Road Trip VIII, Days 36-38, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Salinas, Kansas: Bike-Pathing Across America—Thank You, Trail Link!

Planning a drive across the country? Planning on staying in shape as you go? Does this look like a nice break from the highway?

Pedestrian/bike bridge on the Louisville Loop

Consider this post a full-on advertisement. Luckily, it’s for a non-profit organization. Also I’m not being paid. I just want anyone out there who travels across the US with a bike, or with a pair of good legs which like to stretch themselves on trails, to know about Trail Link.

Trail Link is a service provided by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, “a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people.”

For a small subscription you get access to a website with an incredibly well annotated national map of trails, everything from small nature trails to strolls in parks to converted rail trails stretching hundreds of miles. Here’s an example:

One of our favorite trails ever—it goes through tunnels!

Clicking on any of those icons gives you directions to parking, plus more info, although Trail Notes sections are already as thorough as any well-written guidebook, complete with photos and reviews.

The Mate and I are dedicated Trail Linkers. When possible, we plan our routes through areas with inviting trails. Often we find these in out of the way places like Susanville, California—one of our favorites—but also near quite urban places like Atlanta.

Susanville! A destination trail. And the town’s pretty cool too.

The reason? Trains go everywhere, and when they are retired and organizations like … get on the case, then the trails go everywhere too. It’s a beautiful thing.

Our most recent example: the terrific Louisville Loop, a series of wonderfully curvy, hilly, bridge-studded trails that will eventually encircle the entire city by connecting its greenways. Easy access, a fantastic workout, your daily hit of natural beauty—what else does a road-tripper need?

Just look at those whoopy, swoopy, woodsy curves!

Here’s one from last year’s trip—a trail along the Illinois River.

Ahhhh…no pavement.

We’ve even found trails in Canada using Trail Link, like this amazing one around a lake on BC’s Sunshine Coast:

LOVED this trail.

Just because you’re driving purposefully without a lot of time to meander, does not mean you have to sacrifice your needs for exercise, beauty and adventure. Check out the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy for yourself, and happy riding/walking!

 

Road Trip VIII, Days 14-18, Albuquerque, Oklahoma and the Ozarks: Green Chiles, Porcupines And Beavers, Oh My!

If you appreciate rodents of usual size, cute cabins, and veggies of Hispanic cuisine, this post is for you.

Fourteen years ago our little family of four spent five months in Santa Fe as part of the Mate’s last sabbatical. We love our wet, green northwest home, but we never got that red desert out of our system. We LOVE coming back to New Mexico.

Albuquerque is actually a better fit for us than artsy Santa Fe, with its twisty old streets too narrow for biking and its running trails all headed straight up mountains. And since we have a dear friend in Albuquerque it’s become a regular stop for us.

Of course we have to get our fix of the best green chiles in the country. These are from The Range in Bernalillo:

Encrusted with blue corn, served with arroz verde!

Then a hike along the flank of the gorgeous Sandia mountains.

Thanks to Desert Buddy Beth for taking this!

Usually we head into the heart of Texas after leaving the Land of Enchantment, but this year we let a ferocious tailwind zoom us across the Panhandle and right into northwestern Oklahoma.

On past trips OK has been a mess of blizzard or tornado, but this year it’s been downright lamblike. We spent a night each at two different state parks, Boiling Springs in the west and Greenleaf in the east, with a bike ride in Tulsa along the Arkansas River in between. We now have a much cosier relationship with the Sooner state.

Boiling Springs is an oasis on the prairie, featuring enormous cottonwoods. The joys of off-season: we had the whole place to ourselves, and the cabin cost less than a nice motel room.

But the highlight was this porcupine, asleep in the high, sunlit branches with only a tubby half-moon for company.

Wait a minute…that’s not a bird’s nest!

By the end of the following day, no more coyotes howling at night, and cottonwoods had switched to oaks as we entered Ozark country in eastern OK: Greenleaf State Park. The hiking was only ok (appropriately), but oh, those CCC cabins!

Doesn’t it look like it’s melting? I guess those CCC boys found a way to build quickly on a slope.

Because the weather gods were being so sweet, we decided to take advantage and visit another state that’s usually “under the weather” in February: Missouri. (Also, we just couldn’t resist staying off I-40 one more day! No offense, I-40…we’re just a tad sick of you.)

And in the Missouri section of the Ozarks is where we met not only this beaver

Hey, what are you doing awake in the middle of the day?

but also a spring which makes Oklahoma’s “Boiling Spring” seem like a joke. Notice I didn’t take a picture of Boiling Spring? Now check out Missouri’s Big Spring:

288 MILLION gallons per day bursts out from the base of this cliff!

The Show Me State is right! Here are a couple more views:

The limestone cliff wall, leading to the spring

Closeup of that incredible upwelling of water:

I have Spring Fever!

Oh, and lest you’re wondering about those Traveling Avocados of ours…#4 topped a delicious plate of pasta containing capers and sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan and greens, but we snarfed it before I remembered to take a picture. And #s 5 and 6 are apparently holding off ripening till we arrive in North Carolina. I feel ya, avocados!

Road Trip VIII, Days 10-13, LA to Arizona’s Chiricahuas: Hidden Treasures and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Avocados

Is anything more satisfying than seeing or experiencing or eating something hardly anyone else gets to? I think that’s why we humans love secret hideouts, bragging about buying stuff on sale, and scarce foods like truffles (not the chocolate kind, which are much less rare and infinitely more delicious).

I’m writing this from a special place which has been, in fact, a historical hideout—for the Apache leader Cochise, and also for Gerónimo—and which is so little known as to count as a hidden treasure. The “town” is named Portal, but it’s the portal to the Chiricahuas, a region of such grandeur it belongs more in the class of the Grand Canyon than in the obscurity of this southeasternmost corner of Arizona. One side of the mountains is actually a national monument; we’ve camped there before but I never blogged about it and don’t have those pictures accessible. But no worries: the non-monument side, where we’re staying in a cabin (since it was starting to snow, no camping)…THIS side manages to be just as spectacular.

How to describe the Chiricahuas? Soaring rock towers in gold and orange…

caves and hoodoos carved by wind…

…presiding over a deep valley of scrub oak and sycamore.

I also was startled by several javelinas, aggressive little wild piggies that burst out of the brush and give you a heart attack. Alas, I wasn’t able to grab my camera in time, so I had to settle for this picture of their diggings next to this barrel cactus:

Desert riparian: that’s the term for the rare phenomenon of streamside vegetation in the midst of drought. And along with the sunrise-colored rock, that habitat is what makes this place so special.

The only people we’ve met who have heard of this place are birders, and for good reason: as a little island of Sierra in the midst of the Sonoran desert, the Chiricahua offers a familiar haven to birds usually found only in the mountains of Mexico. Birders from all over the world congregate here every spring to “bag” rare species of hummingbird, and that most prized of sightings, the Elegant Trogon.

We aren’t birders. Also, it’s February. So we make do with what we can spot: turkeys!

But what about those avocados?

Getting back to the joy of rare things: our cousins in LA have a 100 year-old avocado tree, a huge beauty that bears fruit like green butter. When we left them, they gifted us with half a dozen, which we have been ripening serially as we travel. So, Avocado #1 went into a quesadilla in a motel outside of Joshua Tree National Park, where, sadly, a freezing windstorm was filling the air with dust and blasting our hopes of camping.

#2 met a similar fate in Tucson, where, still stymied by wind and dust, we holed up with map and weather reports and figures out where we could find some clear air to recreate in.

So Avocado #3 had the honor today of gracing an arugula salad…and the front porch of our cabin. Thanks, cousins!

Where will the next Traveling Avocados end up? Stay tuned.

Road Trip VIII, Days 1-4, Tacoma to Oakland: Making The Familiar Strange

“Poetry is making the familiar strange.” That’s an unattributed quote I used to give my students, and it came to my mind as the Mate and I began the first leg of this, our eighth cross-country sojourn to North Carolina. It’s true that even though February travel argues for a quick race to the south, we have multiple routes available to us for that purpose. We don’t have to go Tacoma-Eugene-Redwood Coast-Oakland-Los Angeles. Yet we’ve taken that route six out of eight years.

That raises two questions. The first, Why? is easy: people. Specifically, dear very young people who are changing so rapidly that missing a year is like missing three, and dear older people whose health we never want to take for granted. We WILL go where they are, while we can.

…like these guys😍

The second question is tougher: how do we keep fresh our enthusiasm for this well-traveled route? And that’s where that quote comes in. In this first, familiar leg of our journey, I am giving my Noticing Muscles a workout, determined to keep the familiar strange.

So, walking in Tacoma’s beautiful Point Defiance Park, I ignored the shining trunks of the madrona trees to capture this bright red Oregon Grape.

Nothing like Christmas in February!

Then, instead of taking a classic picture of Mt. Rainier in all her fresh-snow glory, I focused on this cloud flexing its muscle.

We can do it!

In Eugene, walking with friends along the Coast Fork of the Willamette, I substituted a shot of moss-draped oaks for this intriguingly blank sign.

For when you’re feeling especially self-directed…

Not pictured: flock of wild turkeys.

Just before the California border, heading toward Cave Junction on beautiful US 199, we passed this sign (admittedly not our first glimpse, but I finally got the Mate to slow down so I could take its picture):

Apparently fully intentional—hey, let’s celebrate veggies AND dyslexia!

In the redwoods—oh, I have so many pictures of redwoods!—I forced myself away from the big trees…

OK, just ONE MORE big tree picture…!

ahem, I say, I forced myself to look down instead of up sometimes, and found…

British Soldier lichen!

And…

Tiny tree doing yoga!

Finally arriving in the Bay Area, the Mate and I went for a bike ride along the top of Tilden Park in Berkeley. And there…well, it’s not so much that my noticing muscles gave out, as that bikes aren’t the best mode of transport for photography.

So I had to settle for this fairly obvious shot:

Good ol’ Golden Gate in the distance

Not pictured: a pair of the glossiest ravens I’ve ever seen.

But no worries—most of the “view” I’m seeing in these well-travelled parts of the West are memories…and I haven’t found a way to capture those with my smartphone yet.

Road Trip VII, Days 5-9, Dallas to Asheville: Graffiti and Growth

A study in contrasts: that’s what these past few road days have meant. Not the red desert west vs. leafy green east contrast; we left that behind in Palo Duro. Dallas, a few hours to the east, is firmly in the “east” quadrant, climatically speaking: they have humidity. Kudzu. Oaks and maples.

And tacos. OMG, the tacos! Sorry. Sorry. Not food-blogging today.

No, the contrasts we’ve been exposed to are cultural. Our Dallas friend David is a developer who focuses on turning blighted sections of his city into vibrant small-business centers. Most of his lessees are folks whom banks give short shrift: minorities, women, ex-cons. So when David gives us a bicycle tour through Dallas, we see it through his eyes–a fascinating lesson in demographic history.

Elvis played here once…

The most fascinating section of Dallas, to me, was what David called the “free-range graffiti place”–a blighted area whose owners apparently allow graffiti artists to roam freely and practice their skills.

Some definitely more talented than others…but the combined effect is breathtaking.

It does kinda bug me when the punk taggers have to mess up the good stuff.

I got to watch this one young artist beginning an ambitious project. His girlfriend must have a lot of patience.

 

He’s got his work cut out for him.

Leaving Texas, we drove rapidly through Arkansas and Tennessee, trying to stay ahead of a winter storm. So no pictures from those states, sorry. But on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, we stopped for a hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and that’s where the contrast came in.

The Mate thinks the winter woods look desolate, but I love the way they let me see the mountain’s bone structure!

That hike was a testament to what happens when you take a piece of land and put it out of the reach of human shaping. Authorized in 1926, Great Smoky is the first national park in the east, and by far the largest.

Rhodie thickets: what the word “impenetrable” was designed for

When I walk in those mountains, I feel a sense of ageless resilience. They’ve been inhabited for centuries, and–at least in the park–they don’t give a shit about demographic history.

Why, hello, Spring!

Seems to me, when the legally-protected woods are “bare-ass nekkid” and the mountain’s showing off its bones, Nature is its own graffiti artist, free to roam.

So nice to see the mountainside just plain dripping instead of dripping with icicles. 🙂

We’re headed now to my hometown, Durham, to watch a little basketball and eat a little BBQ. So this blog might suddenly veer from philosophy to fanaticism (GO Tarheels!!!). But never fear–all it’ll take to bring me back to myself is a walk in those bare-nekkid woods.

Road Trip VII, Days 1-4: Los Angeles to Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

Wait–Day 1 is Los Angeles? Gretchen, did you move?

No, I cheated. Starting from my home in Washington State, I flew down to San Diego for a first-ever reunion with my sisters, while the Mate followed, at the wheel of our faithful Red Rover. We met in LA and started Road Trip VII from there.

beautiful anemone in tidepool at Point Loma in San Diego

beautiful anemone in tidepool at Point Loma in San Diego

The theme of the trip so far? It’s the raison d’etre of our road trips: the joy of moving through beauty.

Our favorite way is to feel the air on our skin. So Day 1, we hiked in the steep canyons of Hollywood, startlingly green from all that recent rain, ignoring the Oscars-related bustle going on just below.

Ah, air. Even LA air. If it’s sunny in February, my skin’s not picky about pollution.

Day 2, we rode our bikes through the cactus gardens of Saguaro National Park in Tucson, marveling at the variety of the plant forms.

Make your own caption for this one

Make your own caption for this one

Can we not find a better word than “desert” to describe such arid Edens? 

dsc02176img_2210But sometimes the air-on-skin model is too rough for our tender epidermes. Day 3, approaching Albuquerque from the south, we were looking forward to biking through the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, glorying in the thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese and other migratory fowl who vacation there. But the wind had other ideas–or rather, the wind-blown dust did.

Scenery? What scenery?

Scenery? What scenery?

With poor little Red Rover getting sandblasted along I-25, we decided we wouldn’t fare too well. Boo. Sadness.

When tumbleweed meets bike. Seriously, the size of some of those things!

When tumbleweed meets bike. Seriously, the size of some of those things!

So we pushed on to Albuquerque, where, thanks to our buddy Beth, I was able to take two long power-walks through the wonderful neighborhoods of Northwest (backyard chickens, horses, goats–even an emu!) as the wind gradually relaxed to less-than-lethal levels.

Plus Beth took us to this REALLY COOL restaurant! This is the ceiling.

Plus Beth took us to this REALLY COOL restaurant! This is the ceiling.

Mmm…and chiles rellenos with fresh, deeply-green New Mexican chiles….whoops, sorry. Not today’s theme.

On Day 4, we finally got to experience air-on-skin, moving-through-beauty in the blessed slo-mo that is camping. In Palo Duro Canyon State Park, this red, rocky wonderland astonishing close to Amarillo–really!–we rode our bikes around in the last of the afternoon sun.

Only safe way to take a bike-selfie

Only safe way to take a bike-selfie

Then in the morning we went for a hike.

Dawn's early light from our campsite

Dawn’s early light from our campsite

This was very welcome as a warmer-upper, as the blessedly still air pushed the temp down to 20 overnight. And we weren’t allowed to use our stove because of extreme fire danger. Brrr.

C'mon, Texas sun, do your thing!

C’mon, Texas sun, do your thing!

Did I mention this place is right outside of Amarillo?!

Did I mention this place is right outside of Amarillo?!

Lest you think The Mate and I are too precipitous in our appreciation of nature’s gifts, just let me add: I could easily have written a post about the joys of being outdoors while holding still. But with a whole continent to cross, basketball games to watch and a bakery waiting for me to come back and work at…my skin and I choose to celebrate our happy reality: moving air.

Almost...warm! (Sometimes air on skin is more of a concept than a reality...)

Almost…warm! (Sometimes air on skin is more of a concept than a reality…)

The Longest Day: New Zealand’s Coast to Coast World Multisport Championship, Up Close & Personal

First thing I learned: don’t call it a triathlon. It’s multisport. And no offense, all you Ironmen out there–the Coast to Coast makes your race look pretty cushy.

Quick rehash: I went to New Zealand in part to witness this race up close by joining the crew of one of the competitors. I’m hatching a novel, set in New Zealand, in which this race plays an important role, and I needed to know what my characters are in for.

What I found out: I’m glad they’re the ones who have to do it, not me.

Here’s the race overview: a 2.2 kilometer run from the beach at Kumara Junction on the South Island’s west coast to the bikes. Then a 50k (31 mile) ride up into the mountains. Next, a 30k (20 mile) run through said mountains. A quick 15k (10 mile) bike ride down to the river is followed by a 70k (45 mile) kayak paddle. Finally, a 70k ride takes the athletes into Christchurch on the east coast.

Oh, is that all?

Most Coast-to-Coasters do the race in two days, or as part of a team, or both. The Longest Day competitors do it in…you guessed it: one LONG day. That’s what the athlete who invited me along was doing–Josie, 42, mum of two. 

Josie & support team at 4:45 am, ready for check-in

Josie & support team at 4:45 am, ready for check-in

Josie and I had only communicated via email when I met her the night before the race at a BnB in Hokitika, along with her support crew: Pete, her dad, an orchardist, and Sarah, another multisport athlete from Queenstown. Josie was going over her gear, incredibly organized into separate bins labeled “Bike 1 to Run,” “Bike 2 to Paddle,” etc), and boiling potatoes. These she buttered, salted, and put into baggies for the different bins. Apparently potatoes were her carb of choice (even the other Kiwis thought this was odd), along with bananas and energy bars. (For the kayak portion, she mashed the bars into lumps and stuck them onto her boat like putty. Kiwi ingenuity.)

Sarah prepping Josie's paddling food

Sarah prepping Josie’s paddling food

Over pizza, we got to know each other a bit, and I learned my assigned role–NOT, thank goodness, to be an assistant . Each athlete is only allowed two; these folks wore wristbands and carried very detailed instructions. Pete and Sarah played those roles, of course; my job was to take pictures with Josie’s phone. Great! (Except for the fact that I’m not familiar with smartphones and found myself tapping the wrong icon sometimes just at the wrong moment–no! No! I don’t want a selfie, damnit!)

Pete & I at the second Transition Area

Pete & I at the second Transition Area

Josie didn’t seem fussed about going to bed early, though she planned to be up at 3:45. I guess she didn’t sleep much anyway; too wired. We all shared one room with 4 separate beds, and all three of them seemed perfectly at ease with me and my odd reason for joining them. From what I’ve learned of New Zealanders, even if they thought it was strange, they wouldn’t have said so, even to each other. They are the least snarky, least judgmental nationality I’ve ever met.

At 4:45 next morning we left Josie to rack her bike up the road at Kumara Junction. She then walked the 2k back down to the start at the beach, while we drove ahead to the first Transition Area (TA) in the mountains. I commented on the relative calm of kayak-bedecked cars lined up along the road, and was told, “oh, this is nothing. You should have been here yesterday for the start of the 2-day and team events.” Apparently the Longest Day (which is the “Multisport World Championship”) only takes 150 competitors, but the 2-day takes 500. That must have been a zoo! But in the entire day I never saw a single race organizer missing from a spot where you’d want to see one, and I only saw one competitor lose his cool–and he was French. Even a guy who couldn’t find his support crew after his 70k paddle stint was just walking around, enquiring politely. I can’t see American athletes behaving so calmly.

Up in the mountains we assembled in a dark cow pasture, everyone headlamped. A local school was selling breakfast, and Pete shouted me to a whitebait patty sandwich (“sammie”; whitebait is a kind of tiny fish fried up whole). The wait was a bit chilly, but no one bitched. We were treated to the sight of sunshine working its way down the mountain peaks, but it still hadn’t reached us by the time Josie arrived, around 8, after a nice little 50k ride up the dark mountain road we’d just climbed. She was pumped; apparently on her first go 7 years ago (as part of a 2-day team) she’d taken a bike spill, so she was already enjoying herself “heaps” more.

The lead guy transitioned from bike to run in 3 seconds–I am not exaggerating. Still not sure how they managed that. Josie took a couple of minutes. From the start she’d made it clear she was not competing with the other 19 women in the field, but only hoping to come in as close to 15 hours as possible.

Off Josie ran, wearing her heavy pack (athletes are required to carry their own first aid kits, and then there was their nourishment for the 30k run.**) Water, at least, wasn’t an issue; everything there is drinkable so all they needed was a wee cup. One more reason multisport would be harder to pull off in the US.

**”run” in this case = scrambling over huge boulders, fording rivers, and finding one’s way through mostly un-tracked meadow and bush. I was told that about 10k of the way was simply “running” down river beds. Which is the #1 reason I would never be tempted by this race. What a risk to put your body in! How easy to screw up your whole career with one fall! But the athletes just shrug. No worries.

The next TA was in a sunny field next to one of the rivers they had to run. Lovely sun, pretty, dark beech trees.

2nd Transition Area--nice and warm, finally!

2nd Transition Area–nice and warm, finally!

We waited there around 5 hours, including an interval in which we drove the kayak down to the river TA, staged it there, then drove back to help Josie transition back to bike.

Kayak gear prep

Kayak gear prep

Watching the runners appear, it was obvious several had fallen. One woman had blood all over her face; with her pack and grim expression, she looked like a soldier. But, to quote Senator Mitchell, “nevertheless she persisted.”

Many rivers to cross...

Many rivers to cross…

But Josie? All smiles.

Here she comes!

Here she comes! (photo courtesy KathmanduCoasttoCoast)

Oh, to smile like that after 20 miles running over boulders!

Oh, to smile like that after 20 miles running over boulders!

Why not just have them run straight to the kayaks? I guess maybe even the crazy Kiwis think 45k of boulder-running is a bit much. So we had the excitement of getting Josie on her bike, and then racing the 15k to reach the river before she did. Since this was a fairly level ride, high up in the mountain valley with snowy peaks around, we didn’t beat her by much.

Not quite halfway through the race at this point...a mere 7 hours!

Not quite halfway through the race at this point…a mere 7 hours!

Did I mention the day was perfect? Blue sky, even brighter blue braided river. NZ on its best behavior.

Still smiling! (photo by Sarah Lyttle)

Still smiling! (photo by Sarah Lyttle)

 

“I’m having such a great day!” Josie enthused as she ran down the gravel road from bike rack to river, Sarah feeding her potatoes and bananas as they ran.

Sarah escorting (and feeding) Josie in transition from bike to kayak

Sarah escorting (and feeding) Josie in transition from bike to kayak

Gearheads, take note of Josie’s ingenious “drink-tube pack” constructed of bite-tubes and duct tape. One tube attached to a container of electrolytes, one to some other energy-drink, and the third went directly into the river. (Sorry, US. No rivers that pure in the Lower 48.)

Kiwi ingenuity again.

Kiwi ingenuity again.

Despite the sunshine, we could feel a wind developing as the day progressed, and sure enough, those kayakers got it full in the face as they travelled out of sight down their secluded valley.

Did I mention the white water? For 45 miles?

Did I mention the white water? For 45 miles?

In all the sweat and excitement, easy to forget the gorgeous scenery...

In all the sweat and excitement, easy to forget the gorgeous scenery…

Major “Aha” from this experience: the river makes all the difference. That is, one’s ability to read the river. All the former athletes I talked to said so. The lead guy had 13 minutes on racer #2 at the end of the run; after 70k of kayaking it was down to 3, and then the second guy caught him on the last bike leg and won by 8 minutes. Totally counter-intuitive; I would have thought the run made the difference. Also very useful info, thematically, for the book I’m contemplating. The river, not the runner. Or river-running, not running. I’m mulling the implications.

The wait by the river was long, as I’ve mentioned, but here at last it felt a bit more like an Event, due to the presence of a PA system, complete with cheery announcer and rock n roll. The other TAs had had only the volunteers and the food concessions. I had another sammie and tried to stay out of the ozone-holey sun, and cheered on the 2-day kayakers, then the elite 1-dayers, as they appeared. Lots of little kids, lots of dogs, all loving that swimming-pool-blue water.

When they helped Josie out of her boat 5 hours later, she admitted to being “knackered.”

I'd be more than a bit "knackered" at this point.

I’d be more than a bit “knackered” at this point.

And then she jogged back up the bank, got on her bike, and rode the last 70k to Christchurch, into a headwind.

Did I mention this race is not for me?

Once game ol’ Jos was safely back on the bike for the final stage, we had no more jobs to do, and headed for Josie’s sister’s house for beers and an enormous pile of fish & chips (“fushenchups”). Between the 7 of us (Josie’s dad, sis, stepmum, half brother, brother in law, Sarah, and me), the heap of chips that was unwrapped from newsprint was roughly 20″ by 10″, and 4″ high.

THIS.

THIS.

Proud to say we didn’t finish them; we told ourselves the rest were for Josie, though I’m sure that’s the last thing she’d have wanted after finishing.

The finish line scene was what you’d expect: big video screen, more rock n roll and enthusiastic announcer calling out folks’ names as they sprinted or staggered to the finish arch. A giant full moon rose, orange, over the beach. Josie finished at 9:02, almost cracking the 15-hour mark! And totally stoked to discover she was 7th woman.

Now THAT's a hard-earned beer. (courtesy KathmanduCoasttoCoast)

Now THAT’s a hard-earned beer. (courtesy KathmanduCoasttoCoast)

But that’s the thing this country’s culture–its understatedness. Of course there are fierce competitors; both the top two men and women battled it out to the finish. But nobody bragged or ragged. And  the fact is, I got to sit in on the Coast to Coast, not the “Extreme Coast to Coast”–which you KNOW is what American race producers would call it.

The book I aim to write next is premised on that cultural difference, on the notion that you can have premier sport without premier ego. How un-American can you get?

Thanks to Josie, Sarah, Pete, and all those Coast to Coast athletes, supporters and organizers, when I’m ready to start writing, I’ll know a bit more whereof I write.

[And then there’s the GODZone…but even my fictional athlete isn’t that crazy.]

Return to Kiwiland, Final Installment: Why New Zealand? The Coast to Coast Triathlon

And finally…Reason #2 why I’m headed back to New Zealand after 20 years: for a triathlon.

Not to run. To observe. To take notes. The next novel I’m planning is set in New Zealand, and this triathlon plays a major role. Because this is no ordinary triathlon. This is the Coast to Coast.

This. (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

This. (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Kiwis take the phrase "cross-country" literally. (courtesy coasttocoast.com)

Kiwis take the phrase “cross-country” literally. (courtesy coasttocoast.com)

This race spans the skinniest part of the South Island, Kumara to Christchurch–243 kilometers (about 180 miles) of running, biking, and–no, not swimming–whitewater kayaking. Here’s the course:

Logistics might be complex. Ya think? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Logistics might be complex. Ya think? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Oh, did I forget to mention it crosses a mountain pass?

Thanks to Kiwi friends, I’ve been invited to “pit crew” for a woman who’s doing the triathlon. I’m going to grab her bike or hold her wetsuit or whatever she needs, all while soaking up the sights and sounds and scents and trying not to make a pest of myself.

For years, the race was sponsored by a beer company. Now its sponsor is Kathmandu, an outdoor gear company that seems much better suited. But notice how little else I know about the Coast to Coast! I’m excited to learn how much more I have to learn.

Like...how do they keep from breaking their ankles in the first kilometer? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Like…how do they keep from breaking their ankles in the first kilometer? (courtesy coasttocoast.co.nz)

Also thrilled that I don’t have to run/ride/paddle the damn thing myself. The elites take about 13 hours to finish. The woman whose crew I’m joining expects to take 15-16 hours.

Funny story:  when I first chatted with “my” triathlete, she asked, “So, this American athlete and her coach…will they be joining you as well?”

It took me a moment to process this. Then: “Oh, no! They’re fictional. I mean, they’re what the book’s going to be about. So, no, they won’t be coming with me.”

Except they will, of course. In my head. Assessing their fictional future.

So if you’re reading this–cheers! The next time you’ll hear from me will be in mid-February, when our Great Kiwi Re-adventure is behind us. Till then, keep reading and writing and running or whatever it is you do. Hug your family. Talk with a stranger. Be well.

 

 

Canada’s Best-Kept Secret? The Sunshine Coast

Ready for a quick morph into travel-blog mode? How about a debate over what IS Canada’s best-kept secret? (I imagine it has many. Unlike the U.S., Canada does not trumpet its specialness.) The Mate and I just returned from a short excursion up British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, and we are still scratching our heads.

How have we lived so long, and so close by, without knowing about this place?

Quick geography overview: the Sunshine Coast is–duh–on the west coast, or rather it IS the west coast, north and east of Vancouver. It is NOT an island, though it includes many. But considering you have to take TWO ferries to experience its extent, it sure is hard to convince your brain that it’s still on the mainland.

Look, here’s what I’m talking about:

(Courtesy sunshinecoastcanada.com)

(Courtesy sunshinecoastcanada.com)

Wanna drive to Whistler? Sure. Wanna drive to Gibsons? Get on a boat.

On Day One, a single ferry ride plus a generous hour’s drive from Vancouver, we were discovering the Skookumchuck Rapids. These rapids are NOT in a river–they’re formed by the tide rushing through an inlet too skinny to hold all that water without throwing it around in standing waves and trenches so deep and gnarly that kayakers come from all over to train and play in them.

Not a river? Are you SURE?!

Not a river? Are you SURE?!

Wheeee!

Wheeee!

On Day Two, after our second ferry ride, I was walking through the largest town, Powell River, on my way to the info center. “Um, you might not want to go that way,” a young woman called to me from a yard. “There’s a bear in a tree down that street, and he’s been growling.” Of course I had to go see that bear. It was a big one, very black, snoozing in a crook of a cedar. In the middle of a neighborhood. Welcome to Powell River, eh?

{Did not have my camera on me at that moment, so I’ll give you a second to imagine the bear.}

Day Three, we drove to the furthest northern town, Lund, and took a 10-minute water taxi ride out to Savary Island–referred to by some Coasters as “our Hawaii.” Not sure about that comparison, but in terms of SUN and wide expanses of sand…sure, I get it. Also never heard of it. Also thrilled to be there at the end of the summer with NO ONE ELSE around.

sunny Savary, with Vancouver Island in the background

sunny Savary, with Vancouver Island in the background

Day Two and Four, we rode our bikes 13k around Inland Lake, near Powell River. (We liked the bike path so much, we did it in both directions.)

The lake has its own wee island you can ride onto!

The lake has its own wee island you can ride onto!

Not a soul around, unless loons have souls.

Not a soul around, unless loons have souls.

OK, I'll stop. I just REALLY loved this bike path.

{OK, I’ll stop. I just REALLY liked that bike path.}

On our last day, back on the lower portion of the Sunshine Coast, we hiked a short ways to Smugglers Cove, where we found…

...this.

…THIS.

Madrona in the morning sun

Madrona in the morning sun

Madrona with berries

Madrona with berries

I don’t usually post so many pictures, so you can tell what kind of a visual impact this place made on me. (If my computer weren’t so slow to upload them, I’d post more.) The Mate and I feel like we only got a little taste of the Sunshine Coast, and we already want to go back.

Which, lucky for us, isn’t that big of a deal. Which brings me back to that first question: why did it take us 26 years of living in the Northwest to figure this out?

So, what do you think: Canada’s best-kept secret? Or are there others I don’t yet know of?

Road Trip VI, Days 16-19, Scottsdale to Dallas: A Texas-Sized Apology

This is NOT the post I was planning on, until last night. The Mate and I have spent the bulk of these past few days hiking and biking in our favorite Texan discovery: Caprock Canyons State Park. Last year we only had time for a day hike, so this time we were thrilled to have nearly three days here. I was planning to talk about the park’s bison herd, and to post lost of pictures like this:

"Do not approach wild bison," the brochure says. Ummm...

“Do not approach wild bison,” the brochure says. Ummm…

And this:

Hey, big guy. Or gal. Ma'am. Please, after you...

Hey, big guy. Or gal. Ma’am. Please, after you…

Or some of the park’s beautiful red scenery:

No, "Texas scenery" is not an oxymoron.

No, “Texas scenery” is not an oxymoron.

In between photos, I was planning on inserting as many snarky comments about Texas as possible, like: “Someone must’ve picked up Texas and shook it, ’cause all the scenery ran down into these canyons.” If you’ve read any of my Road Trip posts from the past five years, you know I love to hate on Texas–its in-your-face attitude, its giant vehicles and lack of carpool lanes, not to mention recycling bins…and don’t get me started on its senators.

But guess what, Texas: something happened, and I owe you an apology.

On our second night of camping, we were to be joined by our friends from Dallas. These dear folks were willing to drive five hours through Friday traffic to meet us at our campsite in the evening and go hiking next day.

When they didn’t show up on time, we thought, “Oh well, traffic,” and got dinner started. (We were out of cell phone range.) But when they arrived in one of those Texas-sized pickups, followed by a state trooper, we turned off the stove. What happened?

Turns out they’d hit a deer, out in the middle of Texas nowhere. The deer died instantly (and mercifully). This is what happened to their little VW:

I still can't believe neither of them was hurt.

I still can’t believe neither of them was hurt.

As they were standing on the roadside, in shock, assessing the damage, a truck drove by, did a U-turn, and stopped to help. The driver was an EMT, and even though our friends were (blessedly) unhurt, I found this very reassuring. This guy insisted on escorting them to the nearest town, Turkey, Texas, 10 miles away. That’s about as far as the now-radiatorless VW could limp.

That guy got our friends as far as a garage, closed for the night. But as they were standing there, discussing their options–motel? None in sight; Rental car? Seriously? This is Turkey, Texas–an old guy stepped out of the convenience store across the street and overheard them. He invited them in to recover, and had them leave their poor mashed car on his driveway. Then he insisted on driving them the remaining ten miles to the park, then escorting them to our campsite. He left them with his phone number in case they needed help the next day.

Thanks, guy from Turkey, Texas!

Thanks, guy from Turkey, Texas!

I know, I know. Good Samaritans come in all shapes and sizes. But the fact that this one came in the guise of someone with whom our friends likely shared NOTHING in common politically was especially poignant to us. A bunch of sweet, helpful Texans. Thanks, universe. I needed that.