Not Your Typical Girls’ Trip

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good wine-fueled girls’ weekend. I’ve been to two amazing female gatherings in the forest and at the coast in the last 2 years. But this girls’ trip was different, full of wildflowers instead of wine and starring Oregon’s tallest peak, Mt. Hood. For this girls’ trip, my friend Val and I donned 35-pound backpacks and walked 40 miles around the highest point in Oregon.

I’ve wanted to hike the Timberline Trail, which encircles Mt. Hood, since I learned of its existence 20 years ago. But I just never got around to it and then in 2006, flooding of the Eliot Branch on the mountain’s east side destroyed the trail as it approached the canyon, making passage nearly impossible. It took 9 years for the Forest Service to repair the connection across the stream. And earlier this year, Val and I marked out four days on our calendars in August to finally trek all the way around Mt. Hood.

This trail through the designated Mt. Hood Wilderness is challenging and sometimes grueling as you climb in and out of glacier carved canyons, wade through icy runoff on 8 major creeks and rivers, and clamber across snowfields. But it is also spectacularly beautiful, filled with a rainbow’s assortment of wildflower meadows and a million dollar view around every corner.

We set off as most do, from Timberline Lodge, a National Historic Landmark on the south flank of Mt. Hood, built by the Works Project Administration between 1936 and 1938. We stood on the front steps of the lodge before setting off and asked a woman to take our photo. She asked where we were headed and got very excited for us when we told her our plans. She too had dreams of circumnavigating the mountain.

The sun shone bright as we traversed under the ski lifts next to the Lodge before leaving civilization behind for four days. We darted in and out of white pine and subalpine fir forest at tree-line, bright violet lupine lining the trail.

Our first major stream crossing at the Zig Zag River went off without a hitch and we proceeded on to the aptly named Paradise Park, taking the alternate route through its technicolor wildflower meadows.

We had just passed a foursome lazing in the sun and enjoying their lunch, when we heard a noise. A very distinct yowl came from a small grove of trees off the right side of the trail ahead. We stopped in our tracks and confirmed that we both just heard what was clearly a cougar, then went silent in time to hear a short, high pitched, “meow” come from the same spot. We quickly turned around and headed back to the lunching hikers who had also heard the roar, but not what we can only assume was the sound of its cub that followed.  Agreeing that there was strength in numbers, we retraced our steps, passed the grove of trees as a band of six and continued on down the trail. We never got a glimpse of the cat, but I’m sure she saw us.

The final test of Day 1 was crossing the glacial waters of the Sandy River which was rushing and wide this late in the day. After watching a couple of folks shimmy on all fours across some narrow logs, we opted to doff our shoes and socks and wade across. It was damn cold, but thankfully a quick crossing. We set up the tent on a forested shelf above the river, ate dinner and were in our sleeping bags by 8pm.

Day 2 started with the ethereal Ramona Falls at the lowest point of the Timberline Trail. We stopped to snap a few photos before heading out to what turned out to the be the most difficult stream crossing of the trip.

Arriving at the first of several channels of the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River, we surveyed for an easy route to cross. None apparent, Val decided to toss her pack across the channel and then rock hop across. But as she went to release her pack, she realized it wasn’t going to clear the stream. She held on as the weight of the pack pulled her chest-first onto a log with a perfectly placed nub that struck her sternum, as her pack hung precariously over the small rapid below, water licking at its base.

I was flailing to dislodge my hands from my hiking poles, unsure whether to grab her or her pack first. I chose wrong and grabbed her legs. “My pack!” She yelled over the rushing water. “Grab my pack!” Together we hoisted her pack on shore and assessed the bodily damage. A nasty welt slashed across her chest and bruises bloomed on both legs, but no bones appeared broken. We carefully crossed on a few large boulders, a crossing which, in hindsight, required no heroic measures and took a well deserved break on the other side.

After confirming our initial assessment of the injuries, we set out again, enjoying spectacular views of the northwest side of the mountain and its craggy lower ridges, through the old growth noble fir stands on the north side of  Bald Mountain…

…to the multiple wildflower strewn basins (Cairn Basin, Eden Park, Wy’east Basin, and Elk Cove)  on the north side of the mountain.

We snaked in and out of the charred trees of the 2011 Dollar Lake Fire, reborn in fireweed and huckleberry bushes before setting up camp on a bench above the pink and yellow monkey flower lining Cove Creek. I was asleep before the sun fully set.

My biggest worry of the whole trip was the crossing of Eliot Creek on Day 3. This is the one that blew out its banks in 2006, decimating the trail. We continued our path through the fireweed fields and blackened trunks of the Dollar Lake fire on our approach to the creek.

We heard it long before we saw it, a bass filled thumping, and mid range whooshing signifying its proximity. Once it came into view, it appeared huge, multiple short tiered waterfalls channeling thousands of silt-filled gallons down the canyon. Boulders the size of small vehicles perched on the top of the canyon walls, above the trail, deposited there by the creek’s raging flood waters. We picked our way sloooowly down one side of the rock and gravel filled slope, and off the new trail, on a user created trail towards a large log that provided a relatively easy crossing of the water as we tried not to think about the unconsolidated fill hanging above us or the raging water below.

Once across we easily joined the trail for the long steep climb through the forest on the other side. We enjoyed lunch at the picnic tables of the Cloud Cap campground,  before making another steep climb to the high point of the trail at 7,350 feet. At this point, you are above tree line, diminutive plants and wind ravaged shrubs are the only vegetation at this elevation, the mountain looming massive to the west.

We crossed three snowfields carefully and gazed out at Oregon’s high desert to the east. Eventually we came to the high point of Gnarl Ridge, another appropriately named feature of the mountain, and one of the most stark, yet beautiful views of the entire trip.

We were feeling good today, so we pushed beyond our planned camp along the top of the ridge. As we were nearing our last creek crossing of the day, I lost my footing on the trail, my 30 plus-pound pack made defying gravity impossible. My knees and left elbow took the brunt of the fall, but only some minor scrapes and bruises resulted.

We made the difficult crossing of Newton Creek on a raft of narrow branches, before making camp at the headwater spring of a small drinking water stream. This was our most picturesque camp of the trip, a gunmetal grey wall of stone along Gnarl Ridge 500-feet above us as the backdrop.

Our feet were a bit worse for wear at this point, but with only 8 miles to go, we didn’t dwell on them too much.

After another 10+ hour night of sleep, we were ready for our last day on the trail. The weekend trail runner parade began at about 7:30 a.m. as svelte marathoners jogged past with nothing but their drinking water on their backs. Some do the entire trail in one day!

We set off about 8:30 a.m., images of pizza and a giant green salad filling my head. More stunning wildflowers and picturesque waterfalls capped off our last day on the trail as we crossed the Mt. Hood Meadows ski area with Val daydreaming about snowboard days ahead.

And finally, into the rock filled moonscape of the monstrous White River canyon about a mile before Timberline Lodge.

We made it back to the car about 1:30 p.m. feeling exhausted and like super bad asses at the same time. It was one heck of an atypical girls’ trip!

 

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A Bucket Full of Monarchs

Seeing the Monarch Butterfly hibernation in the mountains two hours west of Mexico City had been on my bucket list since a co-worker told me about the awe-inspiring experience 18 years ago.  So, when we decided to spend the winter in Mexico, visiting the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve was my number one priority.

We thought the timing would be perfect to head to the reserves after our month in San Pancho.  But as we began our research two weeks into our stay there to plan our five week travels through Mexico, we learned two things: (1) the population of monarchs in central Mexico this winter was estimated to be the highest in since 2006-2007 (YAY!), and (2) due to unseasonably warm weather, the butterflies were more active than usual and an early northward migration was expected (OH NO!). I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to see these gorgeous pollinators at a 13-year population high, so we made the spur of the moment decision to rent a car and make the 21-hour+ round trip drive to the mountains.

And it was so worth it. The experience was more amazing than I ever imagined and yet incredibly difficult to describe.

We arrived at El Rosario Sanctuary just after it opened, parked the car, and began climbing. Coming from sea level just the day before, the steep ascent at 10,000 feet in elevation was challenging. Luckily, the butterflies were concentrated lower on the mountain this year than in years past.

After a 10-minute hike, in which we saw our first red warblers of the trip, we began to see clusters of butterflies high up in the oyamel fir trees. As the sun rose and warmed the trees, a small confetti-like orange explosion erupted from the limbs.

We stood, rapt with smiles plastered on our awe-struck faces, as thousands and then millions of butterflies flew, fluttered, and floated through the air.

They swarmed the shrubby understory of the forest, landed on the hats, shoes and sometimes faces of the onlookers.

The quiet of the forest broken only by the sounds of their fluttering wings.

As the day warmed further, they drifted down the mountain seeking water sources, swarming the creek bed and any puddles they could find.

The migration of monarch butterflies is one of the most epic migrations of any creature on the planet.  Each fall, as temperatures drop in the U.S. and Canada, monarch butterflies begin the journey south, some traveling as many as 3,000 miles to reach their overwintering grounds in Mexico and cluster by the millions in the branches of the oyemel fir trees. These forests, high in the mountains, create the perfect microclimate for the butterflies with a Goldilocks effect, not too hot and not too cold. Come spring, the butterflies begin mating and head north to the southern U.S. where they lay their eggs. In just a few days, the black, yellow and white striped caterpillars emerge, feeding voraciously (and solely) on milkweed before forming a chrysalis, from which a butterfly will emerge.

This new generation then migrates further north seeking a new patch of milkweed, where they will breed a new generation. This process is repeated up to five times before reaching their furthest northern habitat. These northern migrating butterflies complete their life cycle in just five to seven weeks each. However, a “super generation” that can live for up to eight months, then makes the migration south to the overwintering grounds in Mexico, returning year after year to the same forests that their great-great-great-great grandparents left the previous spring.

Although the population was cause for celebration this year, the population trend for monarchs overall is decreasing due to the effects of logging, herbicide use and climate change. It is estimated that overwintering monarchs once numbered close to 1 billion. Now the population is closer to 100 million, a 90% decrease. The fir forests in Mexico as expected to all but disappear by the year 2090 as a result of climate change. Thus, local residents are taking somewhat controversial steps to plant oyemel trees at higher elevations than they currently grow.

If you want to help increase the monarch population and you live in the U.S., planting milkweed in your garden will help the population thrive as it makes it northerly migration each year.

 

 

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Range Map Courtesy of National Wildlife Federation (nwf.org)

And if you want to see this spectacle for yourself – and trust me, you do – plan a trip to central Mexico in February. You won’t be disappointed!

We capped our whirlwind trip with a day of birding in the forests above the town of Zitacuaro, our home base for exploration.  We walked from our Air Bnb to the end of the road and then on a trail up the mountain. As we got to the forest, and the end of town, we noticed at first a few, then dozens, then hundreds of monarchs fluttering through the sky, apparently from a nearby roosting site (not within an official reserve). As we hiked up the trail, we marveled once again at these delicate creatures, while also exclaiming over sightings of slate-throated redstarts, and crescent-chested warblers.  It may have been a short trip, but it was one that is indelibly etched in my memory.

 

 

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Cinco Dias en Los Pueblos Mancomunados (Parte Dos)

 

Day 3 (Llano Grande to Amatlan): The sweet, earthy scent of warm pine filled the air as we hiked out of Llano Grande. The trail to Lachatao and its sister pueblo, Amatlan, crosses the center of the Pueblos Mancomunados territory with significant changes in elevation and vegetation. The first third of the hike was through dry pine forest, dotted by small agricultural fields. The absence of tractors suggested all of the farming here is powered by humans and/or animals.

The rich black soil clung precipitously to the hillside fields. We criss-crossed between trail and dirt road throughout the day, assiduously following the all too infrequent yellow trail markers.

Luckily we only had to turn around twice: once at a dead end with just a short backtrack to the correct trail and once walking in a complete circle that required us to complete a short, steep and sweaty ascent twice.

At one point the trail followed the ridgeline where massive oak trees vied for dominance with the pines. Countless epiphytic bromeliads perched on the oaks, their red flower stalks and purple tubular flowers perfectly formed for the beak of a hummingbird.

Openings in the forest gave way to beautiful vistas of the surrounding mountains, draped in rich green forest.

Late in the day, we stopped along the road where dozens of small birds flitted through the trees. Alex was the first to see the coveted red-faced warbler and tried hard to point it out to me as it darted from branch to branch and tree to tree. Finally, I caught a glimpse of it before it darted off again. But just ten minutes later, we were treated to an up close viewing when the bird perched on a branch just a few feet away from the trail, its crimson face shining in the sunlight.

We were still at least 7km from our destination and getting low on water when we came across on open cement box in the ground, in which a pipe carried water from an uphill spring. We stopped to fill our bottle, and I sat down to wait for our treatment drops to work their magic. As I stood up, I felt the tell-tale pain of an insect sting on my thigh where a small ground wasp had lodged itself in my shorts. Lacking any sting remedies in our first aid kit, I downed a Benedryl and at Alex’s brilliant suggestion, coated the area in Ambesol, which is meant for mouth pain, but we figured the lidocaine in it would deaden the pain in my leg. Luckily, it worked like a charm. (Yet, four days later I still have a half-dollar sized welt on my leg.)

We knew from the elevation profile on our map that there would be a steep descent at the end of the day. But seeing it on paper doesn’t truly prepare you for the knee and muscle pain you actually experience as you descend nearly 2000 feet over less than 2 miles in rocky terrain after already hiking 12 miles.

It didn’t help that the cabañas in Amatlan sat at bottom of town. Yet the setting was so stunning, perched on a north-south ridge overlooking the valley below, with views of two other aerie villages. The sunset on one side and sunrise on the other, it was easy to forget the hard slog at the end of the day.

Day 4 (Amatlan to Latuvi): We started the day with a hike back up the way we had come down the day before, past adobe homes and old rock walls, the age of which we could only guess.

In the center of Lachatoa, we found the quaint church we had viewed from above the day before with a little restaurant in its courtyard.

The town lacking any signs for our trailhead, we walked into the oficina de turistica (tourist office) to ask directions. “Esta el sendero por la calle?” (“Is the trail via the road?”), I asked. The woman turned from her computer and stared at me in silence, then warned me about snakes along the trail and the importance of a guide. I assured her we were aware of the risks as we had hiked from Llano Grande the day before. We just needed to know where the trailhead was.

“Necesita pagar por acesso,” she replied. We had not previously been asked to pay any access fees, but happily coughed up 200 pesos (about $10) to support this community endeavor.  After handing us our receipt, which I tucked away should we be asked to pay again, she readily provided detailed directions to the trail, which required us to walk up the road and “a la izquierda al árbol” (“left at the tree”) where the sign pointed to Oaxaca. We made it to that tree, turned left, then promptly took the wrong trail, which led to a 2 mile round trip foray along an eroded remnant of a road in the blazing sun. Oops!

Once we found the right trail, we made a long slow descent to a beautiful stream, crossing an ancient Zapotec bridge, and took a break in the shady oasis.

This hike was my favorite during our time in the Pueblos Mancomunados, both for its beauty and its history. The trail traverses the river valley and is believed to be part of a Prehispanic route connecting the Zapotec villages in the mountains to the Gulf coast. Along the path, you can still see much of the Zapotec stone work. A few times we meandered just off the trail to explore old stone walls and foundations hoping to encounter an ancient granary or pottery shards.

The biological diversity of this valley was evident, from the stream side alders, to the  hanging cacti plants to the diminutive orchids.

Spanish moss blanketed the oaks, lending an ethereal beauty to the dry forest.

The valley widened as we neared the village of Latuvi, small agricultural fields dotted the landscape, last years corn stalks piled high. We met a few campesinos walking home from their fields at the end of the work day. The last brutally steep uphill climb to town, which is perched on a ridge high above the valley floor, necessitated a few silent pep talks. But the reward of another gorgeous vista laid out below our cabaña was worth the aching muscles.

Day 5 (Latuvi to Cuajimoloyas): I woke up before sunrise with energy, put on my warm clothes and headed out to the mirador just a few feet from our cabaña to watch dawn break. I heard the last calls of the Whip-poor-will as I was buzzed within a few inches by several bats. They flew so close that I could actually hear the clicks of their echolocation. As light broke across the valley, I headed back inside and woke Alex up for our last day of hiking.

Ever the adventurers (gluttons for punishment?), we eschewed our plans to walk the dirt road into Benito Juarez, opting instead for the mountainous trail to Cuajimoloyas.  The length of the hike combined with the elevation profile (a punishing 2300-foot climb over the first 2.5 miles, followed by a gradual ascent to 10,000 feet in elevation over the next 10 miles) was daunting.  But the lack of roads and people was too enticing for us to resist.

What we didn’t realize was that roads and people weren’t the only things missing from the landscape; the yellow trail markers were almost non-existent. We followed hand painted trail signs along the road out of Latuvi for the first 3km until we crossed the river where we briefly continued along the road until realizing it was headed in the wrong direction, at which point we backtracked (the first of many that day) to a small, unmarked trail headed straight up. We picked our way along an incredibly faint trail for the next 3km until we came to the next trail marker. “A sign!” Alex exclaimed. “Well I guess that means we are on the right trail after all,” I responded.

From this point on, the trail markers counted down the kilometers to our destination. But in between, we climbed over downed trees and limbs, mistakenly followed game trails, and repeatedly took wrong turns, which we estimated added at least 2km to the total distance of the hike and, more importantly, several steep descents and ascents that were not required.

Much of the hike followed the narrow spine of the mountain range, through a beautiful old growth forest of pine and oak trees and yucca plants (the tallest of which reached 25 feet in height).

The understory, which often covered the trail, was a mix of shrubs, including poleo, the tea herb I first encountered in Llano Grande, bunch grasses, orchids, bromeliads, mycotrophs, and cactus.

This was by far the most grueling day of the trip, but also the most rewarding.

About 7km from Cuajimoloyas, the trail became a dirt track and then a gravel road through a mix of farm fields and pine plantations with small streams tumbling down the hillside. Although the path was wide and easy to follow, the last 1000-foot ascent of the day was challenging due to the drop in oxygen levels as we climbed to over 10,000 feet in elevation. About 2km from town, we were greeted by seven tom turkeys strutting their stuff for the sole female in the field. The jingle of bells around the necks of sheep intermittently filled the air. A herding dog left his charge to greet and playfully jostle us as we trudged up the road.

And then we crested the top of the hill with the town laid out below us followed by one last descent to the comedor where we inquired about a ride back to Oaxaca.  We waited about 20 minutes for a colletivo taxi and rode back to the city in an overcapacity Nissan Sentra with Alex in the passenger seat and me in a makeshift seat between him and the driver. We were cramped and sore but enjoyed a pleasant conversation  with Sergio, our driver, who lived in Iowa for 14 years and spoke excellent English. An hour and a half later we were back in the bustling city, with wonderful memories of another amazing adventure.

Categories: Hiking, Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Cinco Dias en Los Pueblos Mancomunados (Parte Uno)

 

The Pueblos Mancomunados (Commonwealth of Villages) is made up of eight remote villages in the Sierra Norte mountains northeast of Oaxaca city. These villages, where rural indigenous life is much the same as it was hundreds of years ago, operate under a self-governing cooperative system.

In the last two decades they have focused on ecotourism to sustain the communities, even closing their gold and silver mines in the pursuit of a sustainability and ecotourism focused future.

In 1998, the communities formed Expediciones Sierra Norte, a cooperative non-profit that provides accommodations, transportation and guides to explore the area, with 90% of the funds paid by tourists distributed to families within the pueblos. Every member of the community must do a year of community service for the cooperative. We were intrigued by this cooperative government and ecotourism system, as well as the opportunity to explore one of the most biodiverse areas of Mexico. And so we left the heat of Oaxaca city for a hiking adventure in the Pueblos Mancomunados!

Day 1: We were feeling cocky as we arrived at the second class bus station at 6:20 a.m. When the phone number our Air Bnb host gave us for the cab company didn’t work, we grabbed our bags and headed out into the pitch black morning knowing which street would yield a cab quickly. When a traffic jam blocked access to the bus station, we told the cab driver to drop us a few blocks away and walked the last short distance. Even though we couldn’t actually see the station from where we got out, we knew where to go because I had scoped the location the day before. During my reconnaissance mission, I had been directed by the helpful police officer to a “joven” (young man) who informed me that, indeed, we could buy our tickets from the unmarked ticket counter to our destination of Llano Grande, but only 30 minutes before the 7am departure.

In short, we felt like seasoned travelers, making it work with our limited (but increasingly better) Spanish.

Then things went awry.

In the past, we’ve always won the game of “Do We Get Off the Bus?” But today was a different story. I dozed off and on en route to Llano Grande, awaking in time for the bathroom stop at Cuajimoloyas, which I knew was near our destination. As we passed through the next town, I commented to Alex that some of the buildings looked like the cabañas I had seen online where I thought we’d be staying. But the van didn’t stop, so I figured I was mistaken and apparently dozed off again.

When I awoke, I knew we were way past our intended destination. So I headed up to the front of the van (no easy feat on the winding mountain roads) and told the driver “quissimos Llano Grande” (“we wanted Llano Grande”), which was followed by an audible gasp from the woman in the passenger seat. Apparently the van driver failed to check his list of stops and had overshot the town by an hour. After some back and forth (all in Spanish) in which he tried to blame us for not knowing where to get off and I shot back, “Yo no conozco Llano Grande” (“I don’t know Llano Grande”), he let us off in the tiny mountain town of San Pedro, promising that another driver would return in a while to take us back to our intended stop. Luckily the views were beautiful from the bus stop.

We were skeptical, but after about 45 minutes the van returned, full of passengers headed to Oaxaca, picked us up in San Pedro and dropped us off in Llano Grande, two and a half hours after we were supposed to arrive. Unfortunately, this meant that the birding guide we had hired for the day had already left and would not return. Frustrated, we huffed it up the hill (at 9,000 feet elevation, you definitely huff and puff a lot the first day) to our amazingly cozy and comfortable $20/night cabaña to catch up on our sleep.

Our first day was a bit of a bust, but fortunately, it was not a portent of the next four days.

Day 2: Luckily we had already planned to spend a second day in Llano Grande to do some day hiking and acclimatization before setting out into the back country. We woke early to the namesake call of the Mexican Whip-poor-will outside our cabin. In the crisp morning air, we ambled around the tiny village (population: 150) and its surrounding pine forest looking for red warblers, endemic towhees and other interesting high elevation species, while also scoping trails for later forays.

At a reasonable breakfast time, we walked to the closest comedor and knocked on the door. No answer, but smoke from the chimney told us someone was inside cooking, so I knocked again. This time a woman came to the door. “Esta abierto por desayuno?” (“Are you open for breakfast?”), I asked. “Si, pasale” (“yes, come in”), she replied. (This door knocking and asking about food would be repeated over the next few days.)

“Comedor,” as the restaurants are called in the pueblos, means dining room in Spanish. Thus, when you eat in the comedores, you are often eating in the dining room of someone’s house, at times passing through the kitchen on your way to take a seat. We enjoyed our cafe (coffee), te con poleo (tea with an herb harvested from the surrounding forest), entomotadas (tortillas bathed in a tomato-based sauce) and enfrijoladas (tortillas bathed in black bean sauce) con huevos (eggs) while the cook’s daughter played with her toys under the adjacent table.

After breakfast, we set out for a hike on the Llano de Berro trail. As we walked through pine woodlands spotted with giant agave, some with flower stalks 20 feet high, and beautiful wildflowers, we saw many of the bird species I had hoped for, including red warblers, hermit warblers, mountain trogons, scott’s orioles, and a male olive warbler feeding his begging progeny.

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On our way back to the cabin, a friendly pup followed us from the center of town and spent the next couple of hours happily lounging on our cabana patio while I read in the hammock.

After a couple hours rest, we headed back out for another hike, this time up the mountain behind our cabana. Despite the fact that we were over 3,000 miles from home, the forest here felt familiar.

Madrones, salal, indian paintbrush, lupine, and sword ferns, which all grow in or near Portland, were flourishing at elevations above 9,000 feet in the highlands of Mexico. With pine species that reminded us of Ponderosa and Sugar pines and a smattering of Oyamel fir and large live oak trees, it was not unlike hiking in the Klamath Siskiyou bioregion of Southern Oregon and Northern California.

We walked the trail, marveling at how intact the forest was so close to the village and enjoyed a spectacular mirador with 180 degree views of unbroken forest up and down the Rio Yavesia valley before turning back towards town and dinner. After a meal of salsa con queso (pan seared fresh cheese hunks smothered in a mildly spicy red sauce with a side of perfectly seasoned black beans), we turned in early in order to get a good sleep before our 22km (~13 mile) backpack the next day.

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Up Next: Parte Dos

Categories: Hiking, Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Snowbird I Has Landed

When Alex and I returned from our around the world adventure in 2016, I was not ready to go home. I was excited to reconnect with friends and family and snuggle with my kitty, but after a few weeks I would have hit the road again. I fell into a pretty significant depression, which resulted in hours of conversation between Alex and me. The upshot being that as soon as we could swing it, we would split our time between Portland and traveling with the hope of spending at least three months a year (preferably winter) in another (preferably warm) country.  Thus, last month, these snowbirds took flight and landed in Mexico. More specifically, we spent our first month in San Pancho, Mexico.

When we hatched the snowbird plan, we knew we would travel, but slowly. An important lesson learned from our year of travel was that we are happiest when we have a home base and can explore the community and the surrounding area with plenty of downtime to read, exercise or just relax. Moving around every few days is exhausting. We much prefer to really get to know a place, its hidden corners and secret spots, our favorite restaurant or where to buy organic veggies.

Enter San Pancho! This little gem of a pueblo sits towards the southern end of the Riviera Nayarit, just north of Puerto Vallarta. In this town of about 3000 people, you could walk all of the streets in a day. There are no traffic lights, but an influx of expats and tourists means that you can buy organic eggs at the market, organic produce at the weekly tianguis, and vegan fare at a handful of restaurants and cafes.

The beach here is about a mile long, with course golden sand and surfable waves crashing at the shore. In the evening, it seems as if the whole town gathers to watch the sun dip into the Pacific, which is frequently followed by a round of applause from the spectators. And thanks to a local recycling program and a campaign to end the use of plastic straws, the beach is relatively free of the plastic garbage that litters so many coastal destinations.

After sunset the town comes alive for a few hours, with live music on the street and in the open air restaurants, breakdancers performing for the al fresco diners, the pan casera pickup truck making its rounds vending homemade bread from the covered truck bed (and playing an awesome homemade jingle) and people strolling the streets enjoying the cooler temperatures.

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There isn’t much to do in San Pancho and that was just fine with us. Most mornings I played pickleball at The Haciendas (a “fancy” resort that looks great from the exterior, but with much of the interior falling apart, including the ceiling in the old gallery where we played), through which I met some super friendly people (Hi Dan and Korin! Hi Ron and Sharon!).

Alex ran barefoot on the beach almost everyday, where he managed to step on a piece of puffer fish and get an acacia thorn lodged in the middle of his foot, but still refused to wear shoes. He later learned that, luckily, the poison in puffer fish is in their internal organs not their spiky exterior.

After our daily exercise routine, we would usually head to the outdoor market (on Tuesday) or to our favorite (and tiny) veggie and fruit market. This was typically followed by a trip to the tortilleria where for 9 pesos (about 50 cents), we could buy a pound of fresh, warm tortillas.

We spent many afternoons volunteering with the San Pancho Bird Observatory, clearing invasive water lilies from the local estuary. We even organized a service day and with the help of some local expats and visitors, cleared over 2000 pounds of vegetation in one day!

We also helped repair and install new interpretive signs for the birding trails highlighting common and endemic bird species in town.

Our experience with the Observatory offered us a window into the inner workings of a Mexican non-profit, which was fascinating to us having worked for U.S. non-profits for so many years. And Luis, the tireless director, kindly shared his knowledge of the history of San Pancho and the surrounding region, as well as where to find painted buntings.

We frequently hiked early in the morning or just before sunset to look for some of the 21 endemic bird species in the area, while enjoying the northernmost tropical forest in North America and discovering hidden beaches and amazing miradors along the way.

And we were often amused and intrigued by life in a small Mexican beach town  where you buy mattresses, chairs, or churros out of the back of a pickup truck.

Alex’s parents visited us for five days, giving us an opportunity to play tour guide. We watched the sunsets (and saw the green flash twice), let them beat us at cards, enjoyed lunch at the small palapa restaurants on the beach, took a birding tour with Luis and visited the Puerto Vallarta botanical garden, which included an amazing drive down the coast south of the city.

We enjoyed being in one place so much that we decided that our next destination would be another month-long stint, this time in Oaxaca de Juarez. And so far that is proving to be an excellent decision. Stay tuned!

 

Categories: Mexico, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Seeking Light in Darkness

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I went to bed in disbelief and woke up in tears, my fight or flight response on high alert. At about 4 p.m. yesterday before any election returns were in, it occurred to me that I hadn’t even considered the possibility that Donald Trump could be our next president. Perhaps that is because I live in the progressive “Portland bubble.” Perhaps that is because all of the polls and pundits predicted a Clinton victory. Perhaps that is because I just couldn’t fathom this country would elect a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic megalomaniac over a calm, experienced, intelligent and highly qualified, albeit flawed, woman.

As I sat with my anger, frustration and utter sadness this morning, I recognized that what I am experiencing is grief. And not because my preferred candidate lost the election, but because America lost. By electing Donald Trump, we have validated sexually demeaning language and predatory actions towards women. We have sanctioned barricading ourselves from the rest of the world. We have endorsed bullying as a means to get what you want. We have countenanced blatant racism and anti-semitism.

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Seeking light in the darkness, I took to the trail this morning. I needed to surround myself with beauty, to immerse myself in calm. I hiked six and a half miles through Forest Park, in awe of the forest as it prepares itself for winter. The fall forest forces you to pay attention. Its allure rests in the sound of a raven’s wings, the stark contrast of bright green moss on a brown trunk, pearly white snowberries clinging to a leafless twig.

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My grief weighs heavy on me this evening, and I still feel caught between fight and flight. But for a brief moment today, in the forest, I was free.

Tonight I will gather with friends and family, to grieve together, to find strength in our bonds, to hug them tight and re-affirm our commitment to support each other in the dark days ahead.

 

 

Categories: Friends, Hiking | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Walk in the Wild

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There is nothing quite like bathing in a sub-alpine lake at the end of a long hiking day, I thought to myself as I stood naked and refreshed having just shed layers of dust and sweat.

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The sun warmed me, and a cool breeze kissed my skin. Craggy Bowen Peak stood watch to the east, flanked by the ridge line we had just zig zagged, huffed and puffed our way up and over. Alpine larch trees (the northwest’s only deciduous coniferous tree) towered above me, and a tiny pika “meep”-ed from the boulder field plunging down the mountain.

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I felt another wave of contentment wash over me as I drew a breath of crisp mountain air deep into my lungs.

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For our 11th annual anniversary backpack adventure, we chose North Cascades National Park, a relative newcomer to the national park system, designated only in 1968 after a hard fought battle to protect its rugged landscape. (The park was further protected in 1988 when 93% of it was designated as the Stephen Mather Wilderness.) The iconic, singular peaks of the more southern Cascade Mountains give way to jagged ridgelines and dozens of glaciated peaks here.

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Although much of our 35-mile loop hike was in the shade of grand old growth ponderosa pine, douglas fir, larch, sub-alpine fir, western white pine, and Engleman spruce forests, we were treated to breathtaking views that spread across entire watersheds on a daily basis. Gunmetal grey peaks rising from unbroken forest, topped with massive glaciated ice fields. Clear, cold streams tumbling down rock faces or cutting their way through wildflower meadows.

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Nowhere else do I feel quite as happy and serene as I do when I am miles from a road or a town. There is something so pleasingly (and perhaps deceptively) simple about a walk in the wild. In the backcountry, there are no “shoulds” and there are very few musts: food, water, warmth, and shelter. That’s about it. There is something about wide open spaces that allows me to open myself to the present moment. By shedding the “shoulds” I am able to embrace whatever is in front of me, right now, without getting bogged down with the chatter that usually fills my brain. And by focussing on the present, I can rest in my heart rather than my head. For me, self-reliance breeds contentment.

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We didn’t have any encounters with big wildlife on this trip (although we did get a good look at an American marten that sat in the middle of the trail before darting off into the forest) and we missed the peak of the wildflowers (but with some notable blooms, including the somewhat rare monkshood, one of my favorites).

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Yet, I wasn’t in the least bit disappointed because I got to spend another wonderful anniversary with the love of my life where I am my best self, in the wild.

Categories: Hiking, National Parks, North Cascades National Park | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Ronda Rainbow

The last few weeks of our gap year adventure were quite the whirlwind. Alex and I were reunited in Fisterra, Spain where we spent a few days in total relaxation at a beachside hotel with perfect sunset views.

Sunset over Fisterra

Although we had a rental car, it sat idle for three days. I just couldn’t not walk. So we explored the peninsula on foot, sinking our toes in the warm sand, climbing the hills for panoramic ocean views, strolling into town for provisions.

We shared Beltane with fellow pilgrims at Albergue Sol y Luna, where I last laid my weary pilgrim head. The owners and volunteers prepared a beautiful feast, followed by singing around a fire, where we ceremonially shed our burdens and set our intentions for the new season by burning pieces of paper that contained words representing that which we desired to leave behind and that which we intended to carry forward.

Beltaine in Finisterra

Before our year away, I wasn’t really one for ceremony, but I’ve come to appreciate the importance and power of ritual over the last year.

Sufficiently rested, we then headed off for a road trip through Portugal and southern Spain. Sitting in the car that first day felt incredibly surreal. I hadn’t traveled any faster than the speed of feet in over a month and here we were cruising down the highway at 120 km per hour. To my great surprise, it only took a couple days before traveling this way felt entirely normal.

Highlights of our road trip included sipping port in Porto…

Port Tasting - Vinologia Porto

Real Campanhia Velha

Exploring castles in Sintra…

Pena Palace - Sintra

Pena Palace - Sintra

Quinta de Regaleira - Sintra

Birding (and finding hoopoes) in Doñana National Park…

La Donaña National Park

La Donaña National Park

La Donaña National Park

Touring the souk in Tangier…

Tangier Doorway

Moroccan Dates

Exploring the white hill towns of Andalucía…

Grazalema, Spain

Puenta Nueva - Ronda, Spain

We ended the road trip with one night in Madrid where I got to meet Sparkle Goat, and Alex got to play tour guide, showing off his favorite parts of the city.

Sparkle Goat!

We spent our last two days in Paris where we did our best not to sink our entire trip budget in 48 hours – dang that city is expensive!

Musee D'Orsay

And then the long flight home via Iceland where we made the most of our 8-hour layover by soaking at the municipal thermal pools.

We’ve been back in Portland for a little over a week where we have spent our days and evenings re-connecting with family and friends. Thus far, the experience feels a bit odd, like we are visitors in our own city. We suspect that once we move back into our own house in a few days, we will feel more settled and at home here. I can’t wait to cook my first meal in our own kitchen, snuggle up to our sweet kitty on our own couch and enjoy a fire in the backyard of our own little urban oasis.

I must admit that although there were certainly times during our travels that I ached to come home, when the time came, I didn’t feel entirely ready. There were obviously things I missed about home. Yet, I had become accustomed to life on the road: the joy of exploration, the anticipation of the unknown. And there is so much of the world yet to explore.

George Keeps Up on Current Events in Spain

For now, we have to shift our focus a bit. Portland is an amazing city, surrounded by beautiful, wild places with endless opportunities for exploration and discovery. We just need to make time for the experiences. Captivating encounters await us!

Spain Bird List: monk parakeet, rock dove, eurasian collared dove, european magpie, european starling^, white stork, blue tit, european goldfinch, black kite, european robin, eurasian blackbird^, blackcap, white wagtail, black redstart, crested lark, cirl bunting, winter wren, sardinian warbler, great tit, great crested grebe, eurasian coot, european stone chat, atlantic canary, black shouldered kite, yellowhammer^, common firecrest, eurasian nuthutch, house martin, song thrush^, jackdaw, common raven^, european greenfinch, corn bunting, collared flycatcher, northern wheatear, barred warbler, linnet, european green woodpecker, great bustard, eurasian jay, rock bunting, red-legged partridge, pied avocet, european bee eater, long-tailed tit, barn swallow^, azure winged magpie, golden oriole, little grebe, feruginous duck, common waxbill, purple gallinule^, hoopoe, spotless starling, crested tit

Categories: birds, Camino de Santiago, Iceland, Paris, Portugal, Spain | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

Reflections from the End of the Earth

Finisterra

A few years ago I saw the movie Adventureland, a forgettable teen rom-com, that nevertheless stuck with me. I left the theater in tears. For me, the movie perfectly captured the bliss of youthful freedom, those amazing high school summers when I had no responsibility and the world was my oyster. I mourned the loss of my youth that day, realizing that I would never again experience that same freedom and fun, first kisses and fast friendships.

Ciprian, me, Quinton and Charlie in Cathedral Square - Santiago

I walked the last 90 kilometers (56 miles) of the Camino to Finisterre in two days. I felt strong and full of energy, and the miles just flew by.

My first glimpse of the ocean from a rise in the trail is a moment I will never forget. A I gazed out at the water, tears began streaming down my face: tears of joy at the realization that what I felt on the Camino was as close as I could remember to that lost feeling of youthful freedom and tears of sadness that this experience was coming to an end.

Finisterra

Finisterra

Yet, I also know that my time on the Camino was far more powerful than anything I could have experienced in my bygone youth. With age, comes wisdom, strength, and a sense of self that we nuture over time. My walk was nothing short of transformational, in large part because I experienced it at this time and this place in my life. I connected with myself in a way that I never have before, relishing time alone with my own thoughts, my own wonderful self. And I connected with other people in a way that I never have before, meaningfully but in such a short time.

The generosity of spirit, thought, time and kindness shown by the incredible people I met along the way, for others they barely knew, is unparalleled in my life. I will forever cherish my time with each and every one of them, whether it was just for a meal or for days spent walking, talking, and laughing.

Sunset over Finisterra

Several days into my walk I told Alex that I didn’t understand why people walk the Camino over and over again. Now I do. What I experienced on the Camino is unlike anything I have experienced anywhere else in the world. The friendship, community, support, and selflessness of fellow pilgrims just doesn’t reveal itself in everyday life like it does on the Camino. I am going to miss it dearly.

Finisterra

Finisterra

Now the work begins to figure out how to manifest the transformation I feel, to maintain this feeling of  joy and my connection to myself and others in the “real world.” I guess the journey isn’t really over.

Finisterra

 

Categories: Camino de Santiago, Spain | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Day 29: Salceda to Santiago de Compostela

I was awake at 4 a.m., too excited to sleep. (My “don’t worry I don’t snore” snoring roommate didn’t help.) I laid in bed for two hours trying to coax my body back into slumber and then listening to music on my iphone until it was a respectable hour to get up and walk. At 6 a.m., I couldn’t wait any longer. I quietly and mostly in the dark, so as not to wake my roommate, got dressed and packed my backpack.

By 6:45, I was ready to go. Dawn was just beginning to light the blue-black sky. The moon was bright, only a couple days past full, and a few stars were visible as I set out.

I walked in silence until it was light enough that I didn’t feel I needed all my senses for safety. Then I popped in the earbuds and put my Prince collection on shuffle. I had 29 kilometers (about 18 miles) to go to Santiago de Compostela. I was hoping to get there in time for the Pilgrim’s Mass at noon in the cathedral. I had to push to make it and I knew the music would give me a little extra speed.

Last morning sunrise

For the last few days, the number of pilgrims on the trail had increased significantly. Many started in Sarria, the last major town before the 100-kilometer mark, the distance required to receive your Compostela in Santiago. Another long-distance pilgrim from Denmark had labeled them “tourist pilgrims.” But this morning, there were no pilgrims in sight for the first two hours, a welcome change.

On the road to Santiago

The sun shone brightly in the cloudless sky, the first such sky in a month of walking. I relished the warmth and the light, walking in just my t-shirt for only the second time in 29 days.

Lavacolla

Nearing Santiago

I thought that my mind would be full, processing the last four weeks, my long journey from France. But it was surprisingly easy to turn it off, let the music envelope me and just walk. And walk. And walk. That last 29 km felt like 100, especially the last two after I entered the city of Santiago and wound my way towards the Cathedral.

I caught a glimpse of one of the Cathedral towers from blocks away between the tall city buildings. I let out a little laugh and a huge grin spread across my face. By this time, it was just after noon and I sped up a little. I was so close.

First glimpse of the Cathdral in Santiago

I made it there by 12:15, and luckily it only took me a few minutes to stash my backpack at the luggage office across the plaza. I entered the Cathedral to a crush of people, the most people I had been in contact with in weeks. An older man I had walked with the last few hundred meters was waiting in a large line, but said he didn’t know what the line was for. I investigated and determined that the line was to enter the large, gilted crypt of St. James. So we exited the line and walked past it to the nave where the mass was still in progress. The Botafumeiro, the world’s largest incense burner, which historically was used to fumigate and cover the smell of the unwashed pilgrims, hung from the center dome, just above and in front of the priests.

Catedral de Santiago

Catedral de Santiago

Any and all available seats were full; people stood five or more deep surrounding the pews. I noticed a security guard letting some people with pilgrim credentials through the ropes to get closer. I showed mine and did the same. My feet and legs were aching, so I took the only seat I could find on the stone base of a huge pillar. This blocked my view of the priests and altar, but I didn’t care. I sat down and started to cry.

I was actually surprised by how little emotion I felt entering the city, which is when I realized that, for me, this pilgrimage was about the journey, more than the destination. But once I rested at the base of that pillar, I was overcome with emotion, with gratitude, with joy.

After communion was given, I noticed that the priests had moved the podium back, and there was a lot of chattering among the crowd. I got excited. The Botafumeiro isn’t used everyday any more, primarily on holy days or if a large enough donation is made. Six men in dark robes, walked to the center of the nave, holding a large rope with six smaller ropes dangling from it. The Botafumeiro began to smoke and they began to yank the rope with their whole body, up and down, up and down, as the Botafumeiro began to swing, only slightly at first and then higher and higher, until it was nearly horizontal at either end of its arc.

It was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen inside a church! The crowd was electric with excitement. One of the priests even had his smartphone out taking a video.

Botafumeiro at the Catedral de Santiago

After the mass, I went back out into the bright sunshine-y day. I saw a few other pilgrims I had met along the way, including Jeff from Milwaukie who enveloped me in a big bear hug. Finally, I made my way to the Pilgrim’s Office to get my Compostela, the certificate of completion of my journey. It is beautiful and a lovely commemoration of my accomplishment, but it pales in comparison to the beautiful people I have met and country I have just crossed.

My Compostela

After a rest day in Santiago, my journey will actually continue the final 90 km to Finesterre (“end of the earth”) at the coast where Alex will join me. I look forward to those final three days, the time to process this experience before re-entering “the real world.” And I can’t wait to sit on the beach and watch the sun go down over the Atlantic.

Catedral - Santiago de Compostela

Catedral - Santiago de Compostela

Today I walked 18 miles.

Categories: Camino de Santiago, Spain | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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