Vacation Nightmares (Unexpected Obstacles)

22 01 2018

It was our honeymoon in Asia. We had just left the warm glow of the night market in Luang Prabang, a small city in central Laos. While flaneuring through the French-influenced streets, we enjoyed the novelty of a glass of red wine, which was uncommon in all the other cities we had visited thus far. The streets were lined with little shops, and some families sold goods from their doorsteps. (The streets were also lined with 3 foot deep troughs on one side or the other, which sometimes carried an unpleasant whiff of sewer as we crossed over it to enter a store.)

 

543954_411231012292862_1157693378_nWe walked down the main street, which grew darker as we left the town center. We saw a small orange glow up ahead, and discovered an school aged girl baking fresh coconut pancakes on her stoop. The smell of freshly roasting coconut halves was intoxicating, and we happily paid the equivalent of 50 cents to fill our mouths with this decadent treat!

 

318080_411245148958115_1016118415_nWith happy bellies full of coconut and wine, we kept strolling, enjoying the peaceful quiet of the peninsula. There are very few streetlights out near the end, and we could look up and see the stars above us. What a perfect night! Though we were relishing the evening, it was time to head back to our 4-unit guest house. We wanted to get to bed early because the next day we planned to hire a tuk-tuk to go out to Kwang Si Falls for some hiking. The series of multiple, cascading waterfalls looked stunning in photos, and the view from the top was supposed to be breathtaking. I was excited to get back into nature for a rugged trek!

 

537275_411237032292260_266475734_nWe turned to cross the dark street, and I squinted to see where the narrow concrete bridge crossed over the sewer trough. I made it back onto the sidewalk on the opposite side, and then I heard my wife’s frantic yelp behind me! She had forgotten about the trough, and stepped right into the abyss, lunging full stride against the concrete edge with her thigh.

 

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Frantic, I used the flashlight on my phone to assess the situation, terrified by her moans of pain. My brain immediately thought about the potential nightmare of needing an emergency room in a foreign country. Nothing appeared to be broken, thank goodness! We hoisted her out of the trough, and tested her ability to bear weight. She stumbled, and put her arm around my neck so that she could hobble the few blocks we had left to go.

 

We managed to translate “ice” into Laotian, and our hosts helped us to find this elusive first aid. I brought her ibuprofen, and in the privacy of our room examined her leg further. The impact was so severe that a bruise was already evident. By the next morning, it looked absolutely wretched! Needless to say, she was unable to hike to the top of the waterfall, and spent the rest of our honeymoon hobbling as her injuries healed.

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Lost in the Canyon

15 11 2014

kb leaving mooneyAfter scaling a cliff to get down to the bottom of Mooney Falls, I was pretty sure that the worst was over, but unsure of what lie ahead. Our path out to Beaver Falls- the fourth and final of the named falls in the canyon- began by simply sloshing through the river. We had been warned that the mileage marked on the maps was way off, but we felt like we still had plenty of energy left to explore more.

Within minutes of leaving the roar of Mooney Falls, I could hear other sounds again, and realized that we were not far behind another group of adventurous hikers. Two young couples appeared to be in their twenties; the women hiking in shorts and swim tops, while the guys hiked shirtless, but wearing backpacks. They came into view as the ground heaved upward and slowed their pace, our shared path blocked by a massive drop. I heard them murmuring as they figured out how to climb over, and the guys went first, rather easily. The second guy paused when he realized that his girlfriend’s legs were too short to jump down the steep drop on the other side. He grabbed her from below and hoisted her down safely, doing the same for the second woman, and then he looked back at me, paused, and asked me if I needed help. I politely declined. I figured that if we couldn’t get down on our own, we sure as hell were not likely to get back UP without anyone else around, and I wanted to be sure that we were not making a mistake by continuing.

It took me a couple minutes to figure out my approach, after a couple of failed attempts to climb down. We were about 7 feet up on the boulder, but that wasn’t the scary part. The landing pad was a narrow ledge, just a few feet wide, and if I missed my target, I would be falling another 20 feet to the river floor below. I would have to duck under another rock outcropping as I jumped down, making it particularly awkward and difficult. There was no easy handle to grab onto, and no way to slowly climb down. I just had to lower my body as far as I could from the top, then jump. Bethany froze behind me, watching me calculate my mental math. She was terrified that I was going to fall to my death, and began stammering and questioning if we should turn back.

As I blindly poked my hiking stick below me to assist myself, my feet failed to find anything but sheer vertical wall. I craned my neck to get one last look at where I was about to jump to, and let go. My heart racing, I landed safely with a soft thud, and immediately backed away from the close edge. I tried to play it cool to calm Bethany’s nerves. She was noticeably frightened, though relieved that I was safe. Now the fear shifted to her own safety. She was realizing that she could not make the same leap, with an extra 6 inches to make up for her height. “It’s okay,” I cooed, “I’m going to grab you by your legs and lower you down slowly.” She got more agitated, and at first I was a little offended. “Trust me,” I responded to her expression. She explained that her fear was in response to a vision of me trying to help her down, losing my footing, and sliding off the perilous ledge.

After everything we had already been through to get here, I was not willing to give up. It took a few more minutes of coaxing, but we did eventually get Bethany safely down, where we paused for a minute to embrace. We were in the good reality, but these ‘adventures’ in hiking were starting to exhaust our nerves! We are both stubborn and logical. We may never come back to this remote village again, we were sure, so this was our one chance to see what most visitors do not. We trekked on.

hike mossAhead, our path was much easier. We strode through low growth along a dirt path, discovering countless tiny waterfalls, all different and unique. One was made from a ball of stone, as big as a Geo Metro, which had been sown with a vast array of colorful, delicate mosses. A stream of water poured over the ball evenly, trickling across the surface until the last curve turned under, and the water could no longer cling to the moss, falling gently below. It sparkled with  thousands of tiny droplets, in a hundred tiny, waterfalls, each a single stream wide.

We waded in and out of the river, crossing whenever the trail turned to cliff. It went on and on, through a lush green field strangely devoid of trees, and over rocky outcroppings that capped each end. There were no signs. No arrows. The skin on my achilles began to chafe as the wet-dry-wet mileage took its toll. We began to wonder if we would make it. How far had we gone? Did we miss Beaver Falls? There were so many falls, after all.

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We were grateful for the occasional hiker who passed by, so we could track our progress. I began to wonder if we should turn back, knowing the trail home meant scaling up that enormous cliff by Mooney Falls. Daylight was already starting to wane in the valley.

Finally, after what felt like hours of hiking in and around the river… we found it! The increasing roar of water was met with echoing sounds of laughter. Our bodies slumped with relief, as we approached our final descent.

b beaver fallsBeaver Falls is made of three tiers of falls, each between 10-20 feet tall. We had also been told of a secret “green room” that you can swim to if you are brave enough to swim under the rock wall at the base of the middle tier. By the time we got there, my sense of mortality was pretty ripe, and I had zero interest in testing my luck searching for underwater treasures. Bethany’s feet were throbbing, so she had no more ladders in her. She stayed at the top level, soothing her weary feet in a cold, shallow pool.

kelly beaver falls 1I couldn’t not go further. I left my bag with Bethany, and walked ahead towards the ladder. I walked across wooden rungs to the edge of the water, then climbed down another set of ladders. There was space to sit on a rock ledge alongside the center pool. It was the most lavish, decadent spa-like setting I have ever been in. I removed my shorts and set them on the rocks next to someone else’s bag. I stepped into the water. It was cold… refreshing… invigorating! It got deep quick, and I plunged my whole head under water, then swam towards the base of the falls. No matter how hard I tried, I could not reach the falls, forced back toward the edge of the lower falls.

For a split second, I feared that I would be pushed over the edge, down a 20 foot drop to the lower pool. Then I remembered the natural lip formation that protected me, creating the incredible depth to the pool. The calcium in the water had created a built-up rim, like the edge of a tub. It was many inches thick, and I watched the water flowing just over the top of it.

I sat there, arms resting on the calcium ridge, leaning over the waterfall cliff, surrounded by rushing liquid, marveling at the beauty all around me. I felt like a pearl in a clam. I was literally sitting at the precipice of Beaver Falls, with a 20 foot fall directly below me, and a 12 foot cascade behind me. The water roared with so much white noise that I could close my eyes and pretend that nobody else was there. It was just me, and the river. It was magical.

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I wished that we had another day, so that I could have stayed here and watched the moonlight glistening off the water. I didn’t want to go back. My feet were tired, and I could feel the blisters that needed attending to, but as long as I stayed in the water, nothing hurt me. However, Bethany was not there by my side, and I knew that she was waiting for me. Our hike back would surely take longer, now that we were sore and damaged.

We said goodbye to the falls, and headed up canyon. The scenery had completely changed, as midday fell to dusk. I no longer stopped to take photographs at every bend, as I began to worry about daylight. I took pictures with my mind. My tired, achy mind. We stopped only to add bandages to our feet, and to engulf chia bars for the energy to make it back. The last few miles between Beaver Falls and Mooney Falls felt like an eternity.

IMG_6374Bethany’s pace was much slower than mine, and I had to stop every 15-20 minutes so as not to lose sight of her. We tried to follow our route back, but ended up in unfamiliar areas. At one point, we had come up through the river, but went back over the cliff. I found myself at the bottom, questioning which way to go, as my feet hit water again. I looked back up, waiting for Bethany to crest the top, to see if she wanted to try another route. I thought she was just 20 feet behind me, and should be there any second. While I waited, I waded out into the water to look upstream and downstream, to assess how deep it got. I went back to the shore. Still no Bethany. I began to get worried, but it was a steep climb back up to where I had come from, and I didn’t have the strength to do it twice right now. Had I missed her? Did she keep going while I was wading in the river? I called out her name, but got no reply.

I looked up at the cliffs, which had grown a dark shade of crimson with the evening shade. I began to worry. I waded back out into the water, shouting her name, both upstream and downstream. Because of the constant sound of the river flowing, I could not hear anything. I didn’t know what to do. Should I keep going? Backtrack? What if she went a different way and was heading back without me? There was no cell phone reception in the canyon, and no way to know how to locate her. I began to panic.

I screamed Bethany’s name again, and heard a faint, distant whistle. Thank goodness her pack had a plastic safety whistle built into the clasp! I splashed through the river bed, certain that if she could see the water, this was her best chance of finding me. There she was, about 60 feet ahead, up on a cliff, with no path down. We shouted over the roaring water to figure out who should stay and who should move. When I finally got to her, I was furious, and relieved. “If she had lost me, I would have never forgiven her,” my cranky logic concluded. My fear manifested as anger, and it took me several minutes to calm myself down. “She is safe. It’s all okay. We are in the good reality,” I told myself.

We hiked on in silence. Partly due to frustration, partly due to exhaustion. The climb back up to the top of Mooney Falls was easier than the climb down. We barely stopped for anything, we were so ready to be done. I was sad that we were already at the end of our day, and she never even got to see Havasu Falls, which I had enjoyed the night before.

Despite her exhaustion and pain, I convinced Bethany to just hike down to the bottom of Havasu Falls with me for a minute, so she could at least say she was there. She watched as I swam in the pool, the water now a shadowy blue. It was chilly without the sun, but still felt amazing. Bethany said she was heading back, but told me to stay as long as I wanted. I wished she would stay with me, but I understood her needs were different than mine.
IMG_6238After she left, I was all alone. I was surprised that nobody else was here to enjoy this time with the falls. The cliffs around me were all dark, though the sky above was still a soft blue. I stared at the waterfall, mesmerized. My eyes would catch a pocket of water as it leaped over the top, following it all the way down until it plummeted into the pool below. I could have watched water falling for hours. I breathed deep, aware of the smile on my face that seemed to exist without any effort. I closed my eyes and listened. A breeze brought goosebumps to my bare skin, and I pulled my towel closer around my shoulders. A single bird flittered into my periphery, landing in a nearby tree. She sang for me. She sang with the waters. She sang with the ancestors, whose spirits rest in the rocks beyond. This, is why I am alive.





Heaven in Havasupai

18 10 2014

Canyon hiking in the desert is not like other hiking. It means that you are prone to unique weather patterns, and while significant rainfall is rare, flash flood potential is very real. Before we enter into any slot canyons or wash hikes, we seek updates on flash flood warnings. Up until this point on our trip, we have been extremely lucky with blue skies and dry trails. This morning, however, I awoke in our motel room to the soothing sounds of rumbling thunder. This is not a good thing when you are about to embark on a 10 mile hike down into, and through, a rural canyon, with nothing around but a remote tribal village at the end of the 10 mile hike.

 

We still have a 2 hour drive ahead of us to get to the Havasupai Hilltop, where the trail head starts. grand canyon sunset 1We barely made it this far last night, after leaving Antelope Canyon and following the detour around the major road closure. The detour led us past the Grand Canyon, where we paused briefly at sunset for a quick kiss goodnight. We drove on. Through the inky blackness of the desert sky, we finally found the neon glow of our charmingly renovated Route 66 motel.

 

Information about today’s hike is sparse. The Supai tribe is very negligent when it comes to providing useful information for visitors, so I still didn’t REALLY know what to expect. My mom kept asking me about the hike, and whether there were going to be any more steep, narrow cliffs. I couldn’t exactly answer, and I was hesitant to look too hard, for fear that the answer would be yes.

 

We packed up before dawn and hit the road, stopping for coffee along the way. I searched on my phone for more details. I found another online review, and learned that we had to hike down 2,000 feet in the first mile. Is that too steep? Hmmm. My mom was getting nervous about whether or not she would be willing to do this hike. We agreed that, if she felt uneasy once we got there, she could take the rental car and drive back to civilization, picking us up two days later.

 

As we eat breakfast, the rain pours against the diner’s wavy glass windows. I pull up the radar map on my phone, between bites of potatoes and sparse cell phone reception. I gulp. The system is HUGE, and extends all the way up from Route 66 to the Havasupai canyon and over the entire Grand Canyon, down to Flagstaff. I begin to get nervous about whether or not we will even be able to start our hike down into the canyon, let alone make it safely to the Supai village.

 

If the trail is flooded, I know, we will be totally out of luck. Our reservation at the Supai ‘lodge’ had been made months earlier, and they were absolutely unwilling to allow changes or cancellations. I had no idea what to do. Bethany pulled up the phone number for the Supai lodge and called. Nobody answered (which is normal). I began to imagine the worst case scenario- we drive another 2 hours only to find the canyon flooded, with no way to cancel our 2 night reservation at the remote village, and no idea what to do. As we sit there in the diner, sipping coffee refills, Bethany keeps calling, and finally gets through. The woman who answered the phone in the village said, “It’s only light rain here. There’s no problem with flooding.” I look down at the radar on my phone again and, although I am still doubtful, I chirp, “okay, let’s go do this!” Off we went.

 

HIKING DOWN INTO THE VILLAGE

supai hilltop 2Remarkably, after driving over an hour through the downpour, we got to the hilltop and the rain had stopped. The skies were still dark and impending, but mostly off to the east. The hilltop is about 2,000 feet up, with an amazing panoramic view of the canyon. Before we do anything else, we walk over to the edge so my mom can peer down and make her decision.  The trail is a good 6 feet in width- wide enough to accommodate two passing strings of horses and pack mules. It switches back and forth above itself, so that even if you fell over, you would only fall down one layer. My mom agrees to go down.

 

We load everything we needed on our backs for 3 days, extend our hiking poles, and begin hiking down. The path is rocky, but mostly worn down to a thick layer of sand that drifts between my toes. (Yes, I hike in Chacos). It is a beautiful hike, with the same view seeming like countless new views with every leg of the switchback. We slowly dip deep into the canyon over the first hour. The landscape continually transforms as we hike further, unfolding around us with each bend in the dry wash floor. The first five miles felt pretty good, and I am grateful for the cloudy skies. We stop occasionally to take photos, but I’m surprised we don’t see more hikers. Maybe 10 others? By mile 9, my shoulders are aching from the weight of my backpack (my mom’s backpack, actually), my back is sweaty, and my feet are pale with dust. Eventually, the canyon comes to an end. I walk up to the first sign I’ve seen so far, which reads “Supai Village,” with a hand painted arrow pointing left down the intersecting canyon. We have been hiking for 5 hours, and we are all ready to be done.

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Inside the village, the roads are still sandy, meandering, and mostly used by horses carrying down the packs of visitors. There are no cars, or bikes, but there is a helicopter pad used by locals and tourists. Buildings here are a mix of trailers, shacks, and some wood framed homes with multiple, custom additions. Things are dusty, and in disrepair, with dogs running wild throughout  the canyon. It is about what I expected. Despite the $35 per person daily charge to just BE on their land, and the expensive cost of the motel room, there are no signs of the Supai people getting rich off of tourism.

 

As my mom and Bethany putz behind me, I walk ahead to try to figure out where the lodge is in the tangle of unnamed roads and paths, I’m afraid that we missed a turn. I ask a villager for directions, only to turn around and discover that I have lost my two companions. After waiting a few minutes for them to appear, I walk past the store, the school, the church, and see the lodge. There’s a white guy sitting at a table on the front porch. He looks even more tired than I feel. “Checking in?” I ask of his large pack. “Yep. They said she went to the store and will be back soon,” he says, pointing at the closed door and teasingly lit up ‘open’ sign. I laugh, and sit down to wait.

 

Once we get checked in, we walk through the courtyard to our second floor room. The three of us collapse on the two full beds, shoes and all. Laying down for 10 minutes felt amazing! I recover quickly, and, although my hiking mates are done for the day, I decide to go out to explore. I want to see what the big waterfall hike will look like for the next day, since getting to the village was only the beginning! The real reason we are here is to hike even further down the canyon to see some of the amazing waterfalls. Most people don’t see all four, but I am hopeful we will have time.

 

In the pale, waning light of dusk, I make it out to the second falls- Havasu Falls- and am pleased to find that the visitor reviews of this portion are fairly accurate. I don’t go any further, knowing that it will be dark soon. When I return to the hotel room, I share my snapshots of inspiration to get Bethany and my mom excited about what we get to see tomorrow. Even after turning my 10 mile day into a 14 mile day, I can hardly wait!!

 

navajo fallsThe next morning, after a restful night of sleep, we pack plenty of chia bars and soy jerky, water, and band-aids, and head out for a fun day of exploration. The named falls, in order of distance from the village, are Navajo Falls, Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls, and Beaver Falls. I suspect that my mom might not make it to Beaver Falls. I have heard that the last one was hard to get to, involving some wooden ladders and some steep climbs, but it’s a little unclear exactly where those are, or how many miles it really is to Beaver Falls. Some people have complained that the hand-drawn map was not correct, and it’s an additional 1-2 miles more than the map leads you to believe. We will see!

 

Our game plan is to head to the farthest falls first, then slowly make our way back and enjoy each spot with the time we have left. It’s supposed to be 5 miles out to Beaver Falls, so we expect to make it there in a couple hours. The elevation of the canyon floor continued to fall lower as we head out from the village, with a pretty gradual grade the first 2 miles. The trail meanders past Navajo Falls, a multi-tier cascading set of falls, the highest at 15 feet.

 

havasu fallsHavasu Falls is just a bit further, and as we crest over the hill, it suddenly appears off to the right, a roaring mirage below us. The trail splits in two, and we can either wander down to the bottom of Havasu Falls, where the flowing, turquoise pools are speckled with people in colorful swimsuits, or we can continue on toward the campground. We march on.

 

We walk through the area designated for camping, which is basically anywhere that isn’t riverbed. The pattern of water flow diverges, and weaves its way through in an army of little, babbling brooks. It is nearly 4 miles until we come upon the third waterfall, Mooney Falls. Much like Havasu Falls, the promenade is from above, and the falls plummet down from the clifftop on our right. Mooney falls is much taller, and we can hear the falls as they echo off the cliff walls. Unlike the last one, the trail does not split up, nor is there an obvious, easy path to continue on. We walk over to the edge, and I am in awe. The water falls a tremendous height, roaring with power as it carves out the rock at its base. This is the one where people used to cliff dive, because the pool below is deeper than you can ever imagine.

 

mooney falls b topThe cliff wraps around, and our easy path suddenly morphs into a rocky outcropping of steps. My mom bravely decides to try it, but warns me that she might have to turn back. Within the first 12 feet, the path folds back under itself, and there is barely a trepidatious foot of width left to the path. “Well, Mom,” I smile back at her, “I totally understand if you want to stop here.”

“Yeah…,” she laughs nervously, “I think I’ll head back. See you girls back at the hotel!”

 

Bethany and I continue, unsure of what to expect. I use my left hand to grip the rock wall, my right on my hiking pole. The trail begins to feel more like a multiple choice test, with spray painted arrows on rocks showing different ways you can climb down to the next level. In just 10 minutes, I snake my way back around to the point where I can once again see the falls, obscured now by the trees. The trail stops, with a sign that warns of the potential hazards. I turn to my right and see an orange arrow pointing at a large black hole in the wall. This is my only choice.

 

mooney falls descend riskThe second that I duck my head into the cave, the sound of the waterfall dulls to a dim echo. I pull out my cell phone to light my way, advancing down onto subtle steps that had been carved into the stone. I can see the light from the exit up ahead, and as I erupt back into daylight, I can clearly see the falls. The path is now framed with a heavy metal chain bolted into the rock wall, acting as a rail to prevent an accidental fall over the edge. There is nothing below me now but sheer cliff, and air.

 

In just a couple more strides, another tunnel immediately takes me back into the dark, but this time when I emerge, there is no trail. There is no guardrail. Instead, it goes down. Thick, heavily worn wood is formed into a ladder, likely a dozen years old, which is chained to the rock at my feet. Shit just got real. Mist from the falls, still  a few hundred feet away, settles lightly on the chains. I pull the straps for my poles over my wrists, letting them swing loosely at my sides. I take a deep breath, look back to be sure I haven’t lost Bethany, and I begin to climb.

 

kelly mooney falls climbAs I descend, I can’t see more than a few feet to anticipate what is coming up next. How far will it go on like this? My hands are wet from the cold metal, and my knuckles are pale from my tight grip. I find myself recalling my basic ladder safety tips. Three points of contact at all times! Release left hand- grab wooden rung- release right hand- grab- release left foot- feel for next secure footing- repeat.  I realize how tight my muscles are and try to tell myself to relax. Then I laugh at myself inside my head. “Relax?!?! Yeah, right!” The rungs are slippery, and I am climbing down blind. If I mis-step, it could be disastrous. I look up periodically to check on Bethany. She is slowly following me, and I can tell that she is equally fear-stricken.

 

It felt like forever for my legs to finally reach solid ground. My quads tremble with relief, and I take a minute to just look up at what I have accomplished. For a split second, I feel myself filling with dread, knowing that, “we still have to get out the same way.” It is like rock climbing, except we have no harnesses or safety gear.

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Bethany is still 30 feet above my head, moving very slowly and deliberately. A logjam of people have accrued behind her, waiting, because there is no place to pass. Her large backpack makes her top heavy, and the uneven load is definitely slowing her down. I am grateful she didn’t lean back too much and lose her balance.

 

When she finally reaches the canyon floor, we both sigh a breath of sweet relief. “Holy shit that was intense!!” “I can’t believe we just did that!” Had I known how treacherous the hike would become, I likely would have turned back too. Thankfully, I didn’t.

 

Money Falls is breathtaking, and worth the ‘hike.’ The force of the water is so strong, that groups of young men are taking turns swimming at full speed towards the frothy white rapids, only to be pushed right back to where they started. The group of adventurers who made it this far is small, and only gets smaller as we look on. Despite our plan to hike to the end and then make stops on the way back, we agree that we have totally just earned a break! We spot a picnic table sitting empty in the middle of the river, with a foot of clear blue water rushing beneath it. We sit down, resting, eating, in awe of what stands before us. It is so powerful!bk mooney picnic
The last leg of the hike is the part that remains least known. Most people never make it this far. The trail is easily an extra 1-2 miles further. When we get up to head out, I can’t even tell where the trail is, as water flows everywhere I look. A young woman guides me, “Just follow the river, you can’t get lost.” Great. Can’t get lost. That sounds like a challenge to me! And with that, we walk ahead, through the shallow river.

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