Road Trip VII, Days 32-34, Sheridan, WY back to Lopez Island: Going to America, Big-Time

When we Lopez Islanders take the ferry to the mainland, we call it “going to America.” We are literally insulated–“insula” being Latin for “island.”

Road trips take Going to America to a new level. 34 days. 23 states plus one Canadian province. A (rough) total of 65 friends and family members. More bike paths than I can remember.

…like this rails-to-trails path along the Illinois River Canal

The Mate and I set out on our seventh Road Trip more or less as usual: same camping gear (barely used, thanks to the weather), same cooler, same road food. (Remind me to tell you about Noodlebag sometime!) And of course, same ol’ Red Rover.

In the ferry line: almost home!!!!

But something felt different this year, striking out across this huge, gloriously varied country. That something was our new president. Knowing I was driving through state after state where the majority had voted for Donald Trump made me…cringe a little. Mainstream Republican is one thing. But this pussy-grabbing, egomaniacal, racist ogre? How was I possibly going to relate to my fellow citizens in the rest areas, parks and motel lobbies?

The answer: focus on our American commonalities.

Commonality #1: Sports. We sports fanatics share as much passion–maybe more–as political parties. Tarheel Nation probably comprises a lot of Trump voters. When we’re cheering our beloved Heels to another possible national championship, we love each other.

Haven’t made it to the Dean Dome since ’15, but–there in spirit!

Commonality #2: Love of landscape. Whether we love it for loud recreation like snowmobiling and hunting, or more quiet pursuits like hiking or horseback riding, I know our love of the beauty of the land is the same. We might use different language–“sacred” vs. “awesome,” “transcendent” vs. “niiiiiice”–but we are talking about the same thing.

“Whose woods these are I think I know…”

Best way to appreciate nature: be a tree!

Commonality #3: Judgementalism. Somehow, I find comfort in knowing we all share this flaw. A small example: I find myself feeling “judgy” when staying with friends who don’t compost or recycle, or who buy produce that comes from halfway around the world. But at the same time, I have friends who probably judge ME for my ginormous carbon footprint, with all the driving and flying I do.

A larger example: Indian Country. We passed, and passed through, many reservations across America. Somehow the land that makes the most impression on me is in the rural mountain West–probably because, unlike the eastern states and the west coast, the swath that runs from Montana south to New Mexico LOOKS THE SAME as it did 150 years ago. (Again–not talking cities here. Just the land.) Driving past the site of Little Big Horn or Sand Creek, for example, I have no trouble visualizing exactly what those warriors and soldiers would have seen as they confronted each other, or the view families would have had from their encampments.

All that land was theirs. Now almost none of it is; it’s been swallowed up by a dominant, unsympathetic culture. If I were Native, would I be able to contain my rage? So who am I now to feel like my country’s been hijacked by the supporters of Donald Trump? I’m still part of the mainstream.

I’m not saying “it’s all relative.” Of course there are extremes I don’t hesitate to call Bad: pussy-grabbing, for instance. Big no-no. But this trip has helped remind me that the people I struggle to understand probably have just as much trouble understanding ME.

 

In the middle of a long day crossing Montana on I-90, we stopped at the Missouri Headlands State Park.  It is, as the name implies, the beginning of that body of moving water we call the Missouri. It’s a good place: Lewis and Clark’s party camped there for three days.

Not a bad camp spot.

Lewis and Clark were sent by Jefferson to stitch our country together, west to east, by waterways. They failed, of course–Mighty Mo don’t cross no Rockies!–but the land routes they found served the same purpose in time. And of course, as American culture spread across the continent, other cultures were soon shattered.

“This rest area is your rest area, this rest area is my rest area…” See you there, America.

The lesson here? “This land is your land, this land is my land.” We may not agree on much. But in asserting my love for this big ol’ country, I’m not going to whine about it having become “unrecognizable” to me, as some on the left like to do. I DO recognize American culture, warts and all. And some of those warts are mine.

 

 

Road Trip VII, Days 29-31: Down ‘n’ Out in Estes Park, Colorado–NOT

Getting sick sucks. Getting sick on vacation in Estes Park, Colorado, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park? That’s a bit harder to sound-byte.

Pretty sweet spot for a town, right?

On the one hand, I couldn’t do my usual racing-around-seeing-things stuff. Hiking? Noooo.  Biking? Also a no, thanks. Shopping–nope. And it’s hard to get excited about discovering restaurants when you’ve lost your appetite.

But on the other: I’m on VACATION. I get to lie around and not feel pressured about all the work I’m not getting done! What could be more fitting?

Even better, attitude-wise: getting sick when you’re vacationing with a friend with a scary heart condition.

The one hike I did manage, at 9,000-ft. altitude, had me gasping for breath and walking in slo-mo. Which is exactly what our friend does ANY day he hikes at altitude.

Pretending I don’t feel like curling up for a nap

So, Gretchen’s pity-party was swiftly cancelled. I spent the rest of the weekend soaking up scenery from the car or the window of our rented cabin, and soaking up friendship.

Long’s Peak–a LONG way away, thanks to the miracle of telephoto

Rocky Mountain hiiiiigh….from my car window….

Oh, and that friendship that was in danger of being tested by sports fanaticism? The sports gods were kind to me: our friends’ UCLA Bruins lost on Friday while our beloved North Carolina Tarheels won, so we all cheered together on Sunday as the Heels advanced to the Final Four. Just so you know. 🙂

Thanks, Nature. I needed that.

It’s a lesson I can’t seem to learn too often: compassion and gratitude beat back self-pity every time.

Road Trip VII, Days 22-28, Shaftsbury, VT to Fort Collins, CO: The Ultimate Adventure-Buddy Challenge

You’d think, after a month on the road, that we’d be heading straight home now–next stop, our dear evergreen Washington State.

Instead, we’ve diverged to Colorado. We have an adventure-buddy date.

Seven years ago, when our retirement from our primary careers turned us into annual road-trippers, we found kindred spirits in a pair of friends from North Carolina. On every trip since 2012, we have met our Adventure Buddies somewhere along the way. We rent a house for three days, take turns cooking, and go for lots of hikes.

2012, Moab, Utah:

Arches National Park (duh)

2013, Sedona, Utah:

A little late snow that year!


2014, Yosemite:

Who took this pic? Our Adventure Buddies, of course!

2015, Yucca Valley, CA (near Joshua Tree):

…and great Mexican food nearby too!

2016, Anza-Borrego State Park, CA:

Thanks, Adventure Buddies!

At the end of each day, we watch college basketball together, men’s and women’s. See, our buddies are Tarheel fans like us. North Carolina, remember? If we meet during the eastern portion of our trip, there are regular season games to watch. And if, as now, we meet in late March, there’s the NCAA championship. In the rare years that Carolina’s not in the Sweet 16–yes, we Tarheel fans are that spoiled–we can always root against Duke together.

This year we’re meeting in Estes Park, Colorado, right next to Rocky Mountain National Park.

This place.

So, this should be a perfect weekend, right? #1 seed Carolina’s in, playing this Friday. And Duke? They’ve already choked lost to a lowly 15-seed.

Except.

Something I forgot to mention: these NC friends of ours moved to LA. As in UCLA. Whose team is also in the Sweet 16. Playing Friday.

Luckily for our mutual friendship, UNC and UCLA aren’t playing each other Friday. So we’re free to cheer for both.

Except.

If both couples’ sports-gods prayers are answered, both our teams will win. Then they have to face each other.

How ’bout that for a test of friendship?

I’d like to think that, on Friday, I’ll be wholeheartedly cheering for the UCLA Bruins to beat Kentucky. And I will be. Mostly.

But I gotta admit, more than a teensy part of me will be secretly hoping they lose. Just so we can all cheer on the Tarheels, together, on Sunday. If Carolina loses and UCLA wins, I’ll be a huge Bruins fan.

And if it comes to UNC-UCLA? I’ll be cheering first and foremost for our friendship. Of COURSE.  What kind of person do you think I am?    🙂

 

 

Road Trip VII, Days 17-21, Durham, NC to Shaftsbury, VT: Marching Madly Back Into Winter

What kind of idiots drive north into a named winter storm…when they don’t have to?

Allow us to introduce ourselves: Wing & Mate.

We did make a few prudent choices. We delayed leaving NC for a day to let the worst of Stella pass. And we stayed as far east as possible, away from the storm’s edge, even though that meant sticking with ugly ol’ I-95 instead of taking the prettier inland route. We may be idiots, but we’re not STUPID.

We also opted to take it slow, leaving late in the morning and spending the night halfway to Vermont, in a motel in Wilmington…where we got a good lesson in reality.

Reality can thin out a bit on road trips. In our little car-bubble, whatever we’re used to becomes whatever IS. So I got heartily sticker-shocked at that motel. But since it was the last room available I swallowed hard and paid–I’m embarrassed to say how much–to avoid the losing proposition of racing around the internet just before rush hour trying to find a better deal.

The motel was full of families. In summertime or over Christmas this is expected, but we could tell these weren’t folks on Spring Break. Sure enough, we learned that a major power outage had forced them from their homes. And here we are, on a purely discretionary trip! Talk about perspective. I chatted with a couple of ladies over breakfast, and when they wished me “safe travels,” I wished there were a way to say, “safe stay-at-home!”

The New Jersey Turnpike took all my attention as navigator, as other freeways snaked in and out, trying to lure us into NYC. Nothing looked attractive, even under snow, which tells you something. (Sorry, NJ…maybe someday I’ll discover the “Garden” part of your statehood.) But once safely in the Hudson Valley, headed for Albany, we both relaxed, enjoying real mountains for the first time since Asheville. 

Snowy mountains. You gotta love any scenery that calls to mind words like “serene” or “majestic.” 

Majestic, shmajestic–I wanna make footprints!

“Whose woods these are I think I know…” (snowshoeing along a section of the Appalachian Trail)

Snow angel! (We coastal Northwesterners can’t get enough of this.)

OK, snow is cool. But the REAL draw of this adventure? Cute little cousins.

…and cheese-eating dinosaurs

And their adorable sheep-herding donkey Ben:

March is a terrible time for lambing in VT. Cousin Jesse had to bring the flock into the barn.

Ben being modest. He has work to do.

So: March Madness in basketball, yes. And in the lives of good ol’ Wilmingtonites just trying to make it through winter. But the northeastern roadways? Piece o’ cake. Shame on us for doubting the Yankee ability to deal with snow.

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…)

One Last New Zealand Blast (Before Hitting the Road Again): My Top Seven Random Faves About Kiwi Culture

I’m never getting New Zealand out of my system, just so you know. But since the Mate and I are embarking on Road Trip VII next week, this will be my last post about all things Kiwi for now. Promise.

That said, here’s my Top Seven Random Favorite Aspects of Kiwi Culture:

1.TEA. Like the Brits whose Commonwealth they share, New Zealanders are a nation of tea-drinkers first. My tribe! This picture from our first night’s accommodation in Christchurch tells you everything you need to know: one tiny bit of crappy instant coffee, and several varieties of gourmet tea.

Welcome to my world, coffee people. How ya like it?

Welcome to my world, coffee people. How ya like it?

(That said, Starbucks culture has made huge inroads. Euro-style cafes are everywhere now, more ubiquitous than the old-fashioned “tearooms”, and you can now buy commuter mugs–unheard of, 20 years ago.)

2. Holiday parks. No, they aren’t amusement parks–they’re a super-efficient type of accommodation, offering, in one location, everything from a place to pitch your tent or park your camper to cabins to motel rooms, ranging from the suite-with-bathroom-and-full-kitchen to a space just big enough for a bed, and everything in between. Communal kitchens, bathrooms, laundry, wifi areas and kids’ playgrounds fill in all the in-between needs, and we’ve always found them friendly and orderly. What a great idea! Why don’t these exist in the U.S.?

Sometimes all you need is a bed and a roof!

Sometimes all you need is a bed and a roof!

This adorable cabin in Okarito was exactly what we needed after four days of tramping.

This adorable cabin in Okarito was exactly what we needed after four days of tramping.

3. Meat pies. How are these not a “thing” in the US? How, I ask you? And don’t give me that health-food-GF-DF-locavore-movement argument–people still eat KFC, don’t they? I don’t GET it.

Mmmmm, stike poi. (Actually this one's chicken and mushroom. Still delicious.)

Mmmmm, stike poi. (Actually this one’s chicken and mushroom. Still delicious.)

4. Multisport. I know, my last post was entirely devoted to this topic. But I still don’t get why Americans aren’t more into the idea of cross-country running-riding-paddling-or-swimming races, not as teams or as made-for-TV spectacles like The Amazing Race, but just…fun.

Granted, the logistics are tricky! Multisport athletes need lots of friends.

Granted, the logistics are tricky! Multisport athletes need lots of friends.

5. Podocarps. OK, these aren’t exactly cultural aspects…they’re botanical. Trees, in fact. New Zealand has no native coniferous trees; they have podocarps. (The name means foot-seed in Greek, I guess from the shape of the seeds.) Evolutionarily, they are much older than conifers–and boy are they cool-looking. There are many varieties–totara, kahikatea, matai, kauri–but my favorite by far is the Rimu. Let me introduce you.

rimu branches--so graceful

rimu branches–so graceful

Towering above lesser trees...

Towering above lesser trees…

closeup of Kahikatea bark

closeup of Kahikatea bark

6. That accent. Ex-cent. It just gets me. In fact, I was forced to come up with seven (sivin) Faves because six would be pronounced “sex”, and I really didn’t want to go there. Stike poi for-ivah!

7. Tea again. After the Mate and I went for a paddle around beautiful Okarito Lagoon on the South Island’s west coast, the kayak rental company treated us to complementary tea…complete with china cup. My people!

Ta, Kiwis. Miss you already!

Ta, Kiwis. Miss you already!

I hope everyone reading this gets a chance to find an equally “simpatico” spot for themselves outside of their own culture…and hopefully, not quite so far away!

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.]

Milford Track-elogue: Walk With Me On “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World”

“Tramp,” actually–not walk. Kiwis don’t hike trails, they tramp tracks. And we’re going to New Zealand now, where I’ve been for most of the past month, and still am, mentally, for the past week since coming home. This blog entry will allow me to stay a while longer. Thanks for that.

January 30, with our tidy, heavy backpacks, we hopped a bus in Te Anau (in Fiordland, on the southwest of the South Island) to a boat which took us to the top of (beautiful, 40-mile long, 1,200 ft-deep) Lake Te Anau  and dropped us off at the start of the track. I was filled with that childlike sense of “I can’t believe this is finally happening!”–a feeling which never wore off, as a matter of fact, during the whole five days. (That’s what you get for wanting to do something for 20 years, I guess. I’ve always enjoyed the extra boost of joy I get from anticipation, and this was extra-extra.)

Let's go let's go let's go!

Let’s go let’s go let’s go!

The boat dropped us off. Every tramper had to step carefully through a pair of tubs filled with bleach solution, to kill an invasive algae that’s plaguing NZ waters. Milford’s rivers are still blessedly pure.

After 20 years...we're on our way.

After 20 years…we’re on our way.

Off we tramped into mature beech forest, those giant Lord Of The Rings southern beeches with tiny, dark leaves and craggy, ferny, rainforesty trunks. Huge. Immersed in silence, with occasional blasts from tiny fantails and black robins with outsized voices, I could not wipe the smile off my face.

Imagine birdsong...

Imagine birdsong…

Mountain Beech

Mountain Beech

The first hut was only 5k away and the day was fine. (In NZ, food is “nice” and weather is “fine”–the opposite of how we say it.) So we took our time, stopping for lunch and photos. We both wished the first hut had been further in, making the next day shorter, but I guess the public huts are spaced carefully apart from the lodges of the paying trampers (who have their packs carried and meals prepared), and those lodges seem to have been built first.

The irony of this river's name was inescapable, as we hiked along it only 10 days after the other guy's inauguration...

The irony of this river’s name was inescapable, as we hiked along it only 10 days after the other guy’s inauguration…

At Clinton Hut (on the Clinton River) we had plenty of leisure time. I covered myself up from sandflies and found a mossy log to lounge upon and write in my journal, and a sweet little black robin came and sat on my feet! I think it was eating my sandflies. (No pictures of that–I didn’t want to scare the lil’ guy off.)

***Not pictured: black robin eating Gretchen’s sandflies***

That night it started to rain. We’d seen the weather reports; the next day looked horrible, and we fully expected to be hiking in torrential rain and wind. Our Hut Warden, Rose, warned us, “It’ll be like walking into the shower with the spray pointed at your face.”  But we took comfort in the hope that the following day would be clear to crest the pass.

OK, I see what they mean about trail washouts...

OK, I see what they mean about trail washouts…

Rain it did–where we were, yes, but even more above us, and on the other side of the pass. We apparently received 9 inches; I’m not sure what they got, but it was more. Which was a problem. That first morning, all packed up and ready to roll, we 40 trampers listened to Rose telling usthat the track would become impassible up ahead. (Neck-deep, in fact, is what it turned out to be on the other side of the pass!) So the 40 trampers in the next hut couldn’t move on, which meant that we couldn’t either. Having already spent a full afternoon in Clinton Hut, we were now officially forbidden to leave it for another 24 hours. (Rose actually put a rope across the track–never seen that before.)

Clinton Hut wasn't my favorite, especially after being trapped there an extra 24 hrs. This is Mintaro, Hut #2--so happy to be there!

Clinton Hut wasn’t my favorite, especially after being trapped there an extra 24 hrs. This is Mintaro, Hut #2–so happy to be there!

***Not pictured: rainy, rainy Clinton Hut***

As we were digesting this, feeling dismayed, it dawned on us that the hikers scheduled one day after us were having their entire trip CANCELLED. No way to double up folks in those huts, or at least no way the orderly Kiwis wanted to try. Wouldn’t that SUCK, to get all that way and have your tramp denied? So we counted our blessings: hey, an extra day on the Milford!

But hey, it's a RAINforest. It's just doing its job.

But hey, it’s a RAINforest. It’s just doing its job.

It was a long 24 hours, especially for the Mate, who hadn’t brought a book or cards, but all our fellow trampers were pleasant, so we got to know some folks from Israel, South Africa, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, Thailand… (Only one other American; nice.)

Kotukutuku (Fuchsia tree)

Kotukutuku (Fuchsia tree)

Our official Day 2 (actually Day 3) took us 8.5 miles, still only gently uphill, to Mintaro Hut in the fuchsia (kotukutuku) forest favored by bellbirds, so the birdsong got even better. The river valley narrowed there as we approached the river’s source, and of course there were waterfalls everywhere.

Waterfalls EVERYWHERE.

Waterfalls EVERYWHERE.

Day 4 was the highlight: MacKinnon Pass. It’s only about 3,500 ft, but considering that we started at sea level, we were not taking it lightly. To our pleasure, most of the climb was graded so gently that we made it much more easily than expected.

Passing the source of the Clinton River, on our way to the pass

Passing the source of the Clinton River, on our way to the pass

From beech/fuchsia to flax/shrub to red tussock grass/bare rock/tarns we climbed, more wildflowers and more interesting lichens at every switchback.

We've reached treeline!

We’ve reached treeline!

Really nicely graded trail, if a bit rocky.

Really nicely graded trail, if a bit rocky.

Rare mountain buttercups (as if the scenery needed embellishment)

Rare mountain buttercups (as if the scenery needed embellishment)

Up on the pass, looking over the drop on the other side (typical lack of fence–New Zealand does not have tort law, thus doesn’t appear to share the US’s preoccupation with saving people from their own stupidity), my “hallelujah I’m really HERE” sense swelled almost to painful proportions.

almost...there...

almost…there…

It was cold up there, though, and the weather threatened a change as I guess it always does. So no lingering.

...except for the obligatory We Made It shots! Gotta linger for those.

…except for the obligatory We Made It shots! Gotta linger for those.

Gretchen in her happy place

Gretchen in her happy place

Of course there was a hut up there and of course it had a gas cooker, so of course I had a celebratory cuppa, then gave the Mate a head start for the “down” walk (he has a metal hip, so down is harder than up). I took a few more pictures.

But I don't WANNA go back down!

But I don’t WANNA go back down!

Then, OH so reluctantly, I headed after him. (What is it about high alpine that thrills me so? Must be a past life thing.)

Looking back at the Clinton Valley: World's Best Latrine View?

Looking back at the Clinton Valley: World’s Best Latrine View?

The ecozone was different enough on that side that I couldn’t stop taking pictures–look, tree ferns!! Blue waterfalls!–so I didn’t catch the Mate till nearly the bottom.

img_2796

I love me some tree ferns.

I love me some tree ferns.

Thanks, Dept. of Conservation, for building a LONG staircase to allow us to follow this waterfall in relative ease.

Thanks, Dept. of Conservation, for building a LONG staircase to allow us to follow this waterfall in relative ease.

The trail down was way steeper than the climb, with a rough portion that required big, jolting steps, so the Mate was really feeling it. (Me too, but my legs are 15 years younger and contain no metal parts.) He rested a while, then headed down the last portion of the 10+ mile day; I took a brief, packless side trip to NZ’s highest permanent waterfall.

All you need to know...

All you need to know…

As close a picture as I could manage. Approaching Sutherland Falls, one gets absolutely drenched.

As close a picture as I could manage. Approaching Sutherland Falls, one gets absolutely drenched.

When I joined the Mate at the last hut (called, for some reason, Dumpling Hut), the sandflies were so thick there was no question of sitting outside. We pretty much ran from bunkhouse to loo or dining hut. Shades of things to come.

***Not pictured: sandflies (use your imagination)***

But the last night was still sweet. Everyone felt great about making those steep miles, especially us retired or less in-shape types (which was most everyone; the young Israeli guys, of course, could probably have done the whole 34 mile track in a day if allowed). Everyone had rationed their food enough to to make do even with the extra set of meals. (Actually, the Mate and I had been kinda hoping that we’d all end up with a big potluck on that last dinner, but nothing that organized needed to happen.) And everyone, even the Israelis, was SORE from that long downhill.

***also not pictured: interior of a hut. Imagine a Boy Scout Camp bunkroom.***

But not as sore as the next day. Which was the longest: 12+ miles. Gently downhill, so not a problem, but the sandflies were so thick one couldn’t stop without being swarmed. The only way to hike was to keep moving, exactly what our poor tired legs didn’t need. Once again I gave the Mate a head start, but I never caught him. For the most part I enjoyed the solitude, writing songs in my head and stopping as much as I could to take pictures…

Oh look, another swing bridge!

Oh look, another swing bridge!

Giant's Gate Falls--and another half-dozen sandfly bites.

Giant’s Gate Falls–and another half-dozen sandfly bites.

But, man–I sure could’ve used his company for the last 3 miles or so. Uff da.  “When’s the last time we hiked 12 miles with packs?” we asked each other afterward. “Right.”

GIANT beech just off the track--redwood-sized.

GIANT beech just off the track–redwood-sized.

Despite sore legs and shoulders, though, I refused to wish the track to end. I soaked that last day up, sandflies and all. New sights: a huge black river eel, four feet long at least. A tui–my favorite NZ bird! A rimu, my favorite tree–just a small one, saying hi. It rained, and I said, “Oh, good, we’re in the rain forest, this is what’s supposed to happen,” and then it stopped raining and I said, “Oh, good, we can dry out now.” I drank from little waterfalls. (All the water’s drinkable there.) And yes, of course I cursed those little sandfly fuckers.

***not pictured: all my bites***

The pickup spot at the end of the track, where a boat whisks the trampers ten  minutes across what is suddenly salt water to Milford Sound village, is called Sandfly Point. The only thing that made it bearable was the fact that the shelter there had a door on it, and also the boat driver was a good guy and just kept picking folks up, regardless of reservation times, as fast as he could shuttle them. So we didn’t have long to suffer.

Hurry up, boat! (That's Milford Sound: suddenly, salt water!)

Hurry up, boat! 

Too bad we couldn’t stay longer in beautiful Milford Sound.

Iconic Mitre Peak--goodbye, Milford!

Iconic Mitre Peak–goodbye, Milford!

But the good news: a bus whisked us  back to Te Anau, so we were able to enjoy the still-just-as-jaw-dropping scenery.

***not pictured: scenery as seen from bus windows. But my jaw stayed dropped.***

I’m not much of a “bucket list” person. But this trip has been urging me along for 20 years. Was it as good as I’d been dreaming? No. It was better.

 

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.