Cuba: Day 3

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.


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

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.

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

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.

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.


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.

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.

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

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 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.


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” (, 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.


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.

“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

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.


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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.



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.



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.


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

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

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


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.


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


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

Three Sisters: Day Five

Wickiup Plains
South Sister with Moraine Lake in the foreground. We camped in the trees at the bottom right of the picture.

For the first time, we slept in. I had doctored my knee as best I could the night before, using anti-inflammatory cream and sleeping in a compression sleeve lined with voodoo.

As usual, I was out of my bag first, sweating on the backs of my knees and on my scalp, while Andy looked snugly content in a beanie cap and light fleece tucked into his bag. I made a cup of tea on our camp stove, looking out over Moraine Lake. I watched as a few hikers made their way up to South Sister.

After replenishing calories the day before, having a long talk over a card game about what was happening in my head and what happened in Andy’s head during the slog of South Sister helped put me in a better mood. Even better, my knee felt great.

Wickiup Plains
Yesterday, I was there.

Last night I had gone to bed with swelling, and we were both nervous. Waking with no swelling, full mobility and no pain was definitely good news. Andy got up and we ate a leisurely breakfast before striking camp.

When everything was put away and all we had left was to shoulder the packs, we both stared at them, laying on the ground. It was like wearing a four-year-old. At least it couldn’t put gum in my hair. We still had to stop at the lake to filter water before we started our hike.

Wickiup Plains
Andy filtering the water like a zen master

Andy is more pragmatic and shouldered his bag. I had more sighing to work through before I could manage it.

Moraine Lake was still in shadow, and the water was cold. The water filter was getting less efficient. Water was spilling out of the intake hose. Luckily, a quick scrub with its cleaning kit solved the problem. Twenty-five miles without a water filter would not go well.

Wickiup PlainsAfter we filled all four Nalgene bottles, we started on our trek. This day would bring us onto the Pacific Crest Trail. We had a couple of potential campsites, the most solid being Reese Lake, which would make a distance of eight miles. Unsure of how my knee would do, we figured if we could just make Reese Lake, we could make it back to the car with three days worth of eight mile days. We had more than enough food for it, even though we only packed for six days, the food situation was abundant.

We had packed roughly 3000 calories per day, which Andy had believed was not enough at outset. If we were young people, maybe it wouldn’t be, but we aren’t exactly young anymore. I mentioned before that each day’s worth of food was in its own freezer bag. So each bag had:

  • 2 rations of 1 cup granola, 1/2 cup powdered milk
  • 2 morning clif bars
  • 2 rations of lunch gorp (2 cups each)
  • 2 afternoon clif bars
  • 1 freeze-dried entree
  • dessert: candy, a freeze-dried dessert, or pudding with powdered milk
Wickiup Plains
The Plains

We never got close to eating all that. We had leftover Clif bars for days, more gorp than we could manage, and we had gotten to the point that eating the dessert was an act of will, not desire.

Well-fed, we could manage an extra day if need be. But we would be crossing the Wickiup Plain south of South Sister, and I was optimistic about the flat ground. I knew we could really make some good time.

“At mile 26.1 (6135′) is the junction with an un-named trail that goes right crossing Wickiup Plain. Take this trail. There are a couple nice places to camp just before this junction, but no drinking water.”

Admittedly, junctions with no names were not our strong suit. We went slow, not wanting to miss anything. Then we found a pair of pink crocs on the trail. Andy picked them up–far smaller than either of us could use.

“Should we take them with us?” he asked.

I shrugged. “What if the person is going the opposite direction?”

We made those faces at each that means neither of us knew what the right thing to do was. We both wanted the right thing, but what was that, exactly?

I finally insisted that we leave the pink clogs where we found them, hung like star on a cobbler’s Christmas tree. We continued on, taking the trail down mild forested switchbacks. Andy told me stories of his most intense wilderness experiences from when he was in his big mountain phase in Alaska.

Sometimes, when you hear those kinds of outdoor stories, you get a little jealous, like man, I totally want to do that. I wish that happened to me. 

Let me just say that I did not feel that way about his stories.

Wickiup Plains

Wickiup Plains
Wickiup Plains

The forest fell away and we were in the open grassland of the Wickiup Plains. A lava bubble had created these strange formations we had seen from our vantage point on top of South Sister the day before. The trail was soft, sandy dirt. Rocks the size of cabbages delineated one half of the trail for hikers, and the other side of for horses, even though the trail was not that wide.

The lava formations are black basalt, rocky and menacing-looking, pointy and scratchy. It was far from the volcano itself, so it must have bubbled up from a vent in the earth. I couldn’t help but stare.

I tripped.

Insulting Injury

Wickiup PlainsThose damn cabbage-sized rocks got underfoot. I staggered, catching my weight, but the heft of my 40 pound pack begged to differ. In slow-motion, my bag ricocheted against me, pushing me (and my head) down. Face-first. I put my arms out to the soft ground. I hit another rock. I had a face full of dust.

My arm throbbed and I tried to push myself up to my knees, but Andy stopped me.

“Nope. Let me get this off of you,” he said, unbelting me from the beast that had willfully and maliciously pushed me to the ground.

I sat up, spitting dirt, holding my right arm. For some reason, people seem to know when a bone is broken–I had broken my left arm as a kid, and I knew what a break felt like. This was not that. But man, it hurt like nobody’s business. The only thing I could think to do was cradle it, rocking back and forth. I was just glad I wasn’t crying. I was sick of crying.

When I stood, I wiped my face with my shirt. I felt like Pig Pen, stuck in a cloud of dust. I wanted my pack back, and to just get a move on. Andy made me take a minute longer. I paced in a circle, my arm still throbbing.

Because after South Sister, after river crossings, after a day through The Burn, of course I eat it in a grassy plain, literally devoid of anything larger than a loaf of bread.

img_4417When we get to the junction with the PCT, I feel better, though no less ridiculous.

“At mile 28.4 (6100′) is a small stream, the first drinking water since Moraine Lake. There are several drinking water streams between here and Separation Creek.”

Watering Hole

img_4511We stop to eat, and while we’ve joined a young couple, both with the look of hipster pixies, I strip off my dusty shirt and soak it in the creek. I am typically very modest in front of basically everyone, but after five days in the woods, I’m over it. Also, I want to look at my arm to make sure I am right, and everything is fine.

It turns out the young couple is from Seattle, and this is the first time the man has done any overnight hiking. We are shocked to find they have the printed guidepost we have but NO MAP. I am shocked, but perhaps appalled would be the better word for Andy’s reaction. He hid it well, but after they left to continue on, he expressed himself. I mean, looking at the map was his favorite activity.

Wickiup Plains
By the stream

Stuffing ourselves on gorp and water, we waited until my shirt was almost dry (it was a technical button-down) before we headed out. Despite the fall, I felt good still, optimistic despite the dull ache in my arm.

A little while later, the trail well-packed and forested, we found Team Seattle trailside, taking a break. With so many trees, the weather feels perfect, not too hot, not too cold, shade covering most of the path.

“Have you seen a pair of pink clogs?” she asked.

I groaned.

“Yes,” Andy said. “Back at the junction with the Devil’s Lake Trail.”

We all pulled out our copies of the guidepost. Six miles back.

The woman sighed. “I guess those are gone.”

Wickiup Plains
Check out the rest of the day tomorrow!

We told them how we’d found them, but couldn’t tell which direction they had been dropped, so we left them there. “Trail magic for someone else, I guess,” the man said.

***Pick up the rest of the story tomorrow, where Katie and Andy meet Satchel, get called out by two older ladies, drink straight from a cool mountain spring, and crunch across a field littered with obsidian. All. In. Part. The. SECOND.


3 Sisters: Day Four

South Sister
Cold early in the morning, South Sister behind me.

We woke early, this time on purpose. The campsite would remain intact, as we would only summit South Sister and return that same day.

Full of hubris from our previous days, we discussed the possibility of striking camp after the summit and continuing on another five miles until the next available water. But we would wait to see how it felt when we returned to camp.

South Sister
Moraine Lake, our water source.

Of the Three Sisters, South Sister is the tallest at 10,358 feet. Nicknamed Charity, it is the most climbed of the three volcanoes, probably because it has the least amount of erosion and the most glaciation. The Middle Sister is noted to be “unremarkable,” both in its ascents and descents, and isn’t that just the way middle children are treated? North Sister is the steepest, with loose terrain, making it a formidable summit, even if it isn’t *quite* as tall as South Sister.


The Climb

Each of us carried a fanny pack–Andy had his red one, and his super awesome custom-ordered backpack had a removable section to convert the bottom into a fanny pack as well. We took two liters with us (there was water half-way up at a bench, and then also at the top at Teardrop Pool), several Clif bars and our trusty gorp.

South SisterThe first section of the climb was enjoyable–we were early enough in the day that we hiked in the shade, the alders somewhat sparse, but giving interest to the terrain. But then we hit scree, and I definitely stopped enjoying myself.

The scree was well, scree: it was a field of loose rock, some the size of cabbages, clouds of dust plumed from each step that melted back down the trail. Then it got worse. The scree became finer and finer, we lost a trail completely. My throat felt like it was closing up due to the dust. My chest began to ache. Breaths came shorter and shallower, until finally I couldn’t breathe without a horrible sound emitting from my throat. These were all my clues that I was having an asthma attack.

South Sister
Not quite to the scree yet

I’d had asthma attacks before, obviously. I had been proud of myself for remembering to pack my inhaler, as asthma attacks only ever hit me with some pretty heavy duty exercise. Of course, my inhaler was in my pack–back at camp. I’d forgotten it.

But if I catch the signs early on enough, as long as I slow down, I can stop it. I tried to keep the signs from Andy, which was ridiculous, because I was wheezing like an accordion. We scrambled up to the ledge above us, leveraging weight onto bigger boulders.

South Sister
Glacier pool at the shoulder

We reached the shoulder of the mountain and I sat down on a large boulder to rest. There was a glacier pool behind us. I put my hands on my knees and concentrated on opening the back of my throat, breathing deeper from my diaphragm: old tricks from voice lessons in college. Keeping calm, my heart rate slowed and I could feel my chest loosen, and I was grateful I had gotten the attack under control before it had started to really hurt. There is a point where things get worse, and even if I calm them or have my inhaler handy, my chest hurts for a few days afterwards.

South Sister
View from the shoulder

Andy was not happy. I had forgotten my inhaler which meant I needed to return to camp. In my mind, the danger had passed, I no longer needed the inhaler. So I told him I wouldn’t go. We were too close–I could see the top! I wasn’t going to go all this way to stop. So he said he wouldn’t go either, and we could both descend, returning to camp.

I pleaded. I promised I wouldn’t have another asthma attack (not really a thing). I said I was going up the mountain with or without him, and it would be much safer if he came with me.

By this time, the stream of other hikers thickened. One of them gave me a strange look as he passed, overhearing my promises. Finally, Andy gave in. We drank water and ate a snack.

Above us, the trail turned bright red with volcanic rock, and the soft scree we had just climbed through was solid compared to what was ahead. The hour was later than what we had anticipated, but it was still well before noon.

South Sister

To the Summit

Opting to not refill our water bottles at the glacier pool, we headed up the volcano.

South Sister
Andy on an outcropping

Each step sunk deep into the ashy ground. The trail was non-existent. There were two women hiking up who each had trekking poles. We normally don’t hike with poles, but on this particular mountain, a trekking pole would have been handy. They passed us and then rested, while we passed them. We traded position over and over as we climbed. The crowd around us grew.

Climbed is a misleading word. We slogged. Every single person on that face slogged, regardless of how fit they were. And there were so many people. We were amazed–it was not an easy peak, and it wasn’t even a holiday weekend. Is this just how people in Oregon are? we wondered.

South Sister

I have an urge as a writer to draw this part out, to make you, as a reader, understand how long and miserable this portion of the climb was. But there’s nothing to say, other than it got hotter. Everyone’s pants were rusty-colored as the basalt dust clung to legs.

South Sister
Andy on the tippity-top

And then we were on top.  Teardrop Pool filled the caldera, mostly covered by the snows of a glacier. Windbreaks constructed of stones ringed the volcano top, campsites if one should be inclined to spend the night on top. The stars would be spectacular.

We followed the trail around to the Geologic Marker and took pictures. A small squirrel stole food from the hikers that littered the area, all taking lunch with views of the other two Sisters, Mount Washington, Jefferson, and Mount Saint Helens.

South Sister
The Middle and North Sisters, Mount Jefferson, Washington, Mount Saint Helens in the very back

According to hikers we met on top of the mountain, the air was cloudy due to forest fires, but usually they could see Ranier, too.

We sat and ate our lunch, more gorp, more Clif bars, more water. The squirrel successfully carried off a peanut from another hiker while they took pictures of his triumph.

South Sister
The glacier on Teardrop Pool in the caldera of South Sister



After we finished eating, we circled around the caldera. A murder of ravens came and parked on top of the glacier, shining wet in the sun. The trail became convoluted and difficult to pass.

South Sister
Backside of the glacier with the murder of ravens

No were alone–no others opted to explore the caldera. We followed a set of crusty footsteps out onto the edge of the glacier, hugging the rock.

I was relieved when we had completed the circuit, and were back at the trail, ready to descend Charity.


Then, something surprised me. As we started down the sloppy, ashy face with me in the lead, I panicked. Like, blinding sort of panicked. I had never felt something like this before. Normally I would not categorize myself as a fearful person, but here was fear like I’d never had before. Out of nowhere, I became certain that my bad knee would fail me and I would launch myself off the face of the volcano into the gorge below. Not just fear, it was fact that hadn’t happened yet.

img_4392I tried to rationalize; I knew my knee was fine. But how would the soft terrain react? It seemed unpredictable. I had hiked down snow-covered mountain faces many times and had never encountered this fear. Why now? No idea. Andy didn’t understand why I wasn’t moving. I tried to explain, but it only forced me to tears. Fortunately, I managed to tell him that he needed to go first, so I could see how and where he stepped. So he did, his hand out, available for me to grab if I needed to, as if I were Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

South SisterI was just plain me, though, covered in rust-colored basalt, trying not to cry as we passed hiker after hiker on the ascent, me grabbing Andy’s hand as we skidded down the mountain. Then my fear: my knee did give out. I had taken one of the bounding Moon-style steps, and my knee buckled underneath me. I slid down the face, but the soft basalt absorbed all of my momentum, and I stopped only a few feet from my failure. I did not fall off the mountain.

Another hiker remarked how steep it was as they passed, Andy ran back up to check on me, but as it turned out, I was fine. What I had feared did go wrong, and I remained perfectly healthy. When we made it past the red basalt, and arrived in the firmer yellow band, I felt better. We stopped again at the shoulder to drink water and snack, and we checked in with each other. I was shaky from the echoes of the panic, but otherwise, completely fine. We descended through the scree field in the same way, Andy first, hand out to help should I need it.

The afternoon sun started to beat down on us, this time, there was no escape. We were close to the bottom when my bad knee started to hurt, the one I had been scared would go out on me completely in the red basalt band. So we slowed even more. Like the asthma, punishing my knee often meant an inability to walk on the following day. We still had another 25 miles of walking before we returned to the car. I couldn’t afford to kill my knee.

South Sister
into the lake!

Stopping more frequently to rest and taking our forward progress slow, we descended back down to Lake Moraine. We stopped at the lake to refill our empty Nalgene bottles. Andy waded into the lake, cleaning himself and his clothes all at once. I waded in up to my knees, enjoying the cold, knowing I was already sunburnt. My legs felt shaky, my arms seemed to belong to someone else, even my head felt off–I’d had adrenaline coursing through my body for hours as we made it through the soft terrain on the descent. Even though I could force mind over body, the adrenaline had continued.

South Sister
worn out.

I helped filter the water, but headed back to our tent alone, leaving Andy to enjoy the lake at his own pace. Even the sun was too much on my skin. Once back at our camp, I stripped down, took another towel bath and laid on my sleeping bag. I was angry at myself for my asthma attack, humiliated for having this weird panic that I’d never had before. I didn’t even understand how to process the event because it was new and irrational. I was physically tired from the ascent/descent, the sunburn, the lack of enough caloric intake, but more than that, I was emotionally wrung out.

We decided to stay the night again, as we had originally planned. Our hubris was gone, and I felt bad about being the one to give it away.

Day Four Statistics:

On Trail: 7:00 am

Off Trail: 3:00 pm

Total miles: 7 miles

Elevation gain: 4,000 feet

Elevation loss: 4,000 feet


2 granola rations

1/2 cup gorp

3 Clif bars

Mountain House Chicken & Dumplings freeze-dried entree

Mountain House Mocha Mousse Pie freeze-dried dessert

Water: 6 liters

Three Sisters: Day Two

Purple twists of light tinted the sky. The sun hadn’t risen yet. In the distance, there was a faint but strange, honking sound. I turned my head to see Andy’s eyes wide open. He was lying still, listening.

“Elk,” he whispered.

I strained my ears, trying to hear them. The call sounds like the vuvuzela, the South African instrument we all grew to love during the 2010 World Cup. The rest of our morning was silent, birds still quiet.


When the sky grew pink with shades of yellow, I got out of my sleeping bag. The ground was soft with black ash and my flip flops were near useless, but I slipped them on anyway. The ground outside of our tent area was rife with hoof prints. I headed to the tree where Andy hung our food and took the bags down so I could begin my morning with a cup of tea.

Andy stayed in the tent while I brewed and sipped my tea, watching the sun rise, yellow light leaking onto the charred trees of The Burn.

When Andy rose, we ate our breakfast together and took down camp. It didn’t take us nearly as long as I thought it would. My tea took twice as long. Shouldering our bags for the morning, we picked our way back down to the trail, and before long, we got to Alder Creek. We refilled our water and set out.

The Burn


The Burn area, from the 2012 fire, stretched across a large swath of the Eastern loop. No camping and no campfires were allowed. It was reasonable to hike through it all in one day, and luckily, the southernmost edge of The Burn was our next planned campsite. It would be an easy 8.5 miles to this unnamed lake.

I had already managed a blister on my left heel, but I was prepared with moleskin, and doctored myself up at Alder Creek.

There weren’t very many hikers on the trail. The ground was still sandy with ash, like a dried up beach. Dust continued to cloud around our legs, up to our knees.


The terrain was fairly flat, but with nothing but charred trees to keep us company, the sun quickly felt too hot. We refilled at Soap Creek, where our trail intersected with the Camp Lake Trail at mile 11.7 (5760′). Here we encountered several other hikers, including a father with his pre-teen daughter. He was teaching her how to filter the water, which was really cool to see.


It was nice to get the packs off and stretch, have some mid-morning gorp. Things felt good. We adjusted my pack again, and it felt better this time. My shoulders were taking less of the brunt.


We continued, knowing the day would just get hotter. I rolled up my sleeves, hoping to help cool myself as we walked. There were many small streams to cross, each with logs to act as bridges. Some streams were nothing but dried beds. I just appreciated being near water after yesterday.


The map showed a slight elevation change, though our milepost said nothing. We were still in The Burn, still without shade, and we walked up switchbacks that seemed to grow ever steeper. I was panting, still thinking that it was ridiculous to be this tired already.

Andy was in front, but I couldn’t keep up with his speed. Typically it is the other way around, but not in The Burn. Neither of us do particularly well in the heat.


“I’ll need to stop soon,” I called.

I watched him nod as he trudged around a switchback corner. It’s important not to break rhythm.

“But I can wait for a flat spot,” I said.

He nodded again, and soon I was rounding the corner he had just passed. We trudged until we finally reached the top. We found a sliver of shade behind a lone charred spruce tree trunk. We dropped the packs, and I slumped into the ash. I was covered in it, so I no longer cared if I was sitting on a log or the ground. We ate lunch–our two cups of gorp. Neither of us could eat much, but we drank down another Nalgene bottle. Water’s heavy. I wasn’t sad to see it go.


The Burn started to interspersed more with healthy trees. The leafy canopy gave us shade as we walked, and everything felt so much more bearable. We crossed a few more small streams and found the sign indicating we had finished traversing The Burn.

The lake was to our left and it looked so inviting.

But the ground had firmed up, the trees were healthy, and we felt good.


The guidepost we had printed from the internet said it was only 1.5 more miles to get to Park Meadow.

“At mile 16.5 (6180′) is the junction with the Park Meadow Trail #4075, which goes left (see Trail around Broken Top). There is a good drinking water stream. Nice campsites, but a little crowded. This is the last drinking water for a while. Stay right (southwest).”

Besides, if we camped at Park Meadow, we would shorten the next day, and have our vertical challenge done first thing. It was a better plan.

In our twenty-twenty hindsight, we should have taken a long break beside that lake. We should have gotten out the gorp, drank more water and kicked back.

But we didn’t. We stopped only for pictures and kept on trucking.


I said before that I’m a poor judge of distance. After what I thought was at least a mile, I kept thinking Park Meadow must be just over this ridge. We would cross a stream, and I would think, yes, this must be it!

My heel chafed under the bandaid. My shoulders ached from my pack shifting all over. Andy was looking a little worse for wear, too. I tried to stay positive: we weren’t trudging up those switchbacks, so that was something.

Park Meadow


When we finally arrived at Park Meadow, we threw down our packs and ran to the stream. I eased off my boots and stuck my feet in the cool stream. The pain of the water on my blister burned, and the harshness of the cold vibrated up my bones. It was heaven.

I washed my face in it, and after we drank and snacked, we realized we had picked a poor campsite. We needed to move, so I slipped my aching and bloated feet back into my boots and hauled my pack back to a more removed site.


It was only 3:00 pm. We pitched camp, taking turns to stare at the mountains. There was an amazing view of South Sister, where we would hike the next day, and of Broken Top, which had stunning bands of different colored rock layered across it.

We chewed through the lunch ration of gorp, and then I took a few clothes over to the stream and washed the ash from my hiking pants and shirt with a mini bottle of Dr. Bronner’s. Andy refilled all of our water bottles.

By the time we began to fix dinner, the campsite was full. More and more hikers had shown up, a big group with a few dogs, and then some other couples. It was a nice place, easy to camp in. img_4349

That night we made BackPacker’s Pantry Chicken Vindaloo, which we both thought was spectacular. We took turns running our fingers along the inside of the bag after we ate, sucking out the last of the spices.

Day Two Statistics:

On Trail: 8:00 am

Off Trail: 3:00 pm

Total Miles: 10 miles


2 granola rations with powdered milk

2 cups of gorp

1 Sierra Trail Clif bar

BackPacker’s Pantry Chicken Vindaloo

BackPacker’s Pantry Mocha Mousse

Water: 9 liters