact, all staying in the boat and with a little bit of excitement to share with others.

Our last day on the river was in the books and we soon found our way to camp to set up for the evening to prepare for a long day of hiking that awaited us the next day. In preparation of hiking out of the canyon, we repacked our bags and day packs that would stay with us. Wilbur had told us he had to deliver our bags to the trailhead that evening so the donkeys 01ea066e36f2d1223eea82743b29499ac5fef57096could take our main load up the canyon. Morning came soon enough and the twelve us who were hiking out together were at the trailhead at Phantom Ranch by 7:00 AM. The strategic plan was to get the first 5 miles in to reach Indian Garden before it got too hot. We heard that the temp in the lower canyon was going to reach 120 degrees and it was 80 degrees at the South Rim. At least the weather was getting cooler as we climbed but still we had some intense heat to work through. Fortunately, after reaching Indian Gardens there were plenty of rest areas to take advantage of. Mindy and I arrived at the South Rim 0154d7a44522f084dc33220782d4c4d6104b9f0ef9by 4:30pm and Flo and Cindy came shortly thereafter. I can’t even explain the gratified feeling of accomplishment that we all felt. Of course, we were all exhausted and feeling pretty stinky! The first order was a hot shower and then we enjoyed a big steak dinner with drinks. After dinner, we all enjoyed collapsing in an actual bed with pillows—ahhhh! The little luxuries in life following an adventurous trip are very special!

This trip was an amazing adventure that not only challenged each of us physically and mentally but it nourished us psychologically as we all had the opportunity to reflect, and gained insight to inspire personal growth. There is a bond that is developed between friends who embark on these types of journeys together and I am very lucky to have 3 incredibly strong women in my life—I feel closer to each one of them and know that we all have stronger minds, bodies, and spirits because of this trip. As Flo kept telling us during the trip, keep flying ladies!

 

 

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A Cascadia Adventure

The long-awaited four-day weekend to the Olympic Peninsula in the Northwest USA was here and it lived up to all of my expectations. Several months ago my friend Patrice posted on Facebook incredible photos of the Northwest coastline. I commented on how beautiful her photos were and how I would love to visit some of the places she was posting about. One thing led to another and we decided a girl’s weekend getaway was something we both could use. Since Patrice and her family had grown up in the Pacific Northwest, she offered to organize the trip. In planning the trip’s activities we both wanted to spend time out in nature, take advantage of the beach and cliffs,  take in a waterfall and do some hiking on the many trails the Northwest offers. It was a given that we would spend time taking photos since both of us love photography! (Don’t forget to check out the slideshow link at the end of the blog).

On Thursday, June 19th, I took an early flight to Seattle. Patrice picked me up at the airport and we were off to the ferry and crossing our fingers we had timed it right since we had a bit of a drive to the Olympic National Park. Washington State has all of these

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Puget Sound

incredible islands and waterways that you can connect to by their ferry system. Our first stop was Patrice’s aunt and uncle’s cabin on the Puget Sound. They graciously offered their cabin
for our first night in the Northwest.  As soon as we pulled up to the cabin and I saw the Adirondack chairs facing the cliff overlooking the Puget Sound with tall grass swaying in the breeze and the sound of light waves lapping the beach below, I knew it was going to be a great four days.

The next morning we were up and out the door to the Dungeness Wildlife Refuge. Patrice had timed our visit perfectly as we would be doing the eleven-mile round-trip hike out to the lighthouse and back at low tide. Being a girl from a land locked state and not much experience with the ocean, I would have never  thought of checking the tide charts!  After doing the hike, I really appreciated hiking the sand spit at low tide because it allowed us to walk closer to the water’s edge and hike over hard packed sand, while exploring all the

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Dungeness Spit

ocean treasures left behind on the beach. The Dungeness Spit is the longest natural occurring sandspit in the world and it has the Strait of Juan de Fuca on one side, with the Dungeness Harbor on the other side, sheltering and protecting over 250 different bird species in the area. We took our time hiking down by the ocean taking in the waves crashing on the shore and exploring all the logs and driftwood the ocean had deposited and shaped into distorted configurations. We passed the time using our imagination in suggesting what the twisted pieces of wood looked like to us. We imagined dolphins, dragons, faces and much more. We both love photography, so of course, the driftwood was a perfect chance for us to take some photos and play with light. We eventually referred to our descriptive driftwood collection as our driftwood porn. We would love to have you tell us what you see?

At the end of the spit is the Dungeness Lighthouse, which is registered on the National Register of Historic Places. The lighthouse was built-in 1857 and is still in use this day.

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Dungeness Lighthouse

Families can sign up to stay a week at the lighthouse home and in return, they volunteer to help with the lighthouse duties and tours. What a fun opportunity for a family! After the tour and speaking at length with the family hosting the lighthouse, we decided we better get started hiking back. We could already see how the tide was coming in. It had swallowed up much of the beach that we had hiked out on. The hike back was at a much faster pace. The 11 miles were in the books and both of us were exhausted, ready for a nice dinner and bed as we drove to the Lake Crescent Lodge.

Crescent Lake is situated in a beautiful setting among the mountains within the Olympic National Park. We arrived in the evening, just in time to capture a brilliant orange sunset cascading over the lake’s smooth-as-glass water. One could come to the lodge and spend IMG_4779days exploring the trails and mountains just in this area. Since we had a limited amount of time and our final goal was to journey to the northernmost corner of the US at Cape Flattery, we decided we could fit in a quick hike to the Marymere Falls. Who could pass up seeing a 90-foot waterfall? The Olympic National Park is an interesting ecosystem since it has coastlines, temperate rainforests, and mountains. The hike to the Marymere Falls is only one mile but the trail takes you through a forest that reminds me of the enchanted forests found in my granddaughter’s storybooks. Tall trees, moss growing everywhere and hanging to the ground, ferns and thick foliage surrounding babbling brooks, everywhere you look you see many shades of green, browns and reds.

On leaving Crescent Lake, we headed north to Neah Bay, Washington, home to the Makah Indian Tribe. Driving into the town of Neah Bay, Patrice and I decided to stop and go through the Makah Indian Museum so we would have a better understanding of their culture. There are approximately 1500 descendants of the Makah tribe still in the area around Neah Bay. They pride themselves of passing down their ancient heritage, songs

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Our Cabin on Hobuck Beach

and tribal dances and Makah language to younger generations to keep their culture alive. The Makah Indians are known as great fishermen and whalers. Driving through town you see the ocean is still very much a part of their lives today. We found our cabin on Hobuck Beach and were pleasantly surprised it was positioned in the middle of a long sandy beach, extending out to tall rocky cliffs, 50 feet to the ocean.  We dropped off our bags in the cabin and headed out to Cape Flattery trailhead. Cape Flattery is the furthest northwesterly point of the lower 48 states. Walking through the forest along boardwalks you only have to walk a couple of miles before coming out onto this breathtaking view of magnificent cliffs where the rocks reach down to the most aqua blue water of the Pacific Ocean. We watched the seagulls ride air currents circling over the pounding waves rushing up over huge boulders. It was amazing to see how the water and the wind had eroded the land and created these caves reaching deep into the mainland.

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Cape Flattery

With only one full day left of our weekend, we decided to go to bed early so that we could hike Shi Shi Beach while the tide was still low.  Every trip always has to have some adventure and this night was our night. At 2:00 AM we were aroused out of a sound sleep by the cabin’s fire alarm going off. After we determined there wasn’t a fire and it was just our cabin’s alarm going off, we eventually had to call 911 to get someone to come and bring a ladder to reach the alarm that was on a cathedral ceiling. Being in a small town, when I called 911, they knew the maintenance person for the cabins and called him to come out and help us. Two hours later we were back in bed.

The trail to Shi Shi Beach was a walk in the rainforest full of beautiful lush trees, moss, and foliage. Once we got closer to the end of the trail we could see that we had been walking high on the cliffs overlooking Shi Shi Beach. The problem was how to get down to the beach? As we watched several people climb up to the trail from the beach we realized that there were ropes anchored into the side of the  cliff allowing you to use the ropes for support as  you make your way down vertically using tree roots for your footing. As we came out of the trees at the edge of the beach, we headed straight to the rocks, with low tide there were so many tide pools to explore. Shi Shi Beach is well-known for its Point of the Arches. We spent several hours walking up and down the beach, taking in the crashing waves against the rock formations and then deciding that we needed to head back before the tide came in.

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Rock Formations at Shi Shi Beach

Four days in the Olympic National Park just isn’t enough time to see everything the park offers, but it did allow us a great opportunity to experience the area and meet the people. The scenery was breathtaking and I so enjoyed sharing this experience with my good friend, Patrice.

Patrice, where is our next adventure?

Hi – Patrice here!

I was so happy my dear friend Cyndi (Adventurer par excellence!) was able to come out here and have the adventure that we’ve been planning for quite some time. The scenery was gorgeous and it was wonderful to share it with her. I have never been to the Makah Indian reservation (it was on my bucket list) so I was able to share this right alongside Cyndi. The Makah Tribe is known for their hospitality and they were warm and generous with their lands. Those we met were very welcoming. When we were in town, a member of the Council spoke with us and made us feel right at home.

I second everything Cyndi mentioned here but want to add a couple of things. I have had some health issues with my heart and while I am much better, I have been out of the exercise cycle for quite some time. In such, the hikes were challenging for me. Even though Cyndi is very conditioned and used to hiking, never once did I feel that she was frustrated with me. In fact, she was so patient and she encouraged me every step of the way. I ended up doing 28 miles in 4 days – all because of her coaching, advice, and help! I never thought I could do it.

The first day was the most challenging. We hiked out on the Dungeness Spit, which is an 11

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Patrice looking out at the Strait of Juan de Fuca

mile round-trip hike, with a steep uphill at the end.  It was hot, sunny, and on the way back it was the most challenging as we had to slog through dry sand due to the tide coming in. For those of you who know, walking through dry sand is the hardest. Because we had to beat the tide on the way back, we had to go faster than when we first started in the morning. I had made a mistake due to my inexperience and got the wrong kind of pack, and it was heavier than it should have been. With almost 4 miles still to go on the way back, it became hard for me to breathe and carry the pack. Cyndi seeing my struggle with the backpack took the pack on top of hers and set out for the final leg of the hike, with double the weight.

First of all, that is Cyndi – she is the kind of friend and person that would do that – in life as she did here. Using the pack as a metaphor, Cyndi is that kind of person – so willing to help others, coach, and  provide words of encouragement. Well, I ended up making it, although I got sick to my stomach, but I made it!! The longest single day hike I had ever

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done – because of Cyndi!  (Otherwise, my carcass would still be found among the driftwood with my bones picked clean from the birds, ha ha!)  Anyway, because of that first day, the other days’ hikes were much easier, though challenging – like learning the literal ropes on the way down the cliff to Shi Shi Beach – another thing she helped me learn!  But I had a lighter pack that time!

I re-discovered my love of hiking and am back doing it on a regular basis. With Cyndi’s advice, I returned the backpack and now have the right kind, and some hiking poles. I am literally a much happier camper after our adventure.

There is something about getting out in the beauty of the wilds to restore your spirit and reconnect you with nature. In this part of the world, in particular, it remains almost unchanged from what it has been for century upon century. From that vantage point, you can feel both insignificant (in a very good way) and yet feel never more human and alive. We are as much a part of that beautiful cycle of life as the trees, the water, and the wildlife. It was so much fun to laugh and experience it all with my dear friend and to see that I was capable of doing far more than I ever thought I could have.

Thank you, Cyndi! So where ARE we going next?  🙂

Patrice, I have no doubt that we will come up with another place to explore together,  our paths are destined to cross at the fork in the road!

View the slideshow of  the Pacific Northwest trip.

Viet Nam, A Sensory Adventure

Oolong Tea fields

The ten days Brandy and I spent in Viet Nam was a perfect blend of history, old temples, culture and outdoor activities. The trip is best described as a sensory adventure; all of our senses were heightened!

One of the things I noticed immediately about the country is its natural beauty and how warm and friendly the people were to us. Everyone we met throughout the trip went over and above to make sure our experience was exceptional, and the people were eager to share the heritage and history of their country. And they were just as interested in our history and quickly made comparisons between our two cultures.

On our final day of our stay, our guide asked us what differences we saw between the two cultures and his observations were priceless. A few of the things he mentioned included he told us Americans walk fast and we seem to always be in a hurry. This was a bit ironic as Brandy and I had a difficult time keeping up with him! In the United States, we are OK with showing public affection to each other but yet are horrified to see someone urinate in public. In Viet Nam, you don’t see a lot of public displays of affection, but it is common to see a person step to the side of the road or sidewalk and relieve themselves. Our guide tried to teach us a little Vietnamese and described their language as song-like. If you can hear tones in music you should be able to speak their language. That explains my challenge with their language since I couldn’t carry a tune if my life depended upon it! Our guide said their words meanings are based on the tones that you hear and where  the emphasis is put on the different syllables. It is a difficult language to learn, as the same word can mean five different things and the meanings have nothing in common.

When asked what my favorite part of the trip was, it is very difficult to say. The visit to Viet Nam had a good variety of activities and allowed us to see its rich culture, heritage and its beautiful countryside. Our travel took us from the south in Saigon to the Mekong Delta in central Viet Nam, and then up to the Sapa countryside, which took us within seventy miles from the Chinese border.

In many ways, it felt like a couple of trips all rolled into one.

The first thing you notice is the number of people in a small country; 90-million is the latest estimate, which makes Viet Nam the 13th overall populated country in the world. The country isn’t that big in square footage, so you can imagine how many people are living in such a small space. The population of Saigon and Ha Noi is around 8-million people respectively, and I think there are at least seven million of those people on mopeds on any given day, as they jockey for position down the narrow alley streets in the old downtown quarters.

Driving in Saigon and Ha Noi is best described as organized chaos, although no one is going very fast, but it does amaze me that there are not more accidents and deaths on mopeds every single day. The mopeds are definitely an important mode of transportation for the people of Viet Nam. You see everything from families with two children sandwiched between a dad and mom, as well as small dogs taking in the air on the front of the mopeds. The mopeds are used to take things to market as well, so there are people hanging onto huge boxes under their arms, balancing cages of chickens or eggs, or even a pig or two bungee tied across the back of a moped seat. We saw many mother’s carrying very tiny babies, bundled in blankets and held tight to their chest while sitting side saddle on the back of a moped.

Many of the people do have something as a protective covering on their heads, but our guide was annoyed with how may moped riders ignored safety. Instead, so many of the people on mopeds are wearing helmets that are more of a fashion statement. I can’t imagine anything that gives you helmet-head-hair when taken off as a fashion statement but to each their own. It was also interesting to us that in 90-degree weather and 100% humidity, most of the women riding mopeds were covered from head to toe, including wraps over their faces. When we asked our guide why they were covered up, he explained they are protecting themselves from the sun. White skin is considered more beautiful in Viet Nam, so they don’t want their skin to tan. I would have given anything for their beautiful skin. In fact, the Vietnamese have some of the most beautiful women I have ever seen!

We quickly learned there was an art to how to cross the streets. We were told the best way to cross the street was to walk with traffic or to just keep pushing across traffic without stopping. It felt like the splitting of the seas crossing the streets. You kept walking and the mopeds just went around you. The last thing you wanted to do was to try and anticipate the direction of any given moped and get into a game of playing chicken with them. If that happened, my money would be on the moped to win! We found ourselves walking in the streets, for the most part, since parking was very limited, the sidewalks were pretty much impassable, filled with parked mopeds, along with street vendors cooking food.

Speaking of food, if you enjoy fabulous food, Viet Nam is a foodie’s dream vacation! Food stalls are everywhere. The people are sitting at what is best described as small plastic tables and chairs that look more like something I would find in my granddaughter Anna’s playroom. The food choices are a mixture of tantalizing spices, fresh fruits and vegetables, and delectable tender meats. You can find everything and anything either on the streets, at the street stalls, or at gourmet diners and elaborate restaurants. On our trip, we booked through a highly recognized tour company with a culinary tour, which took us through the streets of Saigon. Our guide, Nguyen, pronounced, “Win,” took us through the streets for a 2-hour culinary adventure. He introduced us to the street vendors, and we tasted their specialties such as “Banh mi baguettes,” noodle bowls, grilled chicken, and delicious rice paper pizza.

Coffee is another staple that Viet Nam is well known for. Their coffees are usually made as single servings, served tableside through a filtering system called “Phin.” The use of condensed milk makes the coffee rich and somewhat sweet. In the USA we think we have a Starbucks or coffee shop on every street corner, however, the Vietnamese have whole streets dedicated to just coffee! I had heard a lot about their specialty egg coffee and had to try it when we were in Sapa. Not only is the egg concoction with condensed milk creamy like a whip cream, but also it makes a beautiful presentation in the glass cup, and its rich flavor is to die for! We also had heard about their “Weasel coffee” and had to bring some home. If you haven’t heard about Weasel coffee, watch the Bucket List with Jack Nicholson. In the movie, this was his coffee of choice, brewed through an elaborate espresso machine that was even brought to his hospital room.

Even though I enjoyed drinking coffee while in Viet Nam, I am normally a tea drinker at home. I was extremely excited knowing while trekking through the Sapa Region we would be going through Oolong Tea country. Oolong Tea is considered one of the higher quality teas that are produced in Northern Viet Nam and China. I was able to bring home several packages of Oolong Tea, but only after our guide called the Oolong Tea factory store and had them personally hand deliver it to the hotel for me to purchase. I was surprised you couldn’t find it in the markets but was told that it was considered too expensive for the local people to buy it in the local markets. Believe me, it was much cheaper to purchase in Viet Nam than what I would have paid here in the States.

It is always fun to visit the markets in foreign countries, but Viet Nam has its own variety of marketplaces unique to its culture. The floating markets of Cai Be start early in the morning with boats gathering together to exchange goods, and negotiating hauling products to market where they can be sold. The Mekong River has many channels where whole communities live and make their living solely on the river. Everything they would need to live can be found on boats and docks. For many of these families, they don’t even have to come ashore. We took a ride on a thatched roof boat down the Mekong River and saw how the river sustains a complete way of life for so many Vietnamese people.  At one point, we did dock and go ashore to visit a river village where they make glass noodles and snake wine. Of course, we got to try samples. The snake wine does have a bite to it!

The rivers and waterways are extremely important to Vietnamese people and their way of life. We visited another enchanting area called the Tra Su Forest. This is a marshy wetland where you quietly float through Mangrove trees, lily pads with lotus flowers, and green vegetation. I honestly thought we had been transported to some magical place in a fairy tale book. It was one of the most peaceful, quiet and beautiful places of all the locations I’ve visited throughout my many travels.

By day 6 we were ready to stretch our legs and get some fresh air. After an overnight train ride to Sapa, Viet Nam in the northern region of the country, it felt great to get outside and hike through the mountains. We hiked 10 miles through terraced rice and Oolong tea fields, following paths that had orchids and green lush vegetation clinging to rocks and cliffs. Sometimes we ran out of trail altogether and had to walk across rocks in bubbling streams and by waterfalls. We were there at the end of the harvest season, but the fields still had many villagers harvesting the last of the rice. Since this was a trek not used by the typical tourists, we only ran across the local Hmong people on the trail as we went through their villages. We shared the trail with boys on motorbikes carrying large bags of rice down the mountains, the buffalo boy following the water buffalo that meandered through the fields, and the women tending children or braiding hemp strands for their textiles. Many of the people we encountered stopped and were curious about us; some even walked a distance with us.

In one village, our guide had made arrangements for us to visit a typical Hmong home and to meet the family. They were gracious and hospitable. The first thing we saw when we entered the home was a large alter for worship. We were told that the majority of the Hmong homes have homemade alters in the main room. They practice Shamanism and ancestor worship, which means they believe that all things are endowed with spiritual beings and should be respected. This was obvious with the number of animals we encountered in the villages and on the trails. Dogs, pigs, chickens, and roosters were everywhere. Water buffalo are considered to be a valuable animal for the families, and if your family has one, you are considered extremely wealthy in the village. In the last village towards the end of our trek, we were invited to stop at a home where the woman was the local Batik artist. She took us to the back of her home and taught us how to create the Batik art. The family was hospitable and friendly and we spent a good amount of time visiting with them. They shared stories with us about their village life and how they grow and harvest hemp.

Our last stop of our trip was Halong Bay. This is a spectacularly scenic area of Viet Nam. It is made up of over 1600 beautiful limestone pillar islands that for the most part are uninhabited by humans, so nature’s beauty has been untouched for centuries. We spent the night on a junk boat where four other guests joined us. During the first day on the junk boat, we were taken to a cove among the islands were we were given kayaks to paddle around the gorgeous rocks. On returning to the boat, we arrived just in time to capture the sun setting over the bay. It was a very romantic setting and my friend Brandy’s boyfriend (Ellis who had joined up with us in Ha Noi) decided to take advantage of this beautiful setting and proposed to Brandy while the sun was setting. And Brandy said yes! We popped some champagne to celebrate with the crew and it was an idyllic moment to finish our trip.

Vietnam still has areas that have yet to be commercialized. As our world gets smaller and smaller, we start to see a lot of Western societies influence in areas that were never touched in the past. I hate to see these places change. Part of the charm of going to countries like Viet Nam is the opportunity to see their culture as it has been for years. A perfect example of these changes taking place is what is happening in Halong Bay. The bay area has been home to fisherman and their families for years. In fact, for many of these families they pass down through generations the art of fishing and it is the only life they know. While we were in the bay area, we saw barges of sand being shipped into the area where they were creating a large beach. We were told this was for the tourists along with a large resort hotel being built on the island just off this beach area. They were also building a large cable car that went the length of the beach, so tourists could go up into the cable car and view the bay and the islands from above. When we talked to the junk boat captain about all of the commercialism coming into the area, he was clearly concerned this development might mean tourists may not choose to reserve a night on a junk boat. Right now, that is really the only way to truly experience Halong Bay. I believe it would be a shame for future tourists to forgo experiencing a night on a junk boat, opting to spend the night in a typical hotel room.

As you may have gathered from this blog entry, my trip to Viet Nam was a wonderful sensory adventure full of color, luscious landscapes, friendly people, tasty food, history that made us think, ample quiet time in the backcountry allowing to reflect on a crazy hustle bustle of a culture in the cities that seemly never sleep. There is something for everyone.

If you decide to go to Viet Nam, drop me a line, who knows, maybe our paths will cross at the fork in the road.

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