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10 January, 2017

New Year’s in Los Angeles

Nobody goes to Los Angeles. They may say they do, but no. Those friends of yours who vacation in Santa Monica and Hermosa, or  one time partied in Hollywood or Beverly Hills? They probably never went to L.A. either. The closest they likely came to Los Angeles, the city, was a Lakers game. On the eve before New Year’s Eve, coming straight from the airport, we went to L.A. The city. Downtown. The only part of L.A. I’d ever been. The part that continues, to this day, to offer visitors a glimpse of what Manhattan, New York looked like thirty years ago, before Disney and the M&M Store moved in and squeezed the homeless and needle-pushers out.

Our good friends Katrina and Alan return to Los Angeles, the county, most winters to visit Alan’s family who still reside there. For as long as we’ve known them, we’ve been treated to stories of the incredible New Year’s Day feast that Alan’s mother assembles in Japanese tradition. Anyone who has read this blog for long likely knows the attachment I have for Japanese culture and food. So it should come as no surprise when I say that I’ve been angling for us to spend New Year’s in Los Angeles, with Alan’s family, for several years.

But the first stop was downtown.

Come for the Drinks, Skip the Food

There are times to wander around aimlessly, cafe-and-bar-hopping your way through a new place. Then there are times when it pays to have a plan, a local guide, and some friends to share the experience with. Our trip to Los Angeles, a sprawling massive region where it takes no less than 45 minutes to get anywhere, would have, at the least, required a lot more work on our part if not for Katrina’s planning — and their family sedan.

Still, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised — and concerned — when it was revealed that our first stop would be downtown. At a cafeteria, no less.

My prior L.A. experience consisted entirely of visits to the convention center and shuttle-vans to and from my hotel on Grand. I knew enough to know that downtown L.A. was 1) a dump, and 2) not a place anyone ever went. That being said, Clifton’s Cafeteria, the “World’s Largest Cafeteria” from “The Golden Age of Cafeterias” (their words) is a heck of a sight. Massive redwoods and boulders, crystals, and plant life give the towering multi-story cafeteria a mystical outdoorsy feeling while somehow avoiding the cheesiness of Rainforest Cafe. The cafeteria’s Forest Glen setting is said to have inspired Walt Disney.

The Atrium at Clifton’s Cafeteria. Photo from www.discoverlosangeles.com

But while the food itself, bland home-style country staples, could be easily forgotten (if, unlike me, your stomach allows it) the numerous bars occupying the bulk of Clifton’s space in the old rundown theater district on South Broadway, are sure to be remembered. A modest dress code — no sneakers or t-shirts, look spiffy — is enforced for the upper bars where Art Deco decor and period-dressed servers and bartenders await. Drinks are pricey, at $14 each, but the speakeasy-vibe of the “secret” Pacific Seas tiki bar (hidden atop a stairwell behind a mirrored false-wall) adds a sense of intrigue to the night. Unfortunately, the 60s-era Chris-Craft speedboat in the bar offered no additional seating and we retreated to the spacious, yet frigid, Gothic Bar. A fine spot.

Inside The Last Bookstore. Photo from www.welikela.com

From there we walked a few blocks over to The Last Bookstore, a shop I had just heard about that week. The lower floor is like any other indie bookstore, though with an expansive rare books section that, unfortunately for me, was primarily art books (though they did have a 1st edition Catcher in the Rye in not-good condition). But upstairs, they’ve piled their books in such a way as to create several book sculptures and other installations that are truly worth visiting. There are also several art galleries along the walkway and a tunnel of LED-lit books you can walk through which was very neat. I picked up Silence, the book that inspired the upcoming Martin Scorsese film about the Christian Japanese from the early 17th century. It just so happens that one of the characters in my work-in-progress is also from that era.

Pre-Partying Around Hollywood

We were staying at a house we rented on AirBnb, near Alan’s family in Torrance. This location was not only close to his parents, but also right near the King’s Hawaiian restaurant and bakery, an absolutely fantastic place to have breakfast. Nobody bakes a cake like the Hawaiians. A fact we were reminded of later that day, after watching some football, when Alan’s parents surprised Kristin with a guava, passion fruit, and lime birthday cake that was even better than it sounds.

But yes, it was Kristin’s birthday and it was New Year’s Eve, and we had plans. Despite the unseasonable cold and drizzle, we donned our suits and dresses and went out for a night on the town. First stop: a stroll down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. All of the shops were closed, the tourists had mostly gone home, and we were able to enjoy some nice window shopping at our leisure. We have many of the same shops in nearby Bellevue, but luxury retailers aside, Rodeo is just a nice street to go for a walk, especially when everything is lit up for Christmas.

Rodeo Drive. Photo from www.viceroyhotelgroup.com

From there, we cut through a neighborhood of gated, outrageously expensive homes to Sunset Boulevard, and up to Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant and bar in the style of an Edo-period palace. It’s tremendous looking and offers a fantastic view of greater L.A. from atop its hill in Hollywood Heights. Sadly, only those staying for the New Year’s Eve party (with $50 cover charge) could get in. We merely wanted an early evening pre-dinner drink so had to move along. Definitely a place to return to in the future.

Fortunately, we found a great bar right on Hollywood Boulevard, smack dab between the restaurant we were eating at and the Egyptian Theater, where the party we had tickets for was located. Some drinks and free tequila shots later, we went to The Musso and Frank Grill, an old steakhouse from 1919 that was a frequent haunt of A-listers during Hollywood’s golden age. We spotted no celebrities (nor were we looking for any) but we had a terrific meal. Veal, filet mignon, prime rib, and lamb chops were on order, and each were delicious. I’m still partial to Seattle’s Metropolitan Grill f0r when it comes to high-end steak houses, but Musso and Frank was certainly a cut above Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s, not just in food, but ambiance too.

The four of us at Musso and Frank Grill.

Scamming Like It’s 2017

Our friends have had great luck attending themed NYE parties in L.A. on prior years, usually getting tickets ahead of time through GoldStar, a membership discount site for events and concerts. This year, we settled on a party at the Egyptian Theater. VIP tickets, at a discounted $70 each, were supposed to get us into an extra area or two. In reality, despite arriving by 10:30, the main indoor space was jam packed. The lines for drinks (open bars, included in price) stretched around the block and back to 2012. We waited and pushed, and eventually got in. Only to find the main space packed with hundreds of people, far beyond fire safety codes, and with no chance of getting a drink. I descended the stairs in a search for a restroom and stumbled across the room our yellow wristbands were supposed to get us into.

But instead of going in, we made the mistake of going back outside, convinced the VIP area was somewhere else. It wasn’t.

And then, in those minutes that we were back outside in the frigid outdoor courtyard area, the line to get in had grown so long that it was effectively a mob scene. A stationary stampede of humanity pressing against a single open door. For forty minutes we stood in line trying to get back inside the space we shouldn’t have left. Now and then a staff member would escort a private party of six inside, those who paid thousands of dollars to reserve a table. The “bottle service” option.

It was 11:40. There was no getting inside. For anyone. The wristbands mattered nothing. Everyone had one.

We went back to the bar near the entrance and got another pair of drinks. But first, a trip to the port-a-potties. Formal wear, frigid temps (for L.A.) and five port-a-potties with a line of over 40 people waiting for them. Nevermind.

We were furious. The party was a complete scam. The outdoor music was horrible, they sold too many tickets, had too few bars, too few restrooms. And the inside area was a deathtrap, crammed with far too many people. Everyone we talked with was furious.

Determined to not be in line for a port-a-potty at midnight, or stewing in our fury, we exited the scam of a party and ran back across the street to the hole-in-the-wall bar we were in before. We made our way to the back room (the place was now packed) and quickly made some new friends and toasted and danced in the new year.

Alan graciously stopped drinking at one in the morning and was able to drive the rest of us home at three.

A great night saved from disaster.

The Japanese Feast for 2017

Ignoring the leftover birthday cake I munched down at 3am, we began our 2017 in traditional Japanese style, with ozoni, a brothy soup featuring a big piece of mochi. Ozoni is the obligatory first meal of the new year. Personally, I’m not a fan of mochi unless its got a scoop of ice cream inside it, but the broth was very tasty and well, of course we were going to eat it.

The four of us excused ourselves over to Culver City where, right across from Sony Pictures, is a bar that serves as the homebase for Seahawks fans in southern California. Dee-jays played music and emceed during commercial breaks, free blue and green mystery shots were served at halftime, and dozens of displaced Seahawks fans cheered and jeered the victory over the lowly Forty-Niners.

Back at the family home, a table with tens of dishes awaited us, as did many of Alan’s family members. In addition to comfort food like grilled pork and chicken, BBQ shrimp, char-siu, and gyoza, there were plenty of specific foods and dishes served for their symbolic meaning. Daikon, burdock root, and carrots — all root vegetables — were served to strengthen the family roots. Dried kelp, kombu, was served to inspire joy. Tiny dried fish (which were served fried and really tasty), gomame, are eaten for good health. Lotus Root, renkon, was cut in round slices to symbolize the Buddhist wheel of life. Black beans are also eaten for health while a very tasty chestnut dish signifies mastery of success.

Just some of the food for the New Year’s Day feast!

Kristin and I stayed away from the herring roe which is eaten to increase fertility. We did partake in the carp which is eaten for its indomitable spirit.

And on and on it went. So. Much. Food. Deserving special mention were the caramel macaroons which Alan’s nephew made. Macaroons far lighter and more delectable than any we had in Paris.

New Year’s Day had traditionally been a non-event for us. A day to relax and clean up from the holidays, perhaps. But this year it was so much more. We got to spend it with great friends and their wonderful family. We ate delicious multi-cultural food, learned a bit about its significance, and swapped travel stories and more. It was a fantastic day, I won’t soon forget.

Six Flags and a Beach Cruise

We finished up our time in L.A. with a trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain on Monday, but only after a breakfast stop at Gardena Bowl. You read that right, we went to a bowling alley for breakfast. This is where having a local comes in handy, as there’s simply no way we would have known of such a place. In fact, Gardena Bowl was where Alan used to bowl in the 80s and its Hawaiian-Asian cafe is a local hot spot. We had to wait for a table at 9am, but the wait was worth it, for the sausage and egg mix.

Magic Mountain was cold and crowded so after realizing that the lines were over two hours for each ride, we scurried back to the entrance booth and bought the Flash Pass. It ended up nearly tripling the entrance fee per person, but we never had to wait for more than ten minutes, and most times we just walked right on to the rides. Still, because we’re not awful people, we did feel bad about bypassing a three-hour wait to board immediately. Alas, we only attend these amusement parks every few years. It’s worth it.

Tuesday, our last day in Los Angeles, was spent at the beach. We rented bikes in Hermosa and rode north six miles past Manhattan Beach to El Segundo. L.A. County has a paved bike path that stretches from Palos Verde, south of Redondo Beach, thirty miles north to Malibu, rarely crossing any streets and routinely swept free of sand. We didn’t go far on account of the bad cold I had caught over the weekend, but we got a nice taste of the Strand and the hundreds of beach volleyball courts set up near Manhattan Beach, the dozens of surfers braving the cold, and the oodles of jaw-dropping homes perched above the beach.

The Strand bike path going past Manhattan Beach. Photo from www.caskeyandcaskey.com

We didn’t have time to visit Venice Beach, but did have lunch at the famed Santa Monica Pier, the terminus of Route 66. An excellent way to cap off our L.A. trip.

California Kindness

One thing that I would be remiss not to mention is just how friendly everyone in L.A. was. I always noticed this during my many business trip to Southern California, but it bears repeating. I can’t stress how nice it was to spend all that time, often in very crowded places — bars, amusement parks, nightclubs, and restaurants — with so many friendly, polite people. People of all walks of life, of all nationalities. Every one of them, from fast food workers to other club goers, were all so nice and approachable and friendly. No posturing. No distant coldness. No aggression or agitation. Just a polite mellow that made the whole experience so much more enjoyable than if it had been nearly anywhere else I’d ever been or lived.

In some ways, this added an extra layer of Japaneseyness to the weekend. After all Japan and southern California are the only places I’ve ever been where employees and guests alike seem to focus on making sure that everyone’s experience is as great as it can be. There’s a quality of life in SoCal that is hard to replicate anywhere, and it’s not just for those in the multi-million dollar homes on the beach or in the hills. Its ingrained in the people. The people who might be taking your order. The people you might be waiting in line behind. The people you might strike up conversation with at a bar. The people are just friendly.

Such a shame that it’s noteworthy.

Special Thanks: To Alan and Katrina for being such great friends and for inviting us to join you in your family’s New Year’s celebration. To Alan’s parents, Aiko and Sam, for being such gracious hosts. Thank you so much for everything! To the rest of Alan’s family, thank you all for making us feel so welcome. We hope to see you all again soon! And last but not least, thanks to Jeremy and Jessica for watching our beloved Juniper while we were gone. You’re the best!

16 September, 2016

The Burning Mountains of Portugal

I first smelled the smoke during the drive to Alcobaça. We were headed inland, taillights to Nazare and its worlds-largest-waves, when that first acrid whiff I find to be so intoxicating snuffed out the lingering scent of sea air. Later, I downshifted to first and piloted the car up the meandering, olive-lined alleys to the castle town of Ourem, pondering the oddity of a world in which fire can overtake water. The smoke intensified. While reading poolside at our pousada, I could feel the ashen clouds floating across the valley, the smoke on the crystalline water, delicately smothering my book and body as it perfumed my hair with wildfire aromatics. Peering over the wall of the hilltop village we saw a ridgeline on fire across the valley. A wall of smoke hung just above the horizon, masking the burning garnet in gray gauze.

Sunset during wildfire.

Sunset amongst the wildfire smoke and ash, viewed from Ourem.

Long Waits and Late Nights in Lisbon

Though a friend tipped me off to the presence of wildfires burning in the Portuguese countryside several weeks before our trip, the only smoke encountered in the capital city was that of the cigarette variety. Despite an abundance of signage announcing the country’s new tougher, anti-smoking ordinances, ashtrays were nearly as common as houseflies. The presence of cigarette smoke was jarring – I often go months without encountering any at home – but the flies were far more annoying. As was the waiting.

We stepped off our overnight flight to Lisbon and joined a crowd the likes I’ve which I’ve seldom seen outside of Seahawks games. A single line of people serpentined back and forth though dozens of hairpins, crossed the terminal from end to end, and eventually (thankfully after we had gotten on it) extended up the stairs and back toward the gates. Well over a thousand people queued to pass through an immigration checkpoint manned by just three agents. Over a thousand tired, anxious travelers stood in orderly fashion wondering what crimes they committed in a prior life to deserve such hell. I may have preferred an encounter with the Langoliers than so much humanity in so little space.

Long lines in Lisbon.

The rental car lines at Lisbon airport at 11am on a Monday.

The clock soon struck nine and another half dozen agents took their positions. Time to get through immigration: 1:45. We encountered a similar crush of people three days later, upon returning to the airport to pick up our rental car. Understaffed? A victim of its own popularity? Yes and yes. But also friendly. I’ll still take it over Newark.

Having not spent enough of our first day in Lisbon waiting in line, we dropped our bags at our hotel and promptly walked downtown to join the throngs in line for the famed Tram #28. The electric trams of route 28 travel through the hilly, graffiti-covered Alfama district of Lisbon, passing the city’s castle and other major sights. That it was over 100 degrees out and there was no shade didn’t matter. That the only people on line were tourists didn’t register.

Our travel skills were as rusty as the trolley tracks we waited alongside and whether it was the heat, the sleep-deprivation, or sheer laziness, we stood in the searing heat for over an hour waiting for the so-called “Tourist Tram.” And when the tram finally banged and clanged its way up and around a few hills in an ugly, littered, battered neighborhood, that layer of rust we’ve accumulated since returning home was knocked free and we alighted at the first stop we could.  What were we thinking?

Lisbon castle steps.

We followed this couple down the stairs, looking for a way back into town, only to discover it was a dead-end. Oops.

If asked to sum up our time in Portugal, I would describe it as a ten-day pub crawl broken up by long drives in the mountains, some nice meals, and a few side-trips to gawk at architectural marvels of centuries past. And in this regard, we were almost thankful for the heat as it made the Sagres and Super Bock – Portugal’s answer to the ubiquitous light lager that plagues every country – somewhat palatable. Our three nights in Lisbon went by quickly.  A trip to Belem to see the glorious Monasteiro dos Jeronimos and the hip LX Factory enclave on day two; a train ride to Sintra (Portugal’s less glitzy answer to Versailles) on day three.

Lisbon fog.

The big bridge in Lisbon with a wonderfully low fog bank. Reminiscent of San Francisco Bay.

The highlight of our time in Lisbon was spent eating and drinking. A late meal of tapas in the Bairro Alto neighborhood preceded a marvelous time spent listening to Fado with three new friends we shared a table with. Kristin had done her homework and learned of a hole-in-the-wall Fado club named A Tasca do Chico where many Fado singers have gotten their start. Singers drop in and perform in the darkened pub that sits no more than thirty while two guitarists – one on a Portuguese twelve-stringer and another on a Spanish six-string – provide accompaniment. Fado is folk music best sang loud and passionately. It’s about heartbreak and loss, and this will be evident to you with or without a friendly Lisboan artist buying you beers. Think of it as Flamenco without the dancing. Two performers this night stole the show. The last of which, a young, petite woman in stiletto heels, tights, and a breezy blouse could not be topped. We saw no reason to stay beyond her 2am performance.

Downtown Lisbon.

Downtown Lisbon. All cities should be so pedestrian-friendly.

One challenge you might have in visiting Portugal is that there are limited dining options available on Sundays. In this country that takes eating late to a level that even Italians would question, most restaurants shutter after lunch on Sundays. This is where talking to a local can really come in handy. We were directed to an admittedly trendy restaurant in the Chiado neighborhood called Sacramento. Wandering in without a reservation, we weren’t sat until nearly 11pm, but the meal was worth the wait. Tourists and locals blend in this swanky establishment for modern takes on Portuguese classics and a rather stellar wine selection.

The night ended with my asking for the bill in such near-perfect Portuguese, complete with accent, that the server did a double-take. Her flattery led to a twenty-minute chat about language which I’ll spare you, except to encourage you to make an effort to go beyond ola and obrigato when you visit.

Pena Palace

Pena Palace from atop the mountain in Sintra.

Walking the High Mountains of Estrella

The Audi A1, a car every bit as virile as the two-buck steak sauce that shares its name, barely fit through the stone archway leading up the cobbled streets to our pousada in Ourem. After three days of touring and imbibing in Lisbon, a brief stop at Buddha Eden (the most WTF thing of all the WTF things) and a lunchtime tour of the magnificent monastery in Alcobaca, I was thrilled to park the car and settle into two nights of eating well and doing nothing.

Portugal’s network of pousadas – historical buildings of significance transformed into inns of varying degrees of luxury – provides travelers with a unique opportunity to pillow up someplace unusual. The pousada in Ourem, where we stayed, was a 15th century hospital located quite literally in the shadow of a medieval castle. And for two nights it was our home, complete with half-board. Though a festival would be taking place the following week, the hilltop village of Ourem was deserted. The cobblestone alleys, the castle ruins, and the cafes were ours and ours alone. And while the other guests of the inn day-tripped to Fatima and other nearby towns of note, we enjoyed the quiet of the smoke-scented village and read by the pool and rested. For I knew we had a long day barreling down on us.

Alcobaca monastery cloister

I’m a sucker for cloister walkways of medieval monasteries.

I also knew better than to ask the hotel clerk in the mountain village of Manteigas about the routes we were planning to hike, but I did anyway. Locals, particularly those who may be inconvenienced by the trouble you get yourself in, will always try to steer to you to the safest option no matter how hard you try to convince them of your credentials. Boring! Thanks to a very helpful GPS-enabled map app and available trail descriptions and maps, I was able to narrow our day of hiking in Serra da Estrella Nature Park down to three options. The clerk confirmed that yes, the route I wanted to do – the only one with the 5-star difficulty rating — was the most scenic, but it was also overgrown, very hard to follow, and just two weeks ago an Italian couple staying at his hotel had to be rescued. He tried his best to steer me onto other shorter routes that held little interest, not realizing he was only increasing my desire with each word of warning. He also made the mistake of doubting Kristin’s abilities.

We'd be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

We’d be following a very overgrown, hard to follow route down into this valley.

The twisty, cliffside drive to the trailhead – and ensuing race back down six hours later – were the highlights of the day. Those hours in between, spent hiking the Central Massif Route, were a tangle of slow-going searches for rock cairns and barely-visible trail blazes under a hundred-degree sun.

With the car parked at the highest point in mainland Portugal (the Azore Islands boast the country’s highest elevation), we followed the map out onto a rock-litter scrubland some 6,000 feet above sea level. There wasn’t a tree taller than myself as far as I could see. Nor was there any significant evidence of a trail. We followed the GPS track as best we could, stepping around cowpies and scampering down boulders, periodically encountering remnants of a trail here, a rock cairn there. We were making progress and eventually came to a trail sign. The route we wanted descended into a wide glacial valley from once-upon-a-time and down we went.

The scenery wasn’t really all that spectacular (though I admit it’s hard to impress those of us lucky to call the Pacific Northwest our backyard) but the route-finding difficulty lived up to the clerk’s warning. And though the jumble of rocks and bushes may not have been tall enough to provide respite from the searing sun, they were certainly tall enough to hide the cairns and blazes.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat.

Wandering across the valley in scorching heat. Anybody see a cairn?

The wildfires in this part of Portugal were to the north of us – out of sight and out of smell – but they were on our minds all the same. We weren’t so much hiking as we were swimming across a hillside of knee-high grass as dry as a Hindenburg-era newspaper impaled on a saguaro cactus. Down, down we went, ever so slowly into the valley, trying our best not to slip on the grass. Trying so hard to stay on the rocks for traction, all the while wondering if sneakers-upon-granite could produce a spark. I tumbled once, rolling sideways off the ledge of a rock, fortunately landing on two uninjured feet, straddling a shrub. I heard the camera draped around my neck clink off a rock as I rolled and immediately panicked. One spark would be all it took.

There was a lake in the distance but zero chance of reaching it before a fire would overtake us. I put the camera in my backpack and distracted myself by wondering if the trekking poles we left at home could cause a spark.

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

The road back down to Manteigas from the highest point in Portugal (mainland).

We eventually crossed a broad grazing land at the far end of the valley and though the route was supposed to continue up and over the shoulder of a mountain, we could find no evidence of it doing so. After several back-and-forth searches for cairns and footprints, we had had enough. The highlights were behind us and the trail was far too much hassle with too little reward. So we followed a connector trail down a very steep hillside to one of the most popular routes in the park – the Glacier Route. The 17 km route led from the upper trailhead down to the village of Manteigas where we were staying, roughly paralleling the wonderfully windy road we drove up. And though we were able to hitchhike a little of the way back to the car, we ultimately found ourselves walking several miles along the side of the road to the car.

The thirteen miles we hiked took nearly six hours. The beer and ice cream at the summit restaurant almost made it worth it. The drive back down certainly did.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town.

Back at the church in Manteigas at the completion of the procession through town, after the wind had extinguished most of the candles.

We slept soundly that night despite live music echoing off our hotel until 2am for the second night in a row. Though it was a weekday, it was the culmination of a two-week Catholic celebration of the Lady of Grace (Lady of Miracles, some say). The prior night we watched as thousands of devotees marched in a candlelit procession through the streets of Manteigas as four women carried a large statue through town. An orchestra and live rock band played through the night as festival goers enjoyed plentiful meat, wine, and beer for token prices.

Sipping Our Way Along the Douro

Portugal didn’t find its way into our basket of travel dreams because we wanted to see Lisbon or go hiking in the mountains, as fun as those things were. Nor do we have any interest in joining the throngs of sun worshipers in Algarve. No, it landed in the basket because many years ago I viewed a travel show about wine that culminated with a segment on Porto and the famed vineyards of the Douro River Valley. If I was to return to Portugal in the future, I would spend the entire time in the Douro.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The view downriver from our room in Mesao Frio.

The Douro River spills into the Atlantic at Porto, only the second largest city in Portugal, but certainly the most photogenic. And the river that flows past its hilly, multi-colored structures, pours out of a massive network of terraced vineyards where dozens of grape varieties are grown, turned into wine, and shipped throughout the world. To visit the Douro is to be both awed by the scenery and overwhelmed by the options of wine tastings. And though September is harvest time and the busiest tourist season of the year for the vineyards and cellars of the Douro, the crowds were manageable.

Porto skyline.

The beautiful Porto.

And so we spent our final days sipping port, enjoying the view from the villa-turned-guesthouse we booked in Mesao Frio, and watching the river flow by. In Porto, we wandered the alleys and streets, shopped at a street market, attended a free outdoor concert with the Portuguese Philharmonic Orchestra, walked the surfer’s beach and ate grilled sardines, drank more wine and port than we care to admit, and fell in love with a city that was every bit as beautiful as it seemed on the small screen all those years ago. A city I probably won’t return to in this life, but one I’ll remember fondly all the same.

It wouldn't be a European TFG post without a few bikes in the midst.

It wouldn’t be a TFG post from Europe without a few bikes shown.

 

 

26 August, 2016

Day-Hiking the Central Cascades #2

Earlier this spring I posted a quick rundown of some of the hikes we had so far done in Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Central Cascades book (see here). Though we’re nowhere close to having gone through the entire guide — a book that represents a small fraction of the boundless hiking opportunities in Washington — we did check quite a few more off the list. Some we did as part of the overnight backpacking trip chronicled here; others were part of our recent Enchantment Traverse.

Now that summer is winding down, we expect to get out even more. Nothing stokes the fire of my passion for the outdoors like the coming autumn weather. We’re still dealing with some unusually warm 90-degree days here in western Washington, but I expect the weather to break by the time we get home from Portugal in a couple weeks. There’s still a few higher elevation hikes we hope to get in before the snows return.  But enough about that, on to the next installment…

Puget Sound Lowlands

We didn’t plan on doing any more of the lowland hikes once the weather started warming up, but one day we just felt like going for a run — and wanted an excuse to stop at a pizza place we like. So back to the Everett area we went…

Spencer Island (Hike #9)

Distance: 4 miles

Surface: Pavement, Grass, Woodchip

Verdict: Great for locals or bird watchers.

Spencer Island Bridge

The jacknife bridge heading out to Spencer Island. Photo by HikeOfTheWeek.com

The actual Spencer Island trail is a short soft-surface lollipop hike on an island in the Snohomish River estuary, just east of Everett. We parked along the river and ran the multi-use paved Langus Riverfront Trail two miles then crossed a small pedestrian bridge to the island. The trail simply loops around the southern tip of Spencer Island, winding along cattails and making its way back across the island on a levee. There’s some nice viewpoints for you to see the Cascades and plenty of egrets and herons to spot (and the odd turtle or two). We were there to get a workout in so no photos. I doubt we’d ever return, as there’s just too many options closer to home.

Skykomish River Valley

While the upper elevation trails slowly melted out from their winter burial, we made a few trips to the western slope of Stevens  Pass, for a fewer mid-elevation hikes to alpine lakes.

Greider Lakes (Hike #12)

Distance: 8.6 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Steep, crowded, but a worthy hike to a scenic lake.

Boulder Lake (Hike #13)

Distance: 13.8 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Overgrown, un-maintained, and technically closed, but the prettier of the two lakes.

Boulder Creek Bridge

Kristin crossing the technically-closed, hope-it-doesn’t-collapse Boulder Creek Bridge.

We combined these two hikes into one lengthy trail run of about 19 miles or so. It made for a long day, especially since the Boulder Lake trail is technically closed. The bridge across Boulder Creek had been blocked off, the decking and railings removed, and the trail beyond it in a complete state of abandon. Nevertheless, after much hemming and hawing on the banks of the impassable creek, we decided to risk it. Though Boulder Lake was certainly a worthy destination, it wasn’t worth the miles of rock, blowdown, and overgrown trail we had to deal with to reach it. Doing Greider Lake after Boulder Lake was a test of mental and physical endurance. And patience — there’s an awful lot of people that hike to Greider Lake. A nice hike, but there are better nearby, such as…

Bridal Veil Falls & Serene Lake (Hike #16)

Distance: 9 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A must-do early summer hike.

Lake Serene

Lake Serene has to be one of the most beautiful, lower elevation alpine lakes in western WA.

This was another combo hike that we decided to “run” that could actually be done separately. The mountains around here are filled with beautiful cliff-ringed, snow-fed alpine lakes, but Lake Serene was absolutely one of our favorites. Getting there isn’t easy. The climb up to the lake gets incredibly steep and is mainly a staircase for a mile long stretch that climbs nearly a thousand feet in that span. One thing to be sure, there will be ample two- and four-legged companions to keep you company. This hike is very popular. But for good reason. Fortunately, many people choose to go only as far as the waterfall. We hit the lake first, passing the base of the falls on our way, and then detoured up to the top of the falls (you can practically walk out over the edge… and chance death if you’d like) on the return. The climb to the top of the falls is another half-mile, very steep trail, but the falls are quite pretty. I do believe Lake Serene and Bridal Veil Falls will become an annual hike for us going forward.

Wenatchee River Valley

I flew home from Vancouver, BC on a Friday night, packed my gear, and drove out to Leavenworth an hour later so we could finally, after 14 years in the PNW, complete one of the most beautiful hikes in the region. The following two entries make up the two ends of the traverse, but miss the best part in my opinion.

Snow Lakes (Hike #56)

Distance: 13 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Unless you’re descending from the Enchantments, do Colchuck instead.

Colchuck Lake (Hike #57)

Distance: 8.4 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Absolutely worth doing, even just as an out-and-back.

Colchuck Lake

Looking across Colchuck Lake towards Aasgard Pass and the way up into the Enchantments.

Our 20-mile traverse began with a hike up to Colchuck Lake. It’s not a particularly challenging hike and the lake offers excellent swimming opportunities, ample (permit-only) backcountry camping, and a gentle descent back to the trailhead. It’s absolutely worth doing as a day-hike, even if you don’t intend to climb Aasgard Pass and do the traverse. The other end of that traverse descends from Snow Lakes. I would NEVER hike up that trail unless I was training to climb Mt. Rainier. Let me put it this way: I hated descending from Snow Lakes. It’s very steep (roughly 4,000 feet in six miles) and can be annoyingly rocky in spots. Now, this isn’t to say that the Snow Lakes area isn’t very pretty. It is. But you will never catch me coming up from that direction. Given that Colchuck (and several others) are just a little further up Icicle Creek road, I don’t know why you’d use this for a day-hike.

Blewett Pass

Of all the hikes we’ve been doing from this book, the Blewett Pass trails are probably the closest to our home. They’re also unique in that , though east of the mountains, they still have that rugged Cascade mountain feel we west-siders expect, but with drier conditions.

Ingalls Creek (Hike #116)

Distance: 11 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Not unless you really enjoy climbing over fallen trees.

Sherpa Peak

The view of Sherpa Peak from Ingalls Creek trail.

We hiked several miles of the Ingalls Creek trail during our overnight hike in the Teanaway Valley, hiking the section from Cascade Creek to Fourth Creek. I cannot begin to tell you how many dozens (hundreds?) of blowdowns we had to climb over. The Ingalls Creek trail runs along the namesake creek, at the base of the south side of the Enchantments. It’s a very pretty hike, particularly as recent forest fires have yielded clearer views at Sherpa Peak and the Stuart Range due north of the trail, but it appears to get very little attention from volunteer groups or the Forest Service. Trip reports on sites like WTA.org suggest that few hikers continue up the trail beyond Falls Creek (downstream of where we were).

Naneum Meadow (Hike #119)

Distance: 7 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A pretty meadow, but a rough drive.

Mount Lillian (Hike #120)

Distance: 7.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail, Double-Track

Verdict: Great views across to the Stuart Range, fun geology.

Mount Lillian hoodoos

Kristin running past the hoodoos near Mount Lillian.

We combined these two routes in a 13-mile loop that proved a bit too rocky, loose, and steep for us to run much of. But it was totally worth it, despite me bonking halfway through worst than I had in years. The Mount Lillian area offers great views across to the Stuart Range and snow-capped mountains, all while switchbacking your way past sandstone hoodoos and other geologic oddities. I can’t say the portion of the trail connecting Naneum Meadow with Mount Lillian was terribly fun to run, but it was scenic, even with the scars of wildfire evident everywhere. You’ll actually pass several meadows in this area and the chance of spotting elk is always present. As is finding some morel mushrooms if you got in May. Some of the trails have been torn up a bit from moto usage (quads and dirt bikes) but the area sees very little use on account of the rough forest roads one has to navigate to reach the trailhead. We actually flatted on the way back out, forcing me to put the spare tire on when we got onto pavement.

Wenatchee

I’ve mountain biked this next trail multiple times and always felt bad for never exposing Kristin to the beauty of the area. This year, after riding amongst the wildflowers with a large group of fellow mountain bikers, I returned with Kristin the following weekend and hit peak-bloom.

Sage Hills (Hike #122)

Distance: 10 miles

Surface: Sandy hillside trails.

Verdict: A must-do the third week of April.

balsam root

Sage Hills area covered in balsam root.

We skipped the book’s 5.5 mile route in favor of the ten-mile loop I mountain biked the prior weekend, making sure to climb all the way to the top of the area for the most wildflowers. A lot of us try to ride Sage Hills every April, but I had never seen the wildflowers blooming like they did when we went running. The fields were blanketed in balsam root, lupine, and indian paintrbrush, among others I forget the names of. And of course, the area smells of sage. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking a hike (a hilly one, mind you) along a yellow-painted hillside, then head to Wenatchee in mid-April and hike Sage Hills. It’s worth the 2+ hour drive from the Seattle area.

8 August, 2016

Traversing the Enchantments

I hadn’t seen a cairn in at least ten minutes. But there were boot tracks, and I knew we weren’t lost. The trail had to be down there somewhere. Still, this provided little comfort as I stared down a vertical cliff, wondering how we were going to descend from a ledge we shouldn’t have come to. We stepped and dropped and scrambled our way to what appeared to be a dead-end. Going down wasn’t an option; going back up the way we came was a task I’d rather not consider. As I grabbed the branch of an alpine larch for balance and swung around the cliff, trying not to look down and hoping Kristin could make the maneuver, it dawned on me that perhaps we shouldn’t have waited so long to do this hike.

For twelve years we’d been putting off this bucket-list hike. My, how it would have been easier when we were younger. Fitter.

For fourteen years we’ve lived a short two hours from one of the most beautiful hikes in Washington state, if not the entire country. And yet here we were, finally, for the first time. How many times have we pushed it off on account of me wanting to go mountain biking or Kristin going to visit family or one of us being on a business trip. Or because we didn’t have a permit or didn’t want to go without the dogs. The excuses were endless. I spent the last week in Vancouver, BC for work and only returned home Friday evening. We pulled into an overpriced Howard Johnson near the trailhead late Friday night after a short detour home so I could pack. And the only reason we did was because the motel was paid for, else we may have canceled again. Sometimes you just have to commit.

Trekking Aasgard Pass

The shuttle deposited us at the wrong trailhead, leaving us with an additional three-quarter mile walk up the road. None of us in the truck realized until the driver had already left. It served as a nice warm-up before the uphill hike to Colchuck Lake, a turquoise gem we had hiked to once before for an afternoon swim with a visiting cousin.  I remember then looking across the lake at the vertical granite wall known as Aasgard Pass and thrilling at the thought of finally, one of these days, cresting the pass and taking in the views of the Enchantment Basin beyond.

Colchuck Lake

Looking across Colchuck Lake to Aasgard Pass, left of Dragontail Peak.

Guidebook author Craig Romano has this to say about Aasgard Pass:

Beyond the lake, the way continues as a climber’s route to 7800-foot Aasgard Pass. Only experienced and extremely fit off-trail travelers should consider attempting this taxing and potentially dangerous climb involving 2200 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile.

Looking across the lake this time, knowing where we were headed, I was ecstatic. We were finally going to do it. But did it always look so steep? The closer we got to the start of the climb, the more the butterflies began to flutter. And the further the top seemed. I’m not sure what I expected, but the boulder fields and drifting piles of moondust made the going even slower than I had expected. Just getting around the lake to the beginning of the climb was an ordeal. Cairns (piles of rocks) marked a suggested route up the pass, but there is no trail nor one right way to go. Boot tracks can be found zigzagging across the scree slope in myriad directions. The climb was slow going, sketchy at times, and occasionally puzzling.

Aasgard Pass

Kristin roughly two-thirds of the way up Aasgard Pass.

Rock climbers scaled a nearby spire. Granite boulders the size of buses littered the hillside. Remnant fields of snow and trickles of meltwater added to the scenery and the challenge. This was alpine trekking like we had never experienced it before. And two hours after leaving the shores of Lake Colchuck, we reached the top. Two hours of one-foot-in-front-of-the-other toil brought us up the 40% grade.

And it was absolutely worth it.

Isolation Lake

Kristin tasting the rainbow in a slice of heaven.

The Enchantment Lakes Basin

Perched high atop a mountain-ringed plateau in central Washington lies the Enchantments. A basin home to some two-dozen turquoise lakes with names like Inspiration, Perfection, Tranquil, and Crystal, it is the crown jewel of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. And it was in danger of being loved to death. A permit system now regulates overnight stays in the area during the peak summer months — and permits can be very hard to get for those who don’t plan months in advance. Fortunately for those with the fitness (or misguided confidence), the 19-mile trek across the Enchantments from one end to the other can be done without a permit, provided you complete the route in a single day.

mountain goat

Mountain goat frolicking on the rocks near our lunch spot.

It is not a place one wants to hurry through. Dozens of sparkling lakes dot the landscape amid fields of snow and endless outcrops of glittery granite. We took a seat on the banks of Isolation Lake and alternated bites of our sandwiches with mouthfuls of Skittles and dried fruit, all the while snapping countless photos. The lakes, the mountains, the goats and the marmots. Every direction a new and interesting sight.

Enchantment Basin

A view from the trail into one of the lower lakes.

Being One with the Mountain Goats

Despite the lake’s name, we weren’t alone. There were some other hikers, for sure, but people tend to get pretty spread out in such a massive landscape. No, those lingering within earshot were not human. Mountain goats grazed mere yards away. A baby goat cried to its mama. Two nearby goats scampered along the rocks. Others walked ahead on the trail. I had missed a chance to photograph a mountain goat some fourteen years ago after nearly walking right into one on the McClellan Butte trail and I wasn’t going to miss my chance again. The mountain goats proved to be accommodating models.

Enchantment Basin

Three hikers heading in the opposite direction traverse the upper basin.

Though the majority of the elevation gain was behind us, we still had some twelve miles to go. We could have spent days soaking in the views, but we had to keep moving. The crossing typically takes between ten and twelve hours for those of similar ability and we wanted to avoid finishing in the dark (though we did have headlamps with us, just in case).

Enchantment Lakes

Kristin crossing a snow field in the upper Enchantments.

The thing we quickly realized about this hike is that the elevation profile is misleading. Sure, the route is primarily flat and then steeply downhill once you’re past Aasgard Pass, but the surface is highly technical. The eight miles through the basin and down towards Snow Lake are extremely rocky, dotted with lingering snow fields, and require periodic scrambling. The trekking poles we carried alternated between essential and hindrance, as we often needed to use our hands for grip on the too-steep terrain. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It is a major comfort knowing how capable Kristin is when it comes to outdoor travel. Yet, this route was pushing the limits of our comfort zone.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

These two goats were hanging out right on the trail, forcing us to swing around them.

 

Stay low and try not to fall.

Stay low and try not to fall.

Twelve miles and some eight hours into the hike, we were ready to have it over with. The views were amazing, we saw ample wildlife — marmots, chipmunks, and at least two dozen mountain goats — but the terrain soon wore us down. Eleven hours of walking on granite soon had our feet hot and sore. Blisters formed on my pinky toes, and the stress of worrying about our footing and the precarious nature of the trail exhausted our minds. We spent the final five miles descending some three thousand feet on aching feet and wondering when and if we’d ever do this again.

mountain goat follows hiker

This particular goat followed us for a while.

I can’t answer that. Not yet anyway. I’d like to think we’ll return again in the future for an overnight hike. After all, there is so much up there that we hadn’t seen yet. And I really can’t think of anywhere I’ve been that is more beautiful. The photos, as impressive as I think they came out, don’t do the place justice. The landscape is just too big, the colors too stark, to fit in these little images. But if I learned anything, I now know not to underestimate the difficulty of this hike. It’s far harder than its measurements suggest. 19 miles and 5000 feet of climbing may not sound that hard, but this trip took every bit of eleven hours to complete with a modest amount of down time. Chew on that before you tackle it. And then have a great time.

Some parts of the descent made for some interesting moments.

Some parts of the descent were more interesting than others.

 

Perfection Lake

Hiking alongside Perfection Lake before beginning the descent.

13 June, 2016

Backpacking the Teanaway Valley

If you were to ask me, interview style, what my biggest weakness is, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer. Not with my body aching as it does from sunburnt head to blistered toes. No, I would not pause in telling you that I often underestimate the challenge of my grand ideas. I don’t come up short, but the finish line is only reached through much pain and suffering along the way. I was acutely aware of this habit yesterday afternoon as we faced our final climb of an arduous weekend spent backpacking the Teanaway Valley. The climb, a 2.5 mile grunt climbing 2,200 feet up Bean Creek, was a stark reminder of how much easier these types of trips seem in the planning stages.

Equipped with a new 2-pound, two-person tent, one of the lightest and most compact on the market, we set off to explore one of the most picturesque areas of central Washington. The Teanaway Valley in Wenatchee National Forest is a place I’ve gone mountain biking numerous times over the years, and on some of these very trails, but never on foot, and never such a route. We began at the seldom-used Standup Creek trailhead, at the end of a steep dirt road featuring a dozen water bars that nearly damaged our car. We bottomed out on several of them on the way up and dug the front into a few more on the way back down. Fortunately, the car survived to deliver us to the overgrown, un-maintained Standup Creek trail (#1369). Up we went, hiking seemingly straight uphill at times. Four miles and three-thousand feet of elevation later, we reached our reward.

Standup Creek

Kristin atop the Standup Creek divide.

The descent into the adjacent drainage valley was covered in snow drifts, requiring some tricky route-finding. While Kristin can dance her petite frame across the drifts without care, I broke through on more than one occasion, plunging me groin-deep in snow. Fortunately, the east-facing slope only held snow above 5,600 feet and we were soon onto the Stafford Creek trail (#1359) and climbing again. The upper Teanaway Valley features a ridge that runs east-west at roughly 6,200 feet above sea level. Either side of this ridge is fluted with a number of drainages, V-shaped valleys that tumble down into the main creek on either side. On the south side, that’s the Teanaway River, to the north it’s Ingalls Creek. There is no flat land in this area. To hike it is to commit yourself to rising and falling in and out of these various drainage valleys. But the view of the Stuart Mountain Range to the north makes it all worth it.

Stuart Range

The view of the Stuart Range, looking north from the County Line Trail atop Stafford Creek.

Forest fire swept through the Ingalls Creek side of the ridge several years ago and many of the trails that descend this lesser-visited area have been left to return to nature. Oh, they’re still on the maps, but carry the warning: “Trail overgrown, hard to find.” Dropping off the north side of the County Line ridge, between Navaho Peak and Iron Peak, are several of these hard-to-follow trails. We sat atop the ridge, enjoying the view of the Stuart Range while eating our tinfoil-wrapped sandwiches, and decided to go for it. The upper reaches of the Cascade Creek trail (#1217)  was buried in snow, but the map showed a dashed line staying just left of the creek. If we skirt the snow to the left, and double back towards the creek, we should intersect the remnants of the trail. Or so we thought.

Cascade Creek trail.

Descending the Cascade Creek drainage from Navaho Pass. One of the few areas we weren’t pushing through brush.

In reality, the trail is gone. Completely. There are also several creeks, cliffs, and a jumble of fallen trees littering this scarily-steep valley that made this descent one of the most arduous things either of us have ever done on two feet. The trail, just 2.4 miles in length, descending some 2,400 feet in elevation, shouldn’t have taken more than 40 minutes to descend. If the trail was a thing. It was not. Instead, we spent 3 hours bushwhacking our way down the Cascade Creek drainage. We stumbled across the remnants of the trail on several occasions, only to have it disappear under a tangle of fallen trees and adolescent alders steps later. Visibility was seldom more than twenty feet as the spring growth was borderline impenetrable. Three nervous hours of treacherous descending only to be met with the roaring waters of Ingalls Creek. Clinging to the banks, and dancing from one rock to the next in hope of a  reasonably dry crossing, we saw our hope evaporating. Screw it. Planting my trekking poles with all my might to brace against the current, I waded out into the water. I have no idea what voodoo magic my newly-purchased hiking pants had been enchanted with, but they did an astoundingly good job of repelling the frigid water as it raced around my knees and thighs. Kristin, some eight inches shorter than me, followed next and managed to step so the water never crested her thighs. We scrambled out of Ingalls Creek on the north bank, intercepted the Ingalls Creek trail (#1215) and found an empty campsite mere steps away. Incredibly, it was the campsite marked on the map that I had hoped to find.

Cascade Creek trail.

Bushwhacking the Cascade Creek trail… or what’s left of it.

We pitched camp, made a fire, put our boots and socks too close to said fire, and piled into our rather snug tent at 8:30, exhausted. We woke several times due to the cold, but otherwise slept straight through the night until after 8 a.m. Eleven hours of sleep should have been enough rest, but day two proved harder still.

campsite

Our campsite at the intersection of the Ingalls Creek and Cascade Creek trails.

There was an unspeakable dread lingering over our camp as we had our granola and coffee: the fear that the uphill climb out of the Ingalls Creek area was going to be as difficult as our descent into it was. Fortunately, the trail we were to take back to the south didn’t bear the “trail overgrown, hard to find” warning. It was also marked as being open to equestrians so, in theory, it should be a bit more well trodden. And it was. Our climb up Fourth Creek (#1219) was an enjoyable, scenic several miles that climbed relatively gently compared to the steep ascents of the prior day (and of those to come). Unfortunately, the easy three miles we anticipated along Ingalls Creek were anything but. The forest fire had left the area a maze of pick-up-sticks. And this being part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (note the capital “W”), trail maintenance can be done with hand tools only. No chainsaws allowed in Wilderness. So, for three miles, we climbed over, under, and around countless fallen trees that aren’t likely to be cleared anytime soon. No wonder we didn’t have to compete for a backcountry campsite: few people make it more than a few miles up the Ingalls Creek trail!

Sherpa Peak

The view of Sherpa Peak from the Ingalls Creek trail.

Our re-crossing of Ingalls Creek three miles upstream (and past several tributaries) was far easier. The cold night had also brought the flow rate down a bit — rivers run highest in the mid afternoon after the sun had all day to melt more snow. We were able to cross without the water lapping above our knees. Which, since we had another 12 miles to go, was nice.

Ingalls Creek

Crossing Ingalls Creek at the base of Fourth Creek.

From Fourth Creek we descended the Beverly Creek trail (#1391), took a deep breath, and turned up the Bean Creek trail (#1391.1). We were spent. The blisters on my heel had torn free, the skin flapping around under my socks. The heat of the day and the weight of our packs had begun to take its toll. I so wanted to be done. Kristin, forever steady, just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and urged us on. Conversation soon shifted to the plate of ribs we would enjoy back in Cle Elum, once we got to town. And, before long, we were cresting the Bean Creek divide and about to descend into the Standup Creek drainage, ready to complete our lollipop route with a 4-mile descent back to the car. We ran into another couple enjoying the view from atop the divide. They had done a similar overnight hike, minus the descent to Ingalls Creek. They too spent 3 hours bushwhacking along a portion of forgotten County Line trail. Mutual badassery was agreed-upon.

Beverly Creek.

Enjoying a gentle descent down the Beverly Creek trail.

Our hike was ultimately just 25.4 miles according to our GPS, but included 8,750 feet of elevation gain. That’s a whole lot of climbing for such a short distance. Too much if you ask me. This was a beautiful place to go hiking, but I can’t say I’d ever do this route again. There’s no reason to drop down to the Ingalls Creek side of the ridge again, least of all on any of the overgrown trails that should, in all honesty, probably be removed from the registry, erased from the maps, and left to revert to nature. It would be far too easy for someone less experienced and less fit to get in a very bad predicament attempting the descent down Cascade Creek. The sign atop the County Line ridge pointing to where the trail used to be is only tempting fate. But, for those who want an adventure, a physical test, and are looking to surround themselves with tremendous views and few people, this is a route worth considering. We only encountered other hikers on Stafford Creek and Bean Creek trails. Otherwise, we saw nobody. It was just us, the mountains, and our thoughts.

Our route and elevation profile for those familiar with the area.

Our route and elevation profile for those familiar with the area.

12 April, 2016

Day-Hiking the Central Cascades #1

Long before embarking on a two year cycling odyssey, prior to our amassing a stable of nine different bicycles (now only three), and before my love affair with mountain biking, we were hikers. Kristin and I stole away whenever we could during our college years to go backpacking. It wasn’t easy with my Saturdays being spent with the track team, not to mention our studies, but the Appalachian Trail ran just twenty miles from our campus in eastern Pennsylvania and we took advantage of it as often as we could. It wasn’t long before we had sectioned nearly 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail, biting off scenic chunks in North Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, and, of course, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, our stomping grounds.

Hiking gave way to mountain biking and trail running over the years, but something unexpected happened after our bike tour: I wanted to go hiking. It wasn’t that I was tired of cycling — I’ve been mountain biking three to four times a week lately — but something else entirely. Something unexpected.

I missed our time together.

Spending 21 months with someone, virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week without interruption, can be a lot to get used to. It was. There were days we now joke about, in which we simply wanted to go eight hours without seeing one another. Please! The best birthday gift she ever gave me was a half-day of freedom to wander Paris without her. And for her without me.

We had our moments when we argued and yelled and occasionally cursed at one another (usually on a really hilly ride in hundred-degree heat or intense cold and freezing rain) and this excessive amount of togetherness is often the first thing married couples ask us about when they learn of our trip. But for every bit as challenging as that was, it’s been equally difficult readjusting to the opposite: seeing that same person for just a few hours each night is no longer enough.

Enter hiking. We picked up a copy of Craig Romano’s Day Hiking Central Cascades book, an excellent guidebook containing maps and directions and information for 125 different day hikes stretching from Whidbey Island to the town of Wenatchee and north to Chelan, essentially, a slightly north-of-center tract across the state from the coast to just east of the mountains, in apple country. I have a bin filled with dozens of trail maps for all over the state, but my knowledge of the trails along Highway 2 is comparatively lacking, given that we have always lived along I-90, the other major east-west route in western Washington.

Most of the really good hikes in Washington are buried under snow for seven months of the year, which raises another reason for buying this book: it contains a number of lowland and island hikes, many we hadn’t done before (much of our exploration has tended to be where it is legal to mountain bike). So we started going hiking — and sometimes trail running — once every weekend with that thought that it would be nice to check off each of the hikes in this book in a calendar year. We’ve done a couple of two-a-days and even spent a weekend away on Whidbey Island in which we hiked four separate trails in the book. Some are quite short, but we hope to be able to link together several of the trails into longer loops as the weather improves and the snow melts.

Below are some thoughts on the day hikes we’ve done so far, along with recommendations for those we feel are worth doing. The conversations we have and the dreams and plans we share during those hikes will remain private. For now…

Whidbey Island

Normally when we go to Whidbey Island it’s to go mountain biking and trail running at Fort Ebey State Park or to gawk at the bridge at Deception Pass. These other hikes were a first for us.

Double Bluff (Hike #1)

Distance: 4 miles

Surface: Sand and Gravel Beach

Verdict: Best left to the local dog walkers.

Double Bluff Whidbey Island

The rocky far end of the Double Bluff beach walk.

The hike is a flat four-mile hike (out and back) along the beach. It’s a fine hike for locals and very popular with dog owners as the dogs can safely run off-leash at the base of a bluff, but I wouldn’t make a point of walking this route again, given the nicer walk at Ebey’s Landing. That said, the beach at Double Bluff has better footing than the one at Ebey Landing so those with walking difficulty should consider it. It is scenic, just not as scenic as some of the others.

South Whidbey State Park (Hike #2)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path

Verdict: Do it for the old-growth.

western red cedar old growth

Western Red Cedar over 500 years old and saved from logging in the 70s by a couple of literal “tree huggers”.

This short hike on the inland side of the road loops past several amazing old-growth trees, including a Western Red Cedar over 500 years old. It can be muddy in spots (we were there in February) and the walk through the upland part of the park is along an old wagon road with younger alder trees and not entirely worth the effort, but it is a nice, small park with a very attractive forest.

Greenbank Farm (Hike #3)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path & Grassland

Verdict: Worth a visit while you wait for the galleries to open.

Greenbank farm.

View of the farm and bay from the grassy ridge.

A network of trails looping through the forest and across the grassy ridge provide a nice place to take a stroll before or after your visit to the galleries and cafe at the Greenbank Farm complex. Views of the water and an opportunity for off-leash dog play are abundant. The forest isn’t particularly pretty, but the grassy area is quite nice. It’s worth stopping, even if only to stretch your legs.

Ebey’s Landing (Hike #4)

Distance: 5.6 miles

Surface: Sandy Trail and Gravel Beach

Verdict: Arguably the best hike on Whidbey Island!

Ebey's Landing

Kristin along the bluff at Ebey’s Landing.

If we were to do this hike again, we wouldn’t bother descending to the beach as the cobble/gravel surface made for a very unpleasant 2.5 mile return trip. Instead, we’d simply stay on the bluff where the trail begins. Follow the bluff northward for wonderful views of the beach below and the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound. Combine this hike with a trip to Coupeville for lunch!

Goose Rock (Hike #5)

Distance: 2.5 miles

Surface: Hilly Forest Path

Verdict: Worth the effort!

Goose Rock trail.

The steep path up Goose Rock near Deception Pass.

The climb up to the bridge provides some great views of Deception Pass and the forested trail that loops around — and then over — Goose Rock is very scenic. The switchbacks up to Goose Rock are steep (400 foot climb in 0.4 miles), but the views are worth the effort. It was quite windy and cold atop Goose Rock when we went in March so bring a coat if you want to linger.

Hoypus Point (Hike #6)

Distance: 3 miles

Surface: Forest Path & Paved Trail

Verdict: If you’re in the area…

View of Deception pass.

Looking across to Goose Rock from Hoypus Point Trail.

The closed-to-vehicles paved path that heads to Hoypus Point is a lovely mile-long trail offers plenty of majestic trees, waterfront views, and benches to enjoy. The trail that loops through the forest was exceedingly muddy in spots and relatively forgettable, save for a few areas of larger second-growth trees and towering firs and cedars.

Skykomish River Valley

We’ve never done any hiking along Highway 2 west of Steven’s Pass before. We were happy to have this guidebook motivate us to check it out.

Wallace Falls (Hike #14)

Distance: 5.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: Exceptionally beautiful falls, but very crowded

Wallace Lake (Hike #15)

Distance: 5.5 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: A pleasant hike without the crowds

Wallace Falls.

Wallace Falls is certainly worth the effort (and the crowds).

We combined Wallace Falls and Wallace Lake into a single 10+ mile hike. We chose to do this on a cloudy day in early March when the falls were at their most impressive. Several hundred other people chose to do the same. It was quite surprising how crowded the trail was given the steepness of the terrain, but the view of the falls more than makes up for the extra people. As crowded as the hike to the falls was, the hike to the lake on the Greg Ball trail was every bit as empty. We enjoyed a very peaceful walk through a beautiful forest en route to the lake, only to have the rain start when we got there. These two hikes can be looped with a road, but we did them as a “Y”. Both are worth doing, but next time I’d go during mid-week.

Wenatchee River Valley

We did these next two in a single day and then went to Leavenworth for lunch and some light shopping.

Tumwater Pipeline Trail (Hike #52)

Distance: 2.4 miles

Surface: Forest Trail

Verdict: If you’re in the area…

This trail offers excellent views of the Wenatchee River and, in the spring, you’ll be able to watch some of the area kayakers having a blast in the meltwater. The trail crosses a water-logged bridge and then follows a rocky path along the side of a hill upstream for about a mile before seemingly petering out. It’s popular with dog walkers and those looking to stretch their legs before driving home.

Wenatchee River in spring.

Wenatchee River from the Tumwater Pipeline Trail, just beyond the bridge.

Peshastin Pinnacles (Hike #53)

Distance: 1.5 miles

Surface: Sandy hillside

Verdict: Leave it to the climbers

Peshastin Pinnacles outside of Cashmere is a postage-stamp of a park with several towering sandstone outcrops that are very popular with rock climbers. The trails that wind around the pinnacles are very steep, sandy, and not enjoyable to hike on. To be honest, I have no idea why this is even in the guidebook.

Peshastin Pinnacles

Peshastin Pinnacles are scenic, but not great for hiking.

4 April, 2016

Top 10 Favorite Photos

I set an impossible task for myself. While assembling a collage poster for our home, I thought it would be worthwhile to put together a list of my Top 10 favorite photos from our trip. That I took over 22,000 photos during our travels wasn’t of concern, as I had deleted a large percentage of them. I figured I’d pick out my favorite fifty or so for the poster, knowing already which ones were likely to make the cut, and then narrow those 50 or so down to a Top 10 for the purposes of this blog post. What better bicycle touring inspiration than that?

So I went through my collection of meticulously-organized photos and Alt-C’d the best of the bunch to a new folder in preparation for designing the collage. Wouldn’t you know it, but 261 made that initial cut.

Problem.

Photos from our travels stand out on many levels. Some for the technical quality of the image, others for the people in them, and yet others for the day or moment they remind us of. We wanted the collage to contain the best photos, but also the lighter moments and the group photos and the emotional reminders of the roller coaster journey we were on. But even on a 24×36-inch poster, 261 was far too many if I wanted to be able to enjoy the images sans magnifying glass. I managed to cull the herd to 109 photos.

With the collage poster off to the printer, it was time to narrow those 109 images down to the 10 finalists. Kristin suggested we do multiple categories and, instead of a Top 10 list, do multiple Top 5 lists. It’s a great idea. One we may do in the future, but not today. Today is about picking those 10 best shots.

109 became 37 which became 17 which soon became 13 which eventually got whittled down to the the 10 photos I’m including here. Dedicated readers will no doubt recognize these photos as I’m pretty sure all of them had been featured in blog posts and on Flickr, if not also on Facebook. I arrived at these Top 10 by focusing on the technical quality of the photo and the sheer impact value of the image. For every one of the thousands of photos I returned home with, I asked myself one simple question: Is this one of the most visually stunning photos we took?

And yes, I do mean we. Kristin took two of the photos in the top 10, one a relatively lucky snapshot with her camera and another in which she was serving as my human tripod for a tricky self-photo. On to the photos!

North America

Couldn't stop photographing the beautiful birch forest surrounding the Mesabi Trail (when not winding around the world's largest open-pit iron mines).

Minnesota, USA: I really like the contrast of the blue sky and the white birch along the Mesabi Trail with the bright panniers.

 

A river had flooded the trail and it was only after the water rose above the panniers and I noticed fish swimming past me that I turned around. Kristin took this from dry land after I managed to turn around.

Quebec, Canada: Rather than follow me across the flooded trail, Kristin grabbed her camera and took this photo right after I turned around.

 

Europe

The view looking down from below the crest of the pass as Kristin climbs the final quarter mile.

United Kingdom: Looking down Kirkstone Pass in the Lake District as Kristin makes her way up the 20% grade.

 

Though we arrived under threatening skies, we left with gorgeous sunshine.

France: The rain stopped and we were able to set the tripod up for a photo as we left Mont St. Michel, the island monastery in northern France.

 

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Italy: It looks wet and cold and not a small bit spooky, but this ride through the mountains of Tuscany was one of my favorite wet-weather days on the bike.

 

The view we encountered on the walk back to our tent after a lovely dinner in picturesque Barrea.

Italy: The view we encountered on the walk back to our tent after a lovely dinner in picturesque Barrea. The last of the major climbing days in the Abruzzo region was finally behind us.

 

Gorgeous riding along the coast on the day we rode to Athens.

Greece: There were plenty of other photos from Greece that might be more impactful because of the colors, but I really like the layers in this photo and how small Kristin appears in the landscape.

Africa

Kristin nearing Erg Chibbi and the mighty dunes east of Merzouga.

Morocco: The end of the pavement in Morocco, on the doorstep to the Sahara Desert. Our final 25 miles in Morocco were through sand and gravel en route to Erg Chibbi and the mighty dunes east of Merzouga.

 

Asia

Flying east into the sun.

Turkey: Our pre-dawn hot air balloon flight over Cappadocia was one of our favorite off-the-bike moments of our entire trip.

 

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Japan: The snow had melted, but it didn’t stop the Japanese Macaques from taking to the hot springs at Jigokudani Monkey Park. This particular monkey impressed us with his zen gaze.

 

I’ve got another blog post coming soon, filled with photos you haven’t seen yet! We’ve been getting a fair bit of early-season hiking in and even got out on our snowshoes this past weekend. And the views have been great! We look forward to sharing some of these outings with you soon. Thanks for reading, as always.

5 January, 2016

Fill a Basket of Travel Dreams

Our touring bikes remain nestled inside the shipping boxes in the garage. We’ve swapped out our merino wool wardrobes; Kristin for an assortment of business attire, me for denim and fleece. We no longer stream pixelated movies on a thirteen-inch laptop, but now chomp our popcorn in front of 65-inches of magic that we first saw at the Sony showroom in Tokyo. I’m sitting at a table that we actually own. Things have indeed changed.

We’ve only been home for three weeks—days spent on what has felt, at times, to be one endless shopping trip—but the calendar once again hangs thick from the hook and begs the question: Where are you going to travel this year?

Map with Question Marks

If you’re like a lot of people, there are plenty of places you want to go and things you’d like to do, but maybe you struggle deciding the where, when, and how of it all. How do you decide?

Thanks to an idea I dreamed up while we were in Bali, we have an answer to that question. But where we’re going in 2016 is irrelevant. It’s how we decided that I want to share with you today!

Step 1: List Your Dreams

One of the lessons we learned early on when planning our bicycle trip was that no matter how many lines you draw across a map, you’ll never see it all. Though we returned home having toured over twenty countries, there are still countless places and activities we’d like to experience. Actually, it’s not countless. The number is 104. I know this because of the Travel Basket.

Dreams of an around-the-world tour is something that, for most people, will always remain a dream. But how about forgetting the world as a whole and just focusing on all of the places you really fancy going? Smaller trips you can customize to fit your own desire, comfort level, financial situation, and vacation allowance?

I’ve always hated the phrase “bucket list” (the term’s usage has largely diminished since the movie, thankfully), but we often hear people use that phrase when describing the things they hope to do and accomplish before dying. But how many people have actually put together such a list?

Why not?

The first step in putting together the Travel Basket is to make a list of all the places you’d like to go. I recommend doing this in a spreadsheet program so that you can easily sort by country. Go ahead and put one column for the continent, one for the country, and another for the specific sites/activities/region you wish to visit. This third column is key because it helps you be specific and offer some guidance in the future.

A sample from our travel wishlist, sorted by country. A fourth unseen column contains specific details and personal notes to be referred back to for planning purposes.

A sample portion from our travel wishlist, sorted by country. Note the multiple entries for different regions in China. A fourth unseen column contains specific details and personal notes to be referred back to for planning purposes.

We created a preliminary list just off the tops of our heads and from panning around Google Maps, but then we fine-tuned it and added plenty of detail by paging through a couple of travel-inspiration books such as “Journeys of a Lifetime” and “100 Countries, 5000 Ideas”. We also queried our Facebook followers for ideas. Large countries like the United States, China, India, and Australia ended up getting multiple entries each. We also combined some countries into a single entry, knowing they could be visited in one trip.

What you put onto this list is purely up to you and could be as specific as you wish. For example, one of our entries is a very specific trek in the Swiss Alps known as the Tour du Mont Blanc (as recommended by a FB follower), but we have other entries that are no more specific than saying “beaches, landmarks, cities.” Though it’s good to get specific in this stage to help you manage larger countries and specific activities, feel free to put “general touring” down for some of the smaller countries. Remember, you’ll have plenty of time to plan later.

Also, it’s important to note that you don’t have to include far-flung destinations and outrageous expeditions. Maybe there’s a museum nearby that you just really haven’t gotten around to visiting, or perhaps you’ve always wanted to just once live it up for a weekend in the city you commute to. This is about your lists of desires and dreams. There are no wrong answers; only a tool to help you start checking off items on your life’s wish list.

Step 2: Get Crafty

The second step is your chance to embrace your artistic talents and go as fancy as you wish… or not. Crayons and construction paper is perfectly acceptable. Anyway, the goal now is to write each of those entries in your spreadsheet down on a separate strip of paper.

We stopped by a Japanese bookstore in Seattle and picked up five sheets of handmade decorative washi and a couple of colored markers. We cut each sheet of paper into two dozen strips of paper long enough to have each country’s name and activity written on them nice and large.

Kristin carefully cutting the paper into long strips.

Kristin carefully cutting the paper into long strips.

We didn’t want the entries to be visible so we folded each one lengthwise twice and then tied the strip in a knot, much like the paper prayers get tied onto tree branches and twine at the temples in Japan. Folding the paper twice not only helps conceal the entry, but also adds enough strength so that you won’t tear it when tying the knot. Nevertheless, be careful when tightening the knot. I generally stopped as soon as the paper started to bind, at which point I just creased the knot and smoothed it out firmly against the table.

Folding each finished travel wish twice lengthwise, then tying them each into small knots.

Folding each finished travel wish twice lengthwise, then tying them each into small knots.

When done you should have a pile of knotted strips of paper, each containing a different item on your travel wish list. As I mentioned earlier, we ended up with 104 entries. I’m sure we could have had dozens more, but it felt right to stop around one hundred. That and we were starting to run out of paper.

Step 3: Fill A Basket

These pieces of paper are now the physical embodiment of your travel dreams and wishes. That’s pretty special stuff. Far too special for a mere bucket. Find yourself a nice vessel to put your travel wishes in, whether it be a basket, a box, or something else entirely. Consider finding something with some room for additional pieces of paper to be added, that’s decorative enough to display in your home and feels worthy of the task it will be given. Think long term.

The couple that owned the house we rented in Bali also owned a bead shop in which the wife sold all of her handmade belts, jewelry boxes, and baskets. We bought a large basket with a matching lid from her specifically to house our travel wishes. It doesn’t matter where your basket comes from, but make sure that it’s something that you won’t mind looking at for years to come, as glancing at the basket and being inspired by the promise it holds is half the fun.

A pile of 104 travel wishes, ready for the Travel Basket.

A pile of 104 travel wishes, ready for the Travel Basket.

Once you have your basket, mix up all of the paper wishes so that there’s no possible way for you to know which one is which and place them into the basket. Go ahead and give it a good shake too, just to be on the safe side.

Step 4: Let Fate Decide

We’ve all heard the stories about people taking a backpack to the airport and getting on the first international flight they can find a seat on. I used to find that idea intoxicating, but I know that’s not really our style. We’ve learned to not over-plan our trips and to not try to cram too much in, but I also like having at least some time to prepare a basic itinerary.

So what if there was a way to combine the two? A way to blend the random spontaneity of going to the airport, bag-in-hand, and the need to have some time to plan? The Travel Basket is the answer.

Kristin reached in and drew the winning destination for 2016.

Kristin reached in and drew the winning destination for 2016.

Before going to bed on New Year’s night, Kristin gave the basket one final shake, took off the lid, turned her head, and drew our 2016 Travel Destination.

When I mentioned to a friend that there were a couple of entries in the basket that we would have had a really hard time pulling off this year—a cruise to Antarctica and a ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway being two of the more time-consuming, costly adventures—he suggested we draw two or three and then decide which makes sense. That’s one idea. After all, we all have to face the reality that “life’s dreams” can’t always be accommodated by “present circumstance”. Fortunately, Kristin didn’t draw either of those entries. Else we would have taken a mulligan and I would have drawn an alternate location.

Aside from running out of paper, the other reason that we stopped at 104 was because we were becoming acutely aware that every additional wish reduced the chances of us drawing one of the ones we were most excited about. There was some talk about only including thirty or forty wishes for this reason. After all, if we only draw one per year, and we’re already 40 years old… you get where this is going.

We didn’t stop with just a few dozen wishes though. And the reason is because we know surprises lurk in all corners. Sure, a visit to the Baltic States might not be on par with a canoe trip down the Zambezi River, but we wanted that chance to be pleasantly surprised. And we wanted to stay true to the idea of this being a random draw of (almost) anywhere in the world.

2016 and Beyond

So Kristin reached into that basket of 104 knotted strips of paper and drew “Portugal and the Azore Islands” for our 2016 travel destination. It was a great pick! Portugal was on our original cycling route, but we ended up heading straight across Spain from north to south due to winter’s approach and the threat of snow in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. So here’s our chance to rectify that missed opportunity, albeit likely without the bicycles. Portugal is also a trip we could pull off given the limitations of American vacation allowances. To be honest, I had my fingers crossed in hopes that she’d draw something even closer to home, that we can drive to perhaps, if only just this once. A road trip to Crater Lake, Redwoods National Park, and Lake Tahoe would have been ideal. Oh well, at least it wasn’t Antarctica.

Maybe in 2018.

Portugal Sights: Photo from www.alltravelersjourney.com

That wasn’t a typo. Our hope/plan, subject to change as always, is to do a trip back to Japan every other year and draw from the travel basket on even-numbered years. Maybe in the future, when we’re older and have more time we’ll be in a position to draw from the basket every year or even twice a year, but for now, the basket is going to be in play every other year. And that’s fine for us.

The Azores: Photo from www.portugal.com.

The Azores: Photo from www.portugal.com

We heard so many of you tell us that our cycling trip inspired you to think about doing your own long-term travel. Others said they knew they couldn’t do what we did; that they had to live vicariously through us. It’s our hope that this new adventure—the Travel Basket—not only inspires, but gives everyone who reads this a tool for tackling their life’s wishes. Don’t be paralyzed by the decision: let the random hand of fate decide for you.

PS: Be sure to save the spreadsheet so you can check the contents of the basket whenever a new idea hits you. Stuff the basket with duplicate entries if you wish, but we recommend using the spreadsheet to ensure you don’t inadvertently add the same wish twice.