Cuba: Day 3

Cuba
View from the double decker bus

There is so much to do in La Habana. There are old buildings to gawk at, street art to discover, museums-that-are-also-working-pharmacies to wander through. This post is only covering the morning of Day 3 because DUDE. The Colon Cemetery. So much.

Ahem.

Along the Malecon

So, the morning of our 3rd day, we took the time-honored traditional tourist excursion: the hop-on, hop-off bus. This red double decker bus makes a loop around some of the farther out sites and then returns back to Central Parque.

The one thing I wish we had known ahead of time:

on the bus

The bus follows the same route away from Habana Viejo as it does returning. We would have stayed on top of the bus the whole way out to Miramar (section of the city) and then got off at our destinations on the way back. By the time we were ready to go home, we were hungry and hot and the bus was packed.

That said, we did have a chance to hit up some great places. I would absolutely recommend taking this bus for a chance to see more of the real Habana.

Plaza de la Revolucion

Tobias seemed really excited about this spot. Plaza de la Revolucion was where Fidel held his first big political rally after the coup. It was where the Pope came and blessed the Cubans in 2015. Aaaaand, it’s a big ol’ parking lot.

Across from the Plaza de la Revolucion

There are some cool things: for instance, there is a large monument of Jose Marti (political activist/writer who was against Spanish/US expansion in Cuba). This was actually built by the Batista regime (which was bolstered by the US), and finished just before the Castro coup (definitely NOT supported by the US). Behind that, there is a tower with an elevator where you can go to the highest point in Habana (it’s not that tall), and there is a small museum.

We would have done that, but to get to the monument from where the buses drop off, you have to frogger across FOUR LANES of traffic. It’s huge buses, classic cars moseying and small compact cars zooming by. It looked terrifying. There were no street lights, no sidewalks, no crosswalks, no pedestrian bridges. Straight: Walk Into Traffic, Gringa.

Che Guevara

So we didn’t go. We figured that it was a way the Cuban government kept down lines for the elevator (which also sounded super sketch). But if one doesn’t brave the traffic, there are still large portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the buildings.

Camilo Cienfuegas

Che and Camilo had the bromance of the century during the preparations for the coup. Camilo disappeared in a plane accident not long after the coup, and Che was executed later in Bolivia. They are pictured together in many parts of the city.

The exploration of the parking lot complete, we hopped on the next bus.

Colon Cemetery

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The entrance of Cemetario Cristobal de Colon   Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

 

This made my day. If I can say to go to one absolute, crazy-weird thing, go to the Colon Cemetery. While this site feels very much like a work-in-progress (it is still an active cemetery for an almost 500 year old city), they did apply to have it designated a World UNESCO site. Like the famous La Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, Colon feels like its own City of the Dead. While the ornate mausoleums are not as tightly packed as La Recoleta, Colon is bigger in terms of square mileage.

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Just part of the expanse of the cemetery. Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

La Recoleta, of course, was a bastion of wealth and prestige. But in Cuba, the cemetery is a little more egalitarian.

The only way I could make sense of this place was to purchase a map. We had no idea what to visit, had no guidance regarding what to see. Liz and Kyle went off to explore the Baseball Corner (true thing: there is a section for baseball players only). While Andy, Tobias, and I guessed at what to do next. Thankfully, Tobias gave us direction by suggesting the Galleria de Tobias because he shared its name.

Galleria de Tobias

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This is actually the church in the center of the cemetery, and NOT the galleria, but it is the same yellow with white trim.  Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

The Galleria is near the wall separating the outside world and the consecrated grounds. It is long and yellow, and reminded me of what a bathhouse would look like at a ritzy hotel in South America (it was still made of cement). There was a thin, older black man who waved us in, a dog sleeping under his chair, completely unconcerned with us or anything. The man introduced himself as Carlo, the caretaker of the Galleria. He spoke only Spanish, but he was kind enough to go slow, so that between the three of us, we understood his meaning.

He asked if we wanted a tour, so we said yes. Carlo led us through the open gate, where there were small cement boxes slightly longer than a shoe box, but about as wide, with names and dates written on the ends. The boxes were piled high, apparently at random. Carlo shuffled over to a metal locker, the kind I had in high school, removed a flash light, then beckoned us down the stairs.

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Stacks inside the galleria. Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

The temperature cooled as we walked down the stairs, and of course, got darker. The main portion of the Galleria is underground, while sky lights roughly three feet across let in light and let air circulate. The day was getting hot, so going underground felt nice.

Large niches on either side were walled off by plywood doors and numbered. Carlo removed one of the doors, so we could see that each niche had space for five of the shoeboxes. The middle of the floor was a massive stack of the boxes, and that was when we all seemed to realize that each box was a person.

Curioso

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The niches are on the right, the stacks in the middle of the galleria are on the left. Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

The most recent date I saw was in the 1990s, but some were much older, always sometime in this century. Carlo led us down the hallway created between the stack of boxes and the niches. Occasionally, Carlo would point out a specific box, lift the lid, and show us something unusual about the bones. The back of one skull was broken in such a way we could see the inside of the face, effectively looking through the eyes of skull.

In another case, Carlo showed us a skull where trepanning had been used to relieve the pressure of the brain swelling. The skull had also been cut by a machine, leaving a smooth edge where the two pieces fit together. Each time, Carlo asked Tobias to take a photograph of it, and each time, Tobias got more and more uneasy.

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Carlo organizing the bones. Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

Carlo said he’d worked there for 26 years, that it was his job to organize the bones, and help families find their loved ones. Some of the boxes had offerings left beside them, a small bit of tobacco and water, a plastic flower on another.

As he led us out, he showed us a person so tall that the bones were too long for the box. He took out a leg bone and held it to his shin to demonstrate. Andy, knowing a thing or two about a bone, showed him it was not a shin bone, it was in fact, the femur. Carlo shifted the bone to his thigh and seemed impressed.

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Bones. Photo by Tobias Beidermühle

Now that we knew what we were looking at, we peered into the boxes whose lids were not entirely shut. Some had a bit of tissue left on it.

“Curioso!” Carlo chuckled at us.

Andy asked where I thought all the pelvises were, since a pelvis was too wide to fit in a box. That stopped me cold. Each box held a different number of bones. Some were full, some only had a skull and a few long bones like an arm or a leg. Some had a pile of vertebrae. So WHERE DID THE BONES GO?

Above Ground

Colon CemeteryTobias got a picture with Carlo, and the dog continued to sleep under the chair. We were back in the hot sun, a little more shocked than when we entered.

Looking at the cemetery with new perspectives, we found more weird things.

Colon Cemetery
Gaaaaah.

Next to one of the large cement burial vaults was a tiny, handmade coffin, the size one might make for a squirrel.

Some of the vaults were empty, open to the air with weeds growing inside. I found one that had shorts and a tank top drying on a stick.

Along a less trod-upon path, we discovered what looked to be discarded disintegrating casket liners with possible leftover people-bits. We identified hair and clothing in the mess, but none of us wanted to explore any deeper.

Paella makes everything better

Late for our meet up with Liz and Kyle, we hopped the bus, and rode it back to Central Parque. It was time for paella, cuba libres, and a discussion to digest What. Just. Happened.

 

I’m leaving you here today, at lunch time, trying to figure out the weirdness of the Colon Cemetery. I still haven’t figured it out.  And huge thank you to Tobias for sending the incredible pictures of inside the galleria. I couldn’t even shrink them down on the page because they were SO AMAZING.

Cuba: Day Two

HabanaWe woke up in La Habana. It felt surreal, dreamlike; the way Latin American authors write about magical realism, that which is true, but cannot be. Breakfast was Cuban coffee (distilled and black and delicious even to a heavy tea-drinker like me), a bowl of fresh fruit (bananas and papayas and pineapple, and something else I never quite figured out), and eggs with a slice of cheese, a slice of ham and a slice of tomato.

La Habana
Boxing near San Jose Market

We chatted with the other travelers at the table, and Adele, a British lady was nice enough to give me a stash of PG Tips tea bags. I had not brought any with me (I typically do), as my experience in South America the previous year had taught me to just suck it up and drink coffee. But tea…I could wax poetic about some tea. She gave me one bag for every morning I would be in Cuba.

La Habana
Street art

Liz and Kate stopped by to let us know they were running late on their end. We agreed to a time and place to meet up for lunch. It was novel now, without the use of cell phones, to go back to the days when you had to just agree to a meeting point, believing the other party would honor it and show on time. It was pleasant, really. Somehow less stressful than constantly checking text messages and re-evaluating set plans.

San Jose Market

La Habana
Across the street from the San Jose Market

Heading down to the water to spend our morning at the San Jose Market, we spotted a boxer training. They were under a massive tree, and she shadow boxed in a circle as the man who leaned against the wrought iron railing shouted at her in Spanish. We passed a crumbling but beautiful church, seemingly out of place, across the street from the San Jose Market–a huge concrete building the size of two Super Wal-Marts squished together. This is not a place that does much business in glass windows, so the large archways along the side had a few bars for structural integrity, and open airways to let the breeze glide through.

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Church across the street from the San Jose Market

Walking in, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of paintings. Good paintings. There were rows upon rows of canvases hung by binder clips, each aisle guarded by a shopkeeper, ready to chat you up with as much English as they had. (Typically not much). The work was clearly better than any tourist trap I’ve seen in America. These artists had studied the classics, and created their own Cuban rift on the styles of Monet, Dali, Renoir, and even Mary Cassatt.

La Habana
Beer with lunch on a hot day is a special heaven

I’m sure our mouths were hanging open, and we spent our hours just wandering through, not buying anything, just looking, until it was time to meet up at the restaurant. It was hot enough by then that meeting up at Carlos’ restaurant, a cold beer seemed like a great idea. Vacation is vacation, right?

The Ferry

La Habana
multi-colored steps

The afternoon ahead of us, we took the ferry across the harbor to Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, or Castle Morro. But first! You must use the ferry, walk up multi-colored stairs, wind around to the big giant Jesus. If we hadn’t been with Art Majors, I never would have realized that this particular statue had the wrong sized head on him. Sure enough, when I looked at the head, it did seem a bit small.

La Habana
Big Jesus

Across the street was Che Guevara’s house. The tell-tale sign was the neon red signature “Che” splashed across the building. For 6 CUCs, we could explore the empty house and grounds. We opted not to, despite the fact that we heard a goat nearby.

La Cabana

La Habana
Soviet weaponry

It wasn’t too hot, so we walked along the road towards Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, or La Cabana. Outside the full-on moated castle, Soviet missiles, old Spanish cannons, and other assorted weaponry were on display. This castle was originally built after a British overland invasion of the OTHER castle, Castle Morro, in 1762. Then they were like, oh crap, we need another castle.

La Habana
La Cabana

So La Cabana was born! Fun fact: La Cabana has been used as a torture prison under the Castros. Che ran the place for the first five months after the revolution, using the space as a location for political prisoners, the tribunals, and ultimately, the executions afterwards.

But every evening at 9 pm, they shoot off a cannon. We were told it is the only thing in Cuba that is done on time.

La Habana
Cannons!

We left La Cabana, and during our walk to Castle Morro, we encountered a four man painting crew. They had scaffolding, and the task was to paint the lampposts that lined the roadway a shiny black color. The scaffolding was needed for the height of the posts, but it was cumbersome and took time to set up and take down. Walking next to the already painted lampposts, we thought it was interesting that despite the crumbling of Old Havana, these lampposts were given priority. And then we came upon a lamppost that had fallen over. It was freshly painted, with a small piece of cardboard keeping it off the grass, so as not to get grass stuck against the fresh paint. I guess when the government says Paint the Lampposts, you better paint ALL the lampposts.

Castle Morro

La Habana
Castle Morro

The guardian of the port was huge! We played on the fortifications, stopped for a refreshing drink nearby, and then walked around the castle that guards La Habana bay. I even found a little lizard.

La Habana
Andy at the lighthouse

The shadows were starting to lengthen, so we walked back to the big giant Jesus statue with the tiny head, and headed back to the ferry. Crossing back over was even better because we got a good view of the water and the city this time.

La Habana
Tiny Habana lizard!

Dinner was at a very small, single-table place called “The Machine.” The shingle hung above the door was in the shape of a Singer sewing machine. They had one table, and while we had some miscommunications, I ended up with a meal that I loved. When we had thrown a Cuban party a year ago, I had learned how to make tostones, so I was happy to have some in Cuba.

La Habana
Tostones rellenos

Tostones are plantains that are sliced, mashed into either a cup shape or flat, then fried with a little salt. My tostones rellenos were cup-shaped plantains filled with melted cheese and ham. It was served with a sweet red sauce.

Evening with Papa

La Habana
Me and Papa Hemingway

We split off from the group and checked out some local music. First on the list was La Floridita, a tourist trap and one of Hemingway’s favorite bars. They’ve even erected a bronze drinking buddy to keep you company while you have a daiquiri. Supposedly, this was also where it was invented. I samba-ed with the bouncer on the way out.

La Habana
Atmosphere everywhere

La Floridita was so crowded, we moved to a smaller, open air bar that had been recommended. The music was great, the mojitos were cold, the atmosphere was exactly as I had hoped to find in La Habana.

Cuba: Day One

Oh, Cuba. Even preparing for Cuba, I was at a loss. What to pack? I’d read many personal accounts and had friends who’d been there, but Cuba seemed to change daily. What was one person’s experience, was not at all how another experienced the trip.

There were some things I wish I had known beforehand, such as the rapidly changing circumstances.

Travel

We took the first flight out of Jacksonville, FL to Miami, and then what appeared to be the earliest flight from Miami to Havana. We bought our visas at the gate, amidst a crowd of people from many different countries. Still, this step, which some airlines seemed happy to shepherd its customers through over the phone, had been a particularly sore point for me.

I’d made several rounds of phone calls, been bounced back and forth from an unresponsive “travel agency” (cheapair.com), to unresponsive airline representatives (American Airlines), before getting a hold on someone who knew anything about Cuba. Our friends who had bought tickets on Delta and JetBlue respectively still had troubles, but not as many as I seemed to have. They had bought their visas over the phone in advance, while we were obligated to wait until the day of to buy from a kiosk next to the gate. Despite the added anxiety, the process was very easy.

The plane was new and crowded. We landed in Havana without incident, and going through customs was easy and fast. The longest part of our wait was waiting for our checked baggage to appear on the carousel. Walking out of the international terminal, our first task was to figure out how to exchange money.

Money

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Tired couple on the balcony of our AirBnb.

Money is a weird thing in Cuba. American dollars are decidedly NOT welcome, and are traded at a taxed fee, regardless of its global strength. Euros are preferred for trading, and we had brought a few of those along. Euro to the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is a one-to-one exchange, period. CUCs are for tourist use, not for Cuban citizens. A Cuban citizen uses CUPs, or non-convertible pesos, which has a completely different scale, and is a much less expensive economy.

CUC prices are expensive, like dinners being 9 CUCs per entree or more. But if you were a person in the know, and went to other places using CUPs, prices are much, much less. Like cents on the peso. But, if you don’t speak fluent (Cuban) Spanish, they are hesitant to take a CUP from a foreigner.

Wandering in the terminal, looking for a money exchange, we found a very helpful lady who hailed us a taxi. She negotiated with the driver to take Euros, giving us an opportunity to exchange our money in town, as the airport exchange was crowded. As we later learned, it didn’t matter where you went, the lines to exchange money were long.

IMG_4758The drive in was about 30 minutes, from airport to the old town (Viejo Habana). Diesel fumes are ubiquitous, as is the socialist propaganda. Billboards did not disappoint.

When we got to the narrow streets of Old Town, the police wouldn’t allow our taxi driver to continue.  We were in the muddy streets of Havana, pulling our suitcase, trying to find a way around the blockading police. In a crowd, we managed to sneak past a pair of policia and get to our AirBnb, Casa Amistad.
The day was just beginning, not quite ten a.m., and our host, Ronaldo, was feeling ill, unable to help that day. Instead, Heyli greeted us. She offered to walk us down to a money changer, but she had a few things to take care of first. Andy and I spent time peering over the third-floor balcony watching what was happening below–a film shoot.

They were just setting up, but those boxes and cords are unmistakeable. Word was that it was an Enrique Iglesias video. Pretty teen girls walked around with perfect hair and pristine white costumes, so a music video sounded about right. Still, we headed out with Heyli to change our money instead of sticking around.

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“Granma” is in the building

We tried a few different exchanges, one had decided to no longer change dollars, and another had a long line (but it was next to a churro cart!), so Heyli took us out of Old Town to another money exchange. She gave us good directions on how to go about our day, leaving us reluctantly, as if we were small children of dubious responsibility. We stood in line for about forty-five minutes, which seemed to be about what everyone did.

The Revolution

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Best Mint Lemonade

After the money adventure, we took a pedi-cab to an excellent restaurant (best mint-lemonade), Cha Cha Cha, across from the Museo de la Revolucion. We peered over at “Granma,” a yacht enclosed in glass, which Fidel, Raul, Che, and about 80 other guys rode from Mexico to the southern tip of Cuba for the 1959 Revolution.

 

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Always look up. The cupola from the Presidential Palace/ Museum of the Revolution

We investigated after our meal, heading into the museum, the former Presidential Palace. When entering the grandiose building, the bust of Lenin greets you. It is easy to miss the bullet holes next to his head where the revolutionaries stormed the building. The upstairs was in good repair, beautiful murals stretched across ceilings, and the ornate wrought iron lamps were in place. Certain rooms were set up as they had been when Batista was in power. The staircase where he fled the revolutionaries was glassed off so museum-goers could gawk at it.

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Lenin plus bullet holes

The museum itself traced the 1959 coup almost hour-by-hour, where and how each leader (Fidel, Raul, Che) led his troops. The revolutionaries were small in number, but they took over Havana because much of the military surrendered. The exhibits showed this, including photographs of the bodies of those who did NOT surrender. Fidel’s bloody clothes from that night are on display.

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Larger caliber holes in the courtyard of the Presidential Palace.

Connected to the Museum of the Revolution nee the Presidential Palace, is the outdoor section, featuring the glass-enclosed yacht. Other displays were tractors hand-altered to be tanks made by supporters outside of Havana for the Revolutionaries.

The Museum made clear the involvement of the U.S. government, both in propping up Batista’s regime and in the interference afterwards. The clearest point, however, was that the martyrdom of Che Guevara at the hands of CIA operatives will never be forgiven.

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The Cuban government appeared to not be big fans of the GOP.

Nap Nemesis

After the museum, we tried to head back to the Casa for a nap, but were once again thwarted by Enrique Iglesias. The policia wouldn’t let us in on our block due to filming. So off we went to explore more of Havana.

We visited the Plaza of San Francisco de Asis, and then found an outdoor bar for a lemonade and a cuba libre. The air was warm and sticky, not unlike Savannah in May. The table next to us were Canadians, staying at a resort outside of Havana that is off-limits to Americans (this is due to American restrictions).

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Ceiling Mural in the Presidential Palace

 

After spending a few hours out and about, we returned to run the policia gauntlet and this time MADE it. We headed upstairs to our floor, checked in properly, made our acquaintance with Ronaldo, and finally got a chance for a nap. The room was spacious with two beds, a private bathroom, a table to write at, and air conditioning. I laid down, grateful for the rest. Of course, when the screaming started, I had to investigate.

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Enrique is the one standing in the doorway wearing the black ballcap.

The view from the balcony was the best vantage point. A short but very fit man wearing a thin, white t-shirt and black baseball cap emerged from a dark bus parked in front of our Casa. A horde of teenaged girls screamed at him as he took pictures with each young girl thrust by his side. He held babies, waved, posed for pictures, and eventually disappeared into the green cement house that had been commandeered as hair/make-up that day. It had to be Enrique, my Nap Nemesis.

Evening

We left awhile later, napless, to meet up with Liz, Kyle, Kate, and Tobias in the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. On the way, we passed my Nap Nemesis performing on top of the red bus (it had also been parked on our street all day). An enthusiastic audience jumped and stretched their hands up to him. Enrique.

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The crew.

We met up with our people, exploring until we found some dinner. After the first of many toasts, we ate ropa vieja (literally “old clothes,” the dish is essentially pulled pork, a staple of Cuban cuisine), and headed to bed early in the humid evening.

Live music leaked out of every restaurant, the drumbeat insistent, but we shrugged it off for another day.

Cuba! An Introduction

I wish I could tell you all about Cuba. But I don’t know enough.

I wish I could tell you all about the history of Cuba, but I am unqualified.

I wish I could tell you all about Cuba today, but there are too many things I didn’t even see.

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Plaza de San Francisco de Asis

Cuba seems to change on a daily basis, a world shifting and changing to suit its own needs. I say that only as a tourist. I don’t know what it is like to be Cuban, or to live on an island nation governed by a unique set of principles. There seems to be a purposeful divide between the local daily life and the tourist tableau on display. Perhaps this is not all that different from the way other countries allow tourists to see their world, but it is the most apparent divide I have seen.

Even so, the Havana I saw in a measly five days was full of magic, where around every corner I thought, “I did not expect to see that.”

Restaurants that were open and thriving three days ago, recommended by our Cuban hosts, were closed for renovation, or gone completely when we tried to visit them.

Three dogs ran by on the street, all wearing t-shirts, two wearing hats, and one with a nametag.

The only salsa dancing I did was a doorman to a bar, egged on by a drunk American tourist IMG_4763(that I did not know).

I’ll go into depth about our trip, my usual, day by day, but I have to tell you that visiting La Habana was surreal. More so for me than other Latin American countries. There is something unique to Habana, maybe the communism hosting capitalist tourists, maybe a crumbling city that is nearing its 500th birthday, or perhaps being in a country where knowledge is open and free to any citizen who shows interest. The art on every street corner surpassed anything I’d seen in American tourist galleries. The bands in almost every bar starting at 4 o’clock in the afternoon were better than most thrown-together bar bands in tourist districts I’ve been in. And that was just them playing covers.

But to all of these there is a caveat, a wondering what the real Cuba is like, because we saw the Instagram profile of the country: beautiful cars, intriguing sunsets, and even the crumbling and disarray of the old town fell apart in an elegant manner.

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The view from our AirBnB balcony

 

Despite my suspicions, make no mistake, there is magic in Cuba. It isn’t big magic, the hit you over the head kind, but rather the shrugging, of-course-it-is type of magic that citizens accept and visitors marvel over.

I can’t wait to show you guys the pictures.

2016 in review

I had some big goals for 2016. Most of the goals were reasonable, but still some entirely unreasonable ones snuck in. These were the goals I wasn’t going to hold myself to because I had no control over other people’s actions, but I couldn’t help but keep these outlandish expectations as a yardstick.

Maybe I watched too much Parks & Rec because I made a binder for my Writing Year, made quarterly goals, and decorated it with stickers. Some of my goals I now see as unrealistic (like blog 4 times a week. Who has time for that?), and some of them I forgot to write down, because I didn’t realize that those could be worthy goals (read your genre).

In my first quarter, I knocked it out of the park. In fact, I finished early. But by the time the third quarter came around, I lost focus on my goal sheet. I should have looked at it more often, reminding myself of what I set out to accomplish. But I didn’t, and I’m at peace with the fact that I didn’t. Because the story I’m most proud of was written then. It took only one round of submissions before it was published in a magazine I’m proud to be associated with. If I had stayed on track with the binder, I would have never taken the time to write something new that was under 80,000 words.

One of my goals was to submit my manuscript THE SQUARE GRAND to 30 agents this year. Check. I submitted to 34 of them, in fact. I have 27 No Thank Yous, but it is still being reviewed by 6 agents, and one of them has requested a full manuscript.

Another goal was to submit my short story set in the Galapagos until it was published. Apparently, I submitted it 18 times to no avail. I’m in the middle of yet another massive rewrite, and I doubt it will be ready for submission before the New Year hits. This one I can chalk up to unforeseen circumstances–the circumstance being that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was. But that’s okay. Another draft, another direction. Head down, keep working.

But my big failure this year was found in my “Year Long Writing Goals” list. I wanted to finish a draft of a novel called THE BITTER KIND. I know the story, mostly. But I don’t know how to tell it. I know the characters, but I don’t know how to frame it. Above all, this story feels like the work I have to do, but I’m terrified of it. I’ve been writing this novel for so long that my first scenes of it got me into graduate school back in 2003. I’ve written drafts and drafts of it–some upward of 200 pages. I reread it, keeping only a few paragraphs. This was 2016’s White Whale.

But you can’t plan a year in its entirety. I wrote two other manuscripts, of which I’m proud. I’ve submitted those to 22 agents, with five still pending, one of which has a full manuscript.

Snowstorm of No

Earlier in the year, I wrote about how everyone says No. It was a blog post about struggling with repetitive failure, something I think artists experience more acutely than the rest of the population. This is like fighting snow. A few snowflakes are no big deal. A rejection here, a rejection there, it isn’t a big deal. The agent is correct, it isn’t a good fit. Better to know ahead of time than trying to force a working relationship. But the aggregate of the No is what suffocates a person, like the snowflakes that make up the blizzard. Keeping your head down, working, sending out manuscripts seems easy, until one day you look up, smothered in No.

The few, glimmering Yes give you light to see the path again, but the No keeps coming, relentless. It is much harder to focus on the Yes than let the No smother you into a cold, dreamless void sleep.

I also wrote in that blog that setting a goal for publication was idiotic–you can’t control what an editor will take, or what an agent will accept. Better to shoot for rejections. 100 rejections a year seemed reasonable. So did I make it? Almost. I submitted 92 items–some short stories, some novels, a couple of short non-fiction essays.

Pretty darn close. Enough for rounding error.

I know 2016 has been a shit year for a lot of people, and in the wider world, I agree. But just like I’ve been down on my luck when everyone else is riding high, I took chances that paid off this year. I’ve had MORE than my fair share of adventures in 2016. Cheers to past Katie for having the guts to try having a Dream Year. I’d recommend it, even if you can’t accomplish all of your goals. Here’s some images from this past year, a bit of an adventure review.

By the way, 2017, I’m gunning for you.

 

 

Romanian Rib – Red Rocks

There are many sports metaphors that equate to struggle. Marathons, extra innings, overtime: all of these immediately conjure up the physical struggle of a human being. But perhaps we need a sports metaphor for the less demanding endurance trail. Romanian Rib could be just such a metaphor for patience.

Romanian Rib is a specific route near Red Rocks National Park. The climb itself is about 1000 feet of vertical. There is a parking lot on the side of the road, and a marked, maintained trail for about half of the 1.5 mile hike-in to the base of Romanian Rib.

Romanian Rib
From the parking lot: we’ll head straight in between the rocks to get to Romanian Rib

That morning we got started a little later than usual, despite our promises to be out the door early. While inconvenient, in hindsight, an extra hour of daylight would have made little difference.

We sorted gear in the back of the car, loaded up packs and ropes, and hiked in, hoping we didn’t forget anything. The base of Romanian Rib is not marked, nor on a trail, so we bushwhacked through the prickly manzanita bushes to get to a place where we could set ropes.

Will and Wendy went first, the same as the day before, where we climbed in teams on the multi-pitched Physical Graffiti. Will lead-climbed for their team, Andy lead-climbed for ours.

Ready for some numbers?

The vertical was 1000 feet. Our rope was 180 feet. Quick math: if we need to climb 1000 feet, we would need to do at least 6 pitches. But! The rope was tied to both of us, needed to have enough slack to thread through protection easily. As the Mountain Project predicts, 8 pitches seemed to be a good theory for how long it would take.

Romanian Rib
At the start of Romanian Rib

Romanian Rib is rated as a 5.5 using the Yosemite Decimal System. The first number 5 in this is meant to discuss the class level of hike/climb, which is the kind that requires the use of a rope. A Class 1 hike is easy, hiking boots likely required, each higher level getting more difficult until Class 5, which requires a rope. I’ve seen grocery store parking lots more treacherous than a Class 1.

After Class 5 is reached, the decimal point describes the rating system for the actual climb. The higher the number, the more difficult it is. 5.0 is a treacherous parking lot, while the peak of 5.15 seem to require not just a rope, but superpowers.

Climbing a multi-pitch 5.5 seemed like a good fit for our quartet. Wendy and I are not fast climbers, but at 5.5, we would be well in our comfort zone, so even with the fatigue of a day-long excursion, there would be no problems. For Will and Andy, they needed to be able to free-climb without fear of injury, and a 5.5 would be very doable.

Climb on

Romanian Rib
We’re off!

Crack of ten a.m., we were climbing. While Red Rocks is a sandstone formation, our particular route also had iron deposits. As the wind eroded the sandstone over time, shaping the formations, the iron deposits did not erode. So the face was covered in these reddish warts, which provided easy and abundant handholds and footholds. Climbing through those wart-fields went fast, and even I felt like Spiderman, scrambling up as fast as I could clean protection out of the fissures.

Romanian Rib
It’s hard to show how tall I felt.

There were snags, of course. Because the shape of the rock meant we were often out of visual and audio range, I  had to rely only on the patience of knowing I had literally no place to go. Clipped into a rock 600 feet off the ground, patience is not so much a virtue as a hobby.

Along the way, we anchored at some large ledges, and then some places that weren’t ledges at all. Those were the stations that made my feet hurt, “standing” in an uncomfortable way so as to competently belay my partner.

We also discovered that our rope was about ten feet shorter than Will’s rope, meaning that on two occasions, Andy had to downclimb from where Wendy was set up to make a new anchor for us.

img_4635
Andy at the top of the climbing, sorting rope.

After eight pitches, I stopped counting. We did a few really short stints in order to reach those monster resting ledges. Despite what Mountain Project recommended, we did at least ten pitches (if not more).

By the time we reached the top of the climb (not the top of the rock), it was almost four o’clock in the afternoon. We’d been in shadows most of the day, and it was definitely beginning to look like dark would fall quickly.

Must Come Down

We hiked across the rock to get to the rappel stations. These are where metal bolts have been anchored into the rock permanently. To speed the process, Will tied the two ropes together. Andy set the rope and headed down first. After him, I went, then Wendy, then Will, then we pulled the rope and started again, descending 180 feet at a time.

Romanian Rib
Wendy at the hike over to a rappel station, while I stood at the top of the climb.

I felt comfortable repelling, as we had repelled 300 feet into the Natural Well earlier that year. Down we went, moving fast, trying to be efficient. Sometimes it was easy, walking down the rock backwards, moving my prusik (small knot type used as a safety back-up) until both that rope and my metal ATC (rappel device) were hot to the touch.

By the time we had made it down 3 pitches, it was dark. The Las Vegas Strip was visible, the floodlight at the Luxor pyramid beamed into the sky directly behind where our car was parked. I mentally marked the location because it was already clear we would hike out in the dark. To the right was the small, twinkling town of Blue Diamond.

Here, I admit that Will tied me into the rope. My knots are slower, my fingers clumsier. He would tie, I would double-check, Wendy would give me a big smile, and I would slide down to meet my husband at the bottom of the rope. When it got dark, it was still the same process, just with heightened senses.

The moon hadn’t risen yet, and the starlight was barely enough to see what we were doing. Fortunately, the white rock reflected what little light we had. Only Andy had remembered to bring along a headlamp. Wendy’s cellphone battery was near dead. Andy and Will’s were about at half, and I had about three-quarters. It would be enough once we were on the ground, but there was no way to use the cell phone lights while rappelling.

We had gone down ravines, around trees, each of us had scratches from the ubiquitous manzanita leaves. Finally, Andy said he thought we were near a walk-off. This rappel would be the last one. We set the rope around the trunk of a large tree miraculously growing in this outcropping of boulders. Unlike other sections, this one had plenty of room to sit together comfortably. Andy headed down, and the three of us huddled against the rock, enjoying the last bit of heat the rock retained from the desert sun. Directly in front of the tree was a large boulder. After Andy had been gone a few minutes, the rope slid around the surface of the boulder, straightening out due to the tension below.

Wendy asked what we should eat for dinner. I had seen a Mexican restaurant on the way into the park the other day (I have a radar for this sort of thing). We waited for Andy to call back up to say he was safe and for me to tie in. But we heard nothing.

Then came the fantasizing about burritos the size of footballs, the discussion on what makes a good guacamole great. Finally, we heard Andy’s voice yell up from the rock. We looked at each other, all of us asking, “What did he say?”

One of the least effective things to do in this situation is to stand on the edge of something and yell “WHAT?” as loud as you can.

I’m not saying we did or did not do that. But finally, when we understood an “OK” from Andy, I tied in.

I started down the rope, picking my way through the vegetation that had started to dominate our landscape. Much of it was safe to downclimb, but in the dark, we didn’t want to risk it. Instead, I slid the rope through my equipment as I walked backwards, until I got to this strange plateau with a small manzanita tree and a cave opening roughly 18 inches tall.

Out of nowhere, I heard Andy’s voice loud and clear: “I’ve got you.”

I looked around me, not seeing where he could be, then finally realizing his voice was coming from the small hole in front of me. “Where are you?”

He explained that there would be a free-rappel after this plateau. He said to follow the sound of his voice.

“Into the cave?” I asked, because that did not make any sense whatsoever.

“Just follow the rope,” he said.

What else is there to do at this point? There’s no light, I’m tied to a rope, and I have a massive craving for a burrito football.

Peering over the ledge near the small manzanita bush near the ledge, I saw how the rock dropped away into nothingness. Andy turned on the red light of his head lamp to show me how close I was, maybe another 30-40 feet. Going over the ledge seemed like the hardest part, so I took the plunge, holding my feet straight out as I sat myself into thin air, as if sinking into a dining room chair.

I held my prusik still, giving myself a second to collect myself.

“I’ve got you,” Andy reminded me. “I can control the rope down here.” By pulling tension at his end, he could give a safety stop.

I nodded, but before I could move the prusik and finish my descent, the rope dropped, and my body jerked downward.

My heart stopped. Above me, the rope had rolled over the first boulder, just as I had seen it do while Andy descended. Shaking, I moved the prusik to end the rappel. I slid down the remainder, the scaly sound of the rope shushing through my equipment the only background to this activity.

My feet touched the ground and I untied quickly. Both of us screamed “OK” back up at Wendy and Will.

“I hope the rope doesn’t get stuck,” Andy said.

I stopped him. “Let’s get them down first.”

Then I did what I do best: I got out of the way. I clambered over to a rock outcropping to look at the valley below us. When I looked up, I began whooping.

“The moon is rising!” I yelled. “It’s big and orange and perfect!” We were only one day past a full moon. The extra light was almost immediate. By the time Wendy reached us, the moon was fully risen.

Will came down next, and after he detached himself, Andy pulled on the rope like ringing a bell in a belltower. Nothing happened. Will grabbed the rope and they pulled again. Nothing. I tied into the back of the rope, Andy climbed up a few feet, and the three of us put all of our weight against it. Nothing.

“Well,” Andy said, hands on his hips.

“Yup,” Will said, same stance.

The Hitch

I returned to my pack to eat some trail mix and a honey packet since I was getting to the point of shaking from lack of calories. By the time I got called back to the rope, Will had attempted an ascension system, then Andy tried, and I got tied into the rope that was supposed to be pulled up, around the tree and then back down again. That way, when Will climbed up again, he wouldn’t fall on the ground from a sudden rope-slip.

There is probably not a way that I can both accurately describe the ascension system as well as convey how much physical exertion it took for Will to climb up the rope that hung away from any wall. Watching Will roll himself up over the ledge alone was exhausting.

None of us were talking, so it was easy to hear the animal noises near the overlook. Andy was controlling one end of the rope, I was tied into the other, and Will was ascending, which meant Wendy was left to investigate the strange noises near our packs.

She disappeared over to the ledge where our backpacks were, and then we heard the sound of small rocks hitting the outcropping. There was some more shuffling, and then Wendy returned.

“Sorry Andy, I think a fox peed on your pack. But he’s gone now,” she said.

It’s funny now, but at the time, it was difficult to even register. I was thinking about how we might just sleep there, huddled in a big puppy pile and wait for morning when we could find a way to retrieve the rope in daylight.

Once Will had accomplished the ascent, however, he went back up to the tree, freed the rope and downclimbed to the ledge where he re-set the rope and descended again. This time, when we pulled, the rope came down.

During all of this, Wendy and I had investigated whether or not this was our walk-off point. We both thought so, but it had not been borne out. There was still a possibility that we might encounter another rappelling situation. Still, we changed out of our climbing shoes into hiking boots and our quartet set off in the moonlight.

There were a few points where we had to turn back on our bushwhacking trail to the car, but for the most part, the 1.5 mile return trip was pleasant. We sang childhood camp songs, I belted out a few choruses of Pocahontas (“Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon?”), and we fantasized about crispy tortilla chips, hot with grease.

We were giddy with relief: relieved that we wouldn’t be spending the night in a manzanita bush tangle, relieved that we would eat hot food that day, relieved that everyone was safe and unscathed.

By the time we got back to the car, it was after 10:30 pm. Andy and I split a hot, stale vanilla zinger stashed that morning in the driver’s console. The sugar had crystallized and melted on our tongues.

romanian rib
cervecerita

Once again, Las Vegas came through: despite being 11 pm on a Tuesday night, the Mexican restaurant was open because it had video poker, and was technically a gaming establishment. 24 hour chips and salsa. Our waiter literally ran across the restaurant to get us our hot, crispy chips, and bowls of red salsa, green salsa, and bean dip. I ordered a cervezerita for the first time in my life.

We ate like animals, though none of us could finish. All of us were tired, endorphin-flooded, and ready for few more days of climbing (and a good night’s sleep).

Our first major multi-pitch climb was a good adventure–and as Andy likes to say, “It’s only a good story if something goes wrong.”

Red Rocks

Red RocksRed Rocks is an incredible formation of sandstone 15 miles outside of Las Vegas. One of the best things about a trip to Red Rocks is that all of the gambling and drinking of Vegas tourists subsidize the inevitably less expensive food and lodging of a climbing trip.

We stayed at an AirBnB on the West side of Vegas, near Red Rocks, big enough to have plenty of room for four people. Though only 15-20 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, we were also 15 minutes from the garage to touching sandstone rock.

The first day we arrived, Andy ran up Mount Wilson (I do not use the word “run” in any sloppy way. He ran up that mountain). I stayed at the condo, working and then walking to a grocery store for supplies. The grocery store walk ended up being almost as many miles as Andy’s trek, though mine was all flat while his had a gain of 7,070 feet.

That night we walked the Strip until it was time to pick up Will and Wendy at the airport. The Strip is always great for people watching and that night was no exception. We watched a “Day Club” let out and a group of young drunk people try to fight another group of young drunk people.

It made me feel old. And glad that I was old.

Red RocksThe next day the four of us sorted gear and headed to the Rocks for some practice runs. The day was crowded, but we found a niche to climb in to get our stuff sorted and then went around the backside of the park to climb a bigger route.

Physical Graffiti & Multi-Pitch Climbing

Red Rocks
Warming up and pulling protection

The route is called Physical Graffiti and requires two pitches. What that means is that one person lead climbs the route, attached to a rope to the bottom person (who is on-belay). The lead climber places protection (cams or nuts which are two types of gear that fit into the rock) to thread the rope through just in case this lead climber falls. The protection means that if a fall occurs, the lead climber falls the length of the last protection, not all the way to the ground.

Red Rocks
Will looking majestic while supervising

Once the lead climber reaches an anchor station (a place where either a permanent bolt is set into the rock, or a nice ledge that seems like a good stopping place where the lead climber can build an anchor securely with the various cams or nuts), the roles of the two people switch. The lead climber up above belays the person below, who begins to climb. Along the way, the bottom climber cleans the route, meaning that all of the cams or nuts have to be taken out of the rock and brought with up to the anchor station.

Red Rocks
Belaying where you have to–Andy in the bushes.

In other scenarios, once the bottom climber reaches the anchor station, s/he could pass right on by, cruising up, becoming the lead climber. This works when you have two climbers of equitable skill levels.

But hey! Remember that other post I wrote about not being a very good climber? Yep. This is an excellent instance where my lack of skill comes into play. Instead of cruising by Andy when I got to the anchor station on the first pitch, I handed over all the gear I had cleaned from the route, took the rope from Andy, and belayed him as he lead-climbed the second pitch as well.

Climbing the Crack

Red Rocks
Climbing my first-ever crack

So on Physical Graffiti the second pitch is actually a crack. I had climbed exactly one crack before this, a possible less than 5.4 rated (read: very easy) crack system on the opposite side of the rock about 90 minutes prior. Sure, I’d read a How-To-Climb-A-Crack manual the night before and have watched other people do it. Theory is great and all, but definitely not a substitute for actual attempts.

I try out some of the new methods, the chicken-wing: shoving your entire arm inside the crack system, bent at the elbow, and levering pressure between flat hand and shoulder. I had the most success with that. Then there was the fist of power maneuver, shoving your hand inside of a crack, then making a fist and using that to keep your place as you move upwards. That one was harder as my hands are not terribly wide, so it was a little loosey-goosey.

Red Rocks
Wendy, at the bottom of Physical Graffiti

But let me back up and say the best part of new experiences is meeting new people. We had chatted with this guy named Skyler at the bottom, who was waiting for some people to climb up this route again. Wendy and Will began climbing first, so Andy and I had time to chat with him. Skyler was waiting for his new friends, Andrew and Katherine (weird, right?), to get there so he could climb up again with Andrew.

By the time I got to the anchor and Andy took off, Andrew arrived at the anchor and clipped in. Then  Skyler arrived not long afterwards. The three of us were all clipped in on the same anchor, mine on the bottom. The guys exchanged information while I belayed Andy on the second pitch. Skyler got out his cell phone to get Andrew’s number. I kept belaying. Then, I was supposed to leave on my climb, but I had to clean the anchor of all my stuff–which was on the bottom of this pile of gear. I was all the way to the right, closest to the route and farthest from the anchor. Andrew rearranged some of his gear, Skyler helped with my carabiners, and then I started to climb.

Not a minute after, Skyler unhooked from Andrew’s system, and Andrew rappelled down from the anchor. Skyler was on the ledge below me without a harness or a rope. He intended to free climb the crack.

Red Rocks.
me & Andy. Climbing buddies-4-evah. Also, we’re married.

Of course he did. He tried to be encouraging (as almost every single person I have ever encountered in the climbing community), calling a “nice move” when I chicken-winged. But really, like many introverts, I would like to pretend you can’t see me at all. Obviously, I *know* I’m not invisible, but I’m probably doing something dumb, and would prefer to struggle along in anonymity. Later, when I feel better, I will call attention to my ridiculous flailing, at which point, we can all laugh about it and I won’t feel humiliated.

I made it up the crack with some difficulty, much of said difficulty due to the fact Andy couldn’t hear me and I couldn’t hear him. If he yelled something, I could tell he yelled, but I had no idea what he was saying. Same went for him. So when I yelled for tension, fearing my right foot was slipping as I tried to wriggle my left foot free to wedge above the right foot, he gave slack.

My slightly louder, slightly more desperate scream of “Tension!” gave me a desired result, but also a note from Skyler below me to shout my partner’s name ahead of the command.

Thank you.

The shadows were long by the time we got down, so we went to the car and hit the Red Rocks Casino buffet for dinner (deee-lightful).  This casino, near the actual Red Rocks entrance is out-door themed, and left us to speculate as we waited in line, how to climb the decorative stone-work.

But, now that I had climbed (2) crack systems, and (1) multi-pitch climb, tomorrow was all set for a 1500-foot climb.

Of course it was.

Big Climb Prep

In a few weeks, we are going to Red Rocks outside Las Vegas to climb. Not much for gambling, we will be subsidized by all the people do: cheap flights, cheap places to stay, easy food.

I have to admit something too–I am not a great climber. Nor particularly good. Aaaaand I don’t really climb very often. (There is a sincere dearth of elevation near Savannah).

img_4533For the past week or so we’ve been practicing for my benefit. I have my own rope length to practice my knots, and while I watch TV or listen to podcasts, I tie and untie my handful of knots.

 

img_4542I keep all of my practice lengths handy so I can go through what I’ve learned a few times a day. My goal is to make those knots second nature so I can tie them while suspended 1000 feet in the air. When I think I have mastered one, Andy makes me tie it while my hands are in a paper bag.

 

img_4535

We took a walk around the neighborhood so I could practice placing and taking out cams and stoppers.img_4541

 

 

 

 

 

 

img_4540We even set up a faux-system on our stairs at home to get used to cleaning a route as I climb.

I know it isn’t perfect, but it helps.

The route we are looking at is an easy route: Romanian Rib. At only a 5.6, 5.7, I should have no problems with the climb, but it is multi-pitched, which I have never done.

img_4547The most exciting news out of all of this is that I got my first ever, personal, belongs-to-me climbing helmet.

And!

My first ever, actual correct-size climbing shoes. Terrible, right? I’ve always used Andy’s hand-me-downs, which are typically worn out and a little too big.  The last pair was cambered and worn enough that the rubber on the bottom of the shoe had cracked into two. But now I have my very own! After trying on nearly every pair, I settled on these as the most comfortable for a full day of climbing. They are the same style as the very first of Andy’s hand-me-downs (big enough I had to wear socks while climbing). img_4544I like the lacing because even if my feet get swollen after a day of hiking, I can adjust the fit accordingly.

The countdown is ticking away. I am trying to get all of my writing projects done so I can go without the weight of work remaining unfinished.

Of course, during all of this, Carl remains unimpressed.

3 Sisters: Day 6

Opie Dilldock PassI had not slept well. The first few nights of sleeping on the ground were great, straightening out my back in ways I didn’t know it was crooked, but the last night was painful. My side of the tent was on a gentle slope, so I tended to slide to the edge of the tent, waking every few hours, pressed against the canvas. My right shoulder hurt from my fall, so I couldn’t put my arm over my head if I laid on my stomach, and I certainly couldn’t lay on my right side.Opie Dilldock Pass

Andy got out of his bag first that day. The next water wasn’t for another two and a half miles, and we had another pass to get through beforehand, so I forewent my morning tea. My feet still hurt from the day before, the toll of fifteen miles on tender soles. Had we more trail time, I would have been able to accustom myself to that much mileage and more, but at the time, my body faced the consequences. Given how swollen my feet were, I tied my boots looser than usual. We ate our granola and folded up camp.

Opie Dilldock Pass
Just before Opie Dilldock

I took a last look around, the tall pines waving in the breeze of the early morning. This was our last camp. We had nine more miles until the Lava Lake Trailhead, so barring any unforeseen issues, we would literally be out of the woods that day. The packs were again lighter as we suited up for our last big day.

But first, the pass: The Opie Dilldock Pass.

Yeah, you heard me.

Opie Dilldock

As we had done on our third morning, the bulk of our elevation would happen first thing in the morning. We had camped less than a mile from where the topographical lines started to get close together on our map. And once again, we had patted ourselves on the back for our cleverness.

“At Mile 41.2 (6900′) is Opie Dilldock Pass. Very Alpine Area. Great Views.

Opie Dilldock PassThis did not at all prepare us for what was in store. We kept our pace intentionally slow, winding our way through the trees and around the mountain, when we came out of the forest. Perhaps, indeed, the Alpine area the author of our guidepost had mentioned.

But the pass itself was far more like Mordor in Lord of the Rings than any alpine area I’ve ever been in. The ground was dry and barren, the volcanic rock gray now, crunching beneath our feet. We climbed up and up and up, me falling behind because I could not manage Andy’s pace. When we came around a corner, a fierce wind waited for us, blowing us both off-balance. My eyes teared up against the wind, my hat catching each gust, despite my ponytail threaded through the back. We had to lean forward into the wind to keep moving up the trail.

The ascent kept going and going…until it didn’t. Like any struggle, once we discovered the plateau, it didn’t seem so hard. The wind skirted past us, barely ruffling the rat’s nest in my ponytail.

Opie Dilldock Pass

Minnie Scott Spring

“At mile 41.7 (6700′) is Minnie Scott Spring. First drinking water since Sisters Spring and Glacier Creek. It’s easy to miss the spring late in summer. It appears about 100′ East of the trail and forms a stream that may peter out before it even reaches the trail. You have to engineer a dam to form a pool, then let the mud settle before getting water. Seems to be reliable year round. Nice campsites down a trail to the West. Next drinking water is at South Mattieu Lake.”

This description was why I had no tea this morning, and the thought had occurred to me that Opie Dilldock Pass (really? really?!) had challenged me even more because of the lack of tea in my system.

Opie Dilldock PassBut Minnie Scott Spring appeared like an oasis of “Alpine” in an otherwise Balrog-infested area. We filtered our water here, despite our belief that the spring didn’t require it. We were too close to a successful trip to be stricken mere miles from the car. I eased off my feet, reclining on a rock. They ached still. In fact, I also had patches of skin on each hip that were being rubbed raw by the pack’s belt. After five days, I had managed to figure out a specific way to set the pack on my hips that made carrying it possible in the long-term. The margins of success were very narrow. My right shoulder ached.

We did not have to engineer a dam to filter the water, thankfully. Now that we had plenty of drinking water on board, we both relaxed some. No matter what happened, we would be fine. Shouldering the packs again, we set off down the trail, now only seven miles from the car.

Opie Dilldock PassThe volcanic landscape overtook again, now red basalt as far as we could see. The wind kicked up and threatened to take my hat–once ripping it right off and I had to chase it down, afraid my Big 5 Dive trucker hat was gone forever. We traversed through the Yapoah Crater, but it looked a lot like the rest of basalt formations.

There was more hills and valleys than we anticipated, the wind constant until we crossed into the trees. Eventually, we returned to the alpine areas again, where we rejoined the Scott Trail, and then the Mattieu Lake Trail.

Almost Home

I was slowing, getting quieter, focused now on the discomfort in my shoulder and my feet. We stopped to eat, despite my protestations, at South Mattieu Lake. I ate not only a Clif bar but also high-graded both the banana chips and cashews out of the gorp.

I did the math and realized I had eaten at maximum, 1500 calories the day before. Not enough for a fifteen mile day. My exhaustion made sense. I ate until I pictured my stomach overflowing with layers of banana chips, stacked unevenly, like a slate retaining wall.Opie Dilldock Pass

Groups of retirees trickled down to the lake. The silver hair was the first giveaway. They had picnics in their daypacks. We were three miles from the trailhead.

It made me smile–they were clearly a very successful outdoor club for seniors. They wore technical hiking gear, many had trekking poles. But they were all enjoying themselves (well, except this one guy, but he looked like the type that had only recently quit his job, and only under protest. He was the kind that didn’t know how to not be in charge and was unhappy about the whole thing.).

Opie Dilldock PassSitting had improved the discomfort in my shoulder and my feet. We had covered a fair amount of tough ground already, and we were close now. We hefted our packs and set out for our last leg. The trail was back to my favorite kind: soft, but well-packed, with good tree cover so as to provide ample shade. We wore sunscreen everyday. I wear sunscreen every day of my life, regardless, but reapplying can really be a hassle.

My feet had stopped aching, finally, and a snack always improved my mood. But then, just like after Opie Dilldock Pass: there we were. In front of us, a parking lot. Behind us, wilderness. It seemed so strange to stand on the cusp, covered in red dust.

Opie Dilldock Pass
world of two

I had been content in our world of two. We were well provisioned, mildly comfortable, and completely out of range of any electronic world. But taking steps forward brought the rest of the world crashing at our feet (or in my case, crashing at my blisters). I had never been in the woods that long before, had never gotten accustomed to that kind of walking. It would have been easy to step back in, melt into the trees, a way to say “forget it,” and cocoon away, just ourselves.

Opie Dilldock Pass
on top of South Sister

But I hadn’t brushed my hair in five days, nor showered. My hips were rubbed raw, my feet swollen and blistered, the ache in my shoulder was intensifying, even as light as my pack felt now compared to the beginning of the trip. The world beckoned, bright and candy-like. It had video games and restaurants. It had my family, my friends, more books, and hot tea. We stepped past the trailhead signpost. We were back.

Opie Dilldock PassThere were two gentleman with their covered truckbeds open, clearly returned from their morning excursion. It was noon, and they were having post-trail beers. We asked them to take a picture of us. We were one week shy of our seventh wedding anniversary, and we had never felt closer.

Our photographer told us a funny story about a newly married couple going into the woods for a week-long honeymoon, only to come out a day later, with implications for the rest of their marriage.

We laughed, declined his offer of a beer, and picked around until we found our car in the dusty lot. Easing the packs off, Andy hunted for the car keys. He pushed the fob, and the truck popped open. We pulled out our waters and more gorp, as well as the charging equipment for our phones. The packs slid into the trunk. Andy flipped his pack the bird.

I sat down in the passenger seat and laughed. I hadn’t sat in a chair in almost a week. It was a Kia, and it was SO COMFORTABLE. The revelation came fast and harsh: how overly comfortable we are in so many respects. How easy our lives are, and how we wallow in it only to declare it unsatisfying.

We resolved to never complain again.

Opie Dilldock Pass
chilquenes

So we drove to Bend to eat. We took turns washing up in the bathroom, I washed up to my elbows three times before the water ran clear. There was a Buddha on the wall watching as I performed my ablutions. We were in a small fusion restaurant called Spork, which I cannot recommend enough. Dee-licious. Also: we had been in the woods for six days, so grain of salt.

Opie Dilldock Pass
Crater Lake!

We drove to Crater Lake, but by then I had taken my boots off. My loose-tying approach that morning had left me with a large blister on my toe. The bottoms of feet still tingled, and with the boots off, unweighted in the car, once again, my feet swelled to a shape nearly round. My right hip was near bleeding from the belt of my pack, but not quite. My left hip felt bruised, but it wasn’t discolored.

It was the National Parks’ 100th birthday weekend, so we cruised in for free. Due to my injured status, we did not do a hike, but drove half of the perimeter. We saw a deer, which felt like vindication for the fact we had not seen anything larger than a squirrel during our week in the woods.

Opie Dilldock Pass
deer!

We got a hotel that night. I hadn’t brushed my hair in a week. My calves were stills stained with ash from before The Burn. I knew I smelled, even if I was having a hard time recognizing it. When I took my shirt off, my right arm was decidedly swollen compared to the left. The bruising would be slow, and indeed, when it came, it covered an area from my bicep down past my elbow. I couldn’t sleep on my right side for two weeks after.

The waistband of my pants chafed the raw skin on my hips, but that went away after a few days. Andy was, of course, completely unscathed.

This was one of our best trips together. Maybe even better than when we spent three weeks in Honduras scuba diving. Definitely better than when we tried to motorcycle the Blue Ridge Parkway and got washed out by a Nor’easter.

The reason why it was so much better was because we walked out of the woods being a better team than when we entered it. It wasn’t a hardship, our hiking and camping adventure, but it was a shared experience where we both carried our weight (not just figuratively).We had set daily goals and frequently exceeded them; we communicated, taking the time to really look at each other. We had lain next to each other listening to elk calls at dawn.

There’s magic in the in between times, and we’d seen it together.

Day 6 Statistics:

Opie Dilldock Pass
our garbage pack-out bag at the end

On Trail: 7:15 am

Off Trail: 12:30 pm

Total Miles = 9 miles

Food:

2 rations of granola

2 cups gorp

Opie Dilldock Pass
Everything that was in my pack

1 clif bar (Sierra Trail)

Water: 3 liters

Opie Dilldock Pass
Everything that I carried that I never used. Note the inhaler.
Opie Dilldock Pass
Everything in Andy’s pack

Three Sisters: Day Five-Part The SECOND

***Continued from yesterday’s blog, where Katie and Andy had made it through the Wickiup Plains, Katie had fallen with her pack on, and they had encountered a pixie-ish couple from Seattle who had lost some clogs…

Obsidian Limited Use Area
By the stream

Leaving Team Seattle behind us, we continued our slow but steady pace outstripping a few other hiking teams. I was proud of us, even though I know it wasn’t a competition. There was a small, unnamed lake that we were on the lookout for, a site we had thought to camp yesterday if we had energy after summiting South Sister (no.). So far, my knee was holding steady. We blew past the lake, small and filled with debris.

Satchel

Not far from the murky unnamed lake, a man stood on the side of the trail, looking at his map. He stopped us, wanting to know where the closest water was. He held a tin cup in his hand. His clothes were light, good hiking gear. His pack was concise, he clearly had a well-used system. But then he had this purple tote bag slung over one arm. Zinc was poorly rubbed onto his nose.

Obsidian Limited Use AreaAndy pointed back the way we came. “Barely a quarter mile,” he said.

“Thanks,” the guy said, and then he wrangled us into another conversation.

We tried to disentangle ourselves but when we began to hike, he fell into rhythm with us.

“Huntsville, Alabama, huh?” he said from behind me.

Because this was my father in law’s pack, he’d put his address all over it. So we talked for a minute about Andy’s dad, his job as a scientist. Andy picked up the pace. It was grueling, but I knew what he was doing–trying to shake our new companion. I kept on Andy’s heels. We trucked mile after mile.

We passed a few meadows, and when we entered heavy tree cover again, we come across two women who appeared to be in their seventies sitting on a log. There wasn’t a trailhead for about eight, maybe ten miles.

“Oh, hello,” they said, as if we happened upon them in a cafe.

img_4419Since our grueling pace wasn’t dislodging our new friend, maybe a long break would. We stopped, chatting for almost twenty minutes with these two women. One of them was wearing a hat sporting the Lake Tahoe Rim Trail logo. They had hiked that one not long ago. Make no mistake, these women were sleepers–they looked like your frail grandmother, but could likely out-hike even a seasoned PCT-er.

“You all came together?” one of them asked.

“No,” I said, motioning to me and Andy.

The woman nodded, and then looked at our new friend. “What’s in the satchel?”

The man stared into the distance as if he hadn’t heard. She repeated the question. He shrugged and held his purple tote closer to his body. “Stuff,” he said.

That didn’t make us feel any better. The man then went and sat down on a log behind the two women, clearly waiting for us. Team Seattle passed us, giving us a strange look, as if we had wanted to collect these other hikers.

Obsidian Limited Use Area
Reese Lake

Finally it was clear that we had to keep going. Satchel wasn’t going anywhere. We said goodbye to the ladies and returned to our grueling pace, fast enough that conversation was impossible. Before long, we were at Reese Lake, our destination for the night. It was about noon.

Team Seattle was setting their camp. Andy refilled our Nalgene bottles. Satchel took off his shoes and waded in the water. I went over to Team Seattle to tell them the secret water source hint the ladies had clued us in about from the Obsidian Limited Use Area. I also told them to watch for Satchel.

He just set off all my alarm bells, and then being cagey about this totebag he had. While open about living in Eugene, he’d said he was hiking the loop as well, but it just didn’t make sense, as he would get suddenly close-lipped about which direction he was following on the loop. I did not want to sleep at the same site as him.

Andy helped Satchel with his maps, which were old–from the seventies, before the creation of the PCT, which did not appear on the maps at all.

Obsidian Limited Use AreaFinally, Andy did this polite kiss-off move he does so well. Satchel had kind of a hurt look on his face, but when we finally found a place to perch over the lake to eat lunch, Satchel had disappeared.

I took my boots off while we ate, as we meant the lunch break to be long. If we pushed ahead, our next water wasn’t until the Obsidian Limited Use Area, where we didn’t have a permit to camp. We would have to hike through it, refill our water and then camp on the other side of it.

Water Imperative

There was a possibility of water earlier, if the streams on the map were still there. We had asked the older ladies about this, and they said all of the creek beds were dry. So we took a deep breath, feeling good, and pushed on. The topography on the map looked fairly flat, and had we not just run down eight miles of trail in less than three hours? With stops and injury!

Obsidian Limited Use Area
Waterfall in the Obsidian Limited Use Area

Boots on, we continued. Once we were safely away from Reese Lake, we gossiped about Satchel, but we never saw him again.

“At mile 37.4 is the beginning of the Obsidian limited use area. Camping is only allowed with special permit you can get from Detroit Ranger Station. There’s a quota on the number allowed. I’ve never had anyone check this so you might take your chances and camp discretely. Like there’s an area about 0.25 mile Northwest of Sisters Spring that is far enough off the trail no one would notice you (maybe).”

Obsidian Limited Use Area
Waterfall in the Obsidian Limited Use Area

We cruised on, dreaming of food we wanted when we got off trail. The Obsidian Area was definitely a change–small chunks of the volcanic glass littered the trail. We climbed up to higher altitudes to view a waterfall. Then we found the Sisters Spring, and following it back to its source, the fresh water was incredible.

Obsidian Limited Use Area
Sisters Spring

The sun was low, my feet were swollen. We’d already hiked well over 10 miles, much at a grueling pace. We didn’t bother filtering the water, just dipping the Nalgene into the pool. The water tasted incredible–cool, crisp and almost sweet.

“Mile 39.1 is the end of the Obsidian Limited Use Area.”

Obsidian Limited Use Area
Best. Water. In. The. World.

In a little over a mile, there was a sign posted announcing the end of the Obsidian area. Immediately we began to look for a flat spot. The trail hugged the side of a mountain, so flat spots were few and far between. Andy spied what had been someone else’s campsite. We picked our way down to it and made camp. In less than fifteen minutes we had tent up, boots off, dinner made.

Obsidian Limited Use Area
Sisters Spring. Too good of a day to be cranky.

The trees were tall pines, the peaks soaring above us by what seemed a hundred feet. The wind made them sway, a soft ruffling sound to lull us to sleep. I wrote in my journal and we took turns licking the inner liner of the Chana Masala we ate for dinner. Neither of us even wanted dessert.

My feet throbbed. I doctored my knee again. My whole body felt shot through with nerves. I could barely lay still. I turned circles in my bag while Andy snored softly next to me. The charms of Merlin and Arthur in my book couldn’t hold my attention.

Obsidian Limited Use Area
Camp: home for the night

Finally, I gave into the restlessness and stared up into the tips of the trees, watching them sway in the dark, resigning myself to exhaustion the next day.

No matter how tired I was, I still felt good, flooded with endorphins. My feet bloated, tingled. Sleep would come some other day.

Day 5 Statistics:

On Trail: 9:00 am

Off Trail: 5:45 pm

Total Miles: 15 miles

Food:

2 granola rations

2 cups gorp

1 Clif bar (macadamia nut, natch)

BackPacker’s Pantry Chana Masala freeze-dried entree (I starred this one three times it was so good. I highly, highly recommend. Also some of the most protein we’d had and yet also vegan.)

Water: 7 liters