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The Fortunes of a Vagabond

An Unforgettable Two Weeks In Mexico: Whales, Dolphins, Landscapes, Friends, and the Best 24 Hours of my Life

sunny 81 °F

I have just lived two weeks of my life I shall never forget. I apologize for the delay since my last entry, but life has been too full of late to take time to document it beyond photos and journal entries, and it is better to live then to be a slave to documentation.

That being said, I want to share with you some of my experiences of the last days that are burned into my soul. They include mega pods of dolphins, close encounters with whales, an amazing flock of birds at dawn, sleeping outside under starry skies and awakening to a beautiful sunrise. I‘ve enjoyed amazing hikes in a desert paradise through powerful landscapes. I’ve shared these experiences with some of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and I look forward to many more.

I wonder why I am so blessed.

Whale Encounters

Picture a fiberglass panga full of crewmembers speeding into the protected waters of San Ignacio Bay. The bay is a major nursery for California Gray Whales, and our timing was good. The Gray whales were still here preparing for their long journey north, and we were seeing spouts all around us. The water was choppy, and the breeze was fresh off the pacific. We were bundled up in windbreakers, and looking out for a whale that wanted to come say hello. We found one, and as mom watched nearby, the calf swam right next to the boat and began to spin in slow circles allowing us to pet her on all sides. It was beautiful. We smiled all day.
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I had never seen a pod of pilot whales so close to the ship. Pilot whales look like a cross between a dolphin and a whale. It looks like a really big dolphin with a flat face, and acts like a very small whale. We watched a pod of them for several hours just after dawn. The cool thing about Pilot whales is they usually have a pod of bottlenose dolphins that hang around them as well. Nobody really knows why. I like to think that the dolphins and whales are in harmony somehow, and in truth, they appear to be.
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Towards the end of the two week photo trip we were on we were far north in the Midriff Islands of the Sea of Cortez. The water is a lot colder up here, and very deep. It is squid country, and Sperm Whale territory. We came on several sperm whales right as the sun was setting, and I watched them breathe surrounded by the golden light of sunset. Then having readied their lungs they would arc their backs and dive deep leaving us with a fluking tail to remember it by.
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On my last day of actual work, we came upon a small humpback whale that seemed to be teasing us. We would watch it for a while, and it would dive and breathe, as whales do. It was nice, but we had to move on. So as the captain was starting to pull away, the whale would start breeching right next to us, and we’d slow down, turn around and watch it some more. Of course, the whale would go back to diving and breathing again. This went on for a half hour before the powers that be decided to finally say farewell.

Dolphin Mega Pods
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I have seen many dolphin pods down here in Mexico, but there was one this week that offered behavior I had never seen before. For one thing, it was a huge pod with hundreds of members. They were very active, very acrobatic, and the air was filled with flying dolphins. It was awesome. The air was filled with a cacophony of their squeaks, cliques and whistles, and the sound large splashes from lots of mammals. We watched them for twenty minutes, sailing along side of the main pod. It offered many photographers their dream shots of dolphins. As for me, I mostly watched them, I sat on the fantail with my feet kicked up on the rail drinking ice water, and eating Italian bread, as the machine gun clicks of photographers shot pictures without thinking. Eventually, I got up and grabbed my camera. I thought it better to enjoy them first before freezing them electronically.
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Then it happened. It was as if somebody flipped a switch under the water. En masse, the dolphins turned around and swam as quickly as I’d ever seen dolphins swim in the other direction in an organized, purposeful action. They took off. There was no way to keep up with them, and it was in the wrong direction. In the distance, I saw a white line from their wake receding into the distance. Awesome.

Birds of a Feather
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I was taking in the sunrise when a flock of sea birds began to circle the ship flying low to the surface of the waves. It was so cool. As the sun rose, I was able to time a few pictures of the birds whipping around in golden glow of the sun and waters. What a gift! It was so very beautiful.
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We visited Isla Rasa on morning. Isla Rasa is one of the more unique islands in the Midriffs as it is home to a huge colony of terns and gulls, with a population of well over a half a million birds. It is amazing to see, hear, smell, and watch that amount of birds in one place. Though I had to work that day, I was able to get close to shore for ten minutes to appreciate that experience. The one thing I noticed was that the terns seem to fly in pairs. Despite the chaos of hundreds of identical birds in the air at any one time, they were able to stay close and follow one another to their destinations. I was hoping to see the mating flights of the terns that I saw last year, but it was not to be.

Landscapes
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In my time in Mexico, I have seen some of the best desert scenes of my life. In my last days here, I was able to walk through some of these masterpieces one last time, exploring some new areas, and appreciating some I have already seen. I took these walks with some good friends from the boat, and these shared experiences of paradise will be long remembered.
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San Juanico remains one of my favorite landscapes in Mexico. I remember last year when I first explored it, I kept thinking to myself that it really would be great to meet some beautiful senoritas down on the secluded beach. This year I am a year wiser and invited two along to come for the hike. We hiked high above the sea, and the rocky spires, points, and islands stretched out before us in the aquamarine blue of the sea. It was beautiful.
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There is an arroyo on the west side of Isla Partida that could be the most magical place I have ever visited. I like the word magic. When I use “magic”, I’m more referring to a combination of my feelings about a particular location, and the energy of the location itself. As I’ve written about before, there are places in this world that hold dear to me, and I can pick up on the strong currents of energy that emanate there. Now if you think I am a crackpot, hippie influenced nature man, I stand guilty as charged. However, before you judge, I think you should go on this hike.

I went on this scramble with one of my favorite compatriots in the world. The day was sizzling. The sun beat down mercilessly. We were sweating after the first steps. The hike began with some boulder climbing and scaling some small dry waterfalls. We found several lizards doing “push ups” on the hot rocks. I’m not sure what makes them work out so hard in the hot sun, but I think I heard the theme music to Rocky, on a tiny lizard Ipod.

The arroyo was beautiful. The canyon’s rock was very porous and hollow and there were many caves carved into the rock. Some of them were large enough for us to stand in, and we rested in the shade and gulped down water. We held quiet, and let the desert speak. It was silent, save for the hot breeze curling around the arroyo walls. However, deserts speak not so much in sound, as in vibration, and sitting under that rock, we were feeling its power. We shivered, we smiled, we laughed and said thank you.

We moved on, climbing higher and higher, we had no destination in mind, but were hiking for the joy of it. Eventually we realized we were nearing the top, and decided to go all the way up. The last one hundred yards was covered with small cantaloupe sized boulders and we walked over them and to the top of the ridge.

It was gorgeous. We caught our breath and took in the sweeping views of the green water far below, the rugged mountain ridges, and blue skies. Turkey vultures silently soared by, not 30 feet away, each time I saw one, it felt like a gift. We stood on top of rock statues, yet to be carved, and I yodeled. I’m always nervous about yodeling in front of other people, because sometimes my voice cracks badly and I sound like a howling teenager in English class. At other times, it comes out beautifully. Luck was with me, and it sounded good.
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A hummingbird zipped by. It poked around the sparse desert plants that were blooming this time of year and moved on. We smiled at our fortune, and smiled wider when the humming bird returned. The desert was buzzing with good energy. It rather felt what I would imagine Ray Kinsella’s “Field of Dreams” would feel like. The desert provided a spiritual calming, a feeling of happiness that you just can’t quite put to words. It was beautiful. The composition of the desert was perfect, as if some giant had been cultivating a perfect cactus garden high up on the mountain. We were fortunate, and we knew it.

Alas, that magical afternoon came to an end, and we made our way back down the arroyo. We were tired, and very thirsty. We were longing for ice water, and to jump into the ocean. We found both the ocean and the ice water very refreshing. We smiled again, thanked each other for the marvelous afternoon and I went off in search of my bunk.

Moonlight Sonata

I recently enjoyed perhaps the best twenty-four hours of my life (so far). It began on the lido deck, sipping drinks, watching the bright moon overhead light up the balmy ocean night. There were five of us chatting amiably, sharing stories, laughing and dreaming. I don’t know who had the idea, but a friend and I both had the day off the next day, so we decided to sleep out under the stars.

I had always wanted to do this, but for some reason, never had. Fool I am. However, it is better to do things late, then never, so I set about building us a bunk of bench cushions, wool blankets and pillows. Not too shabby if I do say so myself. I went in for some clothes, another drink, and then we went up to settle in for the night. And what a night it was. We laughed, we giggled, we talked, we dreamed, and it felt like we were camping. Eventually, we fell asleep.

We woke up just as the sunrise cracked the horizon. The sun was a bright orange disk rising and getting brighter by the second. It completely lit up the rugged peaks of Isla Danzante and the Sierra de la Giganta in a crescendo of reds, oranges, and rich browns. Words fail to describe the beauty, and stirring feelings of grandeur in front of us. We held one another, and laughed. I laugh a lot. Laughter it seems, is my only answer to the question I keep asking myself, “How can you be so lucky?”

I’m still laughing.
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The day consisted of an easy stroll on the north shore of the Isle of the Dancer, a spot I’d never explored before as often the swells are too big to walk the shoreline. We picked up some of the ever-present litter on the beach, and swam in the cold clear water. It reminded me of Lake Superior, though salty.

After our hike, we decided to snorkel. The ship had picked up a giant circular air mattress with a pirate on it. It was dubbed the pirate raft, and we had taken it to shore. Well, we were going to use it as a swimming platform, but once we were on it, we realized how comfortable it was just to lay in the sun floating around in the small bay. It was great. Soon, our staff was buzzing by us on the zodiacs, and we bobbed in their wake.
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I think we made a lot of people smile that day. We must have floated around for about an hour when the expedition leader and the wellness specialist swam up and climbed aboard. They had plans for tipping us, but soon realized it was a great place to chill out and lay around in the sun. So, there I was, floating around on a raft with three beautiful women to keep me company. I laughed. If you would have told me the morning that I would be on a pirate raft with the EL, wellness specialist, and my favorite steward, I’d have told said you were probably dilusional. Then as a finishing touch, someone brought up a tray of iced limewater and cookies. I think it made a good picture.
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That evening, the sun set and the full moon rose within 20 minutes of one another. It was a good night to be outside sipping good wine, and taking in the aerial show. Both events were gorgeous, but the winner was the moonrise over Isla San Jose. The moon was gigantic, and bathed us in a gorgeous orange light as it rose into the sky.

To cap off our amazing day, we had dinner outside on the sun deck. The moon bathed us in white gold, and we ate like royalty, and felt like it too. We had fresh bread and butter, delicious rib eye steaks on Caesar salad, a touch of ice cream, and good wine throughout. We talked, we laughed, we dreamed, and “carped the de-em.”

Eventually all good things must transform into other good things, and we had to call it a day. The day was seized, throttled, hugged, embraced, and squeezed of all of its splendor, and we still couldn’t get all of it out.
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The next day, I packed and left the SeaBird, saying farewell to many of my good friends and crew. They will be missed, but other adventures are afoot. At this moment, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Coeur d’Alene Idaho with a full tank of gas, a weeks worth of food, and the open road sixty feet away. I have two thousand miles to travel and twenty days to do it.

I’m laughing.

Posted by Rhombus 11:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged islands hiking whales deserts friends dolphins photography philosophy grandeur Comments (2)

The Long Journey to Idaho: The Minnesota Sessions

A Photo Shoot Every 100 Miles, The Power of Pizza, Abandoned Parks in Mist, Asleep at the Wheel

overcast 31 °F

Wednesday February 1st - A Photo Shoot Every 100 Miles, Friends

While traveling south along Minnesota state highway 23, I noticed my odometer was nearing 210,000 miles. An idea popped into my head to make this trip more interesting, and I decided to stop every 100 hundred miles and make a photo shoot of whatever was there. I became excited about the idea, and when the odometer turned, I slowed down and found a safe place to park on side of the road. I stepped out, and began looking at my options. As it was, it was a very gray, overcast day in Minnesota, and a feeling of contented quiet held over the entire state from the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, all the way down to the suburbs of St. Paul.
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I stepped into a low lying wetland area, looking at the puffy tubes of cattails, and found my shot.

Mileage 210,000: "Cattails" Somewhere in Pine Co. Mn
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Satisfied, I climbed back into the van and headed south another hundred miles, which happened to be a small roadside park near Lake Josephine in the northern suburbs of St. Paul. I became enamored with the oak trees that resided on a small hill, and found my new lens to be just the thing to take pictures of the dried oak leaves still on the trees.

Mileage 210,100: "Oak Leaves" Near Lake Josephine, MN
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I found my friends in St. Paul. We spent the day hanging out, enjoying good conversation, with a field trip to the Como Park Greenhouse, and Como Lake. The greenhouse was so beautiful, full of flowery scents and reminders of the warm greens of summer. After our lark, we returned to the house. In the evening, I made homemade pizza, and we spent a wonderful evening talking, eating delicious (if I do say so myself) pizza, and drinking wine. It was such a good day.

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Pizza Party
I love making pizza. I also love making pizza for other people when i'm travelling. If you like pizza, and meeting roving vagabonds, drop me an invite, and I might bake you a pizza!
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Thursday February 2nd - Oh, Brother! Freezing Fog and a Sleepy Driver

I woke up very early, slipping out of the cool, dark house well before sun up. It was dark, and very foggy out, a moist heavy feeling to the air. I started up the van, and rolled out heading westerly to the small town of St. Michael, MN. My brother Karl resides there, and as I have not spent much time with him lately, I was excited to take in his company.
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After getting some tea from the local coffee shop, we drove out to a small park on Lake Beebe. Soon we were wandering around in the airy mists, of an abandoned park. Karl and I are quite close, and it wasn’t long before we were lost in compelling conversation. We discussed the park, girls, the beauty of mist, the good air we were breathing, brain exercises, the stupidity of television, three year plans, the beauty of the trees we were walking around, cutting a moat around an ice fisherman’s shack as a practical joke, the sick system that is American politics, good sitting spots, how hungry we were (which we soon remedied), Artificial Intelligence, and other nonsense.
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We went back to his house so I could get my long board skateboard, and after awhile, I said, “Seeya later, Bub.” And with that, I drove away. I hadn’t driven very far, when I realized that I was very sleepy, and I really had to use the bathroom. As I had planned to drive well into North Dakota, my sleepiness was going to be a problem. I resorted to my old tricks to stay awake: I slapped myself in the face (this doesn’t work), I rolled down the windows, I yelled at myself, and drove on.

Mileage 210,200: "Ice Droplet" Riverside Park, St. Michael, MN
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I finished one book on my mp3 player (Al Capone Does My Shirts) and started another (The Atlantic: by Simon Winchester). I love listening to books while I drive.
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The fog came back just before I crossed into North Dakota. It was beautiful, and completely obscured the sun that was getting low in the sky. Finally, it grew dark, and the temperature gauge read 30 degrees (F). It was just cold enough to allow that fog to start freezing on the roadway and on the van. Not good. I looked at distance signs to the next sign, and it looked like Bismarck was the next major city of any size, and it was another two hours away. I sighed, and went through another round of slapping myself, attempting to stave off sleep for another ten minutes.

Then, I noticed a big billboard on the side of the road advertising a couple miles up the road. There were more of them, and I grew excited. JAMESTOWN! I had forgotten about Jamestown. It was the equivalent of getting out of jail a year early; I happily exited the freeway, and followed the signs to a hotel.

Ten minutes later, I was standing in my room, feeling good about myself. I knew that a hot shower, a delicious dinner of homemade chili and a beer followed by a good long sleep in a quiet bed. Ahh… Is this not happiness?
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The journey continues tomorrow when I take on the western side of North Dakota, and decide on where to play in Montana. Stay Tuned!

Posted by Rhombus 19:35 Archived in USA Tagged trees fog parks ice friends mist photography pizza minnesota roadtrips Comments (0)

From Alaska to West Virginia: 5100 miles in 8 days

Decompressing, Santa Cruz, Nightmare Flights, West Virginia Weekend, New River Gorge Rendevous

sunny 65 °F

How does a sailor decompress after seven months aboard a ship? It’s a fair question. After all, it’s what I’ve known for a long time. I’ve been tied to the clock, to duty and workmates. I believe I’ve found a good solution to this problem, and it involves the following: Plan and execute a righteous first week filled with a two day decompression in California, and a solid weekend of rock climbing in West Virginia. I traveled over five thousand miles in eight days. This is how I relaxed, and unwound after seven months at sea.

First, find a stalwart friend of the highest order. Visit them.
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Spend the first day in the kitchen of a cool and comfortable quiet house, making cinnamon rolls, “fauxcassia bread”, and an award winning chicken dinner. During the downtimes, exchange music, and stare out at the green hills reminiscent of Ireland.

Go to sleep. Sleep deeply and peacefully, making sure to set no alarm.
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The next day, start it out right with a great cup of coffee, and the last of the cinnamon rolls. Drive west out of the grape vine covered hills, to the coast. Find a good downtown area, in my case Santa Cruz. Eat some slices of pizza from your favorite pizza place (Pizza my Heart). Go buy some new shoes. The shoes make the man, after all. Stop by the hip ice cream shop and get some smooth chocolate and coffee ice cream cones.

Buy some bottles for later and go chill out at a comfortable house awaiting more friends to arrive.

After a quiet afternoon listening to the rain tap on the roof, walk to a recommended burger joint and bring home dinner. Hang out and talk long into the night, go to sleep.
This was my decompression stage, and it was so very good for my body, and spirit. After decompression, it’s time to pick up the pace a little bit, by a little frenzied air travel.

I sprinted across the country by plane, pain, and automobile to get to West Virginia for three days of rock climbing at the New River Gorge Rendezvous. The sprint was entertaining to say the least. I flew into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at 11 pm, my bags didn’t. The airlines lost them along the way, including the one which had all of my adventure clothing and toiletries. I drove to my storage shed and spent an hour hunting through my boxes of stuff looking for my camping gear by the light of a dying flashlight. I finally slept for three hours, before waking up at five to fly out at 6 am. I flew to Chicago, then to Milwaukee. In Milwaukee I found out I missed my plane due to poor planning (I didn’t leave enough time to go in and out of security) (don‘t ask me why I had to exit security). All told, I spent about an hour in Milwaukee, enough time to admire their “recombobulation area.” Then I flew back to Chicago, then on to Pittsburgh, where I learned they lost my other bag along the way. Ha! All of this on three hours of sleep mind you. I kept half expecting to see “Del Griffith” show up along side of me. So, I spend two hours trying to find the second bag that the airlines lost in 24 hours. This one had all of my adventure gear in it. I met up with Luke, my climbing buddy, and we drove back to his dad’s house in a small, sleepy town in eastern Ohio to wait for my bag to arrive. I finally could relax, and I enjoyed the company of new friends, and the beautiful early summer evening of middle America. It was tranquil sitting outside in the evening sun, throwing a tennis ball to Jake, the golden retriever.

In the night, my bag arrived. Ahead of us lay a four hour drive through the rain to southern West Virginia’s New River Gorge. We had planned this trip a couple of months ahead of time, and we were both very excited to be on our way. Luke and I had never been to the gorge before, or to a rock climbing camp, and we were curious to see what we would find.

New River Gorge Rendezvous 2011
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We found the campground right across the road from the New River Gorge Bridge, the longest arch bridge in the world. The bridge stands 876 feet above the water, and is 3030 feet long. That height could hold five Statue of Liberties standing on one another. Once a year, on bridge day (October 15, 2011) they close down the bridge, and allow base jumpers and bungee jumpers to test their nerve by hopping off the side of this impressive span.
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The campground was a large grassy opening, and a large tent city had already taken root in the middle of it. I was happy to join the city, and set up my one-man expedition tent in the shade of a large tree. We started by getting oriented, and went off in search of some rock to climb. I was antsy to get on the rock, to burn out some bottled up energy I had stored after my long trip.

After talking with some climbers who gave us vague directions, we went in search of the Hawk’s Nest Boulders located somewhere near a dam north of the campground. Driving through the steep mountain roads of the Appalachian mountains was beautiful. There were lush green forests, with impressive rivers coursing through them. There were ample waterfalls, along the way, the air was full of butterflies and birds, and it was an ideal place to explore. I didn’t know West Virginia was so gorgeous, and I was impressed by its natural beauty. For many years, its unofficial slogan was “Almost Heaven.” After this past weekend, I’m starting to believe it.
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In the small town of Alstead, we couldn’t find the park. We were driving around looking for non-existent signs. Luke is good about asking locals for directions and we pulled up to an older gentleman who was happily sitting in a rocker on his porch. Luke yelled out, “Excuse me sir, can you tell us how to get to Hawk’s Nest State Park?” The first thing the guy did was spit a massive amount of chewing tobacco spew onto the ground, and then drawled out, “Well Hellllll son! Y’all er goin’ the wrong way! There ain’t nothin' up there but a dayd end! Yew gotta turn round and head back to the highway and make a right!”
We thanked him, and laughed all the way back to the highway. The people of West Virginia are good folks, and everyone we asked for directions helped us along our way.
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We found some rock, but not the boulders we were looking for. We climbed to get the juice flowing, and then went in search of the boulders again. We could see them, but the dam, the lake, a railroad, and a small fenced off power plant separated us from our quarry. We gave up, and enjoyed the hike, finding a swan that was evidently looking for some action, puffing itself up in full display of horniness. We found yet more waterfalls, and decided to go for a chilling swim in a rain-swollen stream before returning to the campground for the evening.

While we were away, they had set up a slack line. I hadn’t slack lined since last October, so I was excited to get back into it. Some very talented slackers took to the line. It was fun to watch and even better to try my balance once again.

That night, we made some friends with our neighbors, and I found out a local brewery was serving free craft beer. I filled up my Nalgene bottle and went and told Luke about it, who looked at me in disbelief. There’s nowhere else in the country that will they offer this kind of hospitality, and the climbers of West Virginia take care of their own.

For thirty dollars per person, we were given: a place to camp, a free breakfast (oatmeal, muesli, eggs, crepes, muffins, bagels, pancakes, fresh fruit and coffee, a burrito dinner, free drinks both alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties, free gear demos from affiliated sponsors, free tee shirts, two concerts, gear, climbing competitions and clinics. I couldn’t believe it. What a great deal.
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The next two days we focused on climbing. Neither of us had much gear. I only had rock shoes, and Luke had a bit more with a harness and chalk bag. So we went bouldering. Bouldering is a style of climbing where you basically climb routes very low to the ground. This allows you to try harder moves without the fear of falling a long distance. It’s been one of my major pastimes for the last 8 years. By the end of the weekend, my muscles were strained and my fingers cut up and scraped.
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I found inspiration in the dyno comp (etition). To dyno is to find a hold and launch yourself off the rock and catch another hold higher up the rock. At the competition, there were guys who could fly. Points are awarded for the height of the grab. “Socks” Johnson was there, the national champion, and he won the competition by catching the highest grabs the most consistently.
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On Sunday, we stopped off for one last climbing session at the Hawks Nest Boulders. We finally were given good directions, and we wanted to find them after missing them on Friday. We burned out the last of our strength here, and doggedly made our way back to the car. My hands were so fatigued; I couldn’t even open a candy bar wrapper. I improvised and ripped it opened it with my teeth. You just can’t keep me away from my chocolate.
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It was a great weekend. We had spent three days hiking around the woods of West Virginia, taking in its entire scenic splendor, and there is plenty to see. It was like summer camp for us “fringe” folks who enjoy spending time outside. Everyone who was at the camp were of a good disposition. The camp was filled with climbers, and everyone was healthy, and strong. Everyone behaved, despite an unlimited amount of beer. We were here to climb, not to party, and everyone helped one another out. It was a great place to spend a weekend exploring, climbing, and chilling out with good people, my kind of people.
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On our way back north to Ohio, we stopped and asked for directions again, this time to a local swimming spot. We swam, and it felt good to immerse our tired bodies in cold water. I reflected on how nice the weekend was, and how good it is to be healthy, young and strong and in my element. I turned thirty a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say, life is great! Long live summer and West Virginia!

We stopped for pizza and subs in Washington, Pennsylvania. Luke told me there are a lot of Polacks and Italians in the area, so I ordered a hot sausage sub, and damn if it wasn’t one of the best I’ve ever eaten. It was a great way to finish a fantastic weekend. If you ever find yourself in Washington, head on over to Osso’s for some great food.
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Posted by Rhombus 19:01 Archived in USA Tagged waterfalls hiking travel rocks friends oceans camping tents climbing forests bouldering westvirginia Comments (0)

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