A Travellerspoint blog

May 2012

Denali's Backcountry

The Denali Experience, Into the Wilderness, Igloo Mountain, Mountain Grandeur, The Front Country

semi-overcast 49 °F

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Denali is a wild place. In the past week, I have spent time in Denali’s front country, the area of the park near the entrance, and two days in the wilderness that is Denali’s backcountry. While not in the park, I have been living in a hillside community of Denali workers. They are here to service the multitude of tourists that visit this park each summer. I am in a unique position, because though essentially I am a tourist, I am living with the summer community of amazing people that work in the Denali region.
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My position has allowed me to see both sides of the Denali experience. I’m free to explore the park as I will, unhampered by the need to work everyday. Because my nephew works here, I have been able to stay with him in the plywood shack that he calls home. The people that work here are a motley collection of folks from all around the world that are here to take in Denali, and make some money. When they aren’t working, they take advantage of their free time by hiking, white water rafting, going on a tour, and partying hard. Your liver gets a workout when you live up here in Denali.

The Denali Backcountry

Denali National Park is unique among our national parks because of its designation as a wilderness area. There are no trails in the backcountry. There are no easy paths to follow to your next campsite. If you choose to leave the comfort of the shuttle buses that take visitors into the park, you are on your own, and you had better know what you are doing. Denali’s backcountry is unforgiving. It is a hard land that is difficult to navigate, and people have died here.

That being said, the landscape is absolutely amazing. I am in awe, and I cannot believe that I’m finally here, ready to explore this amazing jewel of our national parks.

To gain access to the backcountry, I had to watch an informational video at the WAC (Wilderness Access Center) and fill out a free backcountry permit. Denali is broken into numbered sections, and in order to keep the park wild, the park service only allows a certain number of people into each section. As this was my first visit to the park, I didn’t really know where I wanted to go. After looking through the descriptions of the sections, I chose one to my liking. I exchanged forms with the clerk, and I was on my way. I purchased a ticket on shuttle bus into the park for the next morning, and I went back to the shack to pack for the adventure.

The next morning, I walked back to the WAC, where I would meet my shuttle into the park. I was tired, I had stayed up too late, hanging out with the hill people that I call neighbors. I yawned, sipped some coffee, and I checked my gear. I studied the topo map of the land near Igloo Mountain. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was on my way.
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The bus ride was somewhat lame. Granted, we saw some herds of caribou, a moose, a lynx (the first I had ever seen), among other animals, but the bus driver was a nitpicker for petty rules, “You HAVE to wear your seatbelt.” and my fellow passengers were pretentious, full of stupid questions, and mildly rude. I hate to be negative about my fellow men, but these were a bad lot. I was happy enough to ignore them and focus on the amazing scenery and wild animals all around me.

I saw long sweeping views of the snow capped mountains of the Alaska Range. The Alaska Range is home of Denali, the highest mountain in North America. The land is a mixture of taiga, spruce forest, swampy wetlands, wide braided and rocky rivers, arctic tundra, grassy highlands, foothills, and snow capped mountains. My words and photos cannot really do this place justice. Denali provides a vivid sensory overload that left me speechless.

The bus stopped and let me off at Igloo Creek. I was happy to be free of the bus, but as it pulled away, a twang of uncertainty rippled through me. I was about to walk into the Denali wild, and not one soul on this earth knew where I was, or knew where I was going. To tell the truth, I didn’t really know either.
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Igloo Mountain towered high above me, and I knew I had to decide which way I wanted to walk around it. I decided to scramble up to a rocky overlook and take stock of the landscape. On paper, the mountain looked approachable from any direction, but in reality, a lot of it looked impassable, and I did not want to have to turn around. From the high point, I had my first breath taking view of the Cathedral Mountains, and of the Teklanika River Valley. The Teklanika is the same river that stymied Alexander Supertramp’s escape back in the early nineties. I looked over the landscape, decided to try to walk around the mountain to the east, and backtracked back down into the spruce forest.

Having lived and worked in northern Minnesota for many years, I was quite comfortable walking through a boggy spruce forest. It was still a lot of hard work, as my heavy pack seemed to catch on the stiff branches of the brush. I worked my way around the mountain, eventually finding and following a moose trail. Moose, like elk, know where to walk. It made my hike a lot easier.
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As it turned out, I had chosen wisely, a long grassy taiga covered ridge led up a long ridge onto Igloo Mountain. Since I was only going for one night, I wanted to find a place that wasn’t too far into the wilderness. This ridge looked ideal. I wanted a good view, and I wanted a good campsite. I began to climb up the spongy taiga and loose gravel that took me higher and higher up onto the mountain.
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Eventually I made my way to the top of the ridge, and found a few promising campsites. I set down my pack, and grabbed my camera. The high ridge was dotted with pockets of beautiful wildflowers, and the view of the distant mountains was incredible. I did not expect wildflowers to be out this early in the mountain season, but I wasn’t complaining. I found three varieties, and I had fun putting them into focus.
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After eating lunch, I put on my rain gear and laid down on the dry spongy taiga. I was very comfortable, and I grew sleepy. The moss was perfect, and it wasn’t long before I passed out. I awoke to the gentle patter of rain on my rain gear. I sat up, rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and decided to have an early dinner. I walked to where I was keeping my food in the black bear proof container some distance from my campsite. I made a sandwich of peanut butter and honey, crunched some almonds, and ate the last of my beef jerky with a couple nips of red wine. I ate this wonderful meal, sitting on the bear barrel, as another rain squall passed over me. I was glad I had good rain gear.
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Mountain Grandeur
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After dinner, I started hiking up a ridge that looked like it would take me to the top of the mountain. I took only my small camera that fit easily into my pocket. The ridge was easy to follow, though it was steep, made up of loose scree, and wet from the rain. I was feeling good, energetic and moving fast. Then I found myself atop a twenty-foot high rock tower. It was made of very sharp rock, loose, and untrustworthy. I decided to climb down it instead of backtracking and finding a way around it. It wasn’t the smartest thing I have ever done, but using basic climbing techniques, and double checking my holds on the wet rock, I made my way down safely.
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From there, it was an easy trek. I followed the ridge higher and higher onto the shoulder of the mountain. Then I followed a Dahl sheep track across a steep open talus slope to the top of the mountain ridge. The rain had quit, and I had stripped down to my hiking gear. The thick clouds weakened and broke open in spots allowing the sun to shine through. The white light highlighted the mountains, and low clouds near the breaks. It was some of the most breathtaking mountain grandeur I had ever seen.
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To get to the very highest point, I had to walk a knife-edge of sharp rock. If I slipped, I would have fallen thirty feet on either side, before sliding down the mountain. This was a badass hike if I had ever seen one. I climbed the last twenty feet up a slippery rock face covered in wet grass, loose rock and mud.
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I summited. I sat down, and I soaked up the mountain views all around me. “My God,” I said aloud, then, waving my arms around me in every direction, “This IS my God.”
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I looked down on the pale ribbon of the Denali Park Road that wound through the zebra striped mountains of brown and white. It looked tiny in comparison to the immense landscape around it.

I was in awe. I keep saying this, but I was. The following poem came to mind, written by Chia Tao

Searching For the Hermit In Vain

The master has gone alone.
Herb picking, somewhere on the mount.
Cloud hidden, whereabouts unknown.

I love the last line. And that is exactly where I was.
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On my way down, I retraced my steps back down to the ridge. Instead of following it, I decided to put on my rain gear and try sliding down a snow slope that would take me down to my campsite. After one gentle push with my arms, I began to slide easily on the snow. Then, I began to slip faster and faster, more or less rocketing down this slope. I giggled, whooped and dug in my heels trying to slow down. I laughed all the way to bottom, where my weight caused me to dig into the soft wet snow near the edge of where snow met the grass.
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I thought about climbing up again for another ride, but instead walked back down to my camp. Another rainbow appeared, the third of the day. That’s when I named the ridge I was camped on, “Rainbow Ridge.”
I sat in the rain and enjoyed the rainbow. The clouds moved in, and it rained harder. I laughed. I drank the rest of my box of wine, and went to bed.

Front Country Scenes

The Denali front country has been very good to me as well. From visiting sled dogs, to shooting pool with my nephew and talking philosophy under an old railroad bridge, and long hikes up into the mountains. Denali has been amazing. These are just a few scenes from my first week.
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Posted by Rhombus 18:57 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes mountains snow parks flowers hiking alaska family denali poetry Comments (2)

Hitchhiking to Denali

Repacking at REI, The Generosity of Alaskans, and a Great Day of Hitchhiking.

sunny 62 °F

It had been over a decade since I had attempted to hitchhike. Back in college, a friend and I decided to hold a hitchhiking race to a distant town and back to our starting points, a distance of about seventy miles. The winner earned a free lunch. I don’t remember much about those happy times, but it was a lot of fun. I know I lost that race, but only by minutes.

On the advice of my nephew, I decided to attempt to hitchhike from Anchorage, Alaska up to Denali National Park, a distance of about 240 miles. As I packed my bags as compactly as possible the night before, I thought about the day ahead of me. I would fly from Sitka on the 6 am flight up to Anchorage. After a brief stop at REI, I would catch a cab out of town and begin hitchhiking north. It sounded reasonable.

My alarm went off at 4 am. My body revolted, but my mind carried me through, getting me into my clothes and down the stairs in time to catch my shuttle to the airport. The flights were smooth, and I landed in Anchorage at about 9am. As I attempted to put on my enormously heavy expedition backpack, the shoulder strap snapped and my pack fell to the floor with a resounding “BOOM!”

It was a good thing I had plans of going to REI. I took a cab there, told the cashier my predicament, and went in search of another backpack. On such short notice, I didn’t have time to do much research, but I found one to my liking. After making the purchase, I asked if I could repack everything in their back hallway. They were very helpful, and had no problem with me piling my crap all over their floor.
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After that, I called another cab, and took a ride outside of Eagle River. The cab driver let me out, and I walked across and interchange to the on ramp of the freeway. I set down my bags, pulled out my “DENALI” sign that I had made, and smiled. I was putting myself out in the stream of the universe, putting all of my trust into the hands of complete strangers. It was going to be a good day.

As I stood there, I decided to give my brother a call. I wanted to share my adventure, and he is a good guy to talk with. As I described to him where I was, a guy in a pickup truck pulled along side. I said goodbye to my brother, and hung up. The guy in the truck said, “I’m going up to Peter’s Creek, if you want a ride.” Success! I had only waited about two minutes and I already had my first ride. I heaved my weighty pack into his truck bed and hopped into the front seat. I was on my way.

He was a nice guy, who talked softly and traveled with a dog named “Big Boy.” He let me out in Peter’s Creek, and I set my bags down on the next on ramp and called my brother back. I chatted with him for all of four minutes this time, before another guy pulled over, turned off his car, hopped out, and began moving stuff from the front seat to the back. I thanked him for stopping, and he offered me a piece of fruit for the ride. We talked of Denali, the cool spring weather and what roads I should take.

The country I was hitching through was gorgeous. The snow capped mountains of the Alaskan Range spread out in front of us, a panoramic of mountain grandeur. Due to some clouds, I could not see Denali itself, the highest peak in North America, but its smaller brothers were quite magnificent.

Jerry took me to Wasilla. He let me out in the center of town and I knew it was probably unlikely that I would get a ride in town. I started walking along a frontage road, cursing myself for bringing all this heavy gear in my pack. I passed Lake Wasilla, where a family was having a picnic, some long distance bikers were having lunch in the sunshine, and two kids were throwing a baseball. They were all enjoying the spring day, as I was.

As I walked along, I passed in front of an entrance to a shopping center. I heard a man call out behind me, “Hey.” I turned and he pointed to the backseat of his SUV, I walked back to him and he told me they could take me as far as Big Lake. Ha! What luck! I hopped in, introduced myself, and learned that my new friends were Sid and Terry. They turned out to be some of the sweetest people I have met. They were very genuine, very friendly, and a very cute having been married for well over forty years. “After forty years, you get to know your wife pretty good. The problem is, she knows me better.” and we all laughed at his “misfortune.” As we drove along, Sid suddenly declared with certainty. “I WANT AN ICE CREAM CONE.“ Terry, rolled her eyes and said, “I’ll stop for an ice cream, if we see a shop along the way. “ Sid replied, “There’s one right there.“ To which Terry responded, “That is not, that’s a restaurant. They don’t even sell ice cream.“ So it went, the ride was pleasant and the miles began to add up. They took me a lot further than Big Lake. They took a liking to me, and decided to drive up to the Talkeetna Junction, a long way out of their way. At the junction, they insisted on buying me lunch, to which I couldn’t refuse. Honestly, the friendly generosity of Alaskans is amazing.
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At Talkeetna, I set up on the north side of the gas station on the side of the highway. The country had a more remote feeling to it. A kind of desolation, that there was not much out there between these tiny communities. It took awhile to get a ride here. While I waited, I chatted with my brother, set up a few pictures, and thought about the concept of hitchhiking.

I don’t begrudge anyone for not giving me a ride. I have passed many hitchhikers in my day, which I didn’t stop to help. I know this is bad karma, but the nature of hitchhiking is trust, and you have to judge a book by its cover. I was dressed in jeans and a tee shirt. I looked presentable, and smiled at potential rides. I was really having fun out there. I was hitching into the unknown on a beautiful spring day through a wonderful countryside full of tall spruce trees, white mountains and clear gravel rivers. I felt carefree, I felt happy, and I was having a great day.

Many cars passed me by. I didn’t mind, I figured they just didn’t have room for another guy with a huge pack, or had their own reasons for not picking me up. Then Sarah pulled in for gas, and came out saying she could get me up to Trapper’s Creek, some 14 miles up the road. I hopped in, and off we went.

Sarah was one of those badass Alaskan women. There is something about Alaskan women that other women don’t have. It is as if they carry around with them a small invisible chip on there shoulder that tells you, “Damn right I’m Alaskan, and proud of it.” It’s not a confrontational chip, it’s just an attitude that lets you know that they can do anything they want. I think it’s kind of hot. I liked her a lot.
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She brought me to Trapper’s Creek, another small blip of a community, a centralized meeting place for locals, more or less. Once again, I had to wait awhile, before I caught my next (and best) ride. A pack of cars whipped past and I had failed to catch a ride. Then, after awhile, one of those cars came back, and the driver yelled at me, “We’re going to help you.” They pulled into the gas station. I walked over to them, and they introduced themselves as Julie and Brett. Julie was another bad ass Alaskan, and Brett was just a cool kid. Both of them were young and friendly, and kindred spirits. We talked a lot, and Julie drove up the highway as if she was being chased by demons. The pedal was to the metal. She told me of how safe a driver she was. Then she pulled out to pass an RV into oncoming traffic. Both of the other drivers pulled over onto the shoulder allowing us to make the pass. I kept saying with more urgency, “There’s a car. I see headlights. Yep, that’s a CAR!“ That was scary. Ah well, I survived.
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I caught a ride with them almost all the way to Denali. In fact, I had only thirty more miles to go, and I was confident I would make it in one day. The cars that passed were fewer and far between, and I didn’t have any luck for quite awhile. I kept thinking to myself, that I didn't want to be anywhere else than where I was. Happily sitting on side of the road in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, hitchhiking my way to Denali. I lead a charmed life. My friends Julie and Brett rolled up again and told me, “Hey man, it’s your lucky day! We’re going up to Denali, to catch a bite to eat. Hop in!” I did as I was told, and hopped in riding the rest of the way to Denali in style.
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All told, it took me about six hours to the two hundred and forty miles. They let me out at the Salmon Bake Restaurant, where I was going to meet my nephew. It turns out he was parked right out front of the Bake, sitting in his shuttle bus that he drives. I laughed and hauled my gear onto the bus. This plan couldn’t have worked out any better if I tried.

I'll be in Denali for the forseeable future. Right now, I'm living in a shack that has no running water, and no electricity. It's cold at night, the mosquitos are voracious, and the views are pleasant. There is an amazing community of groovy people that do this every summer, working for the park, or the community of restaurants and lodges that make up the Denali support system. I like what I see here, and I love this community of chilled out adults. In fact that is what summer in Denali is: Summer camp for adults. There's more to come, thanks for sharing in my adventures.

Posted by Rhombus 00:10 Archived in USA Tagged mountains roads alaska friends denali hitchhiking Comments (4)

4000 Miles in 30 Days: A Love Affair and The End

On West Virginia, Climbing, Bluegrass, White Water Rafting, Cooper's Rock, and The End Game

semi-overcast 63 °F

I’ve fallen in love again. It was a brief affair, only three days, but it left me with that wonderful feeling of love. My symptoms are acute, and easy to diagnose. I feel the lighthearted tapping of butterfly wings in the hollow of my stomach, a rush of warmth to my head when I think of her. My heart is beating a little faster at the sound of her name, and I turn abruptly to the southeast convinced she is calling for me. These are but the whispers of my imagination, figments of my memories. However, the loving siren call of West Virginia is real and I am in love with her.
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Last Friday, my friend Luke and I drove down to the New River Gorge. We flew down the freeway, whistling through the warm morning sun, and rolling high into the green grandeur that is West Virginia’s Appalachia. We turned south on Highway 19, drove Luke’s Honda past Summerville, and began to recognize features from last years adventure (See From Alaska to West Virginia, May 2011). We crossed over the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest arched bridge in the western hemisphere, and turned off in the small town of Fayetteville.
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As we drove through the main street of its downtown, I took stock of what it had to offer. They had a solid outdoor gear store (Waterstone) , a yoga studio, a theatre with a full season of plays and performances, the usual public service buildings, a bakery, several funky shops (The Hobbit Hole), and many appealing restaurants including Pies and Pints, The Secret Sandwich Society, and The Vandalian, to name a few. I liked what I saw. It had small town charm, friendly people, great food, and soul. That was the deciding factor for me. Fayetteville has soul.
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We drove a mile out of town, and pulled into Cantrell’s Ultimate Rafting headquarters, and met up with our trip leader, and lodging staff to get settled in for the afternoon. The good folks at Cantrell’s welcomed us by name, gave a brief rundown on where to find everything, and let us know that a good bluegrass band was going to be playing at the bar that night. We thanked them, drove down to our little cabin to stow our gear, stretch, and eat a quick lunch. Our main objective for the afternoon was to rock climb down in the gorge.
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Springtime in West Virginia is akin to playing in the Garden of Eden. The forest was vibrantly green, glowing in the sunlight. Happy creeks tumbled down the steep sides of the gorge, often forming beautiful waterfalls of clear water. The birds chirped all around us, and large butterflies flapped in chaotic patterns, stopping to land in the blooming rhododendrons. It was warm in the sunlight, a perfect backdrop for any outdoor activity.
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The New River Gorge is a rock climber’s dream, and a Mecca to most climbers on the east coast. The rock is primarily sandstone, with lots of grip, and many routes. Most of the routes are set up to top rope, though there is quite a bit of trad (traditional route climbing) as well. There is plenty of bouldering, down in the Hawk’s nest boulders. In short, no matter what style of climbing you prefer, you can find good rock in the New River gorge.
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We set up our anchors on top of The Bridge Buttress, which is located underneath the north side of the New River Gorge Bridge. It had been awhile since I had climbed, and we took our time making sure our anchors were secure. When we were satisfied, we spent the rest of the afternoon climbing high up on the rock face. We didn’t have a care in the world, simply enjoying the feel of the rock on our hands and feet focusing on the climbing problems presented to us. I kept saying to Luke, “I can’t believe how amazing this place is.”

That evening as we drove back to Cantrell’s we demolished a bag of potato chips between us. We were starving after our exertions on the rock. We learned that another large group had showed up in our absence, and had their dates wrong. Instead of turning them back, they decided to move us to another campground and into another cabin. We really didn’t mind. We knew we would have a place to sleep. We drove a mile south on highway 19 to the campground. We found the caretaker who gave us a key to our cabin. The cabin was great, and step up in comfort. It was made of old rough hewn logs, with plaster chinking in between. It had a fireplace, a full bathroom, a small kitchen area, bunk beds, a queen size bed, and a spacious back porch. It was a palace.
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We cracked some beers and sat on the front porch enjoying the cool liquid in the dark of the evening. We were satisfied with our efforts of the day. The bluegrass band was going to be starting up soon, so we headed on back to Cantrell’s to see the show.

We walked into the saloon, ordered some beers and took a seat. The band was just starting up, the cigarette smoke hung low. The place was full of people, an easygoing group of West Virginians. We talked with some locals, hung out, commented on how lucky we were and how good life is. After awhile, and several brews later, we meandered over to where the band was playing. Johnson Crossing is from Asheville, North Carolina and tours around the country. I would describe their brand of music as a soulful bluegrass. It was a four-piece band, with a good lead singer and solid backup. It was a good show.

When I came out of the bathroom, I saw that Luke had wandered off onto the dance floor. “I can’t help it, bro. When I get that beat in me, I have to get out there.” I was feeling fantastic, so I stepped onto the square tile of the dance floor and began getting in my own groove. Just then, the dobro player picked up his banjo, and began to tune it. Everybody in the place knew he was about to go off, and it brought more people out to the dance floor. The band began to wind up, starting with the banjo player on a lead of “The Cuckoo.” The banjo rang true. The guitar, mandolin, and bass all followed suit. The rhythm of that song had the entire dance floor out of their minds. WE LOVED IT! We danced hard, we howled for more, we clapped in unison, we laughed, we smiled. The sweat poured off us, but the band played on. I gave out that southern tradition of a giant, “Yeeee-haawww.” That song was the best song I’ve ever heard live. It is a song that normally takes two minutes to play, but the band fed off our enthusiasm and played that sucker for what felt like fifteen minutes. It was an amazing moment. I remember looking at the lead singer and seeing his satisfaction at the power of his music. I cannot imagine how good that must feel.

The bouncer gave us a ride to our cabin for being such good sports. It began to rain, hard. I fell asleep under a hand made quilt listening to the rain hammer on our roof. My last thoughts were of how damn lucky I am. I thought back to my day full of climbing in paradise, potato chips for dinner, getting drunk and dancing all night. I almost forgot that we were here to go white water rafting.

Author’s Note: This section contains some mild cursing not suitable for younger folks. It’s harmless, and I included it because it reflects the speech and mannerisms of the region I was in.

The next morning, we awoke to my alarm, and the sound of rain lashing at the windows. One of our guides picked us up in a giant van. We learned the river was up about six and a half feet and rising. “The river is going to be in fine shape,” he told us. We ate breakfast, served military style from their cookhouse. We drank strong black coffee, and dug into the homemade biscuits and gravy, eggs, bacon and fruit. It was delicious. We signed our lives away, rented some wet suits, and geared up. We grabbed a life jacket, helmet, and paddle. We filed onto the old school bus, driven by an elderly gentleman who knew how to handle an old clutch on the steep, twisting, single lane roads of the gorge. The bus had that sour smell that buses carry around; a combination of old vinyl, moldy river funk, and the musky scent of lots of bodies in spongy wet suits. It wasn’t long before the windows became foggy, leaving us blind to the passing countryside.

We rode for forty minutes in that old bus, finally stopping at a place called Stone Cliff. Everyone piled out of the bus, and into the rain. The rain was still falling hard, intent to soak us before we ever made it to the river. I could see the river was rising higher on the bank, pooling around several trees that were normally dry. We met our guide, Randy, and our fellow raft mates. We each grabbed the strap of our sixteen-foot raft and hauled it on down to the river. We set it in the swollen river and jumped in.

We didn’t do much for the first three hours. Mostly, we chatted with our guide, who cracked us up with his Appalachian ways and stories of a river guide. The river was running so fast, that we put in upstream to where they normally would have, just to take up some time. It was a relaxed affair, and we passed harmlessly through some class I, II, and III rapids. This was my first taste of white water rafting, and I liked my first nibble. The rain continued to fall, and the river rose a little higher. I was freezing. I shivered in my wet suit, as we rode along. The water seeping deep into my long johns I wore underneath. Eventually we stopped for lunch, just before the halfway point of our ride. We ate sandwiches, chips, cookies, and drank water in the pouring rain. I tried to find shelter under a likeable tree, but instead of small drops, I had large bumblebee sized droplets hitting me off the leaves. It was hopeless.

We packed up, and got the rafts launched back on the river. From here on out, we were heading into the heart of the gorge, and with all the rainfall causing the river to rise, we were going to have one hell of a ride.

Now our guide Randy was awesome. He did not work us to death, and he told us what he wanted us to do when he wanted it. “Now, when I say, Forward Heavy, I want you to paddle with all you got. We need to get over to the left, other whys we are going to get beeyitch slapped and you don’t want that. If we get stuck on the right side, this river is gonna beeyitch slap us the whole length of these rapids.” His accent, mannerisms, and speech were deeply Appalachian. It was like having my brother Eric as our guide. He was hilarious, very charismatic, and I will never forget him.

We entered the first rapid, and it was a big one. Easily class V, and required some technical maneuvering to get through it safely. Just as we passed over the first big wave, and into the chaos, our raft went vertical, we heard the call of “FORWARD HEAVY!”, and we all began to row as hard as we could. It was hard to paddle, being bucked around like a cowboy on a rodeo bull. It was harder still to see anything but the river coming at me in all directions. “C’MON LAYDIEES! PULLL! PULLLLL! GIMMEE ALL YEW GOT!” Randy yelled at us, his thick accent easily heard over the roar of the water. We pulled like the ladies we were, and got over to the left side before we were bitch slapped into submission.

We whooped, we laughed, and we were thrilled by this wonderful river. Randy was ecstatic. “Great Job Guys! That was AWESOME! WHOOOOO-EEEEEE!” His enthusiastic approval was reward enough for us. We paddled on through several more big rapids, each of them requiring us to pull hard, but none of them were as tough as that first one. I had a blast, my smile widening every time our speed increased as we were sucked into the maelstrom of the chaotic rapids. No longer was I cold. I began to warm up with my adrenaline, paired perfectly with my excitement, as I pulled hard on my paddle.

All told, we had rafted fourteen miles of the New River, passing over at least twenty rapids. When we hauled out under the big bridge, we were soaked through, and very happy. It was a great day. We rode the bus back on up to the top of the gorge and back to Cantrell’s. We stepped out of our funky smelling wetsuits and handed back our gear. Luke and I rode back to our cabin to get showers, and get warm. After my shower, I laid down on my bed, to stretch out for a minute. That minute turned into two hours, and I passed out solidly for a long afternoon nap. I have had some great days in my life recently, and this one was one to remember.
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The next day, Luke and I checked out of our cabin, went out for a delicious homemade breakfast at The Vandalian, and decided to drive north up to Cooper’s Rock to do some more rock climbing. All of the rock in the gorge was still wet from all of the rain, and we figured to at the very least explore the area and find where to climb. It was a solid plan and it worked out beautifully. Not only did we find another gorgeous West Virginia forest to play in, but it was also dry. We spent the afternoon top roping on the giant sandstone slabs that make up the Cooper’s Rock climbing scene.
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I love climbing, and we had fun working problems on the route and exhausting our bodies. We took turns on the rock, one person climbing with the other person belaying them. We chatted amiably with some local climbers and compared notes on places we had climbed. We were the last climbers out on the rock, and we cleaned our gear from the rock as the sun was setting.
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I marveled at the trip. It had been awesome from start to finish. We drove west in the night stopping for a burrito in Morgantown before continuing on to Bellaire, Ohio where Luke lived. It was midnight when I finally pulled the blankets up to my chin on his couch. I reflected on my fortunes. I had just finished yet another amazing chapter of this journey.

The next day, I drove eight hundred fifty miles to northern Michigan. It took me over 15 hours to make the journey, after only 5 hours of sleep. I was exhausted and road weary when I parked my van outside of my brother’s house in Hancock, Michigan. I was in a hurry because the next day I had to catch a plane to Seattle to celebrate my birthday with my birthday twin. From Seattle, I am going north to Sitka, Alaska and then onto Denali National Park. Thom’s whirlwind tour keeps right on trucking along.

End Game: I drove 4,402 miles since leaving Spokane, Washington on April 9th. That makes a solid four weeks on the road, and let me tell you it was an amazing trip. Thanks for reading, thanks for all of the support, and thank you to all who let me stay on their couches, and hung out with me. The following are some of my favorite pictures of the trip which did not make the original posts. Happy Travels, Fair Winds, and I’ll see you in Alaska!
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Posted by Rhombus 09:06 Archived in USA Tagged rivers flowers river new dancing climbing rafting photography rockclimbing westvirginia roadtrips bluegrass Comments (7)

4000 Miles In 30 Days: Side Tracked in Chicago

Miscalculations of Bliss and Twenty Four Wonderful Hours in Chicago

overcast 47 °F

I have an amendment to make to the title of this journey. I was halfway across the heartland of Wisconsin, when I tapped my odometer button to see how far I had driven on this trip. It read 2,812 miles. I was surprised. I didn’t think I had driven that far. My original estimates were WAY off. Who is in charge of logistics and plans here? What clown is running this show? My estimation of two thousand miles was a joke, as I have at least another thousand miles to go before I near my destination. Not only that, it looks like I shortchanged myself a week as well. My flight to Seattle leaves on May 9th making this a thirty-day trip, not twenty-two.

I like the changes. Every trip should be flexible and free to morph as it will. If I had chosen to, I could have forced this journey match my original parameters, but that would have robbed me of some wonderful experiences somewhere along the way. Despite my poor planning, I am humbly and happily changing the name of this journey to “Four Thousand Miles in Thirty Days.”

Chicago Explorations
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I want to tell you about Chicago. This was my third trip into Chicago, though I have driven through the city at other times on other trips, and have flown into O’Hare International on numerous occasions. In my mind, those visits don’t count. I need to spend quality time wandering around a city for it to register as a visit.

Before I get into my Chicago explorations, I want to talk about my approach to large cities. For those (both) of you that read my blog, you know I am happiest out in the wilderness, tramping around a park, viewing the wonders of the sea, or on the road passing through some lonesome landscape. However, I love visiting cities.

Large cities look intimidating from the outside, but once you get past the outer loops of frenzied freeways, the charm of the neighborhoods and bustle of urban life takes hold. They lose their intimidation factor.

Chicago is a good example. Driving around the outskirts of Chicago offers nothing to the driver (other than frustration). On my last visit, I had to concentrate on driving, usually at a high rate of speed as though I was in a race. I hardly had time to enjoy the brief view of the city before it was gone. When I rode the train downtown and spent my day on foot, I found Chicago a very approachable town. It has a decent public transportation system and teeming with interesting sights, parks, restaurants, history, and life. Chicago has it all.
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I find when I am walking through urban centers that I notice everything. I enjoy getting completely out of my element, and city life fascinates me. Why do people live here? How they live here? What makes them tick? In a city like Chicago, there are hundreds of stories all around you, and interesting vignettes of every day life, if you care to notice them.

With that mindset, I boarded the Metra Train in Kenosha, Wisconsin headed for the wonderful city of Chicago. The Metra train I rode connects the northern suburbs with the city itself. The train line has expanded since I had last ridden it. I used to have to board in Waukegan. I was glad to see the rail line expand further north. I hope to see it connect to Milwaukee some day.

Riding the train was novel. I don’t ride trains very often, but I enjoy them when I do. There is something proper to riding a train. It evokes a sense of historical appreciation, especially in Chicago. For decades, people have lived out in the suburbs and have ridden these trains to get to their jobs in the city. It puts into perspective the growth of the city. As for me, I enjoy the speed, the ease of travel, and the satisfaction of using good public transportation. While on the train, I passed through suburbs and neighborhoods with strong North Chicago names. Names like: Winthrop Harbor, Lake Forest, Ravinia, Wilmette, Highland Park, Glencoe and Evanston.

As I rode, I thought of how this trip bloomed into reality. Two days before I drove down to my sister’s house, I sent a note off to my niece to see if she was up for some company down in Chicago. As it turned out, not only was she around, but she had free time, VIP tickets to see a band I had never heard of, and excitement about my visit. It made sense to stay the night, and explore the city of foot the following day. I had hatched a solid plan, and I was on my way.

She picked me up at the train station just north of downtown. We drove into Edgewater down a long street packed with charming, brick apartment buildings from a bygone era. Each building was wide, on average three stories high, and built of brick. The amount of bricks that went into the buildings of this street alone was staggering. A skilled mason laid and set each one of those bricks. I am a fan of brick buildings. I like their clean look, and historical feel.

We stopped briefly, to drop off my things and to pick up her boyfriend. We went out for sushi (which was delicious), then took the L train (elevated train) down to Wrigleyville where the nights entertainment would be.
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After walking a few blocks, we crowd surfed into a small theatre, and stepped into the queue to show our tickets. We had to pass scrutiny of the bouncers and collect our wristbands, before finally climbing up the wide stairs into the balcony to get to our seats. It was a great show. Imagine seeing a young James Brown as the front man of a young Blues Brothers band. Now they are not playing at that elite level yet, but the band was tight, and carried a fat sound. The front man had moves, timing, one hell of a voice, and had the crowd licking the tips of his fingers (if he wanted). The music they played was a mixture of originals and some covers, played and sung with a soulful funk that had us all on our feet.

It was a great night, and it was fun to catch some live music from a tight Chicago band. I would go see JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound again.

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The next morning I awoke to a very comfortable and quiet apartment. In the morning stillness, I sat in the kitchen, and admired the small green garden that my niece cared for in her back lot. I caught up on my journal, and read from Niehardt’s “Black Elk Speaks.” When my niece arose, she made breakfast for us, and I relished the relaxed freedom of Saturday morning. I enjoyed scrambled eggs on toast, fresh squeezed orange juice, and hot black coffee. Eating a relaxed breakfast on Saturday morning is one of my favorite pastimes in the world.
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After breakfast, we ventured out into the cold, gray Chicago April. The wind blew steadily off Lake Michigan, and I was glad I had chosen to wear my woolen coat to combat the chill. We took the train downtown. I took polite glances at all of the riders. I kept wondering what was going on in their heads. Everyone who rides public transportation keeps their face fixed in a mask of introverted boredom. Nobody wants to look too long at anyone else. Nobody shows any emotion. Almost everyone keeps to themselves listening to their Ipod, staring off at a neutral point within the train car or out the window. It was though any outward showing of humanity would get them branded with a scarlet A (for Animated). There were a few conversations going on between friends, but nobody else said a word.
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We started our day by walking over to Centennial Park. Centennial Park is home to the Cloud Statue, more commonly known as, “The Bean.” The bean is a photographer’s dream. It has a unique giant bean shape that has been highly polished to a mirror finish. The skewed reflections of people and cityscape it produces are interesting, and this statue makes everyone smile. Everyone likes the bean. As you might imagine, there are hundreds of happy photos taken there every day. Memories are made of this.
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The flowerbeds of Centennial Park are beautiful. There were long rows of purple and cream tulips in healthy blooms. I enjoyed walking through the rows of flowers, appreciating the quiet oasis away from the sounds of the city.
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My niece had free tickets to the Chicago History Museum, and so we went back the subway, which took us closer, but we still ended up walking five blocks or so. When my travel companions ask if I‘d like to go to a museum, I‘m usually excited. I like the idea of collecting history, and seeing old objects, and scenes from the past. However, when I start walking around the knick-knacks of history, I kind of feel a little let down, a little bored, and often stifling a long yawn. The stuffy air of the museum started to put me to sleep, and my feet felt as though they were weighed down with concrete blocks. After walking through the exhibits for a while, I found my niece sitting down on a bench and I happily joined her. I was beat.
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“It feels good to sit down,” she said. I agreed. “How do you feel about deep dish pizza?” I asked her. “That sounds amazing,” she replied. One of my objectives for this trip was to get a true Chicago deep-dish pizza. I didn’t particularly care where I got it from, but I wanted a legitimate pizza. We left the museum, and went to find a good pizza joint.
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After wandering around Old Town, we still hadn’t found a place that served deep dish. Finally, she called her boyfriend and got directions to Gino’s East. It was eight blocks away, almost back down town. We laughed, and started on another long walk. We were getting our exercise in for the day, that was for sure.

Gino’s East is one of the more famous deep-dish pizza joints in Chicago. I was glad I was going there, so I would get this pizza straight from the source. Our timing was good, and we had a table after only a brief wait. The ambiance of Gino’s was fun. It was dark, very spacious, and loud. The dull roar of the restaurant was raucous with stories, punch lines, laughter and music. On almost every surface of the walls, seats, tables, and picture frames, were the signatures of past diners. Gino’s encourages graffiti, but you have to bring your own marking device. White was the most popular ink, as most of the furniture is painted black at Gino’s.

We ordered our pizza. Deep dish pizza takes about forty minutes to an hour to bake. We were tired from walking all day, and thirsty. We ordered some beers and settled into our seats. That first sip is always amazing after a long day. It was Ed Rickett’s of Steinbeck fame who said, “The first glass is for thirst, the second for taste.”

It had been awhile since I had hung out with my niece and I enjoyed a thorough conversation with her flitting among the subjects like a bumblebee amongst the dandelions. We chatted of family, dogs, memories, Rex (her brother, my nephew), life, relationships, drugs, Chicago, and what else, I forget.

The pizza was as good as I hoped it would be. If you have a chance to try a true Chicago deep-dish pizza, do not hesitate. I am always amazed at the versatility of pizza. I have traveled throughout the U.S. and I am always amazed at the regional differences in the pizza that people make. In New York, the slices are huge and you fold them to eat them. In Chicago, it is deep-dish, that looks a lot like a pie. In Minnesota, they have a fetish for thin crust, and it is delicious. In Ohio, you order the number of slices you want, and they are square, thin and very crunchy. In California, they emphasize fresh ingredients with a medium thickness to their crust. I could go on, but you get my point. No matter what style of the pizza, I have enjoyed them all.
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We finished our beers and I paid the bill. I was tipsy at this point and felt great. What a wonderful way to finish off my day in Chicago. My niece hailed a cab, and we rode back to her apartment. I had to catch my train back north to Kenosha. She dropped me off at the train station, and it wasn’t long before I climbed aboard and sat down. I was exhausted. I rested my head against the window glass as so many riders have before. I shut my eyes, and smiled.
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What a great weekend.

Posted by Rhombus 11:00 Archived in USA Tagged trains parks cities flowers walking chicago breakfast music photography pizza Comments (1)

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