Torres del Paine: The “W” Trek, Day 4-5

Day 4, the day of death. Okay not quite, but to anyone else, it definitely could have been. Kendra and I handled this day like champs though. There were absolutely moments of stress and unknowing, but I think they were warranted. So, with the bridge being out, we had to backtrack out of the park and to Refugio Grey, where a shuttle bus was departing for the visitors center at the main road at 2 PM. We probably should have left a little earlier than we did, but the 22-26 kilometers we hiked the day before really took us by surprise and we were beat. At least we had already hiked this segment of the trail, so there wasn’t much more for us to stop and look at. We hit the trail, goals in mind. It wasn’t too bad, just 11 km out of there. We made decent time, but as we approached the Refugio, we could see the shuttle bus ahead of us, loading up the last few passengers. We started running! I was waving my arms frantically over my head as we got to the bus just as the driver started to get into his seat. We had made it. Now would come the fun part. We were still a bus ride, a boat ride, and an 11 km hike away from our campsite. There was a boat that left at 4:00 and one that left at 6:00. There was only one bus that left at 4. That meant, we wouldn’t start our 11 km hike until after 6:00 PM, which seemed far too sketchy to us. So, in true Kendra and Kelly nature, we hitch hiked. It was like New Zealand all over again! I am terrible at asking strangers for rides, however, this is where Kendra excels in our little duo. She actually found a ride surprisingly fast. I think it was maybe the second person she asked that agreed. I came out of hiding (I don’t know why, I’m so awkward) and we hopped in this family’s SUV. It really was awesome. We got some great pictures of guanacos and of the park itself. The family driving us spoke enough English that it was fairly easy to communicate. The couple had a 7 year old daughter who was one of the most friendly and outgoing children I’ve ever met.

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We made it to Pudeto, where the catamaran leaves for Paine Grande with plenty of time to make the 4:00 voyage. I was starting to feel a little woozy and fell asleep the minute we got on the boat. The winds were out of control at this point, but the boat was sturdy in the water. We definitely understood why they weren’t shuttling people in the dingy boat anymore. Upon landing at Paine Grande, we were so beat. We had already done a full day of hiking and traveling, and were dreading the final leg. We tossed around the idea of setting up camp at Paine Grande, but after seeing the winds blow a tent out of the ground, across the field of campers, and into the lake on the other side, we knew we had to keep going. Our tent pole had a crack in it, which we had duct taped on the first night, but we knew that it wouldn’t hold in the gusts here. Refugio Grey was much more sheltered, so we had to move forward.

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Looking back, I am so proud of what we did. As we left Paine Grande, we basically entered a wind tunnel. The trail cut through the center of a valley that funneled the wind gusts right into our faces. We found out the next day that the strongest gusts were between 70-80 kilometers per hour. It was slow going to say the least. I also wound up meeting some people the next day who saw us hiking that section and said they felt so bad for us. According to these hikers, we looked miserable and exhausted. I can’t say that we weren’t. However, I can say that it was still a gorgeous hike. The trees that lined the valley were recovering from a fire that happened several years back. This gave the whole scenario a rather eerie vibe.

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There were points where the gusts had us crouching on the ground, holding on to rocks to keep us from blowing over. We did reach one segment of the trail where we found some protection from the wind. I quickly gobbled down some snacks, and added a bandana to my ensemble for extra wind protection. As we got back on the trail, thinking we were making good time, we saw one of those “maps” stating we had much more to go. It was like a slap in the face. The wind had been slowing our tired bodies down more than we realized. Kendra and I found ourselves again, having to put our gears in to full throttle so we could make it to camp before dark. This was the only disappointing part, the views as we hit the last stretch our journey for the day, were incredible. The sun was setting over Glacier Grey. There were icebergs dotting the lake below us, their blue ice glistening in the dimming sunlight. I would have loved to really slow down and enjoy the scenery, but time was of the essence, as we had no idea what the trail looked like in front of us and did not want to be caught out there, unable to clearly see our surroundings.

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I think we could hear Refugio Grey before we even got to it. The campers were in full party mode, sloshing around bottles upon bottles of wine. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so ecstatic to reach a campground in my life! The day had just been so long, we had started at 9 AM and arrived at camp at 10 PM. The vibes were upbeat, everyone was so happy! We found one of the last level campsites, set up our tent and gear for the last time, before joining the masses to cook dinner and do some yoga stretches. As much as I would have liked to dance and drink wine with celebratory crowds, I was done. All I could think about was my snuggly sleeping bag, and was more than happy to bunker down for the night when we were done eating. It had started to lightly sprinkle, the perfect setting lulling me into a deep sleep.

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This was actually the next morning after most of the tents had cleared out

Day 5:

There are two ways you can finish you “W” Trek Journey. We opted for the catamaran that leaves from Refugio Grey. It picks you up on the beach and takes you up close to Glacier Grey. You even get a free pisco sour, chilled with a piece of glacier ice! The alternative is to backtrack the 11 kilometers and take the catamaran over from Paine Grande. Either way, you’re paying for a boat ride, so we opted for the one with alcohol and a view. Kendra and I packed up our campsite, ate a quick breakfast, and took the trail down to view the glacier from the trail. After soaking in the views, we scurried on over to the beach to wait for the catamaran.

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This was it! We had really done it! The trip without detours is supposed to measure around 55-60ish kilometers. Due to the back tracking from the fallen bridge, we wound up hiking approximately 70 kilometers. It was worth it though. We heard of so many people not being able to complete the trek because of the bridge. I am thankful we persevered and completed the “W” Trek.

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Oh, and for the record, while we were on the catamaran drinking our pisco sours, we met those crazy people crossing the river near the fallen bridge. It turns out, they were trekking with a tour guide, who paid for a permit that allowed them to cross the river. They had tied a rope from either side so that they could hold on to something while crossing the rapidly rushing water. One of the girls showed us a video and you could see her legs shaking as they held her up. The guide told me that other people tried crossing, and some people even crossed the bridge, but there were rangers waiting on the other side, arresting people who crossed illegally. So, good thing we didn’t attempt that!

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THE END.

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Torres del Paine: The “W” Trek, Day 3

The third day of our hike began with the realization that we would not be crossing the bridge. After discussing our options with the staff members at Los Cuernos, we decided to leave our big packs there and just bring daypacks to do a roundtrip hike up through Valle de Frances and back. We were supposed to be staying at Campamento Italiano, but we knew we would have to turn around the next morning to come right back out. The only downside to this option is that it turned into a nearly 25ish kilometer day. The distance in of itself wasn’t too terrible, but we wound up nearly running the last half which was pretty killer. The plus side, we had another day of gorgeous weather, despite some heavy winds that intermittently raged upon us with their fierce velocity.

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Upon departing Los Cuernos towards Valle de Frances, the trail leads you along a rocky shoreline, gently winding in and out of trees and beaches until you reach the Valle de Frances campground area. There are some steeper areas as you near the campsites, but all in all the 3.5 kilometer hike it isn’t too difficult. From there, it’s about 2 more kilometers to Campamento Italiano.

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As you pass between Valle de Frances and Campamento Torres, the trail begins to turn inland and cross an open valley. The wind velocity picked up quite a bit through here, but it was just a taste of what we would experience over the course of our remaining trip. I heard what sounded like a train or a large plane going by, and it only took me a second to figure out there was an avalanche happening somewhere. I quickly scanned the mountain we were walking near by and saw the snow pouring from the top of the rocky ledges. I had heard this was quite common in the area, and we saw several more small ones throughout the day.

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In the center of this picture a little cloud of the avalanche aftermath

When we entered the campground at Italiano, we could see guards and large tree trunks blocking the entrance to the bridge. The bridge that, to our dismay looked fully intact. We questioned some of the people surrounding the barricaded entrance, to which they responded that a group of people had crossed it and as they passed over, the bridge began to swing dangerously back and forth. One of its side rails collapsed and they were scared that the entire bridge would fall. The water rushed below, powerfully and terrifyingly swift, over massive rocks, making me feel confident in their decision to prevent anyone from falling off, surely to their death. We knew we had made the right decision to leave our packs behind, and we started the 5.5-7.5 km ascent to the Mirador Britanico. (I’m telling you distances were so confusing. Different maps said different things.)

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The trail wound up through the trees before spitting us out onto a rocky opening overlooking the glacier where the river originated. We saw two groups of people crossing the river up here! We watched them for a while and even though they were quite far, it seemed like crossing the river was a dangerous undertaking. So, we continued on our hike, as the winds pummeled us in various outcroppings that we would find ourselves on from time to time.

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It wasn’t until we passed a “map” stating it was approximately 6.5 kilometers one way from Campamento Italiano to the Mirador that we realized we needed to step it into high gear. It was getting later into the evening and we needed to be able to get back to Los Cuernos in time to set up our tent and eat dinner! We made it to the Mirador as fast as our tired legs could move us, before we high-tailed it back down the trail towards camp. I think we made it back just a couple hours later, which is thoroughly impressive considering how much ground we had to cover. But, back to the Mirador… before you reach it, you come to the incredible opening. The opening is a massive rock field with all of the granite mountain formations surrounding you. It is incredible! From there, you hike up a little further to this lookout, which gives you some seriously awesome views of the valley. It began to sprinkle on us as an ominous storm cloud loomed over the mountains, threatening us with some volatile Patagonian weather. We quickly hit the trail to get back to camp.

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Upon arriving at the campground, the staff members gave us confused looks as they seemed to have forgotten their promise to us to reserve a campsite in our names. After a few minutes of fumbling around, one of the staff members had us follow him to a really depressing looking spot sandwiched between a couple trees, with rooted and bumpy ground. We asked if there was anything else, to which he replied “No.” We were exhausted, and were grimly accepting what would be a rough night of sleep, when he said, “Okay I know of another spot, but it’s a secret.” He led to one of the already set up tent platform spots and reminded us that it was a secret! It was such an upgrade, Kendra and I were thrilled! We settled in for the night, happily knowing we would get a good night of sleep before the long day ahead of us.

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Torres del Paine: The “W” Trek, Day 2

Kendra and I had survived our first day and night on our journey across the “W” Trek within Torres del Paine National Park. We awoke to another beautiful, warm and sunny day. It felt great to sleep in a bit, but since we were getting a later start to our day we quickly packed up our tent and belongings, and hit the trail. Day 2 of hiking was the least iconic in my opinion. It was still absolutely gorgeous, however, there was no remarkable destination that we were aspiring to reach. And yes, I know how that sounds, “it’s supposed to be about the journey, not the destination”… and the journey really was fantastic! To be perfectly honest, we were mainly just trying to get to our refugio in time for dinner.

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Kendra and I trekked down from Campamento Torres, out of the valley, and across the front of the mountain range. Over the course of the 16ish kilometers, Lake Nodernskjöld  grew from a little blue, grey spec in the distance, to this massive turquoise lake we hiked alongside all day. The weather was still warm, but the wind added a chill to the air. I was constantly in and out of layers all day. Shorts and a tee shirt, pants and a tee shirt, shorts and a jacket, shorts and another jacket. It was a never ending game of finding comfort as the temperatures changed around every bend in the trail.

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Word on the trail was that the fallen bridge was still unaccessible, although rumors were starting to pop up about how people were getting around it. Some hikers told us that they heard of groups of people crossing it in the early hours of the morning, before rangers could catch them. Others said they heard the really adventurous were crossing further up river. We still had two more days before we needed to cross it, so we remained hopeful that we would find a way to get to the other side without back tracking. In the meantime, we crossed over what I feel was the most sturdy bridge on the trek, hiked up a couple of challenging and steep hills, and basked in the beauty of the land.

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We eventually began our descent through a forest of Magellanic deciduous trees to our final destination for the day, Refugio Los Cuernos. We had opted to stay at Los Cuernos with full board and dinner, as it was actually the cheapest option for places to stay due to the actual campground being fully booked. We arrived just in time for dinner, and I was ravenous. The food did not disappoint! We feasted on salad, vegetable soup, salmon and mashed potatoes with a lemon butter sauce drizzled over top, and a delectable caramel flan.

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A little post dinner exploring lead me down through the campsites to a rocky beach. The refugio is nestled amongst the trees on the bank of Lake Nodernskjöld, with the granite mountains towering behind the quaint building. I took some time to soak in the late evening rays, in awe of my surroundings. I continued to tinker around on the water’s edge for a while, gazing up at the sun as it slowly set over the mountain range in the distance. It was difficult to truly catch the actual setting of the sun, as the sun doesn’t really set until 11:00, with light lingering in the sky well into the night. In fact, the only night I ever even saw stars was during a bathroom run at around 3 AM. However, the peacefulness of watching and listening to the low lit waves crashing on the shoreline was just the mind clearing meditation I was needing after a long day on the trail. Afterwards, I walked back up to the refugio, played a couple of songs on the community guitar, and hit the showers before climbing up and settling into my third story bunk bed.

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Torres del Paine: The “W” Trek. Day 1

5 days, 4 nights, something around 70 kilometers… I still can’t seem to find anywhere with a definitive sum of distances that you hike along the “W” Trek within Torres del Paine National Park. You learn to guess-timate how far 6 hours of hiking equivalates to, as that’s how distances are “measured” in the park. They do have signs with some ambiguous distances listed, but at the end of the day it really seems to be a rough estimate. Anyway, the entire backpacking trip was beyond incredible. There were some bumps in the road, and by bumps I mean a broken bridge that gave Kendra and I a run for our money, but nothing we couldn’t handle!

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It is recommended to stay in Puerto Natales the day before starting your treks in the national park, so that is what we did. We stayed in a quaint, quiet hostel called the Yagan House, where we could relax and organize all of things we wanted to bring in our packs. Since backpacking wasn’t the only thing we would be doing during the entirety of our trip, we had a few extra articles of clothing that we were able to store with the hostel while we were away. We also rented a tent and some cookware here as well. While initially planning for the trip, we had decided it was worth renting as we didn’t want to lug around too much unnecessary gear after the trek was through.

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Packing and repacking
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Yagan House Hostel

Kendra and I had originally walked to our hostel from the bus station, but we opted to treat ourselves to a cab ride the morning of our departure. I had been advised by an REI employee during a chat about the trek, that the buses can be a little crazy on the way to Torres del Paine. He was not lying. Thank God we had purchased bus tickets well in advance. There were so many backpackers waiting, hoping to get a seat. We were at the bus station 15 minutes early, and barely got our bags under the bus and ourselves into our seats before the vehicle took off on the two hour journey to the park. Upon arriving, we had to pay the entrance fee and sit through an information session, which can be paid by credit card FYI. It was about 30$ USD. The visitors center is still several miles from where you begin the trek, so we caught another shuttle from the center to the trailhead area.

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Last minute stop shop for gear

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There is quite a bit of debate as to whether you should hike the trail East to West or West to East. Kendra and I decided on East to West and I am so glad that we did. Enter: Broken Bridge. The bridge was supposedly down between Campamento Italiano and Paine Grande. We would be getting to its location on Day 4 of our trip. This damn bridge became the forefront topic of all conversations had along the trails. Would it be fixed by the time we got to it? Would there be a boat shuttling people over? Could we just cross it, as heard it wasn’t that bad? Could we cross the river somewhere else? How were other hikers dealing with it? Well, other hikers getting royally screwed. That’s the answer to that. Camping reservations were getting all messed up as people were having to turn around and go backwards, hiking many more kilometers per day than they should have been. People were having to shell out even more cash for the main catamaran that transports hikers to Paine Grande. There was a shuttle boat for maybe one day but winds were far too strong to not have stable transportation after that. We heard nightmares of people hiking for hours and hours extra just to be turned away from campsites that were deemed too full. It seemed that the people hiking the circuit West to East were the ones having the most difficulties in this aspect.

The first day of the trek consisted of roughly 9 kilometers of challenging inclines. Right out of the gate, the trail climbed quite quickly until it reached a valley of which it ran along side.  The sun was beating down on us, and our packs seemed heavier with every step. But honestly in retrospect, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The rest of the trek seemed so much easier, even the extra long days.

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The trail descended through the valley, following Rio Ascencio. The trail flattens out near the end of the valley as you reach Refugio Chileno. Kendra and I had opted to camp for free at Campamento Torres, which was still a steep hike up the next mountain.  If you have the extra funds, I would say to stay at Chileno. That way you can just take a day pack up and leave the heavy stuff down below.

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The remainder of the trail crawled up through a forest of tall, thin, twisted trees. I was hot, tired, and wondering if we would ever reach our destination. Everyone who was coming back down the trail, kept telling us, “It’s only 15 more minutes.” For the record, it’s NEVER just 15 more minutes, it’s FOREVERRRR. Ha! But honestly, when I finally saw the semi-hidden entrance to Campamento Torres, I was ecstatic. Our plan was to set up our tent, rest for a short while, and then complete the hike up to the Mirador Torres. Patagonia is notorious for strong winds that snap tent poles, and we were a little worried about our rental tent whose poles were showing their wear. Thankfully, the Torres campsite was well protected, tucked away securely below the trees. We set up our tent and I changed my shoes before starting the ascent to the base of Las Torres. As a tip, I would really recommend having an alternate pair of shoes. Mine were just a lightweight pair of trail runners, but they saved my feet.

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Kendra hiked ahead as I took my time climbing up the rocky trail, absorbing the vast scenery. There were also segments of scree which made the trail tough on my knees. When I took the final turn on the trail, the view opened up onto the beautiful towers and lake. And right as I started walking towards the water, a grey fox popped out from behind a large rock. We had a few moments of eye contact before she scrambled atop a small boulder, sniffing around for tidbits of food. She didn’t seem bothered by me at all, as I stood there snapping picture after picture of her. I actually ran into this beautiful creature several times while meandering around the crumbling granite walls bordering the Torres lake. The place was nearly empty, as we had gotten there later in the evening, avoiding most of the daytime rush. The sun had begun to set on the other side of the towers, creating a beautiful beam of light that shown onto the emerald lake below.  The whole scene was breathtaking and I couldn’t help but sit there in awe of the granduer surrounding me. After we had soaked in enough of the views, and the temperature began to drop, we climbed back down the mountain, cooked dinner, and hit the hay.

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A Lesson From a Waterfall

A little bit of excitement, a little bit of nervous energy, a little bit of stress. Those were the feelings going into our frantic day of packing and loading up the van in preparation for our journey up the East Coast. Did we forget anything? Do we really need this? Do we have too much, do we have enough? Thankfully John-Hilton and I had a bit of a deadline to get to Jacksonville or we might have been at it, sorting and rechecking things all night. Besides at some point you have to chalk it up to faith that you’ve got the essentials.

We chose the city of Jacksonville, Florida as the first stop in our journey for several reasons. A. It was relatively close to Tallahassee, where we were departing from; B. I used to live there and my brother, Andrew, still does, so we would get to hang out with him and have a place to stay; and C. a good friend of ours, Lukasz, had just accepted a job in New Orleans and we would get to see him before the big move. Plus, while I had been living in Jacksonville, Lukasz, our other buddy Mitch, and I had perfected a delicious recipe for surf and turf tacos, so I always jump at a chance to recreate these culinary masterpieces. Needless to say, Taco Tuesday and a game night of Mario Kart and pool was the perfect way to start our trip.

The next day was one of those you could describe as comically disastrous. Firstly, I hadn’t had to give Bella flea medicine since being in Colorado, and my parents don’t have fleas at their house, so it wasn’t on my list of priorities. Well, poor Bella picked up some fleas around my brothers house. And by some, I mean she was infested. In just 12 hours she had scratched and clawed open scrapes across her armpits and belly and was downright miserable. I immediately gave her the flea meds, which thankfully is very powerful stuff that would have the fleas gone in a couple hours. So there we were headed north up I-95 with a flea infested pup, dripping with sweat from the excruciatingly hot Florida heat, trying to decide where to stay that upcoming night, feeling just slightly overwhelmed. A couple hours into the drive, we had mellowed out. John-Hilton was jamming out, and I was diligently picking the dead fleas that were falling off of Bella as she lied between our seats. I kept at it for a bit but it was warm and sunny, the perfect environment for drifting off into a light slumber.

I awoke maybe 30 minutes later, looking over to see my happy and content traveling companions still where I had left them, not like they had anywhere to go. I leaned down to pick a dead flea off Bella and *BOOM!!* The van shook, we lurched forward, our belongings went flying forward off of our storage shelving. “What the?!? What was that?!” I exclaimed. “Someone just hit us! That guy there!” yelled Hilton. I was so confused, I could see the bumper hanging in the side mirror, but we were still driving, there were no cars spinning out or cars careening into the ditch. We pulled to the side of the interstate, and watched helplessly as the guy who hit us threw his hand out the window and kept driving. Hilton was shaking, I was infuriated, I could feel the heat of my anger rising through my body. We could have been killed, Bella would have been seriously injured if not killed had she been lying in the back where she had been at the start of the drive. Imagining that 7 gallon water jug flinging down on top of her made me cringe. Not to mention this was my second hit in run within the past 2 months, and third accident (none of which I was at fault for) within the past 4 months. My hit and run in Denver involved a bus driver so she was easy to identify and I was able to get the license plate. It was a lengthy settlement process to get my car fixed, but it worked out. This was a different story. Thankfully for us in this scenario we had each other and a police officer drove by right after it happened. I had to wait 2 hours in Denver for an officer, completely alone sitting on the side of the road.

The officers were so kind and helpful. There was not much they could do about the driver who left us there, broken on the side of the simmering, congested, and dangerous highway but they did what they could, helping John-Hilton pull the bumper siding off so we could keep driving. We were thankful we were safe and that’s all that really mattered. The whole ordeal had set us back in time so we decided to meet up with my parents who were in Columbia, South Carolina for the night. They were on their way to visit Johnson City, Tennessee where had lived for a little bit of time growing up. We met up with them at an Irish pub for whiskey shots and dinner, before heading off to sleep at a friend’s of Hilton’s who lived nearby.

In the morning, we decided to go explore my family’s property in Winnsboro before heading up into the Appalachian mountains. It was a steamy morning, so we didn’t stay too long, but it is always a good time getting to show our friends around and giving them the history behind our land. Afterwards we headed northwest to Johnson City, Tennessee (FYI the Cumberland Gap is west of the city, making it impossible to be “heading west from the Cumberland Gap to Johnson City,” as the song so wrongly details). Here, we went with my parents to a barbecue dinner with old family friends who gave us several great tips on things to do and see in Acadia National Park up in Maine.

We parked the van at my parents hotel and parking lot camped for the night. I unknowingly sat in an ant pile before climbing into bed. My back started to itch and then burn, and I began apprehensively begging John-Hilton to look at my back. We discovered all the ant bites and started laughing. Sheesh, who would have thought to worry about the wilderness in a parking lot. In the morning, we were able to sneak some hotel breakfast and headed to our first hiking destination of the trip.

I wanted to take John-Hilton to this incredible waterfall I used to hike with my family when I was younger. It is called Laurel Falls and it sits just off the Appalachian Trail. There are two trails you can take to get to the falls; we opted for the shorter 3 mile trail over the 6 mile trail since we needed to drive to Richmond, Virginia later that day. After descending the steep, stone steps down to the cool, fast flowing water we became so excited. This is what we had come on this trip to do, to immerse ourselves in the natural beauty of our country, to get lost in the woods and reconnect with our inner selves. Something John-Hilton and I both readily agree on is that we are not city folk, we love the places that take us away from the hustle and bustle. The ebb and flow of rippling waves and the rushing sounds created by this waterfall were so calming and relaxing, and that’s what we want to mold our lives around; a sense of peaceful movement and stability that cultivates growth in our hearts and souls, and brings life to our surroundings. I am a sucker for a beautifully written verse or poem, and a quote by Bruce Lee really resonated with me during this hike to the falls,

“You must be shapeless, formless like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash, become like water my friend.”

Our journey will be one of storms, of rainbows, of ocean waves, both trickling and crashing, of bends in the river, and curves in the bay; it will be one of endless flowing, cascading us over rocks and sandy shores, guiding us right to where we need to be, nourishing our bodies, minds, and souls every step of the way. Here’s to being like water my friends. Cheers!

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My “Almost” Lion Encounter

*First off I’d like to start by saying if someone would like to prove me wrong and tell me this is a paw print from an extraordinarily large dog, please do so! Otherwise, after comparing to many pictures online, and from the sheer size of it in person, I’m going to go with what I know and say it’s a mountain lion print.

Today I decided I wanted to take Bella on a nice long hike. It was another beautiful day here in Denver, not to mention I’m going up in to the mountains this weekend for Winter Wondergrass, and unfortunately Bella cannot join. So, I wanted to get her outside and have a nice fun filled day before the weekend. I had been wanting to check out the Beaver Creek Trail out of Genesee Park, so without much thought we jumped on 70 and headed west.

To give you an idea of where my head was at, a few days ago, Bella and I did a quick hike up in Golden, to the top of Lookout Mountain. I ran into a couple guys before we started the trail who had been hiking up from the lower Chimney Gulch trail. They stopped me and asked if I knew about the mountain lion advisory as there were several signs posted in the gulch about a recent sighting in the area. I replied, “Nooo… but running in to a mountain lion is a big fear of mine.” We talked for a minute and decided we would all kind of shadow each other on the trail, just in case. The walk was uneventful and Bella and I climbed down by ourselves after I was fairly certain there was enough foot traffic and actual road traffic sounds to keep any animal from wanting to make its presence known to a human. A few days later we hiked up in Pike National Forest, the story of which I’ll save for another post, but here I came across a rather large paw print. If you’ve ever seen my dog’s paws in person, you will know she has rather large ones. So, for her paw print to look “tiny” is saying something. I didn’t have cell service at the time and was unable to look up what a mountain lion paw print looks like, so we just rerouted our hike to a more open and populated area. Later, when  I got home I looked up all the details on identifying mountain lion tracks and signs that they could be in your area.

Any way, needless to say I had already had mountain lions on the brain, so when I saw the sign at the start of the trail saying that the trail was in a known mountain lion area- pretty much every trail has a sign that says watch out for lions but this one was a little more specific- and to leave the pet at home- even though pets are allowed on the trail- made me very uneasy. Here I was again out all by myself, which is what every tip on hiking in lion country says not to do. From where I had parked, it was a .4 mile walk to the start of the trail head…I think I walked maybe half a mile in to the actual trail before my anxiety and nerves got the best of me.  I paused for a bit, made a phone call to a friend complaining that I didn’t know if I was psyching myself out or what, but ultimately decided I wasn’t going to have fun no matter what at this point, so I might as well just go back. Because let’s face it, if you’re going to hike a strenuous up hill climb, you better be having a damn good time. Oh and the fact that a few minutes before we turned around, Bella wouldn’t stop staring in to this one section of the trees and growling. I couldn’t shake the anxiousness, so I stayed on the phone with my friend, checking behind me and around me as we walked out of the woods, until we got to the open dirt road area. I thought alright we’re good, we just have under half a mile to the car. Bella brought me a giant stick, we played fetch for a minute and started up the road. No sooner had we walked 20 yards from where we were playing, we came to this iced over section of the road. I veered over to the left side where I had came down 30 minutes earlier and saw a massive, what I’m assuming was a deer leg, that had been completely stripped to the bone. That was not comforting. About another 20 yards later were the paw prints. They were probably 3-4 times bigger than Bella’s and perfectly matched the descriptions and pictures of tracks I had read about earlier in the week. I wish I had snapped a picture of Bella’s paw print next to these prints, but I was in a hurry at that point to get to the car as quickly as possible. The bone, nor the prints had been there before, of that I’m mostly certain. I typically walk with my eyes on the ground; it’s a habit from looking for snakes back in Florida when I’m out hiking. I noticed both immediately, so I’m 98% sure I would have not missed them the first time around. Bella also came running over to inspect the bone before I reached it, so I doubt she had missed it the first time around either.

After I had reached the safety of my car, I thought it would have been really cool to actually see the lion. Although, for human safety, I know it’s a good thing it never made itself visible to me, as long as it wasn’t stalking me that is. I don’t know too much about mountain lions, the only ones I’ve worked with were pretty lazy and docile. They would hang out in their dens and generally keep to themselves, unlike the other big cats who would stalk the sides of their enclosures when someone walked by. Mountain lions are also the biggest feline that can still pur, which is a pretty cool thing to witness. However, out here in the mountains and from stories my family in Canada have told me, they definitely take on a much more menacing vibe. I definitely do not want to ever have an issue with one of these powerful creatures. So for now, I’ll try to remain comforted by the fact that this lion kept hidden and seemed to want nothing to do with Bella nor myself, and that my encounter remained an “almost.”

 

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In another track I found, you could see the 3 lobes at the bottom of the paw pad, like in the drawing above. However, I was not concerned about picture quality at the time I took this. If you do look closely you can kind of see where the ridges of each lobe are. One toe is supposed to be slightly longer than the others (like a middle finger for us), but I think the deep mud kind of distorts that aspect of the track. I think the mud may also be why you can kind of see claw marks in front of the toes.

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These tracks made Bella’s big ole paws look tiny in comparison.

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Camping and Car Accidents

My drive from Colorado to Florida was much less eventful than my trip back to Colorado. After a pit stop in New Orleans (and an unfortunate missed turn that had me stuck behind a celebratory and rambunctious crowd of Mardi Gras parade watchers) to see a couple friends, I headed out to Texas. My goal was 13 hours away, Palo Duro Canyon State Park. I wasn’t going to get there until about 11:00 pm, another late night arrival to a campsite I had never been to before.

I called ahead to reserve a campsite and the park ranger gave me the gate code so I could get into the park later that night. That day of driving was miserably long, but thank god for podcasts. I started listening to True Murder…why I do these things to myself, I have no idea. Of course the first and second episodes had cases that took place in Texas. By the time I arrived it was frigid outside, an icy 23 degrees. I was decently prepared for cold weather, having packed my sleeping bag, a fleece blanket, and a down comforter when I had originally left Colorado. Blankets and pillows are a must have for me when on a long road trip. Bella also has a really comfy dog bed which I had layered on the back seat for extra sleeping comfort. After a few trials, I am starting to get the hang of making a decent sleeping spread in the back seat of my car; although I’m still hoping for an SUV asap.

My campsite was 5 miles from the entrance of the park, where an electric gate opened up after I punched in the correct code. There was not a cloud in the sky or any light pollution from the city of Amarillo. The stars were breath taking as the crisp air seemed to make them appear even brighter. We saw several mule deer fawns running across the steeper sections of the canyon roads. It was eerily dark around my campsite and I was the only one camping out there. The first spot that I pulled up to seemed like a nice spot to stop. That is until I got out and something screeched at me from the bushes. Yeahhh that wasn’t going to work. I drove a little bit farther down the road, found a suitable site with no screeching critters, and prepared for our wintry night in the car. Under the safety of my blankets and with Bella lying right next to me, I slept fine despite the below freezing temperatures. We awoke to frost across all the windows, and a still cloud free, beautiful, blue sky.

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I drove up to the visitors center to acquire a park map so we could do some hiking before heading back to Denver. The guy behind the counter was friendly and we had a great conversation before I hit the trails. I wanted to see the popular “Light House,” so that’s the trail we hiked. It was 6 miles through the bottom of the canyon up to this beautiful stone pillar. Bella was having a blast and making lots of friends, they were shocked to see her climbing some of the rocks along the trail. I chuckled to myself and explained that this was fairly mild compared to what she’s used to doing back in Colorado. By this time it had warmed up to a very nice 55 degrees and there were a lot of people showing up as we headed back towards the start of the trail. I was impressed with the amount of younger people who were there. I like seeing young kids and teens out exploring and enjoying nature.

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On our way out of town, I was going to make a pit stop at Cadillac Ranch. However, I never made it over due to the large truck that came crashing into the side of my car. It was a very minor accident, although the right side of my car will need to replaced and I cannot currently open my front passenger door. The police took 2 hours to get to us, pushing my arrival time in Denver to 10:00 pm, which was midnight back home in Florida. I was exhausted and hungry and couldn’t wait to get to my bed. We did make finally, the third installment, the absolute saddest story I’ve heard in a while, of the True Murder podcasts, kept me awake for the end of the drive.

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The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

This day is one I will never forget. It started out simply enough, Kendra and I were to catch our shuttle at 6:15 AM to make it to the crossing by 7:15 AM so that we had ample time to get back to the shuttle at the end of the day. We layered up and packed up a hearty lunch with several snacks, mentally preparing for what everyone kept telling us was one of the hardest hikes they had ever gone on. We walked out to meet the shuttle at 6:15 and there it was… anddd there it went. We looked at each other for a split second in sheer panic, breakfast bagels in hand, and started sprinting after our shuttle, screaming at them to stop. After about two blocks, we stopped, completely dumbfounded by what had just happened and decided to walk to the i-site to see what we could do. Well unfortunately the i-site didn’t open for another two hours and no one was answering the phone for the shuttle company. Kendra and I were pretty angry and had just added an extra 2 miles of running to our already lengthy 20 km trek that was ahead of us… if we made it there. We had to make a decision. And that decision was to hitchhike. After several failed attempts, we found a young couple in a camper van filling up at the local gas station. We asked where they were headed and wouldn’t you know! They were headed to the end point of the crossing! All we had to do from there was convince a shuttle to take us to the front, and wouldn’t you believe it! They were taking the same shuttle that had left us! This amazing couple took Kendra and I to the end of the crossing, we secured a spot on our original shuttle after guilting them about leaving us behind, and made it to the start of the crossing, only an hour and a half behind schedule. We couldn’t help but laugh at what had happened and we were so excited to get our hike started.

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At the start of the crossing, there were hundreds of people. It was slightly overwhelming. It was a pretty chilly, windy day so I couldn’t imagine what it was like crowd-wise on a nice, warm summer day. However, once we got started the crowd thinned out a bit and we got so hot! The first section of the trek started on  a boardwalk overlooking a field of lava rock. We arrived at the first pit stop, Soda Falls, in about an hour and had to strip down to our base layers. Ahead of us was a steep incline known as the “Devil’s Staircase.” Kendra and I handled it surprisingly well. We took a couple short breaks to drink water and eat a granola bar, but we couldn’t believe that was all the “Devil’s Staircase” had to offer. At one point, we even asked fellow hikers if that was really it or if there was another intense climb we hadn’t arrived at yet.

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At the top of the staircase, you had the option of hiking to the summit of Mt.Nguaruhoe (Mt. Doom from Lord of The Rings) or to continue on the alpine crossing. We chose to pass on the summit hike as we were already running behind and it looked like something that might be slightly out of our physical abilities for the day. (Neither of us had done a mountain hike of such length and caliber before, so we wanted to make sure we weren’t dying and rushing at the end of the day.) If I ever return to the North Island of New Zealand, it is definitely something I would like to accomplish. As we continued on the crossing hike, we walked across a nice flat segment in between the two volcanoes, Mt. Doom and Mt. Tongariro. It was spectacular. There was no plant life, just tan colored sediment and snowy leftovers from the winter season.

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Kendra and I arrived at the next incline, very steep, but not as lengthy as the last. One section offered a metal chain for you to grab on to in order to help you up the icy rocks.  The view from the top of this final climb was more than breathtaking. I can’t even describe the beauty of the volcanoes and the surrounding mountain ranges. To one side of this 360 degree lookout, you had this incredible view of Red Crater. If you scanned over a bit, to where the trail was headed, you saw the Emerald Lakes followed by Blue Lake. Further still, you saw the Tongariro Volcano summit, and completing the full circular view, was Mt. Doom and its respective lake. Pictures cannot portray the beauty of this place. We proceeded to take a few hundred pictures and adventured off the path to get up close and personal with some of the sights.

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Climbing back down the other side of what we had just climbed up proved to be difficult and hilarious. We sat just off the side of the trail and watched people slip and slide down the trail of volcanic ash. Some falls were easily predictable, and as long as no one got hurt, we let out a few giggles. It was all in good fun as I took a spill myself, quite gracefully I might add, while we were descendingthr steep slope trying to get a better view of the yellow and green sulfur lakes. Around the three lakes, there were pockets of steam billowing out from the ground. Each lake had its own vibrant color. The first one that we came to was the largest, filled with bright green water within its center that was surrounded by a thin yellow ring along the outer rim. The second was the smallest and more of a pastel aquamarine color that reminds me still of an Easter egg. The third lake was my favorite. Its water had a translucent turquoise color towards the center that darkened quite a bit on the edges. It was absolutely beautiful. We decided to eat our lunch here before continuing on across the valley to Blue Lake and beginning our descent down the mountainside.

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Blue Lake was incredible as well. It sits up alone after you cross the valley between the Red Crater, Emerald Lakes, and Mt. Tongariro. Kendra and I sat here for a bit as well since we had made decent time so far before we decided we had better get going. I didn’t want to leave but the shuttle would be waiting and we had taken enough pictures and mental snapshots that the views would last a lifetime in our memories.

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The descent, in my opinion, was the hardest part! My poor toes were constantly smashing into the front of my hiking boots and my knees, which are prone to soreness from IT band problems, began to send me little hints that they were not happy. There were a few more volcanic vents we passed by, including Te Maari Crater which had erupted most recently in 2012. Several signs warned us to keep moving quickly through this volcanic hazard area. After we were done hiking down the open volcano side, we entered a beechwood forest with more warnings to keep moving as we were in a lahar (lava flow) region. At this point we were more than ready to reach the end and when we finally saw the parking lot with all the shuttles we were relieved to be able to sit down and take off our packs. It had been quite a memorable day and we laughed as we thought back to our panic nearly 11 hours earlier when we thought we wouldn’t even make it to the start of our hike.

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Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park quickly became my favorite spot we traveled to on this trip. It was so incredible. The park consists of three active volcanoes that are clustered around each other. These volcanoes are surrounded by rain forest, scrubland, and gravel fields at different, respective altitudes. There are a number of different trail options and we decided to hike the 6km trek to Taranaki Falls first. The trail leads you through alpine grassland into a beechwood forest that winds alongside a river. There were several smaller waterfalls that we passed along the way to the larger, punch bowl waterfall that we were aching to see. It did not disappoint. Kendra and I sat beside the powerful waterfall for quite a while, laughing and taking in the views (and the mist, as it slowly started to soak us and our belongings.) You can get a view from every angle of this waterfall; we walked behind it, around it, and above it. Each spot being just as spectacular as the last. You could see amazing views of the three volcanoes, Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom for all you Lord of The Rings fans), and Mt. Tongariro, as well.

After we had completed the waterfall walk, we drove up to the top of the Whakapapa Village to see the ski field on Mt. Ruapehu. (Side note: “wh”in New Zealand is pronounced “fa”… we had a good chuckle over that one.) If you want to talk about incredible views, let’s talk! It was like stepping in to a volcanic battle zone. Mt. Ruapehu is composed of andesite, which is just old volcanic rock. I had never seen anything like it. There was still plenty of snow on the upper parts of the ski field, but it had mostly melted where we were exploring. We walked up to the famous Mead’s wall, from the LOTR movies, that overlooked a gorge of lava rock with a small flow of water drizzling through it. Mt. Doom was looming in the distance and the site was absolutely breathtaking. There was one more waterfall that we wanted to catch before it got too late, so we headed back down the volcano for our final mini trek of the day.

Tawhai Falls was our final exploration spot. It didn’t take very long to hike down to, thank goodness as it was starting to get a bit chilly. It was a beautiful little area, allowing Kendra and I a chance to practice messing around with our photography skills. This particular waterfall was also a part of the LOTR’s movies, featured as “Gollum’s pool.” It was actually pretty incredible seeing this beautiful waterfall in “real life” and seeing how the artists manipulated it to look so creepy in the movie.

I could have explored Tongariro for hours longer, it would honestly take a few days to see everything, but we had scheduled our alpine crossing hike for the following day at 6 AM, so we headed back to our lodge to get some rest and carb load on spaghetti to prepare for our 20 km hike.

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My First 14er

I decided I had to hike my first Colorado “fourteener.” It was something that was very personal for me, and I figured I had done enough steep incline hikes that my body could handle the physical challenge.

That morning, Bella and I woke up early so we could get to Mt. Bierdstadt in time to complete the hike before the afternoon storms rolled in. The drive up Guanella Pass was beautiful and I was shocked to see there was snow covering the entire area of the mountain! It was so warm and sunny when I had left Denver. At the start of the hike it was 30 degrees and I couldn’t believe there were people in shorts doing the hike. However, about an hour into it, I had gotten so hot, I was wishing I had a tee shirt to layer down to.

Everyone on the trail was so friendly and always stopped to ask about Bella and how she was handling the hike. I laughed each time and responded, “A whole heck of a lot better than I am!” It was hard. A lot harder than I expected. I have been uber sensitive to altitude my entire life but still managed to underestimate its effects on me at 13,000+ feet. I was also worried about the storms that were supposed to hit in the early afternoon. I had read plenty about how weather at high altitudes comes in quick and about how several people had been struck by lightning at Bierdstadt a few months ago. I thought very seriously about turning around and how no one would know because I was by myself. The problem was, I would know.

So I sat down and snacked on a Clif bar and some apple slices to regain some energy. A fellow hiker, who had already passed me once, was on his way back down and assured me I had plenty of time to make it to the top and back down. So I got up and put one foot in front of the other. Bella and I made it to the rocky summit a little bit later. I had to help lift her over ice and snow covered rocks. It was a great experience in trust for the both of us. At the top, I popped opened a beer, which proceeded to explode everywhere, in celebration. I was so proud of myself and so excited of what I had just accomplished. Not many people can lay claims to an achievement such that.

People have a tendency to quit things when they’re by themselves or on their own. There’s no one there to motivate them or push them to accomplish their goals. On my way down the mountain I had a revelation of sorts. This move of mine across the country had taught me how to persevere through hard times and to be confident in my abilities to fend for myself. I truly believe everyone should do something that scares them at least once in their life, completely on their own. It doesn’t count if you do it with another person, because you will always have that crutch, that safety net of having someone you know by your side. Do something by yourself and make it challenging. Travel somewhere far on your own, move somewhere new, hike a scary mountain by yourself, start a new hobby or take a fun class on your own. If it makes you nervous or scared, that’s a good thing! You will discover so much about yourself when it is only you that you can rely on.

That day, I hiked a 14,000 ft mountain by myself in a state where I knew next to nobody. I struggled with my thoughts, telling me I might not make it, but I did. I trekked straight up that mountain side, through a foot of melting snow, crawled over frozen rocks, lifted my 90lb dog up some of those icy rocks, and even fell flat on my back on that slushy, muddy trail. And I cried. I cried and I laughed and it was amazing.

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