Earth 101: What’s the Big Deal About a Few Degrees?

18 10 2018

sr15_cover_placeholderRecently,  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report, which outlines the impacts and costs of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) of global warming. The panel studied over 6,000 scientific reports, and concluded that… it’s getting far worse than we thought.

 

“But seriously,” you might be thinking, “how can just a few degrees make such a difference? I mean, we experience diurnal temperature swings far greater than that every single day, right? What’s so wrong with a few extra days of summer anyway?”

 

A few degrees might seem inconsequential, but I’m here to explain how this affects us. Not hypothetically, but historically. 

 

What do we already have records of? We know that the entire planet is already 1.8 degrees F (1 degree C) hotter than it was prior to the 1900s. So what have we witnessed thus far?
When the air and water temperatures increase, there are some predictable trickle down effects. It’s very basic science. Remember those principles your science teacher taught you back in 6th grade? Hotter atmosphere holds more moisture.
According to the recent BBC article:

For every extra degree Celsius in warming, the atmosphere can hold 7% more water. This tends to make rainfall events even more extreme when they occur.

“The waters of the Gulf of Mexico are about 1.5 degrees warmer above what they were from 1980-2010,” Sir Brian Hoskins from the Grantham Institute for Climate Change told BBC Radio.

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What does this mean?

Weather events occur because of differences in temperature. Hot air rises, and colder air rushes in to fill its place, until it heats up and moves up as well. This is why we have wind, and is the foundation for all weather patterns. When we have warmer air, it tends to be more unstable, and more likely to erupt into storms, just like what you’ve seen on a hot, muggy summer afternoon. With warmer air, comes more storms, more high winds, more damaging hail, more downpours, and more devastating floods.

(Learn more about other effects from a warmer climate in future posts from this Earth 101 series)

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Image: Ocean temperature variation from average

When it comes to storms over water, we get a double whammy. As ocean temperatures rise, they feed the unpredictability and intensity of tropical depressions and can turn a Category 2 hurricane into a Cat. 4 in a matter of hours. Just ask the Mexico Beach, Florida.

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As the Union of Concerned Scientists reiterates, the facts about the earth’s previous temperature rise are indisputable:

“Over the past 130 years, the global average temperature has increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with more than half of that increase occurring over only the past 35 years. The pattern is unmistakable: Every one of the past 40 years has been warmer than the 20th century average. 2016 was the hottest year on record. The 12 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998.”

 

So, the temperature rise is happening, but why is it really making a noticeable difference?

According to data provided by the U.S.’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), we now have 400% more extreme weather events causing at least $1 billion in economic losses, compared to the 1980s. Some of that increase is due to greater density of buildings along coastlines, but most is due to increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. In 2017, the United States experienced the most rainfall EVER received from a single tropical storm, leaving Houston drowning.

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When you look at all natural disasters in the U.S. between 1980-2016, tropical cyclones and flooding represent single biggest financial losses, totaling $580.7 billion, CPI-adjusted. They are are responsible for the highest number of deaths (3,210), followed by drought/heatwave events (2,993) and severe storms (1,578).

 

It’s bigger than it looks.

Extreme weather events may be isolated geographically, but in today’s global economy the impacts send ripples worldwide. When just  one hurricane hits, it not only devastates families who lost their homes, it also means businesses are shut down, jobs are lost, people with jobs have nowhere to live or no way to get to work. When those jobs are in manufacturing, this means that a critical supplier in Georgia may cause months of delay to a manufacturer in Detroit. So, emergency measures are taken, it costs significantly more money to source alternate suppliers and expedite shipping. All the sudden, that hurricane 300 miles away from you means that your next purchase may actually cost you more out of your wallet. 

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Beyond the human impacts, there are so many more effects from global warming. 

For all the beautiful and mysterious life brimming beneath the ocean’s surface, life is literally dying because of a few degrees. We’ve lost more coral reefs than you can imagine, with even the Great Barrier Reef being declared ‘dead.’ This is due to warming ocean temps, and more CO2 absorbed by the ocean, making it more acidic. Despite a history spanning over 6,000 years old, the delicate ecosystem cannot evolve fast enough to keep up with our current pace of change. We’ve already witnessed this permanent destruction:

  • Coral reefs bleached
  • Infectious diseases spread
  • Acidity weakens the coral’s structure
  • Fish are suffocating from algae blooms caused by floodwater
  • Plants are dying from sunlight being blocked out by sediment from heavy rains

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By the way, all of the damage to coral reefs has already come back to bite humans. We rely on healthy oceans for tourism, fishing, and seafood industries, which have all suffered losses due to the ocean’s decline over the past 40 years.

Here’s the deal. We need to quit squabbling over the cause of climate change, and start adapting to our new reality.

We are beyond the point of preventing climate change. We are already in the middle of something massive, and we’ve already made history. But, we do have the power to prevent more extreme devastation. We can slow down global warming by cutting our emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. We can plan for more extreme weather events. We can build safer, super-insulated buildings that can withstand hurricanes and epic temperature extremes. We can prepare our cities for 100 year floods. We can manage forests and limit development where wildfire risks are highest. We can continue to develop new, zero-emission technologies. We can invest in more carbon sinks, and preserve the ones Mother Nature provided us.

 

You can make choices every day to lower your carbon footprint. We all can do more. However, in order to reverse course, we must have leadership that recognizes the incredible health and safety risk that we are currently facing. Even if you don’t believe the scientists who spend their entire careers studying climate, you cannot deny the unusual increase in extreme weather events that we are now seeing year after year. 

 

The facts are clear, despite the uneducated, unscientific opinions you may hear. ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”  tweeted by Donald Trump on November 6, 2012.

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Angel’s Landing

17 09 2018

My first trip to Zion National Park was unforgettable. It was 2012; I was newlywed to my amazing wife, and my in-laws were still adjusting to the idea. My father-in-law is an avid hiker, and was my wife’s #1 hiking buddy… until she met me.

 

487214_344763562272941_986374107_nWe decided to fly out to visit her folks in Salt Lake City, Utah, with plans to road trip with her pops, Chuck, down to southern Utah, so he could show me his favorite hiking spots (and possibly test my qualities as a daughter-in-law by hiking me into the ground.)

 

The road trip itself was memorable, with an endless banter of joking, navigating, speeding, and flat tires just  miles from our destination. Despite the obstacles, we arrived safe and sound, in 100 degree prime afternoon sun, ready to start planning our whirlwind 2-day adventure.

 

We booked a local motel that Chuck stays in every time. We split a modest room with 2 queen beds, a shared bathroom, and 40 -year-old fluorescent lights. We dropped our backpacks onto the thin, overly-patterned comforters, and headed a mile north to the park headquarters to get the latest on hiking hazards and weather warnings.

 

With a potential risk of flash flooding lurking for the next day, we decided to set our sights higher. MUCH higher. We were bound for the infamous and elite trek all the way up and out through a narrow backbone to what is known as “Angel’s Landing.”

 

We warmed up with some easy hikes along the way, like Emerald Pools, and then double checked at the ranger’s station once more. As the valley began to heat up with mid-evening crackle, we began our ascent up the switchback on the western side of the canyon. Deep below the plateau, the shadows shielded us from the July intensity, and we casually climbed up the leisurely cliff-side, back and forth, pausing to enjoy the views and the wildflowers.

When we reached the top of Walter’s Wiggles, we hit what is known as Scout’s Lookout, and there is a choice to make. Views of Zion Canyon’s 270 million-year-old rock layers will take you back to the Triassic period, with views of the Colorado Plateau, which was a flat basin at sea level. In order to reach this view, however, you must risk traversing a potentially deadly ridge, climbing up crumbling, rocky precipices.

 

Chuck, a this point in his early 70s, wisely chose to split off to the west to do the Rim Trail. “I’ll meet you girls back here in a couple of hours. Be safe,” he casually warned us. I was amped up for our split to the east. After ascending this far, I couldn’t turn back. Although this heaving thrust of stone has lead to the death of far too many, most were overly-confident rock climbers, or unfortunate hikers who succumbed to unforeseen wind gusts. I was neither… I was feeling pretty good about this.

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As I began my ascent, I felt the diminishing nerves of my wife just behind me, whose fear of mortality was obvious when she audibly gulped at my back. “I might’ve taken too much ibruprofen,” she shared, feeling slightly nauseous. I told her that if she was feeling anything less than 100%, she shouldn’t pursue a risky hike like Angel’s Landing. Steel-nerved, she would never admit her fear, or deny me of this experience, and so at every point of brief rest, she insisted that I carry on.

 

It excited me to hit the point of the trail where the rocky outcroppings insisted that my body acquiesce, lean over and use my hands to climb. Scrambling over boulders always makes me feel like I’m really doing something (a bit more than hiking, but less than true rock climbing), however, scrambling at over 1,000 feet above the ground is a little bit different. When I reached the point where metal chains were bolted into the solid rock, to hopefully prevent someone like me from being blown over in a gust of upper level wind, the seriousness of this hike really hit me. On either side of my dusty Chaco hiking sandals, red rocks crumbled down farther than most birds have ever flown. My sense of mortality crispened sharply.

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This was an arduous, serious hike, requiring a snail’s pace in order to be safe. Between the beginning of the hike and the culmination, there were twists, turns, skinny passages, and nervous pauses. I hike quicker than my wife, and anytime a crest came between us, my heart palpitated in fear. I had jut married my soulmate, and I would never forgive myself if I lost her now.

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She was too proud to let me help her. Too proud to let me climb behind her.  I could only ask passersby, “Have you see a short woman with a silver pixie cut?” But I never let her fall too far behind me. This experience is one of constant amazement, unending vistas, and experiences that you simply cannot NOT share with another human being. It is unlike anything else in the United States.

 

Finally, with countless “excuse me” narrow bridges, chain grips, and breath-taking breaks, we reached the peak. I took us almost 2 hours to climb out 1 mile. A wide plateau emerged, wide enough to stand up straight and walk around with a normal gate, to peer cautiously over the cliff’s edge in all directions. Angels Landing is the unimaginable plateau that, from the river valley below, seems infinitely tall, soaring, like it belongs to the heavens above. And after reaching this place far above, it felt, indeed, like I was looking down from the heavens. I could barely make out cars far below, let alone people.

I sat down on the rocky edge, and turned my head left to right, like an owl, 180 degrees. I peered down on the valley below, nervously aware of just how far a pebble fell into the great depths below. I felt so lucky, knowing how rare this experience truly is, and just how many millions of other tourists had been to Zion, but who would never know this unforgettable vantage point. To those, like my own mother, who would be nervous by my photos alone, I felt a bit sorry. THIS, is living. This, is a bucket list item crossed off with an arm-sized sharpie.

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How to Choose Your Own Adventure: 6 Valuable Tips!

7 11 2017

It’s true, we love to travel. A LOT. But we would still love to travel even more than we do. Which begs the question we get asked often, “What’s your next trip?”

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Believe it or not, we actually have SO many places that we want to visit, we need a spreadsheet to keep track of it all. And we are also armed with some very key strategies to help us choose, “Where to?”

 

 

For most people, planning vacation can be pretty easy. Pick a sunny beach in Florida and book a week in January. Done. Rinse and repeat. This is swell for those people, but this just doesn’t cut it for those of us with the insatiable Wanderlust bug. It can sometimes feel overwhelming, knowing that I won’t live long enough to see ALL the places I want to see before I die. So how do we choose?

 

We’re Not Getting Any Younger

Although I’m only 37 1/2, I’m very aware of the reality that, the older I get, the harder it’s going to be to travel. Some of the most vigorous hikes will become too challenging for my aching bones. Long flights will wreak havoc with my veins. It will take me longer to recover from the energy spent simply getting there.

Tip #1: Do the most difficult hiking now. Push your boundaries while your body is at its physical peak, before it declines too far. The older I get, the more I recognize my own mortality, which can cause doubt, and make you shy away from something you wouldn’t have thought twice about in your twenties.

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I can tell you know that I’ve enjoyed several life-changing hikes, and some of them were so physically intense, I doubt that I will ever attempt them again. Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park in Utah, USA is one not for the faint-hearted! At least that hike is only a couple of miles from the starting point. Havasupai in Arizona, USA was not just scary at one point, but also tested our endurance, with 34 miles logged in a 2-night trip.

15492141_1392043570878263_2220117331010704962_nTip #2: Fly as Far Away as Possible! While these longer flights can be tougher to afford when you are younger, your body will thank you for sticking closer to home in later decades. Recently, I spent over 50 hours traveling to Sri Lanka, and when I arrived, both of my ankles were noticably swollen! This has never happened to me before, and I didn’t realize that I wasn’t moving enough while flying. The swelling lasted for 24 hours, and was a bit scary and uncomfortable. This can also be a symptom of another serious risk, Deep Vein Thrombosis. The risk of thrombosis increases on longer flights, and gets worse with age, as well as many other factors (including birth control pills!). This may seem like a weird thing to think about when you are young, but, believe me, blood clots are a serious and deadly risk. This is why you see airline passengers standing and walking around for long periods of time on flights over 4 hours.

So, next on my long-distance list? New Zealand!

The Climate IS Changing… Faster Than You Think

When we add a new destination to our travel spreadsheet, a critical factor is climate change. There are some amazing places on this planet that I may not get to before they are irreversibly changed as a result of climate change. We prioritize these destinations based on the estimated risks.

Tip #3: Prioritize Places at Risk from Climate Change. This is not a hoax. In 2014 I decided to cross off Glacier National Park because I had read about the melting glaciers. I wanted to make it there before Glacier has no glaciers left to see. It was a last minute, 4 day trip, and was not nearly enough to explore all of the amazing sights and experiences to be had there. Now my goal is to make it back before 2020 for some back-country thru-hiking. 10426120_681178748631419_2884749765749576765_n

Here’s my own list of climate-change destinations that I’ve managed to check off:

  • Glacier National Park in Montana, USA. This is one of the most stunning, expansive parks in our country, with an incredible variety of visual decadence to explore! Experts believe we have until 2020 before the last of the monumental glaciers are gone forever.
  • Everglades National Park in Florida, USA. Sea levels are slowly rising, at different speeds across the globe. As the ocean starts to take back Florida and other coastal areas, the unique biodiversity harbored in the freshwater/seawater interchange will be devastated, causing extinction of numerous creatures.
  • The Maldives.  This chain of over 2,000 islands makes up a paradise country located closest to India.  The former president of the Maldives recognized the harsh reality that their entire country- no more than 4 feet above sea level- would eventually be completely lost to climate change. He fought to take the country to being Net Zero Energy to slow climate change, but was since removed from office after a coo. There’s a great documentary called The Island President that can catch you up on their plight.

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Travel is Getting Riskier

Turkey, Istanbul, Haghia Sophia Mosque interiorIt’s a scary time in our world right now. The number of terror attacks had rapidly risen compared to just 10 years ago. I’ll be honest- it’s terrifying to think about. I don’t want to let terrorists win by becoming a fetal position shut-in, but I also take this risk seriously. When we booked our flight to Sri Lanka last year, I debated about whether or not to take the cheapest fare, which took us through Turkey, with an 8 hour layover in Istanbul. I researched heavily before deciding whether or not we would leave the airport to see some of the city while there. The day we flew out of Chicago, we were delayed 4 hours in a snowstorm, and my phone started blowing up with messages from friends on Facebook asking if we were okay. There had been a bombing in Istanbul that we had just missed.

While the optimist in me wants to hope that we will win the ‘war on terrorism’ globally, my gut tells me otherwise. I see such a rapid increase in radicalized groups and violent attacks, that I fear it will never be safe again to travel to some parts of the world. Would I love to see Pakistan? Sure! Do I think I will ever feel safe enough in my lifetime to go there? Nope. 2E81B6E900000578-0-This_table_documenting_the_increase_in_terror_attacks_in_recent_-a-67_14477001334622E893C6400000578-0-image-m-13_1447774752237

Tip #4: Don’t Ignore Political Shifts. If a country that is on your list appears to be getting less safe, pay attention! I wish I had gone to Egypt a decade ago, and don’t know if I’ll ever get to go now. I’m incredibly grateful that I got to visit Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, however briefly, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back. I’m actually flying through that same airport again next April, and have zero interest in leaving the airport next time, due to safety concerns. Before you book your flight, do your homework and know your risks. 

There are many amazing, world-renowned world heritage sites, but some of them are at risk due to wars. UNESCO catalogs all of the official World Heritage Sites, and color codes them to highlight ones at risk of being destroyed. If it’s safe to go there, don’t wait.

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Make a Plan, But Don’t Stick to It!

I’m all about research, spreadsheets, and lists, but I do not recommend you treat this as a commitment. In my Wanderlust spreadsheet, I collect links and jot down places I’ve never heard of when I read an article about someplace new. For those that I’m serious about, I actually put in a target year for traveling there, and sometimes I actually get there that year. Other times, it may get pushed back, or some new destination takes higher priority. And that’s okay. When my friend Raina moved to Sweden 7 years ago, it got added to my list, but I’m just now finally making it over there to see her!

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Tip #5: Be Flexible, and Jump at New Opportunities! When your high school friend joins the Peace Corp and moves to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso for 2-3 years… don’t be caught kicking yourself at her welcome back party because you never made it to visit her while she was there! Knowing someone in a foreign country is a perfect excuse to travel, and a great way to get a local experience!

Tip #6: Make Your Own Opportunities! If you have the travel bug, and you know this will be a lifelong need, don’t waste time wishing you could travel more… build the life you want! Do you have a dream job that would help you to travel? Apply relentlessly!

While I love my job, my travel is limited to the state of Indiana, so I only get to travel on my own time. But, I chose to combine career advancement and my love of travel, and started applying to present at international conferences. This strategy has taken me to Split, Croatia, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Kandy, Sri Lanka! I go on my own dime, using vacation time, but now I can proudly list on my resume “International Speaker” for 3 very prestigious conferences in my field of expertise. Win-Win!

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Do you have a natural ‘break’ in life, like going back to school or moving across the country? Take advantage of it! I actually delayed starting college after high school so that I could travel the U.S. for 3 months, and it’s the best thing I could have ever done. I made that choice when I was a sophomore in high school, and started saving up for my epic graduation road trip.

Are there volunteer opportunities that you can get involved with and get to travel? Do it! There are a number of ways to give back while sharing another culture. Build a school with a community, dig a well in Africa, or raise money for a good cause through travel sports! My first trip to Hawaii was done for ‘free,’ by fundraising $4,500 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society by running my first Marathon in Honolulu!

Bottom line, if you want to travel, there are a myriad of ways to achieve your goals. 

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Go grab the world by the mountaintops!

Remember, not all those who wander are lost.

 

 

 

 





Sri Lankan Angels

19 01 2017

cambodiaAlong our journey, we met some truly amazing people! Some of them were fellow travelers, some were locals. I mentioned in a previous post how much the people of Sri Lanka ended up transforming my opinion of their country for the better. Now I’d like to elaborate with a few short tales from our trip, exemplifying the goodness of humanity. After all, they’re the reason why I love to travel.

 

A Local Lifesaver

While I was immersed in the International Conference for Sustainable Built environment (ICSBE) one day, Bethany was working on lining up logistics for our post-conference travels. She spent a frustratingly long time standing at a ticket counter at the train station, trying to arrange a train to get us back to Colombo at the end of our trip, after realizing how impossible it is to buy a last minute train ticket the week of Christmas. The ticket person was growing annoyed by translating everything into English for her, and answered her questions with curt & confusing responses that only lead to more questions. She finally managed to understand that she could buy a ticket from the end of the line all the way back to Colombo, which would allow us to have a reserved seat, but get on at any stop along the way. Since we didn’t yet know which beach town we were going to end up in, this was a wonderful option. She managed to get the two tickets booked, and took her printout and her growing appetite to a nearby cafe for a long overdue lunch of rice and dhal.

 

jaffna-express-train-ticketAt the cafe, Bethany chatted up the man who smiled and seated her for her meal. He was the owner, and proudly shared that he had actually been to the U.S., to study at university! His English was unusually good, and he proceeded to chat with her while she waited for her order to be cooked up, then left her to enjoy her meal. As her blood sugar resumed its happy-go-lucky levels, Bethany started packing up to head back to the hotel, and pulled out her ticket for one last look before departing the Old Town of Kandy. In a moment of sheer horror, she saw that the printed ticket, which she had paid full price for, had the WRONG CITY as the destination. As printed, it would not get us back to Colombo, where we needed to fly out from. She was immediately embarrassed, knowing that there had been a sign at the ticket counter clearly stating that purchasers are responsible to check their ticket BEFORE they leave. Her emotions fluttered between bursting out in tears and screaming in frustration, in a manner that surely was visible to any onlooker.

 

citrus-cafeThe owner of the Citrus Cafe walked over with her change of rupees in hand, and could see her look of despair. He kindly asked what was wrong, and she dumped her terrible story out onto the table. With one felled swoop, he reassured her that he would help her to get the problem resolved. He spoke quickly to his staff in Sinhali, grabbed his keys, and told her that he would drive her back down to the train station and talk to the ticket person.  Within just a few minutes, he had managed to get them to correct their mistake, and she walked out a second time with a train ticket to Colombo.

 

That evening, we booked our next 2 nights at the guest house above the Citrus Cafe, and ate dinner there two nights in a row. (I’ll share that it was not a very nice guest house, with mold on the walls, but it was cheap, and we were grateful enough to endure it for 2 nights).

 

Sri Pada Selfies?

Traveling as a light-skinned person in Sri Lanka, it’s pretty hard to blend in. Add to that my braided blue hair, and it was impossible. Many people smiled and told me, “Nice hair!” when they did a double take to watch us walk past, but no place was I so popular as in Delhousie. I imagine that they get a fair number of young, adventurous tourists from
across the globe, and have probably seen their share of unusual kelly-hairstyles. In our travels, however, I had seen nobody else with a head full of braids (or dreads), and nobody else with such colorful ‘do. Many times along our trek, we would be taking photos and either offer to take photos of someone else (a couple or solo traveler), or ask someone to take our photo together. In almost every case, when I offered to take the photo of a Sri Lankan person, they would smile, and reach out their arm with their camera. I would, in turn, extend my hand to take their camera for them, and they would say, “No, no!”  Then they would turn the camera around, scootch up next to me, and take a selfie. One guy even looked at me and said, “Sunglasses!” insisting that I put on my stylish shades for the photo. Each time it made me laugh, because all they wanted was a photo with the strange foreigner, and then they would scurry off, in some cases to show their friends. I wonder how many photos of me are floating on the internet from that one adventure…

 

I wish that I had thought to turn around and take my own selfie each time mine was taken by a stranger. But I did manage to take some of my own, hopefully with a little more respect for the person I was asking.

 

15622296_10211763388310400_6221069219264689183_nMy favorite is ‘Brenda.’ The night before our bike hike to Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak), we wanted to scope out the start of the trail, so we wouldn’t get lost in the darkness of the night. Bethany and I walked down the dirt road, past a gauntlet of makeshift booths selling a mix of sweets, warm clothing, and plastic junk. The road kept winding, until it came to a bridge. Across the bridge, we could either go left or right. We looked at the light poles for a clue, and turned left, where we ran into another couple of foreigners who were being given advice from a local guide for their own trek. We listened in as he told them, “… there will be a fork, make sure you go left.” We got a little worried that the trail would not be as clearly marked as we anticipated. The only guidance we had was that the trail was lit, and that we saw the Buddhist flags threaded above the path periodically.

 

Without ever finding a clear “Trail starts here” sign, we gave up and turned around to go back to our guest house and get some rest for our journey. “I’m sure that it will be clear when we see a stream of pilgrims making their way to the trail head in the dark,” I hoped.

 

As we were walking back up the dirt road, I saw an elderly woman with dark skin and white hair. She looked me straight in the eyes and smiled, so I smiled back, assuming our languages would not allow us to exchange pleasantries. As we kept walking in the same direction, I sensed that she was still focusing on us, and slowed down to take a photo of something along the way. As she caught up to us again, I turned towards her, feeling that she wanted to say something to us. To my surprise, she spoke to us in English, and proceeded to walk along beside us as we slowed our pace. We strolled leisurely, as she asked us if we were planning to do the hike, and whether we had a guide. We said that we did not, and Bethany added, “we will let our hearts be our guide.” I suspected that the woman was trying to sell us something, but instead she paused, looked at us both, and replied, “you- no need guide.”

 

She went on to explain that she IS a local guide for the hike, which amazed me that a woman her age would be capable of such a strenuous journey, let alone multiple times a week. She clearly saw something in us, and wanted to impart her knowledge. She shared advice on some of the things we would see, and warned us not to give money to the monks along the way. “The journey is free,” she said, “but those monks, they…” she motioned with her hand to mouth like drinking from a jug, then shook her head disapprovingly. “OH!” we responded in unison, surprised to even fathom that a monk would drink alcohol. “No pay them,” she reiterated, “only donation at top, if you want.” 15590096_1397670863648867_1701599906302630025_n

 

When we got to our guest house, we asked the woman what her name is. “Brenda,” she told us. We introduced ourselves at the end of our lovely conversation, hugged the woman, and said goodbye. “Oh, wait!” I exclaimed, with my sudden epiphany. “Picture? Okay?” She smiled, and I took my selfie with Brenda, who I will fondly remember for years to come. She might not still be there next time I return to Sri Lanka, but she will definitely live on in my heart.

 

 





Travel in Sri Lanka: Tuk-Tuks, Buses & Trains, Oh MY!

1 01 2017

 

Life is about cherishing the good times and overcoming the bad. Every bad experience leaves us with perspective, and perhaps new knowledge or insights related to ourselves or those around us. Without fail, my experiences have shown that HOW you get somewhere is often equally memorable as where you are heading.

 

thailandOn my first trip to Asia, I learned to embrace the art of unplanned travel. While it was uncomfortable at first, it was my gift to myself, to liberate my need to know every next step, in order to embrace the unknown paths that would undoubtedly find me. So, after researching everything about Sri Lanka, I again chose to only book the bare minimum, leaving the rest up to destiny. As it turns out, that might not have been the best idea.

 

mirissa-xmasDespite being a predominantly Buddhist country, the week of Christmas is a huge holiday for Sri Lankans. Although they celebrate Christmas in a strictly secular sense, many richer Sri Lankans in the big city work for international companies, who give employees this week off to be with family. So, the families head to the central mountains and the southern beaches to enjoy the winter break. This means that all the train seats available to reserve in advance are sold out… which means we were left in Kandy with no clue how we were going to get to our next destination.

 

The Train to Hatton

While my conference was wrapping up, my wife had a day to research our options. She figured out how to take the local bus into town to the train station, where they confirmed that there were no tickets left for purchase. The only choice we had left was to simply show up the morning of, and hope to get lucky, or to pay exorbitantly more money to hire a private driver to take us one way into the mountains. So, we loaded our packs onto our backs, hitched a tuk-tuk to the train station an hour early, and crossed our fingers.

 

15589830_10211698209520971_3362054281497370108_nAmazingly, we got the last two tickets remaining in 3rd Class! We were ecstatic, though we didn’t exactly know what to expect. Our train ride to Kandy 4 days earlier had been booked in advance, which means first class, reserved seats, A/C, & wifi! They even served us snacks and hot tea. (Try drinking tea on a Sri Lankan train… it’s like sipping coffee while horseback riding).

 

img_2808We braced ourselves for the worst case scenario, we planned our locations strategically so that at least one of us could rush onto the closest rail car and attempt to secure a seat. If we failed to do so, we could at least sit atop our backpacks on the floor for the duration, right? The train pulled up, and people began to cluster for the doorways. We couldn’t figure out how to tell which cars were 3rd class, and had to thrust our piece of paper towards an official in order to get a finger point in the right direction. We climbed on board, and it wasn’t too bad… people were sitting calmly in seats, there were even a few open here and there. We started to ask if they were free, when someone asked us what our seat numbers were on our ticket. Seat numbers?? Bethany looked more closely at the faded monotone print, and, sure enough, it said, “9 & 10.” As it turns out, what we had purchased IS 3rd class, but it’s 3rd class RESERVE, which means that we had guaranteed seats!! We were thrilled to enjoy a comfortable ride, making friends with strangers, and listening to the drumming and singing flowing from passengers packed into the unreserved car directly behind us.

 

Hatton to Dalhousie

15541932_1393960027353284_5754440423933363127_nFrom Hatton, we had to take a bus or hire a driver to finish the journey through the mountains to the tea village of Dalhousie (pronounced ‘Del-house’). This is where the steep pilgrimage climb to Adam’s Peak begins. It looked fairly close on paper, just about 40 km or so, and we knew that a bus would be much cheaper, so we set off from the train station to figure out where to catch the bus. We crossed the tracks to what looked like a main road lined with shops, and walked into the town, assuming the bus station wouldn’t be far. Hatton is a small city, bustling with people and traffic, with mostly Sinhali signage. We originally thought we would stop someplace for lunch, but only saw ‘short eats’, or street food vendors. While we enjoy the fried samosas, dosas, and rotis greatly, we were really hoping for an actual restaurant to set our packs down and get our bearings. After a few blocks, we grew flustered, and I tried to ask someone for directions. Most small town Sri Lankans can understand some English, but cannot speak it, so my question was answered with a simple gesture- an outreached arm with a finger pointing in the direction we were heading. I looked at Bethany, we shrugged our shoulders, and kept going. A few more blocks down, I asked someone else. I got the same response. Finally, at the opposite end of town, the neverending facade of open air shops peeled back to reveal an enclave of tired buses, churning and groaning as they maneuvered around each other like coy in an overpopulated pond.

 


15665546_10211763329908940_9146162320501730702_nBethany found a ticket booth and asked which bus to Dalhousie. The man replied, “No, no one bus to Delhousie!” We tried asking a different way. “No bus! Maskeliya bus!” Finally, we understood that we must take TWO buses to get to Dalhousie, first to Maskeliya, then transfer to Dalhousie. Phew! Another man walked up, listening to our conversation, and tried to guide us to the right bus. This interim town was not at all on our radar, so we had no clue what name we were looking for. We boarded the empty bus, picked seats close to the driver, and waited. We still had no tickets, but this appeared to be okay. More people got on, including several people carrying baskets of baked goods and sweets to sell to weary travelers. After not too long, the driver started up the bus, and the conductor guided him out of his narrow slot, through the bus yard, without hitting any other moving targets. Once we were on the road, the conductor came by to collect our fares… a whopping 150 rupees, or about $1 total!

 

Trick or Tuk-Tuk?

img_2840The path may have looked short, but the mountain roads are anything but straight. The practically single lane roads wind along the edges of lakes and tea plantations, pausing frequently to let trucks and cars squeeze by on hairpin turns. It was a beautiful ride through the countryside, and the topography was simply stunning. It took what felt like an hour to travel 19 km to Maskeliyae waiting to get to the next bus station so we could figure out our transfer, when all the sudden a man boarded the bus and started yelling for us, “Tuk-tuk?” We were thoroughly confused and told him no, but then the conductor appeared, waving at us to get off the bus.Nobody else was getting off here, and I was nervous that something weird was happening. Our big packs had been stored in the back of the bus, so Bethany followed the conductor to go retrieve them, while I waited with one foot on the bus, scared that it would take off with our packs still in the boot! Once I saw that she had them safely on the ground, I disembarked to join her. The next bus was supposed to be just up the road, but this tuk-tuk driver was very adamant about giving us a ride. “Much faster!” he persuaded us with his smile. b-thailandWe asked how much, and, although it was many times more expensive than the bus, it was still only $5, and we were already running much later than we had planned. We negotiated the price a little lower, and gladly accepted his ride the remainder of the way. He promised to stop for photos along the way, and even pulled over to lead me down a hidden path, which revealed a beautiful waterfall known by locals!

 

‘Bad Trees’ en route to Nuwara Eliya

img_2951The Tuk-Tuk driver also gave us a price to drive us back the next day (after we were to climb SriPada overnight- more on that in a future post), though it seemed a bit high. In our exhausted, aching state after hiking from 2am-10am, we opted to skip the unknown of missing a train back in Hatton, and hired a car to drive us all the way to Nuwara Eliya. It was money well spent! For 6,000 rupees (about $40 for both of us), we had a comfortable ride the entire 3 hours, saving at least 2 hours of total travel time with all the transfers required to go by bus. Our driver, Sameer, was very friendly, and although he could not answer many of our questions, he was proud to stop and show us things along the way. At one point, still making our way around the beautiful lakes, he stopped and pointed, “That tree!” Huh? I stared, not understanding and shrugging it off. “Bad Tree!” he insisted. I furrowed my brow and squinted at the trees, trying hard to understand. “BAT Tree!” I looked one last time… OH!!! My gosh! The trees were filled with hanging bats! It was so weird to see bats in daylight, I asked him to wait for me to change to my telephoto lens so I could see them better. There were hundreds of them! It was incredible! Proud that he managed to finally get us to understand, we continued our journey, with a deeper friendship.img_2952

 

Searching for South

img_2853The rest of the central mountains are known for relaxing holidays, beautiful waterfalls, and some milder hiking destinations. Originally, I wanted to hike Horton Plains to a place enticingly called World’s End. But by the time we arrived in Nuwara Eliya, my aching calves had morphed into full rigor mortis. I was still hopeful that a good walk would benefit our muscles the next day, but we still had to figure out how to get from Nuwara Eliye down south, to our next destination. Despite everything we read, we were still hoping to find a magical train that would slice through the center of Sri Lanka to get us quickly and comfortably to some  much needed relaxation along the beaches. Unfortunately, this invisible train does not exist, so our only options were to take the bus, or hire a driver. This part of the journey is much farther, and a driver can cost upwards of 20,000 rupees ($90-130), which was not in our budget. Luckily, there’s a government bus! Our AirBnB host in Nuwara Eliye kindly helped us to figure out the current bus schedule, which changes frequently, but calling his friend to get the latest details. We could catch one bus the entire way to Mirissa, but it leaves at 8am. That means, no time to explore anything else in this area, unless we want to stay another day. We debated, but our exhaustion kicked in, and we opted for the beach instead of another night in the crisp fall weather of the mountains.

 

The Wheels on the Bus…

The next morning, our host offered to drop us off at the local bus station, just 5 minutes from his house. He previously said he was busy, but- totally unrelated to the fact that his dog had bitten my foot the night before, I’m sure– he suddenly had time to help us out! He not only drove us to the bus station, but dropped us off in front of our bus, then promised to go park his car and come back to make sure we were all set. The conductor helped us load our packs into the boot, and we climbed on board the bus, about 45 minutes early. It was completely full. The few seats that looked open were being saved for family members with bags and coats. I looked at Bethany with horror, as I realized what this could mean. This bus ride is scheduled to take 7 hours. SEVEN. With no seats available, this means that we have no choice but to stand in the aisle, gripping the overhead bars through the winding mountain roads. We started to have a conversation about whether or not we were willing to do this. Is there a later bus? Not a direct one. Should we wait another day? The thought alone exhausted me. Just then, our host popped on board the bus, aware of the situation. “Don’t worry, I’ve spoken with the conductor, and he says that when you get to Elle, there will be two seats for you.” Elle is about 1 ½ hours into the bus ride. Okay, that’s doable, I thought. We thanked our host for his help, as we were literally the only foreigners on the bus, standing out like candles in a chocolate cake.

 

An hour into the ride, we slowed down more than usual, and I leaned over the seat backs to my left to try to catch a glimpse. While normally this vantage point would have me peering into a canyon, since the drive on the left there, I saw a car between us and the edge of the road. There were several, which we were inching past on the right, where oncoming traffic had stopped. Then, I saw the cause of the delay. There was another bus, just like the one we were one, sitting on its side, hanging just barely over the edge of the road. I saw no people standing around, so it had either just happened, or been there a while. It put the fear right back in me, and- I hoped- in our driver too, as we continued past the wreckage, through yet another hairpin turn.

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Six hours later, we were approaching the coastline… still standing. By then, we were quite friendly with our neighbors, with no personal space left to speak of. With each stop, the conductor squeezed through the aisle, pressing us against the seated passengers nearby while we sucked in everything that we could. Every 10-15 minutes, I would switch arms, feeling my biceps burning with each unexpected swing or heave of the bus. I shifted wait frequently from left leg to right, stretching upward onto my toes to give my calves some momentary relief. Just one stop before Mirissa, someone stood up to get off, and we slipped into the empty seats. The immediate relief sent out an audible sigh.
Memorable? Yes. And, believe me, when I got to our next guest house, that bed could not have felt any more well deserved than it did that day. Since we saved so much money riding the bus, we proceeded to spend those hard-earned rupees on drinks ocean-side.





Dear Knob-heads: Let’s NOT Die in the Woods this Weekend!

1 11 2015

In case you haven’t met me, I love hiking. I love camping. I love hiking AND camping. So, I thought, isn’t it about time that I went camping WHILE hiking? Yes, indeed it is.

 

‘Thru-hiking,’ as it is known, is not something that you just wake up one day and go do. Unless you’re a 17-year-old boy. They don’t know any better. But for the rest of us, it takes practice, preparation, and good gear. It’s taken me years to accumulate enough lightweight, quality gear to feel like I could realistically load up everything it takes to live onto my shoulders and travel through the woods without falling to my death. If you don’t enjoy packing for a normal trip, this process of packing for a thru-hike will blow your mind. Not only does it require a tent, sleeping bag, pillow, sleeping pad (if you are so inclined), but also socks, a mug, a stove, a lighter, a pot, spoons, water, food, toothbrush, safety gear, spare socks, ways to see in the dark, clothing for all temperature swings, more spare socks, a knife to fend off rabid wolves, a compass, a map, emergency hand warmers, ibuprofen, and one last pair of socks just to be safe, in case the first pair gets a hole, the second pair gets wet, and the third pair gets thrown at the pack of rabid wolves to buy time while you realize in which of the 37 zippered compartments on your pack your knife is hiding.

 

This year, our friend, Summer, asked us if we had ever hiked the Knobstone Trail in southern Indiana, and if we would be interested in going on a trial run thru-hike there with her. Like us, Summer is perfectly outdoorsy, but never managed to cross over into the realm of extreme survivalism that inspires thru-hiking. Bethany & I jumped at the chance to finally attempt what we had been wanting to do for years!

 

Water Drops

12088368_10208117798572935_6934933217593447015_nWe met over coffee to look at maps and plan our route. I texted questions to Diana, our resident expert, who had been test hiking all across the state all summer long in preparation for her big cross-country hike in New Zealand this winter (well, winter here- summer where she’s going). I am used to more desert hiking, and so we often plan our routes around rivers so that we can easily make more potable water whenever we need it. Diana warned us that this was not possible on the KT (Knobstone Trail), so we would have to plan on ‘water drops.’ With the help of another friend, Jennie, we strategized how much water we would need for three people per day. Despite Jennie’s military expertise, we dialed down our rations, knowing that we would not need water for shaving or- scoff- showering. We are tough women! Besides, this trip is in mid-October, which means that the sweat-drenching humidity of Indiana has finally passed, and our main concerns are about the cold nights.

 

Ticktastic!

Tick biting - with its head burrowed in my skin - engorging on blood. Likely female Brown dog tick, Rhipicephalus sanguineus. Hard for to ID; with her head buried in my skin. Can see pink inflammation around the bite. Camping and hiking. One of few which can complete its entire life cycle indoors. More common on dogs; in kennels, homes, than outdoors.

On a recent trip to Red River Gorge, KY, we were resting atop Double Arch, and chatting with the folks having lunch nearby. Another hiker, having learned where we are from, started telling us all about how her eagle scout son and his friends were just on the KT in August. She paused, looked at her friends, and said, “I probably shouldn’t tell you this.” Okay, lady, now you HAVE to tell us. “Well, they ended up cutting their trip short because they all got ticks. I ended up pulling about 60 of them out around his butt.” Umm……… I’m sorry, SIXTY?!?! Sixty. There were SIXTY ticks on this poor boy, and on his butt, no less!!

 

pant legsNaturalists that we are, we decided to be prepared. We were grateful for the chilly fall weather, as we tucked our pant legs into our calf-high hiking socks, hoping to confuse the little bastards. I sprayed my shoes with the strongest stuff I could find in our house, which isn’t saying much. It was probably mostly tea tree oil and sage, stirred with a dash of unicorn tears, but at least it had the word “tick” on the bottle. We never saw a single tick the entire 4 days. Good thing too, since my fingers were so numb from the cold that I could barely untie my shoelaces, let alone properly check for ticks before going to bed.

 

Leota Trailhead

The KT is a total of 58 miles long, but the Delaney Loop is closed until further notice. Knowing that we only had 3 full days, we decided to hike the northern half of it, which would have been about 20 miles, not including the Delaney Loop. Not knowing any better, we planned to start at the Leota Trailhead, near the middle of the trail, and hike our way back north to Delaney, where our second car was waiting for us. We arrived on Thursday night, just an hour before dark. We loaded up our packs, extended our hiking poles, and set off into the woods.

 

12096270_970875966328361_8168649366688444138_nNobody told us that Leota is basically the steepest, most intense part of the trail. Although you may not think of Indiana as having any mountains, what we do have is endless, undulating, tree covered hills that are 200-300 feet tall. It’s like somebody buried an entire family of giants back there. Over the entire course of the KT, you end up ascending 20,000 feet in elevation gain…. up, & down, up, & down. Yet you never climb to more than 1,000 feet above sea level. I was SO happy that Summer had heeded our warning and purchased her own set of hiking sticks, because I had also offered to share one of mine with her if she needed it, and I definitely was grateful to have both of my hands firmly wrapped around the cork of my poles. With just one, I’m sure that I would have been found in a tangled ball at the bottom of one of those hills, shaking a leave-covered fist towards the trees, mumbling, “Damn you… Leota… damn you…”

 

12088498_10208117510485733_1819092549892675723_n12122935_10208117526206126_3557328629597749795_nWithin minutes of starting our journey, we passed another trio of campers who had already set up for the night. Three large men in their 40s, circled around a large fire, waved as we proudly strutted past. “Yeah, we are just as cool as you, “ I thought smugly to myself. We knew it was going to be getting dark soon, so we only hiked in about a mile before settling down for the night. We crested a hill and found a split in the trail, unclear which way was the right way to go. I looked to my right, and, with some trail magic, discovered what was clearly someone else’s old campsite. A stone fire ring was flanked with two large logs, perfect for sitting! Without much hesitation, we all agreed to stop here for the night, and figure out the trail in the morning. I set up the tent for Bethany & myself while she unpacked the Jetboil camping stove to boil water. A short while later, we settled in for a peaceful night of sleep, listening to the wind rush through the treetops. I imagined the force it would take for any one of the infinite number of thin trees around us to come crashing down atop our tent as we lay sleeping. Then I heard the sounds of a helicopter buzzing over our heads, clearly searching for a lost hiker who had been reported missing after foolishly starting a 4-day thru hike at the worst trailhead of them all. The helicopter moved farther away, but hovered, circling, endlessly into the night until I finally managed to doze off.

 

What in the Blazes???

The first morning on the trail went off without a hitch. I woke up before dawn and laid in my comfy sleeping bag, excitedly thinking about all the miles we were going to accomplish today. We’d looked at the map with our headlamps the night before, and decided that it was just 7 miles to our first water drop, but if we were really feeling good, we might make it 12 miles on our first full day. We’d play it by ear, of course. All we really HAD to do was get to our water.

 

start ktWhen I couldn’t stand it anymore, I finally got up and out of the tent. I quietly foraged for branches to build a fire while my camping mates slept in. I saw two young men walk by, carrying only a small lunch-bag sized vessel. You know, those super geeky disc golfer bags, where you would unzip the top and instead of finding a PB & J, you’d be awe-struck by the fact that there are 17 kinds of frisbees they can justify buying to play this game? It looked like that. I waved hello as they walked past, and I pondered what they were doing here, in thru-hiker-land.

 

11138141_970875526328405_7599704003886208452_n

 

A bit later, when Bethany & Summer had risen and were diligently working on making coffee, we saw another group of thru hikers walking past our site. They were heading back towards Leota, where we started last night, and paused to look at the trail markings. I told them they were headed in the right direction, since they were obviously heading opposite from us. About ten minutes later, we saw the same three guys walking back towards us.  At that point I paused to ask where they were headed. Apparently, they were the same guys we passed right after we got on the trail, and they were already somehow lost. “Great,” I thought, “this surely bodes well for us newbies.” They seemed to find another trail that looped them backwards, which none of us could quite figure out.

 

1506754_10208117801613011_6877198851640560601_nThe trail was severely damaged by a tornado in 2012, and apparently more recent summer storms left much of the trail tree-strewn and rerouted. When we were done with breakfast and ready to hit the trail, we followed the path of the earlier trio, hoping to learn from their mistakes. There were marks on the trees to guide us, sometimes white circles, sometimes white rectangles, and sometimes simply the letters “KT” scrawled in white spray paint. As the dappled sunlight fell across the bark, it was frequently difficult to discern whether there I was seeing a faded white blob or just sunshine reflecting into my eyes. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, the forest itself was conspiring to confuse us. Patches of the forest were also polka dotted with some sort of bark lichen that grows in the EXACT SAME size of white circle. I lost track of how many times I asked, “Is that a white dot or just fungus?”

3 round lichen

 

 

With each mile marker we passed, Bethany took a picture to recognize our accomplishment. My calves were aching from the climb. As the tallest one in our party, I frequently hiked ahead, and would stop to wait for Bethany & Summer to get back within line of sight. At that moment, my hiking poles became marionette props, resting against my armpits as I lowered my back horizontally in order to relieve the pressure from my shoulders. Each uphill began to wear on me, as I felt my glute muscles burning to lift my weight up a 45 degree slope. At least I think that was why they burned. That’s not a sign of ticks, is it?

 

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At some point, several miles in, I stopped to scan for the next white dot, struggling to see the path. Ahead of me, those two young men from earlier that morning came strolling down the hill, still carrying that mystery bag. Maybe they had a human head in it, and had just finished burying it in the woods where noone would ever come looking. I waved hello again as we passed on the trail, and prepared my legs for another steep climb. This one was a doozy. It just kept going up, and up, and up. At least the path had finally widened from a deer trail to something wide enough to drive an ATV on, so I could weave a bit to avoid the washed out ravines, and find firmer footing.

 

By the time I got to the top of the hill, I was relieved to see that we had ascended to a ridge, and the trail appeared to continue along the ridge for a while. Yay! Bethany and Summer arrived at the top and we all took off our packs to rest for a minute. I jogged ahead to scout out the trail,  which seemed pretty clear, although there were not more white dots. Unlike the other parts, this was obviously not worn by 4-legged animals, and we all agreed that, because it was so clearly the trail, the nice folks at the DNR must have decided not to bother painting the white dots.

 

climb hillAnother 20 minutes down the trail, we got to a valley where the path disappeared amid the low growth of the creek basin. To the north, I could see a lake that I recognized from the map. Except, I thought the trail went a ways south of the lake, not right up to it. Bethany pulled the map and compass out again, and we examined it more closely. I was positive now that the trail we had been on- while clearly some sort of man made trail- was not THE trail. According to my very sophisticated orienteering skills, developed in 9th grade OSMTech, the KT was running due south of us, just on the other side of that ridge. We himmed and hawed. None of us wanted to retrace our steps back to the last white dot we had seen, because we knew it was way back where I had seen those boys coming down the monster 300 foot hill. Bethany wanted to climb directly up the ridge to our south to try to find the trail. If we followed the creek bed, we decided, it would take a little longer, but we would eventually intersect the trail again, while still moving in the right direction. And we would avoid climbing another steep hill for no reason.

 

After just 5 minutes of hiking up the dry creek bed, over fallen trees, through thickets of prickers, it became obvious that this would be a slow go. We needed a machete. All I had was my handy dandy pocket knife and some really cool hiking sticks. I had visions of us being lost in these woods, running out of water. I had opted out of packing my water filtration gear because it was extra weight and we planned ahead with the water drops, so this is how we would die. Drinking contaminated water from an unnamed lake, in the middle of Clark State Forest. I gave in, and suggested that we turn around and go back. Bethany wanted to trudge on, refusing to admit defeat, but Summer’s desire to live won out over her super agreeable nature, and she voiced her preference to backtrack as well.

 

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At the end of the day, we finally made it to our water drop as the sun was setting. I collapsed onto a beautiful spot by Elk Lake, watching the sky fill with honey colored clouds as I strapped a light to my forehead. We were near another trailhead, and I had just enough reception to power up my phone and check how many miles my FitBit thinks we did. In theory, it was supposed to have been 7 miles from Leota to Elk Creek, and we had started a mile or so in. After all the missed turns and retracing our steps, up and down, and up and down… my little FitBit is convinced that I just completed 12 miles. So, we met our goal… we just didn’t get as far as we hoped. But, I was proud, and tired. And a little bit scared that we still had 2 more days to go.

 

astronaut dustThankfully, it turns out that Day 3 was a bit less strenuous than Day 2, and Day 4 was an easy walk in the park compared to Day 2. Of course, by Day 4, we were all half frozen, with open wounds, aching shoulders, blistered feet, and ready to be 30 pounds lighter. We concluded our trip with delicious Mexican food from a local restaurant- NOT made by reconstituting dehydrated astronaut dust!!- and uploading pictures from our phones to Facebook. That’s when I learned about these things called “Blazes.” Apparently, when you see two of them marked together on one tree, you’re supposed to know that the trail is turning. Sometimes they even show you if it’s turning left or right. That might have been nice to know. And, FYI, Sectionhiker.com, I would like to challenge your comment that “Two blazes should never be visible at once,” and “Most trails are over-blazed.” A little more blazing would have been helpful on the KT. We only got off trail another 6 times. At least we learned that when we get to a fork in the trail, always choose the deer path, and steer clear of the two-tracks.SURVIVED





Caving in Vang Vieng

19 02 2015

The Midwest is frozen. With highs in the single digits around here this week, another massive snowfall is slated to fall this weekend. February may be waning, but winter is still going full force.

It’s this time of year that I relish in warm memories to keep me sane.

Winter is also the time of year when I get caught up on all of my indoor hobbies, like sewing or collaging photos in my collection of photo albums. Recently, I was donning my double-sided tape and glitter pens, as I finally placed my photos from Laos. It was 2012 when we were there on our true, month-long ‘Honey-Moon,’ and I made enough memories to last me a lifetime.

546778_411245945624702_1231613780_nVang Vieng

Halfway between the bustling capital city of Vientienne, and the French-influenced Luang Prabang, sits a small town of Vang Vieng. Nestled between steep mountains, this village has one way in and one way out, along a winding, 2-lane road that they like to call ‘paved.’ We arrived on a 10-person minibus (a van whose driver clearly wanted to make it round trip and home in time for dinner). We stopped at a small guest house with an open courtyard ringed with individual buildings for the rooms. Our new German friends, who we met in Thailand, ended up staying at the same place as us, so we dropped off our packs and walked to town together for dinner as the sun was already setting behind the mountain.

The town center is actually pretty developed, with a jarring contrast of bars and restaurants each blaring bad dance music and selling cheap plastic souvenirs targeted at 20-something college students from Australia and Europe. Even when we found a place to eat that was geared towards a more mature crowd, we could still hear the music thumping from the place next door, whose storefront was completely open to the street. As we ate, we read more in our guidebooks and travel apps about this place.

Apparently, when the borders opened to Laos, this sleepy village became a prime destination because of it’s amazing mountains and the lazy river that flows through. Things quickly escalated, as young people flocked here to get drunk on an inner-tube or go rock climbing. Alcohol abuse and drug use were quickly running rampant, and several tourist deaths were starting to become normal. The government quickly shifted gears, to try to market it differently- no longer as a party town for rich foreigners. The excessive drug and alcohol use has tapered off, but the remaining business owners seem to be confused about who they are selling to, now that more nature lovers are coming here.

vientienne siem reap 457The next morning, we slept in- a treat for me, since I usually wake up with the sun no matter what time zone I’m in. The steep height of the neighboring cliffs kept our room in a pool of shadows until late morning, and we were enjoying the leisurely pace of things here. Our new travel companions, Timo and Inez, came here to climb, so they set about their day renting ropes and gear. We knew about some caves nearby, and were looking forward to the free bike rental that came with our room. We ate breakfast outside (also included in our $18/night room), under the shady canopy of the main common space, where Laos soap operas played on a television mounted to the wall behind the bar. While we ate, our host had her husband pull out a couple of bikes for us to use. They were single speed cruisers… with baskets. Ohhhh, yeah. I asked about bike locks and they smiled, “You no need here.”

Searching for Darkness

It’s pretty difficult to get lost in Vang Vieng, with the mountains framing your horizon, and just a few dirt roads peeling off from the main road. I had written down directions to the first cave, but we had to rely on the infrequently posted, hand painted (and often peeling) signs to show us our turnoff. Bethany and I proceeded to pedal down the main road, where trucks and cars swooped into the oncoming lane to give us plenty of room. I thought it would be scary to bike on this main road, but, unlike in the U.S., biking is the most common form of transportation here, so those with automobiles were incredibly respectful and cautious of people on bikes. We set off, the warm sunshine shining on our backs. I tried to take pictures with my phone as I cycled, and we had to stop a couple times due to livestock in the road. It felt like we had been biking a while- longer than I expected- when we finally looked back and saw a sign that said “Vang Vieng 20 km.” That’s when Bethany looked at me and said, “I told you I thought we missed our turn.”

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We turned our bicycles around and started peddling back toward town. From the opposite direction, we saw a sign for a different cave, and decided to try that out. We pedaled down a dirt road for a mile or two, and came to a parking lot with a few tour buses haphazardly parked. We rushed ahead of the group and crossed a small bamboo bridge. We followed the wooden signs until we saw the cave. It held a large, 17 foot long reclining Buddha, and there was a large island in the middle where people could choose a fortune reading. We removed our shoes, I wrapped my exposed shoulders in a sarong, and we entered. We watched as Laotian people pulled one, read it aloud, and gleamed with joy. We wanted to understand, but we barely spoke enough Laos to get by. Thankfully, as we were lingering and about to leave, someone who spoke English asked us if we wanted them to read ours to us. I grabbed the cup, shook out my fortune, and handed it to the kind stranger. We struggled in broken, woven languages, and smiled at the fortune, though not really sure what we had just been told.

vientienne siem reap 329We took a few photos of the cavern and the sculptures, then turned to leave. There was another cave, a real cave, down another path, so we followed those signs. We grabbed our bikes and walked for a while, then got back on and road over the bumpy, winding dirt path. We enjoyed the quiet, meandering through a sparsely treed area, with the massive rock looming before us, guiding the way. Eventually, we got close to the base of the rock, and then saw a small shade structure with a few teenagers hanging out, blaring loud music from a boombox. They explained to us that we must pay the equivalent of $0.50, which was what we had read ahead of time. Then they loaned us a cheap headlamp, and pointed us to the entrance of the cave. Bethany tried to say she would pay them double to turn off the music so we could enter this sacred place in peace, and eventually they did turn it off for us. We looked at the headlamps they gave us and tried them on. Thankfully, we had our own, much brighter headlamps with us.

We walked up to the face of the cliff, the opening was obvious, but there was no actual sign. We ducked slightly to walk into the opening, and were faced with nothing but darkness. We saw glimmers of gold reflecting back at us, and turned on our lights. Before us was a large seated Buddha, barely illuminated by the sliver of daylight shining in. We admired the statue, which was again quite large. Then we turned our heads to the left and saw only endless blackness. “I guess the cave continues,” I stated. We walked on, exploring stalagmites and stalactites. We stepped through narrow passages, and heard the sound of distant water rushing. We paused, unsure of whether it was safe to continue.

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The sound of water quickly grew louder as we pressed on into the darkness. It was odd, to get so far into a cave, and to be utterly alone. I’ve been on cave tours before, in Kentucky or Indiana, but never once had I been simply pointed towards a cave without a guide. I verbalized the natural fear that crept into my head, “you know, if something happened to us in here, nobody would ever know where to look for us.” We recognized the risk, and decided to just go a little further. We’d been exploring for about 45 minutes, and  we had no idea how far this cave actually went.

We stumbled upon the source of the water sound. A small stream crossed the floor of the cave, then sharply turned and disappeared into a hole in the wall to our right. I tried to shine my light inside the hole to see where it went, but all I could tell was that the echoes implied a very steep fall downward. At that point, we realized that we had NO idea how far up, or down, this cave had already taken us. After about an hour, we decided to head back.

Emerging from that mountain was surreal. We left the dank, dark, isolation and were plunged back into the lush, forested meadow.The teenagers had turned their music back on, we handed back the lights we didn’t use, and counted our blessings that nothing unexpected had occurred in there.

There were 4 more caves on our hand drawn map.

The sun was still up, as it was only just after noon, so we mounted our bikes, and off we went. We decided to intentionally get lost. There was a split in the path, and we had no idea where it might lead us, but with the mountain on our right, we felt safe in our adventure. We bicycled through a tiny cluster of houses made from thatch and bamboo, along an irrigation canal, past farm fields growing rice. We saw cows and chickens roaming freely, and waved back at the small children who seemed so excited to see us rolling past their homes.

We had no clue where we were headed, and, frankly, we didn’t care. It was so freeing to feel unrestrained by roads, or signs, or rules. We just were pedaling in the sun, and smiling. Eventually, we did see another hand-painted sign for a cave, so we followed it back to another remote area. We paid our admission fee to the elderly woman standing near the entrance, and she smiled profusely at us, possibly the only visitors she’s had all day. We didn’t see another white skinned person the whole time we were back there, away from the main road. It felt like this place was here just for us to see and appreciate the hidden treasures that the denizens of Vang Vieng were keeping.

We saw two more caves that afternoon. Each was equally desolate. They required climbing down on progressively questionable handmade ladders, branches strung together with twine. Some were slippery with damp condensation from the cave below. Never once did we see another soul. The caves were remarkable, each with different formations. Some were chilly; some felt warm and humid. We became comfortable navigating the dimly lit darkness by ourselves, holding hands, and only able to tell when the other was smiling by the sound of our lips squeaking against our teeth.

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We paused in every cave, to take a few minutes to sit still in the absolute darkness. I could hear my breath echo as I strained to listen to the silence. It was utterly beautiful. Nothing can describe what it feels like to be there, surrounded by thousands of pounds of solid rock, not a sound to be heard except the infrequent drip of a stalactite, and the heartbeat of my love.
vientienne siem reap 427When we bicycled home that afternoon, the valley was already in the shadow of those magnificent formations. My heart felt so full, I was grinning like a schoolgirl in love. And… I was.

Despite the misfortunate beginnings of tourism in this area, it is a nature lover’s paradise. Quiet, stunning, peaceful, and I’d go back in a heartbeat for a full month of exploring.








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