I slid down into a too small chair at the elementary school table, futilely arranging my legs in a way that reduced the risk of injury and cramps. Despite my fatigue, I fairly bounced with my big news of the day. Pat and Haruki sat across from me, fresher and more energetic, their day finished long before mine, but causing them to miss entirely the big event of the day. “How was the rest of it?” Pat asked.
“We got ice cream!” I blurted out. While my six foot frame may not have fit the elementary school, my pure unadulterated joy in the frozen treat certainly did. I felt completely silly in my excitement. Until Franck leaped up, almost toppling his chair.
“You too?!” He blurted out, his English tripping over his strong French accent. “I did not know ‘helado’. They show me a photo! Ice cream! Oh-la-la! My eyes…
Although there was so much to love about Iceland, my absolute favorite thing were the wild ponies!! I couldn’t get enough. I must have a thousand photos of these beautiful, sturdy, stoic creatures. They were far more ubiquitous then I thought they would be. I made Todd pull over virtually every time I saw them to take more photos … LOL.
In writing this post, I thought I would share a bit more about the Icelandic pony than just lots of photos of their cuteness. I did some research on these amazing creatures and found out so much more that endears them even more to me. Hopefully, you might feel the same way after reading this short post.
Apparently the Icelandic pony is as old as Icelandic culture itself. Arriving on the earliest of settler ships, around 860 AD – 935 AD, the Icelandic pony was critical to the success of early Icelandic life and continues to play a significant role in Icelandic culture. The composition of the Icelandic pony is unique in it’s short stature, sturdy build, and thick coat which allows it to withstand all but the worst of Icelandic weather. The most interesting thing I learned about the Icelandic pony is that by a law passed in 982 AD, the importation of other horse breeds was denied. Despite this, about 900 years ago horses were imported. As a result, the Icelandic pony is one of the purest horse breeds in the world. One other quality of note about the pony, it has no natural predators which make it less likely to spook than most other horses. I found this to be true. Although I always proceeded with caution, these horses were easy to approach and pet. They have a wonderful disposition that just felt so calm yet, at the same time, the whole experience was so beautifully wild with the mystical, magical Icelandic countryside as a backdrop.
This moment had a Lord of the Rings, other-worldly feel to it.
Here’s to wild ponies 🙂 May they forever roam free.
I remember vividly the Greyhound-size bus navigating hair-pin turns, passing other vehicles, and being relentlessly bounced around on the bumpiest and narrowest of roads in the Highlands of Iceland. I was definitely beginning to wonder what the rest of our four day trek would hold for us. We were on our way to hike the beautiful Highlands trail known as the Laugavegur Trail; famous for kaleidoscope-colored mountains, black arctic deserts, geothermal activity, proximity to glaciers, and much more. This area has been recognized by National Geographic as one of the most beautiful treks in the world. The minute I read about the hike and, saw the photos in the Nat Geo article, I had this trek on my radar screen. No we were actually on our way, we were going to go from hut to hut over the course of four days, I couldn’t wait. The week or so we had already spent in Iceland had left me enthralled with this island and I was so excited to be getting deep into the Highlands backcountry to be fully immersed in the wild beauty Iceland offers.
As it would turn out, Iceland is a place, much like Alaska, that really teaches you to just suit up and head out regardless of what the weather is doing. The first two days of our trek we definitely encountered what might be called, really sh*#tty weather. I won’t lie that I was digging a bit deep the first day wondering what the point of this exercise was if we weren’t going to be able to see anything. Sleet was pelting us at what felt like 40 mph, fog was so thick sometimes I could barely see our guide a few steps ahead of me, and a definite wet-cold in the air. I was wondering about asking for our money back if we were just going to be hiking in sleet, snow, fog, etc. Turns out our guide group did not have a policy of reimbursement. This was the best thing that could’ve happened to us as we went on to complete our four days thankful for the breaks in the weather that allowed us to experience this beautiful, remote area.
After the “exciting” bus ride, we headed out towards our first hut, the Hrafntinnusker mountain hut. The terrain in this area is made up of lots of short, steep ups and downs, slick mud, snow fields, and lots of geothermal activity. The geothermal activity here made for really interesting hiking; we would descend to the bottom of a slope and all of sudden there would be boiling water shooting out of holes or bubbling up out of the ground within feet of the trail. This geothermal activity was so interesting to experience but definitely something to respect and to be situationally aware. The trekking was great on this section, the hut was another thing altogether. It was truly akin to a refugee camp. There were people sleeping on the floor in the communal kitchen, people sleeping basically anywhere there was a spot not otherwise occupied by another person or gear. I’m quite sure the coziness of this venue was enhanced due to the fact that the weather was so inclement that even the hardiest of the hikers tent camping outside chose to squeeze inside somewhere. Looking back on it, it’s one of those things that just makes the experience that much richer, funnier. In the moment, the smell of stinky socks, strangers literally inches from your face while you’re in your sleeping bag, etc. tested even my extroverted personality. After the Hrafntinnusker, our expectations for the quality of huts was very low. Thankfully the next 3 huts wildly exceeded our expectations.
The remaining part of the trek included several river crossings that should be taken somewhat seriously, especially if the water level is high. The currents could be quite strong and the rivers are quite wide.
Arriving at the end, I was sad that it was over. I didn’t even really notice inclement weather any more in Iceland. It is just part of what you deal with and so many times, because of it, you get some surprises. For example, on the day we trekked to the campsite with all of the tents (photo immediately above), it was so stormy initially. All of a sudden, at the best vantage point of the whole trek that day, the clouds opened up and we had an expansive vista of rolling green peaks, dramatic clouds, and a rainbow. I almost thought we would see leprechauns and unicorns as well, the moment was so perfect.
Things to Consider if Hiking this Trail:
1.) You don’t need a guide but the terrain is very featureless as far as trees, etc. If you were to get turned around in dense fog, you probably wouldn’t know you’d taken a wrong turn for quite a while. There are no defining features where you would say, oh yeah, I remember that tree, that rock, etc. A guide is also helpful in securing the logistics of the huts. Personally, at this point in life, although I know I could do all of that, I have no interest in spending my time on logistics.
2.) Bring river shoes to change into for the river crossings. Will you get very wet, at least from your thighs down.
3.) Definitely bring good quality waterproof gear, including Gortex shoes, Gortex raincoat and pants, etc.
4.) If you use a guide research them thoroughly. Although our guide got us from point A to B, he was completely under-whelming and less than helpful.
5.) This is a really great experience to see some truly beautiful, remote landscape. If you are in Iceland and enjoy trekking, it is a must.
I collapsed into the camp chair, every inch of my body caked in salty sweat. Sweating was almost useless in the humidity. I had drunk at least three liters of water that day, but my mouth was still parched, unlike my clothes, hair, hat.
Clay’s hand were on his hips as he came to stand over me. His body showed the fatigue of the month and all its challenges, but his face was kind, if serious.
“And now it’s time for The Talk.”
I nodded weakly, knowing exactly what that meant. While Clay’s fatigue was cumulative, built from hours, days, weeks of running, supporting runners, repairing vehicles and I’m sure people, mine was just from those two days of running. We were both doing what we loved, and we were both the kind of tired you felt in your bones.
The Cuban Quattro were due for their annual reunion. Laura and I had organized the previous two years, a marathon on a rainy February Tennessee morning and a March marathon in chilly but sunny Colorado. Dallas stepped up this year to bring us all together again, this time for a 50k in Illinois of all places, as part of the Monarch Ultra.
The Monarch Ultra had begun a month prior in Peterborough, Ontario and was following the route of the monarch butterflies through three countries, down to the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico, where they spend their winter, much like the snowbirds of northern USA.
The Monarch Ultra was also a group of four, celebrating life and friendship while raising awareness. It was the brainchild of imaginative and passionate Carlotta and Clay. Ronald was documenting the entire 47 days. Gunter was keeping the team well fed for their challenges.
The migration is amazing to behold–this year, even appearing on weather radar images.
However, the eastern US monarch population has been in slow decline for many reasons, including the loss of milkweed, the sole diet of the larvae. Like many animal species, monarch butterflies are losing their habitat as cities and highways take over the landscape.
An incredible journey of three thousand miles–about a thousand more than I run in an entire year–the Monarch Ultra is also a celebration of ultrarunners, who also carry themselves across long distances, to arrive at a new, often unknown–physically and spiritually–location. Often, our goal is the same as the monarch: to survive. It may be more an emotional and mental struggle than physical for us runners, but that makes it no less real.
John and Laura couldn’t make it on this adventure, so Dallas had only me to pick up at the airport. Probably a good thing, as the seemingly standard construction zone of orange cones blocking the obvious routes and giant tarps hiding any helpful signage made finding the pickup point more than a little challenging. I’m pretty sure it was the same construction that was going on three years ago and I didn’t navigate it any better, ending up two stories and a city block away from where Dallas was waiting. Hopefully my navigational skills would hold up better during the ultra.
Dallas and I had decided to run the 50k together, taking the later shift of that day. While perusing the maps, I became entranced by the idea of running for a cause instead of a t-shirt, and signed up for a 100k the next day, just hoping Dallas wouldn’t mind crewing. He of course didn’t, only later telling me he was beyond surprised I had signed up for the second day. I just grinned, saying simply, “You don’t know me.”
Dallas and I drove to Vienna, IL–pronounced “v-eye-enna”–that afternoon, stopping only at McDonalds for a biological and to get more drinks. The 95 degrees/95 percent humidity had me worried so I had been drinking nonstop for several days. Colorado does not afford much opportunity for heat training so hydrating as much as possible is about all I can do.
We checked into the hotel and got a recommendation for dinner–the Vienna Grill, which had the largest menu of almost any restaurant I’ve frequented. The catfish was recommended and since we were sort of in the south, that was my choice. And sweet tea. And pie. Dallas went with the old standby spaghetti–the strong smell of garlic almost made me regret my choice.
Outside the front door of the Grill was a garden of painted rocks. They were bright, each with a beautiful saying. “Please take one–that’s what they’re for,” a kind voice behind said. “Oh, I couldn’t,” the Southerner in me began. She picked up a rock and handed to me.
“Remember why you started.”
I can’t say I’m a true believer in signs, but there are moments where I question that doubt. This was one such moment.
Despite the eleven AM start, I was up early. I was still full from dinner, but still managed to partake of the free breakfast. Dallas is a late starter, so I walked around and did some reading while I waited. Vienna is your typical small town Americana, with McDonalds, a park and a historic downtown. Part of me wanted to explore this quaint little place, knowing I would probably never be there again. Part of me felt like I had explored it all before in other adventures.
The eleven start became a one thirty start. This was the first ultra of Jessica, the morning runner, had ever completed. As we drove to our starting point, we saw a runner on the road. Dallas commented that it couldn’t be her, that “she didn’t look like an ultra runner.” Dallas is pretty enlightened for a near octogenarian, so this comment took me by surprise.
I struggled with bulimia during and after college, abusing my body as a way to feel in control, when I felt anything but. It makes me sensitive to body image comments, as this comment seemed to be. I asked Dallas what he meant, how did an ultra runner look, and he responded “Efficient. You can’t finish an ultra running like that.”
I was glad I’d learned to ask questions rather than respond with a knee-jerk reaction.
After introductions, congratulations and hugs, the baton was passed. The baton is a poem written by grade three students in Peterborough, Ontario, expressing hope for the butterflies and inspiration for the runners. It was hard to finish, the hope of third graders contrasting my fifty year old cynicism.
A couple more hugs and we were off. Dallas, a retired professor as well as an ultra runner, immediately took charge, explaining how we needed to pace ourselves, walk the uphills, and stay hydrated. I glanced around, reminded of Cuba and how the “flatlanders” and I were always joking about what constituted “hilly”. To me, there were no hills to be seen, but Dallas was serious, so I followed his lead, walking when he did.
Not far into the run, we passed a sign marking the Trail of Tears, the thousand mile journey forced on the Native Americans in 1838 and 1839. It seemed my journey would cross centuries and migrations and tragedies. Almost a quarter of those on the Trail of Tears died. The monarch butterflies are in slow decline.
Not far after that, we saw our first monarch butterflies.
Dallas wasn’t doing that great himself. He had run the Vol State 500k again that year, and it had hurt his health. Dallas owns basically every time record in running for his age group–even at 78, he put me to shame. That day, though, he was dragging. I had convinced him to carry a second water bottle, knowing I would slow him down, but he needed even more.
A calf cramp hit him hard after the first “aid station” at 10k. I waited while he massaged it out. This was the second time I’d seen someone literally floored by an intensity of pain I’d rather not think about. It wasn’t long before the other calf had him swearing at a decibal I’d not heard from him before. After a few excruciating moments, he was able to breathe and walk, so we continued on at a casual pace.
Dallas was discouraged, not wanting to hold me back but not wanting to quit. I reminded him of the email Clay had sent when Dallas had referred to the run as a race. “We want to change that mindset. You are not running for a medal–you are running for a cause.” It was a glorious day, aside from the heat, and I was just happy to be out, running somewhere new.
I couldn’t convince Dallas to call and get a ride, so I gave him one of my water bottles. I needed it but he needed it more. We took it easy to the next 10k aid station. The heat was truly angry.
At the aid station, we took a good break, refueling and rehydrating. Jessica and her husband had decided to continue crewing. Her food stash was a glory to behold. I stuffed peanut M&Ms in my pack as I guzzled an iced Red Bull. Then I drank a liter of coconut water. I had not yet peed, for which I was partially grateful since women don’t have it quite as convenient as men in that department, but I knew it was a bad sign as well.
After soda and Gatorade, Dallas was feeling more like himself and decided to continue on. Even though it was past three, the heat was not abating. We were less than three miles into that segment, and my thirst was again overwhelming. The warm water in my bottles wasn’t cutting it.
At each aid station, Clay gave us directions for the next ten kilometers, which would take us to the next aid station. I knew that the first turn would be at a grocery store in the small town of Cairo, which I’m pretty sure was pronounced K-eye-row. I ran ahead and signaled Dallas that I was going in, happy that I’d remember to stick cash in my pack. I grabbed one of those giant iced tea drinks loaded with sugar, and guzzled almost all of it before Dallas got there.
“I’m done” is all he said when he got to the store. After making absolutely sure he wasn’t just waffling, I texted Clay. I didn’t want to just leave Dallas, but it was late afternoon and I wasn’t even halfway done with the day. As I stood there waffling myself, a pickup truck pulled up alongside us and a gentleman with a true southern accent jumped out. He asked what we were doing and Dallas explained about the Monarch Ultra.
“God directed me to stop,” he explained, and asked if he could pray with us. I have lost and found religion my entire life. As I enter my fifties, I more hope there’s something more than actually believe it. I also know that I live my life on a fine edge and any advantage I can gain–physical, spiritual, or otherwise–cannot possibly hurt.
So Dallas and I bowed our heads with our new preacher friend as he asked for our peace and protection–that we be “highly visible” along our journey.
Dallas shooed me on, so I continued down the road. Clay drove past a few minutes later so I knew Dallas was safe. Not long after that, Jessica and her crew stopped and gave me an impromptu aid station. Even after the giant can of tea, I was able to drink another half liter of cold water.
The gang was stopping for a late picnic lunch as I continued down the road. I put my music on as I felt the loneliness of the evening stretch before me. Another 5k slipped under my feet as the sun settled on the horizon, releasing the landscape from its intensity. The next aid station was missing Jessica and her party as they had to make their way home sixty miles in the opposite direction. They left their snacks for me, and I stuffed more M&Ms in my pack.
The dusk lingered for the next 5k as I headed out on a quiet country road. I ran toward the royal purple and magenta, orange rays still striking through, and thought of my insignificance. I also thought of the preacher’s prayer for visibility and hoped that someone was listening. There had not been a street light since I turned on this road, and the only lights that weren’t from vehicles were from small farmhouses. I hadn’t thought to bring anything reflective and was feeling invisible as well as insignificant.
Until a pickup truck slowed down and the driver shouted something obscene. I then found myself wishing for invisibility as I choked back my fear. I could see my end: a truck slowing down, me seeing the wrong end of shotgun. I had my satellite messenger with me, but it was small solace that they’d be able to quickly find my body.
My fear rode alongside my anger, whose target alternated between myself for allowing the fear and the driver for causing it, whom I’m sure was blissfully unaware of his impact. The fears weren’t unfounded and they weren’t fair. The vast majority of women have been harassed while running and more than a few have not returned from a run. I didn’t want to give in to the fear but I didn’t want to end up dead either.
I thought about calling friends. I had to smile when I realized that I rejected calling many because I knew they’d drive straight out to help me. I have good friends. I finally called my friend, Joelle. “You are brave, you are strong, and you’ve got this.” She was at a mountain rescue training and couldn’t stay with me on the phone, but her words did.
The lonely country road finally ended in a busier but equally poorly lit road. It was ever so slightly downhill, so I was able to pick up the pace. A car slowed and I again fought my panic. He asked if I needed a ride and I responded with an exaggeratedly bright “No thanks!” He drove on and I settled uneasily into my pace, urging my tired legs to speed up, to get to the end.
The road flattened again as I watched the moon set two hours after its counterpart. I had no true idea where I was, but I knew there were no more turns. My legs ached with the monotony of the terrain and I finally had to give in and walk, frustrated, so wanting to be done with the fatigue and fear. I was doing 100k the next day, and at this pace, I’d be out after dark again.
I cared not to repeat the experience.
After some infinite length of time and distance, I saw the flashing beacons of a police car. It signal safety to me and immediately decided that was where I would end, whether anyone was there to greet me or no.
I picked up my pace, trying and failing to run, but determined to get to the flashing blue and red. The lights grew no bigger nor brighter. The moon had set and there was nothing to distract me from the lights. Even my music seemed to pick just annoying songs and I finally turned it off.
I just watched the blue and red lights, not getting any closer. It reminded me of a race I did in Canada. It ended on the far end of a lake, which was visible from a couple thousand feet above. It never seemed to get closer until you were finally next to it, and even then, you had to run its mile length before you were finished.
The blue and red lights continued to not get closer. A train passed. The flashing lights disappeared then reappeared as the train continued on. It seemed everything was closer than the lights.
Finally, finally there was the police car, its officer and Clay and Dallas, all right there. The officer, Jason, was not an ultra runner but was completely taken with the idea of running the Monarch Ultra through the town he looked out for. We assured him a year was more than enough time to train. He took a selfie with us and bid us well.
It was nine o’clock. I wanted nothing more than a shower and bed. The logistics were a bit blurred, but it was two hotel stops then a room. Dallas had secured the last available hotel room in Cape Girardeau. I was so grateful. As an added bonus, it was equipped for the physically challenged, among which I counted myself that night. I sat through my shower, absorbing the warmth of the water despite the miserable heat of the day.
I was asleep before Dallas finished his shower, having laid out everything for the next day. It was easy to plan for a day where the temperature would not fluctuate, a luxury not often enjoyed in temperamental Colorado. I put my water bottles in the small fridge, a vain gesture.
Dallas wasn’t convinced my wakeup time would get us to the start by 6, but I assured him I could do it. I needed more than five hours of sleep more than I needed time to get ready. It is completely unfair how much more quickly hours spent sleeping slide by than those spent running–well, most of the time anyway.
The crew met us sleepily, having had more to do before they could call it a night. The start was much less an event than the day prior, as I simply waved and took off. I put on my lightweight reflective jacket wanting to believe it would be somewhat cool, but took it off before I had run a mile. I wrapped it around my pack, so I would still be visible, thinking again of the pastor.
The first segment passed slowly as I ran quietly along a dirt road. I was already staring at my feet, my body still aching from the day before. I marveled at the number of dead frogs. As I passed over a small bridge over a small stream, I wondered at the dead fish. Like, really wondered. The frogs, yeah okay–there were a lot of them but I could see where they came from. But how did the fish get on the road? Was there some kind of mass suicide? Bored kids maybe pulling them up and leaving them to die? I stumbled out the next few miles, fish thoughts occupying my mind.
It was the first thing I asked when I got to my aid station. Ronald explained that it had flooded recently and these small skeletons were the sad victims of that weather. I was glad I asked, as there were dead fish on all the bridges I crossed that day and I didn’t need my mind going into those dark corners.
Dallas joined me for the second segment which had the second biggest highlight of the day: crossing the mighty Mississippi, one of the geological dividers of our country. Dallas had run across it before, but this was my first time. It was also the goodbye point for Illinois and the welcome to Missouri. Another first–a run that took me across state lines.
The river, much like a lot of nature, was not what it once was, abused and dumped on by greedy profiteers. I wanted to be excited, thrilled, happy about running across it, but just like when thinking of the monarch butterflies, I felt extreme sadness and loss for what would never be again.
On the other side, in Missouri, were the flattened remains of a dog. It took up the entire width of the sidewalk, forcing Dallas and I onto the now busy road. The stench was overwhelming, the ninety degree temps making a nauseating stew from the lifeless forms.
The theme for most of the rest of the day was roadkill. So much roadkill. I counted two monarch butterflies, and was happy the death toll for them was so low, although I couldn’t help but wonder how far they’d traveled merely to die on the side of the road in Nowhere Missouri. I couldn’t count the number of possums and, yes, dead fish.
Then came the next aid station. A Missouri lady, whose name I’m not sure I ever knew, and her husband had joined us that day. They “raised” butterflies until they came out of their cocoon when they set them free to follow their destiny. A butterfly was born that morning, and it was time for her to join the migration south.
When she said that I should do the honors, my body stopped aching for a moment. We named her Delta, for the next town. Delta is latin for “change”, and no name better suited the meaning of this run.
I was terrified of breaking Delta and couldn’t bring myself to wrap my hand around her as instructed. I instead waited until she climbed onto my thumb. I felt like a child in my absolute wonderment. I couldn’t stop grinning as I watched her tentatively spread her wings.
“Welcome to the world,” I whispered. I was supposed to encourage her to fly but I couldn’t bring myself to rush the process, fascinated as she stretched her wings and tested their strength.
Finally she was ready. She beat her wings harder and launched from my finger. She fluttered a moment, rising just a little, before her beautiful wings hesitated and she floated towards the ground. Landing on a blade of grass she rested, Rodney filming her the entire time.
My only regret for those two days was my addled brain becoming distracted at that moment and walking off. I never saw Delta truly begin her voyage to Mexico. If all went well for her, she is there now. I will never know, but I have to believe. I have to have hope.
From there to almost the end of my day, there were no more turns. I ran through a one gas station town. Seated out front in dilapidated chairs was a trio of men that is only ever seen in front of the only gas station in a town. I heard them yell my name and turned in surprise. They were cheering and clapping. I grinned and waved, gaining just a bit of energy from their enthusiasm and the general silliness and randomness of the brief encounter. I correctly assumed Carlotta was behind it.
I needed that energy because I wanted nothing more than to stop, a desire with which I am intimately familiar. It’s the ultimate conundrum of ultrarunning. Logically, you would never even start an ultra–or even a marathon for that matter. There’s no logical reason to put yourself through that kind of pain, no logical reason to spend that much time being not much more than a mouse on a wheel with nice scenery. So what do you rely on to begin the journey, to keep going?
Passion and stone cold pig-headedness.
But when it comes time to quit? Then what? How do you know when to start relying on logic again? Logic is always going to want you to stop. Logic is the enemy.
For this event, it was Clay standing over me, giving me my options. This run had never been about me–not about me finishing, not about me even running. It was about the butterflies. It was about community. It was about giving back.
And it was time for me to give again. The crew was exhausted. Their RV, which had broken down three hundred miles back, was ready to go again. Dallas didn’t like driving after dark and was ready to be back home. It had taken me almost nine hours to complete the first 50k of the day, and the second half would have me done well after midnight. The goal each day was to complete an ultra, and I had completed that.
I smiled and shrugged. “Guess I’m done.” A small ceremony, a certificate, hugs, photos, and the adventure was at an end for me. Another couple weeks was in store for these four, and they were ready to face it with bravery and a sense of humor.
And what about building bridges? Politics inevitably came up, the rollback of many critical environmental protections impacting so much of what each of us loved. I try to celebrate what I love instead of bashing what I hate, so I bragged on Colorado’s new governor, Jared Polis, who had recently signed an executive order to study the migratory paths in Colorado in order to build routes for animals, protecting both them and the people injured in crashes with them.
“Incredible,” said Ronald, shaking his head sadly but smiling. “A politician building bridges instead of walls.”
Incredible indeed. All of us, butterflies included, could use more bridges in our lives.
When the Life Bus went to Durango at the end of August to celebrate our brother’s wedding, we spent a few days in Telluride adventuring together there. (See Just a Darn Good Day Paddling in Telluride post). We were recommended this hike by the great people at our SUP rental location – Mountain Adventure Equipment at Telluride Mountain. We were looking for a high altitude hike with solid elevation gain, and hopefully a lot of beautiful, mountain scenery along the way. This hike delivered on all of those criteria in spades.
Normally my goal would be to hike as fast as I can to the summit; testing my endurance mettle and pace the whole time. This hike was so jaw-droppingly beautiful that I found myself stopping frequently, not caring at all about my pace or time. We couldn’t stop staring in wonder, amazement at the wildflower explosion that surrounded us and at the kodachrome color of the surrounding peaks. Hope Lake itself was equally worthy of pausing for a long while to just take in the serenity, the clarity, the Caribbean color.
Pure serenity on the trail
Life Busers Cinda & Jeff
The hike begins with popping in and out of a beautiful spruce forest. Interestingly, given the epic amount of snow this area saw during the winter of 2018-2019, we encountered numerous avalanche paths where the sheer force of those events was evident by the number of trees bent over like matchsticks. The destructive power of such a massive snow season was conversely matched by the beauty that such snowfall brings … wildflowers as far as the eye could see, in every color.
Getting to Hope Lake requires driving a few miles on a Forest Service road, a 4WD vehicle would be best on this road. Once at the trailhead, I’ve seen varying distances reported for the hike distance – ranging between 3.3 miles to 4.5 miles from TH to Hope Lake. I’m not exactly sure because my GPS stopped working along he way. Normally this would’ve bugged me but I was just so in the moment and in love with nature. Elevation gain from TH to Hope Lake is about 1300 feet. Hope Lake sits around 12,000 feet.
This was just one of those perfect days that really drives the Life Bus. We’re happiest when surrounded by quiet nature, the smell of pine and dirt, mountain breezes, and single track trail. Hope you get the opportunity to enjoy this beautiful part of our state and this hike.
Thanks as always for following along 🙂 Here’s to adventure!!
During the planning process for our trip to Slovenia, after much Google searching, I stumbled across a website that talked about farmstays in Slovenia (Slotrips). This serendipitous website find turned out to lead us to one of the most lovely, off-the-map places we’ve ever stayed, Kekceva Domacija Homestead in the Trenta region of Slovenia.
We chose Slovenia originally because we had wanted to experience the Dolomites but were worried that during June, our chosen vacation time, the Italian Alps would be swarmed with tourists; so we picked the Julian Alps instead. Let me tell you, they did not disappoint. None of Slovenia did for that matter.
Trenta, and the Trenta valley, is a nature lover’s paradise with its beautiful turquoise Soca river and waterfalls; soaring, jagged peaks; lush green forests; all surrounded by Triglav National Park, this area offers an endless amount of jaw-dropping scenery and outdoor activities. We were so excited about the promise of hiking rugged trails, exploring the Soca, and staying at a tiny mountain farm – only 4 rooms. Our experience with all of these exceeded all expectations.
The hiking in this area is breathtaking, and can be quite challenging. The peaks are incredibly steep and the limestone is crumbly which can make for quite a bit of scree hiking. Trekking poles and good hiking shoes should definitely be considered at a minimum.
I could’ve hung out along the banks of the Soca river all day. The color and clarity of the water, combined with jagged peaks and forest as the backdrop, and you have one of the world’s most beautiful rivers for certain. In these photos the river is rather tame. It does, however, get squeezed into tight canyons in several areas. River rafting is quite popular on this river.
Nestled among this natural beauty is the Kekceva Homestead. Please, please please do yourself a once in a life time favor and stay at this gem if you’re ever in Slovenia. I’m not even sure where I should start in sharing just how amazing this little homestead is. The hot springs pool has one of the best backdrops ever, the property is absolutely lush and gorgeous and a hiking path starts right on the premises, and the food is outstanding – often locally sourced and all handmade by the hosts. Our breakfasts consisted of homemade yogurt with homemade granola, fresh cheeses and meats, delicious European butter, and crusty bread. Dinners treated us to locally caught almond crusted trout , homemade wild boar ragu with polenta, and delicious wine from the hosts own vineyards.
The fact that there are only 4 guest rooms gives you the sense that you are on your own private farm and that you essentially have the run of the place. The hosts were so warm and welcoming and 100% focused on us having a great time during our stay. The husband had been a climber and spent some time in California climbing in Yosemite. Apparently he thought my husband looked like a California climber / surfer and so every time he saw Todd he would say “hey California.” They joined us for dinner one night and opened up many bottles of wine. Much laughter and hospitality was enjoyed. Which brings up another wonderful point about this homestead, all of this beauty and hospitality comes at an extremely reasonable price per night.
One last note, which makes me chuckle, there was this Tibetan terrier running around who could apparently be quite the guard dog. He was great to guests but there were signs such as the one in the photo posted around with his image warning people of the guard dog. He definitely has eyes and eyebrows that mean business 🙂
Just writing this post makes me want to hop on a plane and jet back to this lovely, mountain hideaway and stay there for a very long time. It is a perfect place to unwind and recharge your batteries.
Thanks as always for reading about where the Life Bus has wandered. I hope you enjoy the read and the ride 🙂
There we were, in a yellow school bus bumping down the Denali Park Road headed towards the Wonder Lake campground. The weather was cold, cloudy, and drizzly and we were more than a bit bummed that the weather would most likely make us miss out on the amazing views supposedly to be had at the end of the road, at the campground. The thing about Alaska, however, that I learned early on in this trip is that you just need to gear up with good rain gear and head out. Nine times out of ten you will be rewarded with some memorable experience, you would’ve missed out on had you fretted about the weather and stayed in. So, despite the drizzle, we were still headed to Wonder Lake to camp for the night.
Wonder Lake sits almost at the end of the 92 miles of Denali Park Road (DPR) and a mere 26 miles from Denali peak. The DPR is the only road in Denali NP and, the only way for visitors to explore the park. Visitors can only drive a very short section of this road in their own vehicles. The rest of the approximate 90 miles is via yellow school bus and takes about 6 hours. Yep, that’s 6 hours in a school bus like the one you might have ridden in as a child. The same crappy windows that are hard to get up and down, the same green naugahyde seats with minimal cushion, the same limited suspension. Despite the lack of luxury transportation, the 6 hours in our bus actually went by fairly quickly, and was not nearly the torture it first sounded like it might be. Despite the soggy weather, we were rewarded with quite a few breaks in the fog. These clearings afforded us the ability to make out quite a bit of the beauty surrounding us. We were also lucky to see several grizzlies, wolves, and caribou crossing sections of the road – all from the safety of our bus. Dahl bighorn sheep dotted the high ridge lines of the peaks.
Arriving at the Wonder Lake campsite we were definitely happy to be in Denali but definitely bummed that Denali peak, and all the surrounding mountains, were shrouded in heavy cloud cover. We pitched our tents and ate dinner, accepting the fact that we might not get the chance to actually see the peak on this trip. Travel is about the experience right.
What a thrilling surprise then to wake up in the morning, unzip our tents, and be greeted by a bluebird day and the hulking white mass of Denali peak visible in all its splendor. The Denali massif is so impressive from this vantage point, the majesty is really indescribable.
Alaska is amazing for many things, one of them for sure is that it teaches you to just accept the moments you’re given and head out adventuring anyway.
Here are a few tips about camping at Wonder Lake:
Be prepared for the potential for lots of mosquitos. Those fun, little net hats are definitely worth a purchase. The mosquitos, although quite prolific, did not ruin the experience of camping at Wonder Lake.
There are 28 reservable sites
Bear canisters must be obtained and used for almost anything you might be bringing … i.e. toothpaste, chapstick, sunscreen, food, etc. even if it says unscented.
Last but not least … I would highly recommend bringing lots of your own snacks for the bus ride since it is 6 hours in and 6 hours out without any food purchase options along the way.
If you find yourself in Denali I highly recommend at least one night at Wonder Lake campground.
Happy camping and you get to ride a version of the Life Bus to the camp sight.
One of my favorite new things to do in the summer is paddle board!! When we first got ours, about a year or two ago, I could barely actually stand up on it … LOL. Fortunately, I’ve gotten much better at it, which was needed for this paddle day near Telluride. Going out from the put-in location towards the mountain we barely had to paddle. The current was so strong we basically just drifted along. Of course, that means on the way back you will be paddling against the current. Add a bit of a head wind and I was thankful I’ve finally gotten some sea legs on these things. One note about SUPing in Colorado. The wind typically picks up in the afternoons so it’s best to try to paddle in the mornings or early afternoon. (I would at least always recommend checking the weather forecast for lightening and / or wind when doing anything in Colorado in the summers.) This day wasn’t too bad but we did have some afternoon headwinds causing some decent wave action – to add to the fun.
Paddling here was such a spontaneous find, we were driving from Durango to Telluride the day before when we spotted this lake from the road and saw people paddling on it. The color of the water in some places was turquoise green. Upon arrival at Telluride Mountain, we made a bee line straight for a place where we could rent SUPs. Everything turned out so perfectly. The store was a block from our hotel and they would bring the boards down to the lake and pick them back up for us. Done. We were booked for the next day.
This was such a beautiful place to paddle. The views were jaw dropping. My husband Todd (fellow Life Buser), his sister Cinda and fellow Life Buser too, her husband, and I all had such a great time we hung out here forever. We brought beers in an insulated rafting bag, strapped the bag to a board, and enjoyed the cold brews at the far end of the lake where there’s a little beach; while we just lounged on our boards in the shallow tide.
I love spontaneous finds like this so much. It’s what the Life Bus is all about. The lake we were on is Trout Lake. The rental shop was Mountain Adventure Equipment on Telluride Mountain, not in town. They provided excellent service and the SOL boards they rent were great, very stable.
Just as an FYI – The boards we have are from a Steamboat Springs brand called Hala, our boards are the Hala Hoss model (Carbon). We love them too. They have a carbon component to their construction which makes for some great stability. I just love the name as well 🙂
As the weather changes and Fall is upon us, I made my first batch of wild mushroom risotto with porcini mushrooms as the star ingredient. When I say wild, I truly mean wild. These porcini were foraged in the woods by myself and my husband. While eating this incredible Fall meal, I thought I would share with you some about my love of mushroom hunting. Well, I will share verything that is shareable … LOL. Should you begin to engage in this pastime you will soon discover, mushroom hunters never disclose their favorite hunting locations. It is truly like the spy mantra, I could tell you where we find them but then I would have to kill you … just kidding of course! To give you an idea of just how secretive and competitive this sport is, my uncle would often not reveal to his own mother, my Oma, where his best stashes were.
Mushroom hunting is a pastime that can turn my 76 year old mother into a trash-talking, rabidly-competitive woman who will not stop hunting no matter what the weather. One time we were hunting with her and suddenly we were caught in a complete deluge of icy cold rain mixed with hail. I tried to get her to head back to the car but her response, while she stood there soaking wet in cotton clothing, was “just one more minute.”
I come by the love of mushroom hunting honestly. My mother’s family is of Eastern European and Russian origin and, in those parts of the world, mushroom hunting and wild foraging are truly a deep part of the culture. As kids, we visited our relatives in Heidelberg almost every summer, and foraging was part of what we all did together as a family on those summer weekends. (My mother’s family fled Riga, Latvia in 1945 and wound up emigrating to Heidelberg, Germany). I vividly remember spending entire weekends wandering in the Odenwald, the forest near Heidelberg, with baskets full of porcini and wild blueberries. In German, a porcini is known as a Steinpilz, a stone mushroom. When you see a Steinpilz in it’s natural surrounding the name becomes obvious. The color of the top looks just like a stone.
One funny, but not so funny note, is that my mountain rescue team has rescued numerous Russian, Romanian, Poles, and other Eastern European mushroom hunters in the past several years. The thing with mushroom hunting is that you are constantly looking down. You’re too busy looking under pine trees and rocks to notice you’ve gone woefully astray. You have to actively think about looking up and taking stock of your surroundings. Otherwise, as happened with our hunters who needed to be rescued, they wound up just heading full steam down hill and wound up very far away in a very large wilderness, no where near where they had started. Some of them spent several cold hours in the dark until we were able to locate them.
In the end, mushroom hunting is a great way to spend time in the wilderness, off trail, with rewarding treasures at the end. It truly is like a wilderness treasure hunt 🙂
One final note, please please please do not eat any wild foraged mushroom unless you have had some training and know exactly what you are eating. Guessing when eating wild foraged mushrooms can have a deadly outcome if you are not absolutely certain what you are doing.
Thanks for reading about one of The Life Bus’s favorite pastimes. XO
“From here, the toe of the glacier is about seven miles away, and it’s about two miles from there to the top, with a fifteen degree slope on average.”
“You’re lying.” The words were out of my mouth before I could even think.
Austin laughed. “It’s hard to get perspective in Alaska.”
Physical perspective–maybe. But not spiritual. If Colorado were not my home, Alaska would be. Someone told me once, take a balloon, draw Colorado on it, blow it up, and you’ve got Alaska.
I was back in Alaska. My cousin had IM’d me back in March to inform me of his impending nuptials. My trip was booked within the month. This was my third time in McCarthy over the last ten-ish years and each time, I had under planned and driven away full of regret, not knowing when I would be back to this remote, rugged area.
First, I had to get there. The flight to Anchorage was easy enough, but it is an eight hour drive from there to McCarthy. I’ve driven it twice and had no interest in doing it a third time. I more than anything wanted to fly to McCarthy, to see the mountains and glaciers from an eagle’s perspective. But flights are limited to certain days, require more than one person, and have a 35lb baggage limit. That was definitely out. Traveling for work has killed my ability to pack efficiently, especially to a place where the weather was less predictable than, well, Colorado weather.
A bit of digging brought up a shuttle service with Wrangell-St Elias Tours from Anchorage to McCarthy. It still required two people minimum, but one other soul on the planet wanted to go the same week, she (Marie, as I found out) on Sunday, me on Tuesday, so we agreed on Monday.
Travelling to McCarthy is a bit like rewinding the clock. Anchorage itself seems a little lost in time, and each town after seems a bit more unstuck. Then you find yourself at the beginning of the sixty mile dirt road, maintained better than it was, but still subject to the whims of geology, meteorology, and beavers.
The weather was less than stellar when we arrived, a complete deluge that had the river running high, which justified a few extras I had brought. I put on my orange rain jacket and dragged my massive, grey Patagonia suitcase across the footbridge, arriving just in time to miss the shuttle to the lodge. Another came soon. I thought I was home free, but the beavers were protesting the road to Kennicott and it was enough under water that someone left a paddleboard to get across.
Tuesday was my play-tourist day with nothing planned,. The weather was pleasant so I walked around Kennicott, purchasing a necklace from a local artist, then heading up to the glacier. Even in the few years since I had last been there, the glacier was changed, slowly receding back as global warming made its impact. I stopped by Kennicott Wilderness Guides and checked in with Betsy, who had helped me plan my entire trip. She greeted me with a hug, a little extra paperwork (this waivers was particularly poignant: “the inherent risk is what makes it fun”), and times for meeting.
I met Austin, my guide for the week, a little later that evening, of course after I’d changed into PJs and settled in for the evening, giving into the two hour time difference and travel fatigue. Even after a full season of dragging tourists around the glaciers, he was full of enthusiasm and smiles, even pretending not to notice the pajamas. It was his second season there, his first was the prior year, doing his internship for his wilderness leadership degree. Where were these degrees when I was in college? Where would I be if I’d been born twenty years later?
Wednesday started with another waiver for Wrangell Mountain Air (“I promise not sue if I die in a plane crash”). Bill was an excellent pilot, describing the scenery and telling happy stories of Nizina, the second choice for the day’s hike as the first had been flooded by the recent rains. Both had already warned me there was a real danger we’d spend the night out–inclement weather and technical troubles being all-too-real in that remote area.
If it hadn’t meant curtailing other activities, I would have welcomed the adventure.
As eager as I was to get down and explore, I would not have minded a longer plane ride. As Bill was preparing to land on the newly renovated (but still very bumpy, according to Bill’s exacting standards) gravel and mud landing strip –my first Alaska bear sighting! They bounded off, offended by the noise of the plane, but I still regretted not grabbing the bear spray Austin had offered. The pawprints we saw throughout the day didn’t help any.
The highlight of the hike were the many fossils that we found. Bill told us on the flight back that they were from the time when Nizina was still part of the Pacific Ocean. I had the same feeling of eternal time that I felt finding seashells on the top of small peaks in Texas. So long ago but then again, not so much. You are allowed to take all the rocks you want from the glaciers, but fossils must remain. Knowing that prior respect for that rule had allowed me to see so many of these gems gave me the same respect to take photos and place the fossils back where they were found, maybe never to be seen again, but then again, maybe.
Austin I explored around the morain, occasionally adventuring onto the glacier. There were icebergs everywhere. He told me that his boss and a couple coworkers had been camping out when the last calving occurred. It had been a massive event, icebergs shooting hundreds of feet in the air, causing mini tsunamis and threatening their camp. Once the realization hit (fortunately it had happened after they’d gotten out of the water but before sleep had come), they grabbed the gear they could and made for higher ground, amazingly losing only a single trekking pole.
Thursday was predicted to be the rainiest day, so packrafting had been planned for that day. Packrafting is the result of adventure races that require racers to cross rivers. Like much outdoor gear, it’s become lighter and more sophisticated in recent years. The rafts, drysuits and paddles weighed less than my rescue pack.
A little patience and a lot of flexibility is required in putting together all the pieces, but the grey skies and forty degree temps didn’t have us in too much of a hurry. I was pretty relieved that only my hands were cold once everything was pieced together.
We were in Kennicott Lake, at the base of the Kennicott Glacier. I shouldn’t have been surprised by the current, the lake feeding right into the river. Having the upper body strength of an ultra runner, I was a bit at Austin’s mercy. He kept close during the couple spots where the current swept under the glacier.
The scenery was surreal. A calving event had occurred there recently as well, and we paddled around the abstract sculptures that remained, making up stories on the “pieces” and their artists. The deep blue of the newly divided ice was mostly gone, but we did find small segments still gleaming. Small pine trees grew out of the debris on top of the glacier. The rain made small waterfalls.
At lunch, we did a land crossing in the middle of the lake. Austin showed me how to hook the paddle to the raft to create a handle for carrying. I didn’t fall over is about the only thing I can say about my lack of style and grace. My hands were completely numb and my arms were already feeling the effort. I inhaled my entire lunch from Meatza’s, one of two eateries in Kennicott, hoping the calories would restore some of my energy, but the lack of movement and the increasing wind won out.
As we got back in the water, I finally conceded and told Austin it wouldn’t hurt my feeling if he made this a short day. I don’t think his feeling were hurt much either, his gloves less water resistant than mine.
Glaciers are constantly changing and a route through the icebergs found on one day was not guaranteed to ever be there again. We paddled into a sort of amphitheater and listened to the falling rocks and water, the lack of wind improving my attitude. A couple times, Austin paddled out ahead to make sure the route was still clear. It always was, and by 2pm, we were back in the cove, packing up the rafts.
We stopped by the Potato for a quick bite before relieving Austin of his duties for the day. I had first eaten at the Potato when it was still a food truck and it was the best burrito I had ever consumed. Egg, cheese, curly fries and sour cream. I tried and failed on many occasions to re-create it.
I was a little sad that the recipe had changed and wasn’t quite what I remembered, but the hot coffee more than made up for it, coaxing warmth back into my chilled bones.
Halfway through my burrito, I noticed Austin listening intently to a group had come in after us. From scraps of the conversation, I gathered that part of their group was going to be stuck out for the night. Austin told me in a lowered voice that the group was theirs and they had gone out with his boss. The weather was to blame and it looked to be a cold, rainy night to be stuck out. I selfishly thanked my lucky stars.
Ice climbing day dawned clear and cool. I hadn’t taken long to adjust to the time zone, staying up later to peer hopefully and futilely for the Northern Lights, sleeping a little later in the morning. Breakfast at the lodge was more than a cut above American standards, but not quite the breakfasts I’d had in Italy. But I was really there for the coffee and it did not disappoint.
I had brought helmet, harness and boots, three pieces of gear I do not like to leave to chance. Austin had already fitted the boots with crampons so we headed out shortly after meeting up, excited to be out in the sunshine.
The day warmed and we more than made up for the short rafting day. Maybe it was my hopeful imagination, but Austin looked a little whipped by the end of the day. He found five great places to climb, starting off with a fun, simple climb, then jumping right into some overhanging stuff, sure to wear out us lesser climbers. I hung with those as long as I could, making it up once, but never “clean” (without falling), earning the kudos of fellow tourist climbers for my stubborness.
The last climb of the day was a moulin, a vertical shaft that can go down to the bottom of a glacier, hundreds of feet down. This one had filled significantly with water, but was still quite deep and quite dark. Austin lowered me in, which at least meant I could survey the route before climbing it. I couldn’t go quite to the water because the moulin narrowed so much that I could not swing my ax. It would have been like Santa climbing out of a chimney after a healthy serving of milk and cookies. It was the perfect ending climb and twice up the column left my arms and legs shaking in a combination of physical defeat and mental victory.
We meandered back, me dragging my feet a little in exhaustion and sadness that my three days of adventuring were over. I love hiring guides for their knowledge and experience and the one-on-one camaraderie, but it’s also bittersweet because I know it’s just a job for them, where they have given me a lifetime of memories.
I lounged a little longer in my double bed Saturday morning, listening to the sounds of the kitchen prep going on directly below my room. The McCarthy Half Marathon, benefiting the Wrangell Mountain Center, wasn’t until 2pm, which wasn’t near enough time for me to recover from the three days I’d just had, but at least made for a lazy morning.
I’ve done many low-key races in my life, but never one where the race map was hand drawn on a piece of paper. And that wasn’t the only first for me for a race. Two people showed up with bear spray–they weren’t used but there were reports of a grizzly on the course. There was a dog with a bib number–I’ve seen dogs bandit a race before, but this one was full-on legit. And a for-reals gun start.
But the best was the end of the race: it finished at the end of the road (go any farther and you’re in the river). After crossing under the sign, I walked back to the grocery store to reward myself with an ice cream. Just as I was handed my black cherry in a waffle cone, a fellow runner strolled in to order his own–mentioning in passing that he hadn’t actually crossed the finish line yet, but that he just couldn’t wait. A fellow runner offered to pay so he could continue on.
There was a spaghetti dinner after the race but attending would have meant missing the last shuttle back to Kennicott and a five mile walk. Not impossible, but the bear sighting rumours and lack of a headlamp didn’t make the option terribly appealing.
My cousin, Mark, has lived in McCarthy for at least fifteen years so the wedding Sunday evening was the event of the summer. Everyone was invited to both the wedding and the reception and everyone showed up. I knew my cousin Mary Francis and her troupe were going to be there, but had found out only the week prior that my older brother would be in attendance as well.
For most, probably not the biggest of news, but I hadn’t seen my brother in close to twenty years. There was no animosity–at least that I remembered–but that’s often what divorces do to families. I’m not much of an emotional person but I have learned from experience not to go into potentially emotional situations without some kind of plan.
A few years ago, I had run into my mother at my sister’s 50th birthday bash–another family member I hadn’t seen since my twenties. I thought she would take charge of the “reunion”, being the mother and all, but she refused to even make eye contact, leaving me baffled and hurt and feeling like an abandoned five year old. It was not an experience I cared to repeat.
My plan was simple. I would just go up and give him a hug and hope for the best. Probably not the best laid of plans, but it worked. We hugged for a long time and twenty years of absence was gone in a moment. We caught up on life later in the evening when most of the excitement had died down.
The wedding venue was unparalleled by any I had seen, at the toe of the Root Glacier. Both it and the Kennicott Glacier were visible, the pure whiteness offset by the changing color of the leaves. The ceremony brought tears to every eye. I had not met the bride, but by all accounts, she and Mark were an amazing couple, managing their rental cabins in the summer and traveling the world in the winter. Her engagement ring, made of emeralds, was of course from Columbia, arguably the source of the finest emeralds in the world.
Weddings are often minefields for the single but not this one–the wedding or me. Maybe it was because of being in a remote and wild place that rewarded fierce independence. Maybe it was because I had finally outgrown feeling out-of-place on my own and found comfort and stability in standing, climbing, running on my own two feet, as much on solid ground as on a glacier.
Maybe it was just the perspective gained in Alaska.