Every place has a story. The story of every place is shaped not only by its Physical Geography (mountains, rivers, climate, vegetation, etc.), but also by the people that live there. Human Geography (culture, economics, demographics, politics) is intrinsically interwoven with the Physical landscape, as both affect one another.
Out of the way places interest me, as there is something to learn from every place and something to learn about ourselves and our place in this world. Describing the cultural meaning of PLACE is an interest of mine. Most of the places that I will write about are known to some, but not necessarily popular tourist locations. If there are pristine and undiscovered places that I may write about, I may take editorial license to give them different names to keep them protected. How places change over time or how we perceive them differently as time passes is also an interest of mine.
I am continuing to travel and explore our world. Posts are categorized by location or topic. There are a wide variety of locations to choose from, including Alaska, Oregon, International (which includes trips to Spain, Norway, Bolivia, Uzbekistan, New Zealand, Canada, and Morocco, just to name a few). Topics include nature, travel, and memoir. I invite all of you to come explore and take a geographical journey with us. We hope that you will not only experience new places with us, but also gain new insights about your place in this world.
Sometimes, when life gets you down, you just have to get high. Real high. Naturally. A change in altitude can give you a lift in attitude!
We recently traveled to Tennessee for a wedding and allowed a few extra days on the front end to climb a couple more state high points, one in Kentucky and the other in Virginia.
Snafus in cross country travel with inept airlines and a prepaid car rental to an agency that had no rental cars left nearly squashed our plans. That whole fiasco is a story in itself, but we’ll leave all of the bad news for another day. When we FINALLY got to Johnson City, Tennessee and paid again for a second rental car from another company, we felt the need to get high. No, not the type of high many might associate with Appalachia. We didn’t take any methamphetamines, fentanyl, or any other illegal substances. We got high the natural way….we hiked uphill to two different state high points until there was no more uphill to climb.
Had we arrived when we were supposed to, we would have headed straight for Mt. Rogers, the high point of Virginia, which is the longer hike. But not wanting to finish that hike in the dark, we headed first for Black Mountain, Kentucky. It is right on the border of Virginia and Kentucky. It is near where all of the disastrous flooding in Eastern Kentucky recently took place, but far enough uphill that we could drive there with no problems. Roads were closed and flooded out just 30 miles from where we climbed.
Wednesday, August 3rd was the only day that week that was forecast to have clear skies. We had a pleasant drive of under two hours from Tri-Cities Airport in Tennessee into SW Virginia. At Big Stone Gap, VA we took the paved road uphill toward the state line. Exactly between the “Welcome to Kentucky” sign and the “Welcome to Virginia” sign on the opposite side of the road lies the dirt logging road that takes you toward the summit of Black Mountain.
We chose to drive the 1.1 miles of dirt road to get us nearer to the summit. We pulled off to the side to let a logging truck pass us coming downhill. Near the top there is a radio tower and a place to pull the car over to get off of the road. It is a short 1/10 of a mile up the trail to the summit of Black Mountain, which is still mostly in trees. The name Black Mountain comes from the bituminous coal that is mined at its base.
Black Mountain was Mick’s 38th state high point and Beth’s 19th. Near the summit marker, there was an open clearing with a bunch of wildflowers. Myriads of several species of butterflies fluttered about. With no expansive views from the summit, we didn’t tarry long there, but drove back into Virginia to get a hotel closer to Mt. Rogers, VA, as we would need to have an early start to that hike the next day.
Due to some roads still being flooded, we couldn’t take a direct route to the other high point, but had to double back into Tennessee, but first passed through Appalachia, Virginia on the way. Once in Tennessee, we connected with Interstate 81 which brought us back again into SW Virginia. About an hour north, we stopped in the town of Marion and got a hotel for the night.
After an early breakfast, we passed Hungry Mother State Park, near Marion, VA. Had we had more time, I would have loved to check out a place with such a unique name. But we had a mountain calling us and we made the 1.5 hour drive to Grayson Highlands State Park, where the trail from Massie Gap to Mt. Rogers begins.
Besides being the most scenic route to Virginia’s highest mountain, Grayson Highlands has other attractions for visitors. Access to the Appalachian Trail and other nearby mountains with scenic vistas makes it imperative to get to Massie Gap early enough to secure a parking spot. We got there early enough to park the car close to the trail head and begin our hike.
There was a change in the weather from yesterday. Low clouds blanketed the valleys and there was a layer of higher clouds a few thousand feet above us. Rain was forecast for the afternoon. The humidity was very high, but at least the clouds mostly blocked out the direct sun, making the heat somewhat less oppressive.
The trail begins at a marked gate and immediately starts to climb, albeit gently. There are a lot of open meadows to cross, while some of the trail is in the trees.
After about a half mile, hikers will intersect with the Appalachian Trail and follow the white blazes for the next three to four miles. The trail is very rocky and you need to watch your step so as not to trip. The A.T. traverses 2,150 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia at the southern terminus all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Any thru-hikers have long since passed through this section of trail. There are bear boxes for backpackers to store their food while camping, but we saw no sign of bears along the trail. But we did see other wildlife.
Grayson Highlands is known for its abundance of “wild” ponies. They are accustomed to seeing hikers and are not startled by your presence, but don’t be tempted to reach out and pet them! The picture below is just one of many encounters we had with these animals. They were introduced here in the 1970s and they do a good job of grazing and keeping the meadows open.
After a few miles of ups and downs, we finally spot the top of Mt. Rogers in the distance, framed by a notch in the rocks in the trail.
As we approach the Thomas Knob shelter, Mount Rogers summit comes into full view. The summit catches more moisture and the trees take over the apex of the mountain. The mountain is named for William Barton Rogers, who became the first state geologist of Virginia in the 1840s.
The trail now leaves the Appalachian Trail and the last 1/2 mile is on the Mount Rogers spur trail.
The transition from mixed deciduous forest to Spruce/Hemlock forest is very abrupt. It’s like we left Virginia and entered a Pacific Northwest Forest in less than 100 yards. The trail to the top is now marked in blue blazes.
At 5,729 feet in elevation, Mount Rogers has terrain and habitat features uncommon to other parts of the state and the East Coast. It holds a biologically diverse variety of plants and animals typical of much more northern areas of the continent. Why are things so unique and different from Black Mountain, which is not that far away as the crow flies? The answer is in the Geology.
The rocks in the Mt. Rogers area contain a mixture of sedimentary and volcanic rocks, the majority of which are made of mostly of Rhyolite. Kentucky rocks are mostly made up of limestone. These rocks erode at much different rates, with the Ridge and Valley and Blue Ridge provinces of Virginia having rocks much more resistant to erosion, leaving outcrops of higher elevations. Kentucky is known for Karst Caves, while Virginia has the higher mountains. The biological diversity is due to the variety of elevations and slope aspects which are zones of several different micro-climates which act as a refugia for plants after the retreat of Pleistocene glaciers. For those interested, I would recommend reading E.Lucy Braun’s book “The Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America”, first printed in 1950.
When we reached the top, we found two other hikers at the summit. They were fellow adventurers who had a You Tube channel. We chatted with them for a few minutes, and took a picture of the USGS marker at the top of the mountain. We didn’t mind a bit that we weren’t the only ones getting high that day! State high point #39…..CHECK!
Our original plan was to summit both high points in one day and then possibly drive to the SC/NC border and summit the high point of South Carolina (Sassafras Mountain), but that hill will have to wait for another year. We had a rehearsal dinner to get to back in Tennessee and a rental car to return, so we retraced our steps back towards Massie Gap.
On the way back, we again passed the Thomas Knob Shelter. This time, two ponies blocked the path. We had to wait a minute for them to give us enough room to pass behind them without the threat of being kicked.
As the meadows opened up we saw some more ponies grazing. The overall distance of the hike was about 9 miles, but the rocky trail made it seem much longer.
At one point, while we were in the trees, we ran into a longhorn cow. I thought it was a bull at first, but then saw an udder when checking under the hood. Even so, the long horns made it disconcerting to see such a large animal in the middle of the trail with nowhere to go. I picked up two rocks and banged them together. That annoyed her enough to head on up the trail, where she took the first exit off of the trail.
Closer to the car, we ran into several day hikers. Most were just out for a short stroll to see the ponies. Very few were there for a Mt. Rogers summit.
The route back to Tennessee took us through Damascus, Virginia next to the Virginia Creeper trail, a world class 35 mile long Rails-to-Trails bike route from Abington to Whitetop, Virginia which passes near the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area. Damascus might be the lowest elevation on that trail, but it is a center of recreation and tourism for Southwest Virginia. An example of having to bike low to get a high. We had our “Conversion on the Road to Damascus” moment, and would like to come back in the future when my arm heals well enough to ride a bike again.
Getting high naturally for two days in a row was enough to take the sting out of cross country air travel in the summer of 2022. With our emotions soaring from the Appalachian highs, we could now attend our nephew’s wedding without the sanguine feelings we had a few days before. Dear readers, we enjoy virtually traveling with you anywhere, but if you read this post to the end, we want to especially thank you for getting “high” with us in Kentucky and in Virginia!
Sometimes you meet the most interesting people in the most unexpected places. If you don’t look carefully, you may also miss something that is really important. I’ve found that to be true in many places that I’ve traveled to. Therefore, Bolivia should be no different. But is WAS different, mostly because of a very special person I met there.
I glance backwards at the door of the Hotel Mitru Annex. I look up the staircase leading to the second floor and take a moment to be grateful for such a restful refuge from days of hard traveling. It was by far, the best six dollar hotel I have EVER stayed at! Fortified by a hearty breakfast, I close the front door and hoist up my heavy backpack for the three block walk through downtown Tupiza.
The air is cool and crisp. Although the climate is noticeably warmer than the frigid Altiplano region of Bolivia, I have to remind myself that I am still nearly nine thousand feet above sea level. After one block of walking with the pack, my heart is already beating faster than that of a parakeet being chased by a cat. Is is solely a function of altitude, or due to the anxiety of what I will encounter in the next week? I am early for my appointment, so I slow my pace.
Strolling down Avenida Avaroa, I cross the street and make the left turn onto Calle “Las Chichas”, the Spanish name for a fermented drink. I did not see much evidence of chichas this early in the morning, but I did spot a couple of Cholitas, Amerindian women in bowler hats who were sweeping the streets and sidewalks. Shopkeepers are already out and preparing to open their stores for another day of sales.
Dirt of all colors is everywhere—brown, red, gray and white. I can see these same colors in the sedimentary layers of rock that surround this desert valley. On the side of the street are a few parked cars, although rarely do you see one driving down the road. A cowboy rides his horse down the middle of the street, passing me in the opposite direction. If one were to remove the few parked cars from this scene, you would have a hard time guessing what year it was. Tupiza, after all, is the town where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pulled their final bank heist. This fact is one of the reasons which brought me to this out-of-the-way sleepy little town.
On my left is the pastry cafe where I met two Canadian girls two days ago. We tried unsuccessfully to put a group trip together to the Uyuni Salt flats. I wanted to climb a high volcano on the trip and they were just interested in a jeep ride. Sometimes it takes a couple of days to find like-minded travelers to put together a group trip to split the cost of the excursion. Today however, I was on my way to fulfilling my dream, with a group of French tourists who were waiting for me another block and a half away at the Tupiza Tours office. I wondered if the Canadian girls had any luck in finding someone to put a group tour together.
There is a blue Toyota Land Rover parked by the curb just outside of the Tupiza Tours office. A short, stocky Indian man is standing on the roof and shuffling tarps. There is also another white van parked outside. I wonder if either one of these vehicles is the one we will be riding in. I step inside the office and meet the group of French tourists I will be climbing a high volcano with. There are three men and one woman, all in their twenties, speaking French to one another. We had not met each other yet, but had inquired independently at the agency, so we knew about each others’ plans and agreed to do a group trip.
I don’t speak French, so when I dropped my backpack, I introduced myself to the group in Spanish. The young woman named Dorothee responds in nearly perfect Spanish—a great sign! We begin to have a conversation, when her husband Hugo interjects in English. “Maybe we should agree to speak English among ourselves”, he says. It seems that three of the four French tourists speak English pretty fluently and only Dorothee speaks Spanish well. It seems that our lingua franca will be English and Dorothee and I will use Spanish when talking to our guides.
I lobby them to take an extra side trip to San Vincente, to the site of Butch Cassidy’s grave. It costs an extra $25 to make the side trip there. Only one of the Frenchmen, Christophe, has ever heard of Butch Cassidy. I agree to pay the whole $25 fee myself if they don’t mind the side trip, but they agree to split it five ways, making it only an extra $5 per person. The only caveat is that I have to tell them the history and the stories of the famous American bank robber who fled to South America to escape the law, only to become an infamous bank robber in Bolivia.
After signing the paperwork and paying for the excursion (cash only), we are instructed to go outside and take our belongings to the Blue Land Rover. The squatty, bow-legged Indian man is still perched atop the vehicle. He is wearing an orange and blue vest over a dilapidated beige sweater with numerous holes in the sleeves. He bent his head down keeping his gaze fixed on the roof of the vehicle. He is wearing a tight-fitting baseball hat pulled down over his forehead, which keeps his face in the shadows. One by one I hand him up our backpacks. He was not one for much conversation, but appeared to be efficient and hard-working. When I handed him up the last piece of our luggage, he stood up straight to stretch out his back muscles, and the sun highlighted his face. That was the first time I saw that he had one eye missing. It was hard to tell how old he was, as his face was very weathered and his hand were calloused. His jeans looked as if they had been washed and then hung out to dry during a dust storm. He, like many of his fellow countrymen, is a product of living in a poor, land-locked South American country, and in a harsh physical environment. I’m sure that he would have some interesting stories to tell, but I doubted that I would get to know him, since he was just there to load the stuff on the vehicle. He folded all of the tarps over our packs and tied everything securely to the roof rack. As he was tying the last of the water jars and spare gasoline cans, he told us that we would not be leaving just yet, as we were still waiting for the cook to arrive.
A few minutes later, a young woman arrives, hurrying down the street carrying a box in her hands. She was our cook; her name was Delfina (meaning dolphin in English). All of the rest of the food had been already secured on the roof of the Land Rover, but Delfina had gone out to get some last minute fresh food from a local store. We were now ready to go, except that the driver was nowhere in sight. Such things are to be expected in a place like Bolivia, so we sat on the curb and waited.
The one-eyed man climbed off of the roof of the vehicle. Immediately he and Delfina started fussing at each other. He was scolding her for being late and holding up the foreign tourists. He admonished her that Europeans and North Americans had different mindsets on time than did South Americans, and that keeping a departure time was important to tourists. She did not take well to his complaining and had a few choice words for him. The French people were now discussing something among themselves and did not get involved in the conversation. Perhaps Delfina and the one-eyed man thought that the foreigners could not understand their arguments in Spanish, but they were wrong about this. I thought it best to intervene before the argument became too heated.
“Relax”, I said in Spanish. “Besides, we are still waiting for the driver to show up.”
Surprised that a gringo tourist was speaking to her in her native tongue, Delfina pointed to the one-eyed man and looked straight at me. “He IS here”, she replied in Spanish. “HE is your driver!”
The one-eyed man introduces himself to the group as the driver and guide for our 5-day trip through the Bolivian outback and across the Uyuni Salt Flats. Dorothee and I interpret for the rest of the group. The man’s name is Bernardo. I didn’t exactly understand what the French tourists were discussing among themselves at the time, but from their tone of voice and body language, it seemed like they were nervous about the prospect of placing our safety in the hands of Bernardo and Delfina for the next week. We will be traveling over rough, remote mountain roads through some of the most desolate country on this continent and we will be totally dependent on an old Land Rover driven by a one-eyed man who is accompanied by a teenage cook who is not happy about being here.
Pausing momentarily, I gaze into Bernardo’s eye, trying to gauge his emotional state. I sense some uneasiness on his part too. Was that he doubted himself, or was there some other reason? I try to empathize with him and put myself in his shoes. I used to be a wilderness guide in Alaska, so I tried to look at the situation from his vantage point.
I imagine myself as Bernardo. I have just spent the morning doing hard labor and I just meet five foreigners who speak another language than my own. They have all come from far away exotic places that I could only dream of but will never be able to visit. I was born into poverty in Bolivia, so I will never be able to be like them and afford to hire someone else to provide for my needs. The foreigners have each other on the trip, while I have to spend time away from my family. Their customs are different than mine. They also have money and I do not. As far as I can tell, they have no disabilities either. I have to spend the next five days with them, ensuring their safety and making sure they have an enjoyable experience. I will be driving a vehicle that I hope will not break down and leave us all stranded in the middle of nowhere. If I need their assistance, will I be able to count on them to come through for the whole group? Will they even care about me as a person, or just view me as poor hired help? Also, I am not happy about the young girl the business decided on sending along as a cook for the group. She is the only one that speaks my language as his/her first language, so I’m not sure how much conversation I will have on this trip. These are the things I imagined were running through his head at the start of the trip.
After contemplating things from Bernardo’s perspective, I decided to forego any preconceived judgements about him, and give him the opportunity to prove himself. Bernardo might just turn out to be the kind of person that you underestimated at first glance, but would come to appreciate more fully the more you got to know him. Over the next week, we would share some memorable experiences, and I would come to truly appreciate the uniqueness of his character.
The Land Rover had a capacity for eight people; a driver and seven passengers. Delfina sat in the front passenger seat, and there were two rows behind the driver, with room for three passengers in each row. Christophe and Philippe sat in the back row, and Dorothee, Hugo and I sat in the middle row. The geography of our seating allowed for the segregation of languages, with two interpreters nudged between them. The front row spoke Spanish. The back row spoke French among themselves. The middle row, acting as interpreters spoke English, French and Spanish….whatever was needed between as a go-between for communication in the vehicle. It felt like a United Nations summit.
We headed out and at the edge of town we pulled up to a police checkpoint. This is common practice in Bolivia and many other countries around the world. Anyone traveling by road has to register with the police. It seems like a lot of resources are spent in this poor country on staffing roadblocks, but some of this money comes from the USA in their efforts in the “War on Drugs”. Usually, police are routinely checking for insurance papers and registration, but often times require a bribe for motorists to pass. We get through the roadblock unscathed and immediately start heading up a steep dirt road into the outback. The scenery of the desert landscape is dramatic.
After driving about 20 miles and gaining more than 1000 feet in elevation, we pull off to the side of the road and take in the expansive view. A sinuous, dry arroyo lay in the base of the canyon hundreds of feet below. Cliffs of jagged rock fins rise steeply from the valley floor on both sides of the arroyo. The fins are the result of wind and water erosion on the highly jointed sedimentary rock. Different color bands are present in the rock that has not yet been eroded, while the arroyo consists of deposited sediment from the eroded cliffs carried by ephemeral streams, which are dry this time of year. The myriad of side canyons offer multitudes of hiding places for outlaws such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I could picture them heading through this very canyon on horseback after they pulled their last bank heist in Tupiza. I recounted some of the history of these two outlaws to the rest of the group….some in English and some in Spanish. Dorothee and Hugo then translated what I said into French for the back row.
I turned toward Bernardo. “Have you ever been to the Southwest of the United States?”, I asked. He replied, “No, I’ve never been outside of Bolivia.”
“Take another look at this landscape, because this is what the state of Utah looks like.”
Bernardo was the kind of Bolivian who was interested in the rest of the world, even if he knew he would likely never travel out of his home country. I told him about Butch’s hideout in Hole-In-The-Wall, Wyoming and of the other hideout in Utah called “Robber’s Roost.” He smiled, pleased with his vicarious vacation to the Southwest of the USA.
An hour later we stopped at another viewpoint, where we saw a species of barrel cactus which could survive the cold temperatures at high altitudes. They resembled the Saguaro cacti of the Sonora Desert. “Do you know what this place reminds me of?”, I asked Bernardo. “This is just what the state of Arizona and the province of Sonora in Mexico looks like.”
“Now I’m feeling like I’m on vacation too”, he replied.
We got back in the vehicle and headed towards San Vincente, the supposed place where Butch Cassidy and Sundance met their fateful end during a shootout with the Bolivian army. The road became rougher and we had to hold onto the grab handles near the ceiling of the Land Rover to brace ourselves. The steep road had no guardrails on the sides of it. I was beginning to think that bringing a bicycle helmet on the trip might have been a good idea. Bernardo said that this is a particularly bad section of the road, and the reason why the company charged extra for the side trip.
“How do you say ‘bad road’ in English?”, he asked me in Spanish.
I told him how, but he had a hard time pronouncing the r. “Bad load”, he said, struggling with the English r as much as English speakers have trouble with the Spanish “rr” double r.
I reminded him to keep his eye on the road and that I’d be happy to help him with his English lessons when we were done driving. Bernardo was however, the kind of driver who could navigate a perilous road and multi-task.
About half an hour later, we finished climbing and the road leveled out a bit. Suddenly Bernardo let out a shout. He screamed “ñandú!”, and sped up the vehicle. Just ahead were two ostriches running down the road. I hadn’t realized before that South America had indigenous species of ostriches. I had only associated this bird with Australia. Looking at this flat desert landscape with ostriches running through it, one could easily picture themselves in the middle of the Australian Outback. We followed the birds for about a kilometer as the curiously continued to run away from us straight down the road, with the Land Rover in hot pursuit.
“Have you ever been to Australia?”, I asked him.
“No, I have spent my whole life in Bolivia, except for a few recent trips to Utah and Arizona.” Bernardo had a quick wit about him.
“Take in this view and remember it”, I told him. “Because this is like being in the Outback of Australia!”
“I didn’t think I could see so much of the rest of the world within my own country,” he exclaimed.
Later, we finally approached the village of San Vincente. It was nothing like I had pictured it. We had climbed to an elevation of almost 14,000 feet, and the land was barren of any vegetation. The “village” was simply a silver mine consisting of a few long one-story buildings, surrounded by slag heaps of mine tailings. Very few people were present, presumably because most of them were underground at the time. Having seen the 1969 Movie starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, I expected San Vincente to be more of a town. That movie was filmed in Mexico, and not Bolivia. There was no true town square as you would find in most Latin American towns. A cemetery was on the edge of town was the only thing that resembled other Latin American towns. So, that’s where we headed, to find the graves of Butch and Sundance.
A crude wall made of stones and dried mud surrounded the cemetery. Since the ground at this elevation was frozen most of the year and was difficult to dig into, everyone was buried in above-ground tombs. Burial practices included building small brick walls about two feet high and long enough to fit the body in, and then covering the tops with stone and placing crosses on top, made of either stone or iron. Very few graves had names on them. I walked around looking for any clues as to which ones might be the graves of Butch or Sundance.
Bernardo was having some “down time” outside of the walls of the cemetery. Since he was the only other person around, I went outside to ask him which ones belonged to the outlaws. He motioned to the large open sepulcher near the middle of the cemetery. It was the only open and uncovered grave-site. Bernardo explained that several years earlier, forensic anthropologists from the United States came down to do some DNA testing on the remains to see if it could possibly be that of Butch Cassidy, since there were unconfirmed rumors that the outlaws had been seen in Montana years after they were supposedly killed in Bolivia. DNA tests confirmed that the body was that of a man of Anglo-European descent, but the results were not 100% conclusive that it was Butch Cassidy. So, the legend continues, although most people believe that he was killed in the shootout in 1908 and these were his remains.
I told Christophe and Hugo about my visits to Butch’s hideout in Wyoming, and how my friends back home went to many places associated with the Hole-in-the-Wall gang. Christophe took a picture of me sitting in Butch’s grave, which I would share with my friends back home to “one up them”. They had teased me about missing a trip to Robber’s Roost in Utah. I don’t think either of them will ever make a trip to Bolivia, so a picture in Butch’s grave should keep me ahead of the curve. Two years later, I would also pass by Butch and Sundance’s cabin in Cholila, Argentina.
The sun is getting lower in the sky and the temperature is dropping fast. Bernardo rounds us up and we head out toward the village of San Antonio de Lipez, where we will spend the night. The town consists of a few ramshackle adobe brick one-story houses and one beautiful white washed church on the other side of the street. The Frenchmen decide to go down to visit the church and take some pictures of kids playing in the street, while I decided to take a stroll and climb the small hill behind the town. Delfina announces that dinner will be ready in half an hour, so I don’t go far.
Almost immediately after beginning to walk, my heart is pounding. The lack of oxygen at this altitude is debilitating. I start to worry that I might not be able to climb the volcano we plan to hike in a few days. I pause to rest several times as I climb the minuscule hill behind the town. Once I make the top, I head back down, so as not to be late for dinner.
Delfina prepared a tasty soup and there is a hearty salad to go with it. We all agreed that this was a good first day and the group seems to be getting along well. As I turn out my headlamp at bedtime, I try not to dwell on the anxiety of climbing the volcano in a few days. I remind myself that where I am sleeping is already at a higher altitude than the top of Mt. Rainier, and a few more days at this altitude will help my oxygen-starved body acclimate to high elevations.
Suddenly, the sound of a cock crowing wakes us up. Bernardo is already up and about. We can hear the hiss of the stove and realize that Delfina will soon have hot water for coffee and tea. For breakfast, we will have Locro, a Bolivian soup, made up of meats, lentils, and quinoa. After my obligatory first cup of morning coffee, I switch to drinking coca leaf tea. Bernardo explains that drinking it will help alleviate “El Soroche” (altitude sickness). The coca leaf is part of the culture of the people who inhabit the Altiplano. Most chew the leaf, which has the effect of a mild stimulant, similar to drinking a cup of strong black coffee. Many people also use the leaf for tea, which besides alleviating El Soroche, combats hunger pangs as well. The taste is somewhat bitter, so the Frenchmen drink the tea with sugar and llama milk, while I take mine plain–the way I do with all of the coffees and teas I drink. If this works as well as Bernardo says it does, not only will I learn to like it, it just may help get me up the Licancabur Volcano in a few days. The local people have a saying about coca…”La hoja de la coca no es una droga”, which translates in English to “The LEAF of the coca is not a drug.” This saying hopes to combat the idea that chewing coca leaf is not the same as consuming cocaine. One should not equate them as being the same thing. How do you think that the popular soft drink “Coca Cola” got its name? The original recipe had coca leaf in it.
After breakfast, we head out through landscapes seemingly more and more desolate, with high, barren mountains rising on both sides of the road. The tops of these mountains approach twenty thousand feet above sea level. Bernardo turns to me and asks a question. “Mick, we’ve already been to Utah, Arizona, and Australia. What does this place look like to you?”
I gazed around and replied, “This looks like Bolivia to me!”
Twenty minutes later the road began to drop a bit in elevation. Just ahead, at a bend in the road lay the remains of a former town. As we stopped to explore this Ghost Town, the only remaining residents we found were Vizcacha; a strange Andean rodent. Imagine that if a rabbit, a squirrel and a chinchilla had a three-way, the offspring would resemble a Vizcacha. They have the face and ears of a rabbit, but have a long bushy tail. As we snapped a few pictures of the “town”, it seemed like the ghosts of the people who drowned in a freak flash flood decades ago were still wandering around this place.
Further down the road, Bernardo stopped at a small monument on the side of the road, which marked the road’s high elevation point. I took his picture next to the sign, which read 4,855 m.s.n.m (meters above sea level). That measurement equates to an elevation of 15,928 feet above sea level. This is about 1,500 feet higher than the tallest mountain in the lower 48 USA. It is also higher than Mount Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. This elevation was a personal record for all of us, even though we would be attempting to climb nearly 4,000 feet higher in a few days.
Bernardo seemed uneasy being the subject of the picture, although he did let us take a picture of him. He positioned himself so that the brim of his baseball hat would keep his face in the shadows. Behind him, the thin line of the road seemed to go on forever; crossing dry salt lakes and traversing low, barren hills until it disappeared into the horizon.
” At this moment you are higher than anyone in my country”, I told Bernardo.
Bernardo sheepishly smiled. “All men are created equal. I am not above anyone else simply because of my elevation.” Bernardo was definitely not arrogant or self-absorbed. His statement revealed much about the humility of his character.
The dangerous climbs and steep roadside cliffs were now mostly behind us. We would spend the rest of the day covering huge distances to get us to the base of the Licancabur Volcano (elev. 5,960 meters—-19,668 feet), which we are scheduled to climb tomorrow. Licancabur means “People from Above”, in the old Atacama dialect. We would encounter many different sights during this long drive to the base of the volcano. all of us needed as many diversions as possibly to ward off the impending feeling of doom of climbing such a high mountain.
Later in the day, we stopped at a checkpoint marking the entrance to the Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve. We got out to stretch our legs as Bernardo went inside to complete the obligatory paperwork and pay the park entrance fees. The national reserve, established in 1953, takes its name from a Bolivian War hero from the 1800s. This reserve is one of the most important biologically protected areas in the country. According to Conservation International, it is part of the Tropical Andes biodiversity region. This region extends from the highlands of Western Venezuela down the spine of the Andes Mountains through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Western Bolivia and into the northern reaches of Chile and Argentina. The variety of altitudes and slope aspects has led to the evolution of an amazing diversity of micro-habitats and species diversity. Conservation International lists the Tropical Andes region as one of the most diverse eco-regions on planet earth. What appeared to be lifeless and barren to us at first glance actually is home to 190 species of flora, and unique fauna which have adapted to the extreme living conditions in the region. The reserve is home to nearly 80 species of birds. Out of six species of flamingo that exist in the world, three of them are only found here, and they are found here in large numbers. The endangered vicuna and the Andean Cat also live here, but are found nowhere else on the planet.
Bernardo whistles loudly for us to come back and get ready to ride again. He knows that we are feeling a bit cramped and that we still have a long ride ahead of us, so he does his best to keep our minds of the discomfort of the road (that’s what guides do). So, he asks us to solve a riddle.”
“Name something that is as big as God and as bad as the Devil”, he says. “Besides, rich people don’t want it and poor people already have it.”
We all brainstormed what would meet that criteria, but could not come up with an answer that would satisfy all of the clues.
“NOTHING”, is the answer, he said. “Poor people have nothing; Rich people don’t want nothing, and nothing is as big as God nor as bad as the devil.”
Bernardo’s tactic worked. Soon, we were all telling jokes or coming up with our own riddles. Again, it felt like a U.N. conference in the Land Rover, with riddles and jokes being discussed in three languages.
Even Delfina, who was normally quiet and shy except for the times she was fussing with Bernardo, participated in the conversation.
“I have a riddle for you that should be easy”, she said. “I bet you can’t remember what my name is.”
I played along. “Hmmmm, let me think. I know that it is something that swims in the sea”, I replied. “Is it Foca? (Seal)……..no wait a minute….how about Tiburon?(Shark)
Bernardo laughed so hard he had tears in his eye. “Trucha!, Trucha!”, he repeated. Delfina glared.
Not wanting this to end badly, I pleaded for one last guess. “How about Delfina?”
Delfina’s smile was as wide as if she resembled her namesake, the bottle-nosed dolphin. She just wanted to know that she was acknowledged.
We continued to share stories, riddles, personal histories, etc. and laughed at the missed translations, while we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. The miles passed by easily….we were starting to become friends. A little while later, Bernardo pulled up to a small roadside shack, which lay adjacent to a pool of water.
It was a glorious hot spring! The waters were clear and only a few feet deep. The site had been enhanced by the building of a small retaining concrete wall at ground level. There was a small outlet on the opposite side of the pool from the source of the spring, which fanned out into a couple of rivulets. These rivulets, in turn, fed warm waters toward a small shallow lake about half a mile away from us. We could barely make out the outlines of pink flamingos sifting through the shallow waters of the distant lake. It was sort of an idyllic place where your troubles melted away and washed downhill into the desert flats. The hot water washed away the residue of our formerly dust-caked skin. Water in any desert is a precious resource. How much better is HOT water? It was hard to say which was better…..being submerged up to our necks in hot water, or standing up in the dry desert air and feeling the effects of evaporation through the recently opened pores of our skin. The experience was both cleaning and rejuvenating! Bernardo and Delfina patiently waited for us on the sidelines. We invited them in, but they declined.
We could have stayed there for the duration of the trip and been satisfied, but we had a “schedule” to keep. Bernardo, playing the role of adult in the family, had to round up the “kids” and move on. It was getting later in the afternoon.
Reluctantly, we climbed back into the dusty Land Rover and continued on the journey. Another short stop down the road gave us views of more flamingos in small ponds. Another stop was near the “Dali Desert”, as the appropriately named surreal landscape where differential erosion of the landscape left behind a series of “Sculptures” behind. The more resistant rock stood up above the sand, which was the less resistant already eroded material. Coming here late in the afternoon only enhanced the surrealism of the landscape, as the shadows of the rock outcrops created an “Artful” scene.
A few minutes after our photo stop at the Dali Desert, a huge conical shaped mountain came into view toward the horizon. Even though it was further away than the high mountains around us, it still seemed to tower over the others. It got very quiet in the vehicle. In a moment, Bernardo would confirm what we all feared to be true.
“There is Licancabur”, he said. “Tomorrow, you will be on top of that mountain. I secretly hoped that I would, but had some lingering doubts. I think the Frenchmen did too.
The climb we did the next day is a story in itself. It was exhilarating, excruciating, ethereal, exhausting, expeditionary, exotic….all of the superlatives (both positive and negative) wrapped up in one experience. However, that is another story to be told on another day. This story is about Bernardo.
Bernardo said that he would like to climb the mountain someday, but that he had work to do on the vehicle and that he needed some rest before driving again, so he stayed behind. He was there, faithfully, at the trail-head, waving to us as we descended toward him.
“How was your day?,” I asked him. “I hope you haven’t spent the whole day working.”
“Well, after I did a full inspection of the vehicle, I wrote down all of the English words that you taught me, and I’ve been practicing,” he replied.
I switched to English and addressed him. “Well, how’s that been working for you? Are you ready for a conversation in English?”, I asked him.
Bernardo stood there speechless. The few moments of silence seemed like it was much longer. Finally, he replied in his native tongue. ” I guess I will need to know more than just the names of things before I can talk English. Will you help me write down phrases in my notebook?”
“Of course I will. However, let’s do it after dinner and not while we are driving. Then, I’ll help you learn English phrases.”
After packing our stuff into the Land Rover, Bernardo hit the road with reckless abandon. We were speeding across the dirt roads of the Altiplano, heading in a northerly direction. Now that I was getting to know him, I could visualize his thought processes. I saw his speeding as a method for us to arrive earlier, so that he could get more time with me to study English.
Later, Bernardo pulled off the main road and headed down a rutted path. “Where are you taking us?”, I asked.
“I’m going to show you the Geyser Basin”, he replied.
“Bernardo, do you want to know what the English word is for Geiser?”
“Don’t tell me, it’s probably Geiser too”, he replied.
“Actually, it is. We just spell it differently. We spell it G-E-Y-S-E-R”
“I didn’t know that is was an English word. Lot’s of our words are similar”, he noted.
“Actually it isn’t an English word. It is a word that comes from the Islenska language, the language of the country of Iceland. As a matter of fact, there was no word in English for this geological phenomenon, because geysers are very rare. There weren’t any geysers in lands that the English settled. Then, as Americans were moving westward, they came across the largest basin of geothermal activity in the world, in the present day state of Wyoming. Today, the United States made the area a National Park- it’s called Yellowstone National Park. When the first explorers saw fountains of hot water and steam shooting up in the air, they did not know what to call them. When they reported what they had found, it sounded like a similar place in Iceland, which had these phenomenon located near the town of Geysir. Therefore, the English language pilfered an Icelandic word and brought it into their own language.
“Now I can add Wyoming and Iceland to the places I’ve been to”, joked Bernardo. “Also, when I get home, I can tell my family I can speak in two new languages!”
Late that afternoon, we pulled into the “hotel”, a makeshift adobe walled structure with six filthy mattresses to each “room”, located near the shores of Laguna Colorada, a red-colored lake in the desert. After a meal and before we turned in for the night, Bernardo led us on a field trip down to the water’s edge, where flamingos were wading and feasting on brine shrimp. His explanation of the ecosystem showed that he had a bit of scientist in him. He continually impressed us with his knowledge.
When we got back to the “hotel”, Bernardo spoke. ” I know you all have had a long day climbing the mountain and traveling. I see that you are tired. We can wait until tomorrow night to continue our English lessons.” Here he was again putting the group’s needs before his own.
In fact, we all wondered in Bernardo did really ever get any sleep. He was always still awake when we went to bed and was always up by the time we woke up. He rarely ate with us, as he was always tending to some chore. Where did he get his energy?
Bernardo was also good at solving problems on the fly, which is essential when you are in remote places far from outside assistance. Once, when we were out on the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world, we came across another Land Rover. It was from another tour company and its hood was up. What a horrible place to be stranded! There was nothing but salt flats in all directions for at least 20 miles. Depending on which way you went, you might have to walk for close to 100 miles before reaching help.
The driver of the vehicle did not have a chain with him. Bernardo pulled out one long, rubber strap which was about 30 feet long.
The driver of the other vehicle lamented that the strap was too thin to pull that much weight and that it was pointless to try to use it.
With astonishing deftness and speed, Bernardo doubled over the strap a couple of times and then twisted the shortened strands and affixed them to the bumper of each vehicle. We then pulled that vehicle, with all of its passengers nearly 20 miles until we came to the next night’s hotel. It was a hotel made entirely of salt blocks. If Bolivia had a TV version of the show “MacGyver”, Bernardo would be the star of that show.
Several groups from other companies were also staying at the salt hotel. Most of the drivers hung out together, away from their guests. Some were separated from their guests by either a language barrier or a social class barrier. Bernardo was the exception.
In the commons room, Delfina and the other cooks served up tasty meals, while guests chatted with each other in German, English, French and Dutch. After dinner, Bernardo pulled out his notebook, as we stayed up late and worked on his English lessons. In the meantime, we discussed an eclectic assortment of topics; the etymology of words, physical geography, cross-cultural communication differences, and the world at large. I shared with him that I too, used to guide tourists through dangerous lands. We talked as peers and as friends. We shared stories of trips we had taken and memories of people we had met along the way.
I took Bernardo’s notebook and made three columns; one for Spanish, one for English and the other for the phonetic pronunciation of the words. This way, Bernardo would not have to worry as much about pronunciation by just trying to read the word. We filled up page after page of the phrases that he wanted to learn to communicate with his future guests. I wrote down some of the strange rules of English for him so he would understand the differences in the structure of the language (placement of adjectives before nouns in English). In between chatting among friends, we continued the lessons. We didn’t realize how long we had been there until we looked up and realized that everyone else had already gone to bed.
“Go sleep?”, Bernardo asked (in English, no less!)
“Si, tengo sueno”, I replied. (yes, I’m sleepy)
“Pues, hasta manana”, said Bernardo. (Well, until tomorrow then!)
I tiptoed down the hall of the salt hotel, hoping not to wake anyone. I went into the room where my four French roommates were already comfortably asleep. The air was extremely chilly. I pulled back the piles of heavy blankets (we’ll need them tonight!) and saw that my “mattress” was also made of blocks of salt. It seems that you put one blanket over the salt blocks to cushion the blow, and use the other pulled over you to keep you warm. As I fall asleep, I hope that Bernardo is not up too much longer continuing to study. If only every teacher could have such motivated students! I drifted off to sleep with visions of red lakes, flamingos, vizcachas, and the beautiful Andes.
We all awoke with a jolt. “Lezz Go!” someone was shouting at us. “Okay yous…..Lezz Go!”
Dorothee’s eyes opened wide in disbelief! The voice sounds like Bernardo’s but he was speaking to us in English! Were we still dreaming? Although Bernardo was outside of our door and out of view, I could picture him grinning about his shocking the tourists.
“We’ll be right there”, Dorothee replied in English. No answer.
We hurriedly packed our bags and got dressed while it was still dark. The sun was not jet up, but the sky was getting light in the East. Bernardo was already outside tying up the gear on the roof of the Land Rover. He explained (in Spanish now) that we’d have to hurry to catch sunrise out on the Salar, which would be the best time to take pictures.
Bernardo perched himself up on the roof as we handed our gear up to him so that he could safely secure it. I don’t know how he did it, but each night we would pull out our gear after a long, dusty drive in the desert, and our packs would be clean and relatively dirt-free. Racing against the rising sun, we packed in record time. Bernardo tied down the ropes faster than a cowboy could rope a steer at the rodeo. In record time, we sped out onto the Salar.
We stopped a few miles out onto the Salar. The top of the sun was about to peek its head over the horizon. We piled out of the car and lay face down on the frozen salt flat, in order to get an ant’s eye view of the rising sun and to watch our giant shadows stretch miles to the horizon once the sun came up.
It was fun to see our miles long shadows move on the Salar as we danced around. “You are all giants among men”, Bernardo joked. We danced, shadow-boxed and acted like children again, chuckling at seeing our huge shadows. Soon, the sun rose higher and our long shadows shrank like snowmen on a warm spring day.
Bernardo’s playful childlike side came out now.
“Give me your cameras. Now that the sun is higher, we can play a new game. I can create funny pictures, making you look either big or small.” We each handed him our cameras. For the next 45 minutes, Bernardo barked out directions on where we should position ourselves. On the Salar, there is nothing to give the viewer any depth perception, so by moving himself or others forward and backward, each person can take on a different size. A professional photographer shooting supermodels wouldn’t work any harder than Bernardo did, but I doubt that they had as much fun as he did. He chuckled every time he got the shot he wanted.
Bernardo proved to be a gifted photographer, even though he was too poor to ever own his own camera. How many more surprises could he reveal to us, had we had unlimited time to spend with him? Like the peeling back of layers of an onion, he continually revealed something new with each layer pulled back.
Another special place he showed us was the Incahuasi island in the middle of the Salar. It was a biological island surrounded on all sides by the expanse of the salt flat. On the island, barrel cactus, which resembled Saguaro, rose all over the island. Vizcacha roamed here. How they got here and survive on this lonely outcrop, one can only imagine.
On the way toward the town of Uyuni, we stopped at the edge of the Salar and saw men working in the sun piling up salt for export. They only make the equivalent of about $1 for a full day’s work. Talk about toiling in the Salt Mines!
On the way to Uyuni, we stopped by a little village with a half-constructed church made of what else?….Salt blocks! Outside was a llama tethered to a pole. We stopped for a brief rest and Dorothee wanted to pet the llama, but the animal was too skittish.
“Let me show you a trick”, Bernardo told her. “The llama is a coca addict.” He handed her a bag of coca leaves. “Keep the bag in your left pocket and pull them out slowly with your right hand and feed the llama. Just make sure you keep him out of your left pocket.”
Dorothee did as instructed. She and the llama became fast “friends” and she did not burn through her supply of coca too quickly either. We had adequate time to take photos of the encounter.
Parting ways after a bonding experience is always a difficult thing. Upon arrival at Uyuni, we checked into our last hotel and invited Bernardo out for drinks and a meal (our treat). Saying goodbye is not like saying “see you later”. We all lived thousands of miles away from each other. The likelihood of a reunion in the future was slim.
“Mick, the next time you come down to visit, you’ll have to bring your wife with you”, Bernardo said. He knew I usually travel to new places instead of visiting familiar ones when I had a chance to travel abroad.
I replied, “She doesn’t speak Spanish like I do, so you’d better be fluent in English by the time I come back. If not, I’ll have to bill you for translation services”, I joked.
“Not only will I have notebooks full of English phrases by the time your return, but I will be reading books in English by then. Also, I will get an Atlas and learn about the world, so that when someone from a far-away place comes on a trip with me, I can speak with them about their country.” I fully believed that not only was he capable of doing that, but that he would follow through, as best he could.
Even though we both secretly suspected that we would not see each other again in this lifetime, leaving the slight possibility open would give us a reason to better ourselves as individuals, so that we could be proud of one another when we saw each other again. Isn’t that what friends do for one another? An old proverb states, “as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
Friends also are honest with each other. We did not want to part without anything left unsaid.
“Mick, I want to thank you for teaching me about the world and for spending time with me and helping me learn some English. Most of all I want to thank you for treating me as an equal human being. Most of my clients do not do that, even though most are nice people. I needed to tell you this in case you take too long to come back. I might not be working for Tupiza Tours by then.”
“Bernardo, I also want to thank you for all that you have shown me. You are truly a unique and amazing person. If I come back to Bolivia and see that you are no longer working for Tupiza Tours, then I will make sure I find you, wherever you might be. Bolivia is a special place, but even more so because you taught me so much about it. And, I made a special friend there too.”
As Bernardo drove away, we waved to one another for the last time. Although there were no streaks of tears running down anyone’s faces, I’m pretty sure that there were three eyes moist with emotion. I can personally account for two of them.
Since I met Bernardo, I am less apt to make snap judgments about other people. In addition, I think my French climbing partners would agree that our excursion with Bernardo changed the way we view the world and the people in it. Our first impressions of him were far wrong. Later in the trip, Hugo confided in me that the group was considering asking for a refund and cancellation of the trip when they first encountered Bernardo and Delfina arguing in the street at the beginning of the trip. By the end of the trip, we all agreed that it was one of the most memorable experiences of our lifetimes. Some of that had to do with the climb of Licancabur volcano; some had to do with the ethereal landscape of the Bolivian Altiplano. Most of all it was a factor of getting to know an extraordinary individual from another culture, and learning more about ourselves in the process.
I’ve spent many memorable nights in hotels, but none can compare to the night that I stayed at the infamous Hotel Real (Royal Hotel) in Alajuela, many, many moons ago. In retrospect, one should NEVER ask a law enforcement officer for directions to a notorious whore house that is the center of illegal drug activity and crime for the whole city. Especially so, if you are a foreigner in a strange land. I should have gotten a clue from the look on his face when I asked him for directions. But I was blissfully unaware of all of that at the time.
I learned FOUR valuable lessons that night.
While walking towards downtown Alajuela, Costa Rica looking for the Royal Hotel (What’s in a name?), I had an image in my head of a palatial old colonial structure near a beautiful central plaza. Man, how wrong I was about that!
Have you ever been alone in a foreign country and feared for your own safety? Did you think that once you got to the safety of your hotel that your fears would melt away, only to find out that your hotel ended up being the most dangerous place to be at? Then, what should you do?
I asked a few people along the way on the 3 km walk into town, for directions to the Hotel Real, but nobody seemed to know much about it. Several had never even heard of it. That seemed odd to me at the time. That should have been a big clue that something was amiss. But what would an old married couple on an evening stroll know about the location of drug houses or prostitution rings?
Then, I spotted the law enforcement officer. Surely, he could tell me how to find the hotel. The Policeman’s eyes became wide with astonishment when I asked him the first time. He stared at me intently. I thought that maybe my North American accent of my Spanish was confusing to him. So I repeated my question.
“Puede Usted decirme donde esta el Hotel Real?” I repeated, enunciating clearly. I then told him that the airline booked the hotel for me since they lost my luggage. That fact seemed to calm him a little bit, but not much. His steely gaze pierced right through my soul. Then he turned and pointed in the direction of the hotel and said that it was about two blocks away and then I would have to make a right turn.
I thanked him and went on my way. When I glanced back, he was still staring intently in my direction.
I had started the walk into town from Juan Santamaria Airport outside of San Jose, the capital city of Costa Rica. The airlines do NOT deliver lost luggage in Central America, so I would have to come back to the airport to claim it when it arrived on tomorrow’s flight. Since San Jose is not near the airport, I inquired about local hotels. The representative at the service desk phoned several hotels, but it seemed that all were booked full. I was not sure if I should stay and sleep at the airport or not. Just then, one of the airline representative’s colleagues suggested to try phoning El Hotel Real.
“Great….they have a room”, he told me as he was on the line with the hotel. It was only the equivalent of $7 USD for the night. That sounded like a bargain upgrade from sleeping at the airport, so I said YES.
“They are asking if you ONLY want the room”, he informed me. I thought that was a strange question. This should have been the first clue that something was a bit off.
“Yes, just the room for one night”, I replied.
The reaction of the policeman had given me a sense of uneasiness. As I turned the corner, I spotted the sign to the hotel. The building was a dilapidated three story building with crumbling stucco. Maybe at one time back in the 18th century it could have been considered to be upscale, but it looked like it hadn’t been updated in the last 200 years. Lots of pedestrians were circulating around the street outside. The sun was setting.
The reception was on the second floor. I climbed up the dimly lit stairwell. My olfactory senses detected a faint smell of stale beer and urine. Two ladies were sitting at the reception desk.
“I have a reservation for a room”, I stated, in Spanish.
“Ah yes. The American” they responded. “Do you still ONLY want the room?”, she asked.
I thought to myself….what else might she be referring to?
“Yes, just the room”, I replied with a frown.
With a wry smile, she handed me a metal key attached to a wooden stick. Unlike back in the States, the room had to be paid for in advance, in cash. I paid my $7 in Costa Rican Colones, the local currency. She handed me an old, faded towel that was as soft as 180 grit sandpaper and told me that the showers were at the end of the hall and my room was down the hall on the left.
The room had no window. The door to the room consisted of a wire cage. So much for privacy. In the middle of the room was a bed the size of a cot with a sagging mattress in the middle. The light switch turned on a 30 watt light bulb that was hanging from two frayed wires dropping down from the ceiling. I laid down on top of the bed, not wanting to see what lay under the covers. I rested with my eyes open for a while. It was going to be a long night.
It was getting late and I was hungry. I arose and decided to explore the town and look for a restaurant. I reluctantly surrendered my key to the reception and left the hotel. I would have worried about theft if I had all of my belongings with me, but they would not arrive in the country until tomorrow.
I found what looked like a decent restaurant a few blocks from the hotel, with some open air tables by the street side. When I asked for a seat, one of the waiters said that the kitchen was closing and the chef was going home. However, he said that I could have a bowl of soup or a salad which was already prepared. I agreed and ordered soup, bread and a beer.
When he brought me the food, he commented that there weren’t a lot of tourists who visited Alajuela. I told him about my eventful day.
“Where are you staying the night?”, he asked. When I told him where I was staying, he gasped in astonishment.
“You are in grave danger!”, we warned me. “The Hotel Real is a very dangerous place. Someone was killed there last week. Don’t go back there! Wait here until I get off of work. You can come home and stay at my house. I get off work in about another hour.”
Dead reader, have you felt vulnerable or been afraid for your life in a foreign country? What would you do? My passport and camera were back at the room. Would they be stolen? At some point I would have to eventually go back. And, should I trust that this waiter had the best of intentions?
Time to make a decision. Making the wrong one could have serious consequences.
Rather than wait around another hour until my newfound friend go off work, I decided to return to the hotel. He told me he would come for me when he got off work. Was he really a concerned person who would help me, or someone else who would take advantage of a vulnerable traveler? I hoped it was the former, but now had to think about the latter.
On the way back to the hotel, I stopped at a shop and bought myself a knife with a sheath. I attached it to my belt and went back to the “Royal Hotel.” It might offer minimal protection during a mugging. I hoped I wasn’t bringing knife to a gun fight.
There were a lot of people in the lounge of the hotel watching a soccer game on TV and drinking. Most of the men had young women sitting in their laps. A picture of a naked woman hung on the wall next to the TV from a calendar that was two years old. The place was a lot noisier than when I left. The woman at the reception desk smirked as she handed me the key to my jail cell. I wondered what devious thoughts were behind that look that she gave me.
I locked myself in the room and lay on the bed with the light on. I opened the folding knife and kept it in my hand by my side. I waited for well over an hour for the waiter to come and ask me to stay at his home, but he never came.
Through the paper thin walls I could hear a couple having sex in the room next to mine. Squeaking springs, banging bedposts and moaning momentarily drowned out the loud talking, drinking and the noise of the TV in the background. Through the wire cage in my front door, I saw people constantly walking by. Were they thinking about breaking in and robbing me? Or did the room next door have a door like mine where they could view a couple having sex? Both of those alternatives were disconcerting.
I don’t know how many hours I stayed awake lying on top of the sheets with the light on and my hand on my knife, while mayhem lurked outside of the room. The night seemed like an eternity as I waited for dawn. But I must have fallen asleep at some point. At some point my eyes opened, and I didn’t hear any more noise. I tiptoed down the hall to the bathroom to relieve my bladder when I noticed that it was beginning to get light outside. Time for my escape!
Gathering what few belongings I had with me, I headed for the stairwell and my escape, only to find a locked metal gate blocking my escape route. Drunks were passed out all over the floor of the steps, on both sides of the metal gate. I was trapped!
The reception desk was empty. I rang the bell and banged on the office door. Finally, a woman emerged, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She grabbed a key to the gate and opened it. I had to step carefully around all of the drunk bodies passed out on the steps. The stairwell had an even more pungent stench than the night before.
Exhilarated to make my escape relatively unscathed, I hastily hiked back to the airport and waited for the morning plane to arrive with my backpack and luggage. I survived the night and would live to see another day!
The moral of this story? Don’t be fooled by a fancy name! If a hotel was really ROYAL, it would cost more than the equivalent of $7 USD and you would not have to pay in advance in Cash. If any hotel ever asks you, dear reader, “what else would you like besides the room?”, then just run (don’t walk) in the other direction. And, if you have a feeling that something just doesn’t seem right, you are probably correct about that!
The four valuable lessons I learned on that fateful night.
When you smell alcohol and urine on the way to the front desk of the hotel you have a reservation for that evening, turn around immediately and walk away.
Whenever you are lost in a foreign country and ask a law enforcement officer for directions and his eyes grow wide and his jaw drops, it’s a clue that you shouldn’t go there.
Never stay in a hotel room that has a wire cage for a door.
Try not to check a bag when flying, but fit all of your stuff in a carry on bag. If I had done that, I would never have had the “Hotel Real Experience.”
Now, if I ever have to take a lie detector test for some reason, and someone asks the question “have you ever spent the night in a whore house?”, I would have to truthfully answer YES. Would it make any difference if I added the fact that it happened at a ROYAL HOTEL? Probably not…..
But, at the same time I would have to insist that they also ask me, “did you pay for anything besides the room?” Thankfully, and truthfully, I can honestly answer “NO”.
When thinking about recreating in Central Oregon, don’t overlook Redmond. Bend gets most of the press, but we recently drove to the town to our north for a weekend hike and were not disappointed. With gas prices being sky high, we are doing much more urban hiking closer to home.
We combined walking the paved Dry Canyon trail and then walked back through downtown and some residential neighborhoods for a good mix of rural, urban and suburban hiking all rolled into one 9 mile hike. Beth and I parked our car at the southwest terminus on Quartz Avenue and headed north. It was a very hot late-June day, and we started the hike mid-morning. The actual paved trail is 3.8 miles each way.
Dry Canyon trail passes through several local parks along the route. One of the parks has a climbing wall next to the soccer fields.
At the busy intersection of the trail and Hwy. 126 (Highland Avenue), the trail passes under the road through a tunnel near American Legion Park. The smooth, asphalt trail is suitable for bikes, in-line skates, skateboards, and wheelchairs as well as a walking path.
Further north, the canyon narrows and takes a couple of sinuous bends. According to interpretive markers on the trail, the sides of the canyon are rimrock basalt which overlays the Deschutes Geologic Formation, which is over 4 million years old. However, the floor of the canyon is from more recent flows from the Newberry Volcano to the south (approx. 75,000 years old). It is thought that the canyon was carved by the Deschutes River, which abandoned this channel about 75,000 years ago when eruptions of viscous lava blocked the river upstream near Bend and diverted it into its present channel. Some of that lava oozed into Dry Canyon to smooth out the bed of the canyon.
There are points where one can access the trail from the roads above. The official trail ends at the sewage treatment plant to the north. You can then turn around and walk back to your car using the path, or take one of the side exits and walk your way back on city streets. We chose to do part of the trail back and take a closer look at the Maple Avenue Bridge.
The Maple Avenue Bridge is 70 feet tall and was constructed in 2007 using three 210 foot arch spans. Since Central Oregon is a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, climbing bolts have been anchored to the underside of one of the arches.
From a distance, the underside of the bridge looks like it has a lot of bird nests built on the underside of the bridge. However, we noticed that all of the “bird nests” were only on ONE section of the bridge, which piqued our interest. It is not likely that nests would only be built on one span. We walked the 100 yards or so, and on closer inspection saw that these “bird’s nests” were hand holds that were placed there by humans, and there were clip-ins so that climbers could practice climbing “negative slope”.
Further south, we climbed up the access stairs to Fir Street and headed back into town. Notice the narrow groove in the side of the stairway, for easily walking your bike up and down the stairs. Lots of folks choose to ride their bikes on the trail instead of walking.
At the top of the stairs you enter an established neighborhood. The house on the corner of Fir and 10th was nicely landscaped, so we snapped a picture to remember it.
It’s interesting to walk in older neighborhoods. Most don’t have sidewalks, but if neighborhood expansion happened at a later date, often the newer regulations called for sidewalks. Curiously, this sidewalk only lasted one block and then we had to walk in the street again. Redmond streets are laid out in a grid pattern, with named streets which run east-west placed in alphabetical order. It’s hard to get lost unless you don’t know your alphabet.
A few blocks of walking east from the Canyon will bring you to 6th street, one of the main North/South roads that brings you through the heart of town. We hung a right turn and headed south into town. The City of Redmond went out of their way to make the roadside visually appealing and welcoming to tourists with banners and flower pots.
Once you enter downtown there are several places that you can go for either shopping or eating. Since we have previously enjoyed lunch and refreshments at General Duffy’s Waterhole on 5th street, we opted to try someplace new.
We first passed by Centennial Park and took a short break and people watched. Kids and families were enjoying the sunny day and playing in the water fountains to beat the heat of a hot day.
We continued walking south on 7th street and stopped by Cascade Lakes Brewing for lunch. It is just north of the Fred Meyer store on 7th street. We found a shady table outside and enjoyed a healthy lunch and a cold brew.
Right next door to Cascade Lakes Brew Pub is Hutch’s Bicycles. We didn’t stop in, but did take a picture of the Dad joke that they had on the company sign board.
A short block north of the Brew Pub and the Bicycle shop is the intersection of Highland Avenue, a busy East-West road. It had good sidewalks and we hiked back west towards the Dry Canyon Trail. Highland is one way street near the middle of town, but turns into a wide four lane road with center turn lanes just a short distance from the downtown core.
Like the rest of Central Oregon, Redmond has grown a lot in the last two decades. Walking lets one take in all of the changes. Bike lanes have been added to Highland Avenue, as have been many new businesses. We enjoyed nice views of Cline Buttes and the Cascade Mountains in the background. New pedestrian friendly crosswalks with signals have been installed recently, making it a hassle free walk. We chose to walk on the south side of the street, where we might occasionally get some shade from trees next to the north- facing sidewalk.
We took a left on the road right before where the trail passes under Highland Avenue. Just a few blocks to the south, we saw a dirt path that would put you back on the Dry Canyon trail.
Just less than another mile and we were back at the southern terminus on Quartz Avenue. There is ample on-street parking to access the trail.
All in all, we walked just over 9 miles for the day, on mostly flat land except for a couple of flights of stairs. You can make this walk as short or long as you like. Redmond also has some mountain bike trails outside of town. Located about 17 miles north of Bend and situated several hundred feet lower in altitude, Redmond’s micro-climate is somewhat drier than Bend’s. If you are flying in from other parts of the country, your plane will be landing in REDMOND! So, if you are recreating in Central Oregon, don’t overlook this small city that has a lot to offer!
Two years ago in July of 2020, I wrote a post at the start of the pandemic which tied together a few things that might seem unrelated at first. Racism, Baseball and Pandemics were all tied around the date of July the 7th. That story was about memoir and descriptions about place in some moments in time.
Places change. They change due to changes in the Physical Environment (climate, earthquakes, fire, etc.), but more often they change as a function of the changing environment of the humans that inhabit those places (economics, demographics, politics, etc.).
Dear reader, even if you read this post two years ago, I invite you to re-read it, along with the additions to it which recounts the change over time during the past two years. The world is way different than it was just two short years ago. If we are all trying to figure out where we are going, it helps to see where we have come from and measure how much progress we have made over time. If you haven’t read it previously, the post now has subtitles categorized by time.
Sharing special moments and experiences with friends allows for personal growth and can extend the depth of relationships. Three of my friends and I brainstormed some places that we might go together to enjoy ourselves and experience something new. The challenge was that we liked to do different things. We all liked to do some walks together, but we couldn’t find any ONE place we could all get excited about. That is, until we discovered that there was a tropical rainforest in Massachusetts. Who knew? And the surrounding area had something that suited each of our diverse tastes.
After not doing much traveling due to covid, the four of us decided to do an overnight jaunt to northern Massachusetts. We left my hometown of Willimantic, CT at 7:30am, hoping to get to the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory in South Deerfield, MA by 10 A.M. when it opened, leaving us time to do a pit stop on the way. We arrived at the stroke of 10 and entering this butterfly conservatory felt like emerging into a warm paradise. There was an added bonus of soft, restful music playing. We were surrounded by multitudes of butterflies and tropical flowers. It was like an instant trip to a rainforest in South America. Butterflies flitted all around us, landing on shoes and shirts and brushing by our heads. It felt truly magical.
After a few hours of being mesmerized by these delicate creatures, we left to pick up some sandwiches and view the area from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Summiting Sugarloaf was recommended as something every visitor to the area should do. Readers need to know that we were 4 somewhat out of shape women in their 70’s, so hearing the road goes right to the top of the mountain made it an exciting destination! But when we got to the road that leads to the summit, we found it closed off due to road paving. There was no way other than hiking the whole way to get to the top! Our expectations led to disappointment as expectations often do. We therefore decided to focus on the experiences at hand and found a lovely place to picnic on the grounds of Yankee Candle. The area was complete with picnic tables, gorgeous flowers, and even relaxing music from outdoor speakers. Only two other people were enjoying this pleasant outdoor dining experience. After lunch we strolled through the giant Yankee Candle complex with its overwhelming smells and sights before seeking another adventure.
After lunch we drove through some beautiful farmland to Historic Deerfield. Being there was truly a trip back in time, with homes built in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s along with two schools and three working farms. The Nissan Cube we traveled in almost felt out of place. A horse and buggy would have felt more appropriate here.
We checked into our motel (a Red Roof Inn) in the late afternoon and then returned to Magic Wings since our admission allowed re-entry. We enjoyed a few more hours there and found a brewery that served pizza nearby for supper. After playing a few rounds of Rummikub near the pool area in the motel (Julie won them all!), we declared it a very satisfactory day.
Friday morning we stopped for breakfast and headed north to Greenfield, MA. We very much enjoyed the camaraderie and planning another day of adventure while we drank our coffee and enjoyed fresh baked English muffins. The first stop was Poets Seat Tower. It was dedicated to poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman who “studied nature and wrote verse” in Greenfield. The original tower was built with wood in 1879, and replaced by stone in 1912. It seemed to be a popular place to visit, which nicely overlooked the town and surrounding area. Unfortunately it was decorated with some graffiti, but the stonework was beautiful.
Historic destination #2
Our next destination of the day was in Turners Falls, a village in the town of Montague. We did a quick detour to a thrift store (we have always had a passion for thrift stores) on our way to find the Canalside Rail Trail. This pathway enables folks to walk or bike alongside the Connecticut River. We were fortunate to park near the Great Falls Discovery Center which is housed in former paper mill buildings. Inside we viewed displays about the 410 mile long Connecticut River’s watershed (which we know some of it well, being from CT). Outside we observed the Gill-Montague Bridge over the river and the dam to divert the mighty Connecticut into a deep, swift running canal. You could see remains of old paper mills downstream which made this area thrive in the 1800’s. The Canalside Trail was paved and made for easy walking, and is a joyous path.
Geological & Botanical Destinations
Shelburne Falls was our next stop. We viewed one of the largest collection of glacial potholes (kettles) in the world. The potholes are located below Salmon Falls on the Deerfield River. These continue to be enlarged at winter’s end with the snow melt, and were VERY impressive. We also toured the Bridge of Flowers, an old trolley bridge turned into a beautiful garden. Even though it was early May, it was full of beautiful flowers from one end to the other.
As we sat and had dinner at a Cracker Barrel on the way home, we marveled at how much we had experienced in just two days. So many diverse learning excursions in one small area of north central Massachusetts had us forget that we never got to summit Mt. Sugarloaf. Perhaps another overnight excursion in the future. We were very grateful that we could spend 2 days together exploring this area together, and uplifted by our encounters we could share. Adventures with friends, even just a simple overnight as this one was, filled us with gratitude for the blessing of friendship. I hope you may do the same with good friends.
The video below will give you a sample of the feeling of the magic of visiting Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory. For most North American readers, this will be the nearest Tropical Rainforest you can visit!
Oregon’s Central Coast has something for everyone. Whatever the reason for your visit, whether it is for natural scenic beauty, beach combing, adventure, history, or just relaxation and culinary delights, you will not be disappointed.
Typically the Central Coast of Oregon includes areas from Depoe Bay at the north end to Florence at the southern end and everything in between. Rugged sea side cliffs are punctuated by areas of flat sandy beaches and river estuaries where you will find good harbors where small cities are located. On our most recent three day trip, we covered the ground between Nye Beach just north of Newport all the way down to Florence. For those having at least one more day, I would recommend visiting Yaquina Head Lighthouse, Otter Rock and Agate Beach before having lunch in Depoe Bay, which claims that it has the world’s smallest navigable harbor. Depending on what time of year you go, you might likely spot a migrating Gray Whale just off the coast.
We left our home in the high desert in the morning and made the 4 hour drive across the Cascade Mountains and arrived at Nye Beach by early afternoon. It wasn’t raining and there was a steady Northwest wind. It was just cool enough with the wind that you wanted to wear long sleeves. We were greeted on our walk to the beach by a para-glider who maneuvered his craft just over our path.
Located on the banks of the Yaquina River, the harbor of Newport is a hub for commercial fishing and crabbing, in addition to offering attractions for tourists. The downtown has lots of buildings with Victorian architecture. You will likely see commercial fishermen mingling with tourists in this Bayfront area.
Right next to Pacific Seafoods Inc., immediately adjacent to downtown is a short pier overlooking the docks that California Sea Lions like to rest on. Their raucous bellows can be heard from almost anywhere on the Bayfront.
Oregon Artists have painted many murals on the buildings in downtown Newport. The mural below was painted by Bend artist Rick Chambers, the husband of a former co-worker of mine.
south of Newport
Once you cross the river on Hwy. 101 you will be able to access the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Hatfield Marine Science Center. Just a little further to the south is the turn off to the Mike Miller Educational Trail Head. We’ve passed by here many times without visiting, but were glad we stopped this time.
The gentle path leads you through the rain forest. We walked through a tunnel of lush growth with azaleas in bloom all around us.
Yachats is roughly half way between the towns of Newport and Florence. We chose to make Yachats (pronounced YAH’ hots) our home base to explore the Central Coast. We stayed two nights at the Overleaf lodge in Yachats as we have stayed there previously and found it to be a nice property. Besides being centrally located between Newport and Florence, it is adjacent to some spectacular natural features such as the Devil’s Churn, Cape Perpetua, and Heceta Head Lighthouse.
All rooms at the Overleaf Lodge have an ocean view. There is a trail you can walk into town from outside of your room that parallels the coastline just above the beach. We usually have a room on the ground floor with a patio right outside, with close shoreline access.
The reception area has a dining room adjacent to it and breakfast is included. Guests are given their choice of a welcome cocktail or soft drink upon their first night’s arrival.
Yachats, also known as the “Gem of the Oregon Coast”, is a friendly town, small enough that all of the locals know one another. They are welcoming to out of town guests. Even the wildlife show their respect for others by keeping at least 6 feet away and wearing masks to keep the community safe!
Just a few miles away to the south on the coastal highway will bring you to the Devil’s Churn, a narrow cut into the volcanic cliffs where the pounding surf beats loudly against the rocks.
Close by are the high, rugged cliffs of Cape Perpetua, which begs a drive up a sinuous road to reach the top where you are afforded breathtaking views of the coastline from the vantage point of a seagull.
There are some trails from the top parking lot which go into the surrounding rain forest. If you are lucky enough, you might run into a deer grazing in the trail. I saw this little one just a few hundred feet from the top parking lot.
From Cape Perpetua you have access to 26 miles of interconnected looping hiking trails. If you are less energetic, you can drive back down to sea level and take a short walk to see Thor’s Well, an ocean sinkhole.
Further south on the Coast Highway will bring you past Heceta Head lighthouse. There is a pull off on the side of the highway where you can take a picture like the one below. For a small fee for close-by parking, one can enter the grounds of the lighthouse and wander around the keeper’s house.
There are many accessible beaches on the route to Florence. We passed up many of them and chose to hike the trail to Hobbit Beach, so named because of the 1/2 mile trip you have to hike through the rainforest to get to the beach.
If you have ever read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy or the prequel “The Hobbit” you will imagine that you are walking through the Mirkwood Forest. The twisted trees resemble the Ents in that story. As you walk through the tunneled, dark forest you will find yourself peeking around the corner in hopes of spotting an elf, a dwarf, or some hobbits.
The trail descends through the forest and opens up to a secluded beach where you will see just a few other people. The car parking area on the side of the highway is small which keeps the number of hikers low. You should always consult a tide table ahead of time to check the times and heights of the day’s tides. The highest tide fluctuations coincide closely with the phases of the moon when it is either New or Full.
Traveling further south, the landscape makes a dramatic transition from sea cliffs to a long area dominated by sand dunes. Florence is known as “Oregon’s Coastal Playground” due to the nearby Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area which is a mecca for dune buggies, sand-boarders, birders and hikers.
Like Newport, Florence has an Old Town situated on a river, this one being the Siuslaw River. Old Town has a lot of shops and restaurants that add to the charm of the waterfront location.
One of Beth’s favorite shops is Bonjour, an International clothing store. I appreciate that they thoughtfully put a chair outside the front door for husbands to relax in while their wives are shopping inside. If it is still too cold to sit in the shade outside the store, there is a nice coffee shop a block and a half away under the bridge.
Crossing over the bridge from Old Town will bring you to the entrance to Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.
Take the South Jetty Road west from Hwy 101 into the dunes. There are several parking areas to access the high dunes and it is several miles to the end of the road at the South Jetty of the Siuslaw River. Lydia’s broom was in bloom among the foredunes when we visited in late May.
The dunes are quite high and rival the height of the dunes in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They aren’t quite as high as the ones we climbed in Namibia though. There are several trails that lead from a plethora of car parks along the road.
Some areas are designated for off road vehicles and dune buggies. While that is not our preferred mode of recreation, we did stop and take some pictures in those areas.
After exploring Florence and the Dunes area, we retreated back to Yachats and the comfort of the Overleaf Hotel. To our amazement, the Oscar Meyer Weenie-mobile was parked in the parking lot near our car. What a life the driver must have being paid to travel the country in that one-of-a-kind RV!
The Overleaf has a few charging stations in their parking lot for electric vehicles too.
After breakfast the next morning, we headed out the door of the hotel and took the Coastal Trail to the North. The Oregon Coast Trail covers nearly all but 10% of Oregon’s 362 mile coastline. It crosses beaches, climbs over headland, winds through shaded forest corridors and passes through 28 coastal towns. Some parts of the trail are on the shoulder of Hwy 101 and not all of the trail is contiguous. About 10% of the entire length of the trail has “gap” sections, where it is either too dangerous or routes are inaccessible. But even a day hike on a section offers rewards for the hiker.
Having our need for Ocean air satisfied, we again felt the need to smell sagebrush and juniper, so we headed back over the Cascade Mountains and returned home. The picture below is of Mt. Washington near Santiam Pass. In a few more months throngs of thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail will be passing by here. There won’t be nearly the much snow when we make a return trip to the Oregon Coast later in the year.
The scene below looks like a picture of a group of projectiles heading in the same direction. Using your imagination it could represent any number of things. It could be a close-up photo of a sport climbing wall shot from a different angle. It might also be a group of asteroids soaring through space just after a star exploded. Could it be fireworks falling from the sky on the Fourth of July? Or could they be sperm swimming and racing to be the first one to reach an egg? Can you think of any other possibilities?
Mother Nature is an awesome abstract artist. For this piece of art, all she needed was a steady northwest wind and for the canvas to be just below the high tide line. The stones were polished and rounded by abrasion from wave action in the surf zone. An incoming tide combined with some wave action, deposited them near the high tide line. A brief intrusion of sea water packed down the sand below to provide a harder, more uniform surface for the stones to lay upon.
Now that Mother Nature had the stones glued onto the canvas, she needed brush strokes trailing from the stones, all in the same direction. For this, she used the steady northwest wind to blow and thus carry dry sand across the beach. Since the stones already protruded up off of the beach, they blocked the wind, allowing blowing sand particles to slow enough to be dropped just behind them. In any other areas of the beach, the wind is still strong enough to keep the sand moving and not allowing it to build up.
This is only a temporary art display. A change in wind direction, tidal height change by moon phase, or increased surf activity coinciding with a high tide will wipe this mural clean. Then, Nature can create a different art form. If you ever used an etch-a-sketch as a kid, you know what I mean.
Some of Nature’s Art is more permanent, such as you would find in rock formations. Nature’s Art happens to be more ephemeral in littoral zones. But dismay not, since tomorrow brings a new piece of art to a new canvas. Get out your tide tables and head to the beach after a new or full moon to find an art installation near the high tide line!
While nearing the end of my bicycle journey through the happy isles of Western Estonia…..Writing a love letter from Estonia to a girl in the States…..
She wasn’t just any girl….she was my niece. And this is the first time I had ever written to her. How do you tell a young person for the first time that you love them? And how do tell her without making her feel uncomfortable? Well, you can do it simply by addressing a postcard just to her from an exotic place (like Estonia), share your experiences with her, and let her know you were thinking of her.
The trip started in Tallinn, the charming capital city of Estonia. After a LONG travel day from the States to Europe, with a canceled flight from Amsterdam to Tallinn which rerouted me through Stockholm in the middle of the night, I decided to spend a few days in Estonia’s delightful capital city before beginning the bicycle trip.
I booked a room at Fat Margaret’s Hostel, just outside of the north gate to the historical Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Old Town blends an interesting mix of old and new, with trendy cafes and wireless internet zones found by wandering centuries-old cobblestone streets behind fortified stone walls. It is one of the purest medieval old towns in all of northern Europe. The city has a unique cross-cultural flavor, due to its strategic geographical maritime location and influences from Finns, Swedes, German Knights, Danes, and Russians. Tallinn’s population is more than four times larger than the next largest Estonian city, but it still retains a small town vibe.
After a few days of exploring the city and recovering from jet lag, I rented a bicycle and pedaled a few kilometers over to the train station. I loaded my bike onto the train and took a two hour ride to Parnu, a spa town on the western shore of the mainland. From here, one can access Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, the two largest islands off Estonia’s west coast. As you can see in the picture below, Estonian trains are bike friendly. Now the bicycle trip begins!
After riding around Parnu and exploring its environs, I stayed at Voorad Oos (Strangers in the Night) hostel near the center of town. Parnu is a laid back town, but still with some of the old world charm of Tallinn.
I headed out on the coastal road the next morning. Light traffic, relatively flat terrain, and a small marked shoulder on the side of the road made for a pleasant ride through the bucolic countryside. Much of the vegetation is boreal forest which is occasionally interrupted by bog or farmland fields. Estonia has a long and dramatically beautiful coastline. Saaremaa, the largest island is also known for its unique flora, and is a stopover point for migrating Arctic waterfowl using the East Atlantic Flyway. I was on the lookout for moose on the stretch of the road shown below.
On the coastal road from Parnu there were ample opportunities to stop at roadside picnic areas and interpretative sites. Thankfully, kiosks used multiple written languages, one of which was English. At the town of Tostamaa, I stopped by a public library, where I could access the internet and check emails.
Occasionally, an old church would pop up around the next bend in the road, begging for a photo stop.
Dispersed camping is frowned upon in Estonia, but as long as you are discreet about it there usually isn’t a problem with it, like there is in most Eastern European countries and in Denmark. At the end of the first day of cycling, I found this secluded patch of woods bordered by a marine inlet. The trees protected me from a brisk wind and some rain droplets in the middle of the night.
A morning ride brought me to the ferry at Virtsu, which quickly and efficiently shuttled passengers and cars over to Saaremaa. I was the lone bicyclist on that voyage.
Once I began pedaling on Saaremaa, I faced strong headwinds. It is no coincidence that there are lots of windmills in Estonia, both historical and contemporary ones. The picture below is from Angla Windmill park which has several well preserved Dutch style trestle windmills built about a century ago.
Usually near the outskirts of a town you would find a convenience store that is the equivalent of an American 7-11 store. Eesti is a difficult language, but pictures of food on billboards make shopping easier. I never felt unsafe in Estonia. People are genuinely nice, although not overtly outgoing. It’s really nice to be able to get a coffee or snack every 15 miles or so.
Fields of flowers seem to like the long days of northern latitude summers, and give bicyclists a reason to stop, enjoy the moment and take a picture. It also gives one a reason to stop without using a respite from the headwinds as an excuse.
Upon entering the large village of Kuressaare, I checked by the tourist office. The staff assisted me in finding a homestay for the night. Kuressaare is one of the few places that you will find amenities on Saaremaa. In addition to a clean bed and a shower, the host washed, dried and folded my clothes for an extra 7 Euros. She also suggested a good restaurant in town within walking distance. I passed up the use of kitchen privileges in the house and traded my own cooking for an authentic Estonian meal from a local restaurant.
The restaurant was just a few blocks away to the East. Since I arrived early before the evening rush, there were only a few patrons in the restaurant when I dined there. The server spoke perfect English and she suggested the special of chicken, vegetables and soup.
She also bragged about the local beer and said what made it special is that it was brewed with Cascade Hops. I told her that I live at the base of the Cascade mountains and all of the local brews I am familiar with are made with these same hops. Midway through the meal she checked with me to make sure the Pintla beer lived up to my expectations. I convinced her it did by ordering another one at the end of the meal.
Leaving Kuressaare the next morning, I headed across the island to catch the ferry to the neighboring island of Hiiumaa. The wind had died down, but it looked like rain was in the forecast. Halfway across the island, the skies opened up. Even though the area is very rural, there are bus shelters far from town. I often used them as rest stops, as the buses run infrequently out here. With nobody around I could fire up the camp stove and make a hot cup of tea or coffee to warm myself up.
I made a short side trip to see the Kaali meteor crater, a lake where a meteor crash-landed about 7500 years ago. It was pouring down raining when I was there, so I will cite someone else’s picture below.
When I got to the ferry terminal, it was abandoned and closed. I looked at the schedule posted on the outside of a building and it seemed that the only ferry that day would be in the early evening. Rather than wait six hours in a cold rain and risking not being able to find lodging on Hiiumaa, which is even less inhabited, I headed east on the north side of Saaremaa towards the town of Orissaare. It was the only other town on the island that might have lodging. I got to the library there just before it closed and found a listing for a homestay just about a kilometer away.
The dorm style room was small, but I was exceeding happy to live in it for a night for just 20 Euros. The gracious hosts also had a sauna, which I used to thaw out my chilled body. Saunas are an important part of the culture for Estonians and Finns. They sure do have that part right! I felt like a new man after a sauna and a good night’s sleep.
From Orissaare it is only about a 16 mile bike ride across another smaller island linked by a causeway to the ferry terminal at Kuivistu. Ferries back to the mainland are much more frequent there and I only had about 45 minutes to wait for the next one.
Once back on the mainland at Virtsu, I started heading Northeast. A local person at Virtsu told me about camping below the historic Kasari Bridge, about halfway to my destination of Haapsalu. The bridge, built in 1904, was the longest reinforced concrete bridge in Europe at the time of its construction. It is now a pedestrian only bridge. Beneath it, on the banks of the Kasari River, I pitched my tent for the last time in the Republic of Estonia and had a peaceful night’s sleep.
Part of my bike trip followed Eurovelo Route 10, the Baltic Sea Cycle route. Eurovelo is an organization that promotes bicycle tourism in Europe and has several cross continental routes.
The last day of biking brought me to Haapsalu, where I raced a bus into the bus station. It happened to be the last bus back to Tallinn, which I was lucky enough to catch. I turned in the bike at the rental shop in old town and stayed an extra two nights at Fat Margaret’s hostel before renting a car and touring other parts of Estonia and Latvia. I’ll leave that portion of the trip for another post. Then, I proceeded to write a postcard to my niece in the States.
I’m sure my niece was the only person in her high school to get a postcard from Estonia. Besides affirming my love for her, I hope it piqued her interest in travel, in hopes of expanding her world.
This trip took place a couple of years ago, and now she is in college. Now that Putin’s war is threatening Europe, I hope that she and her peers are learning about the real places in Eastern Europe that are threatened. I know the Estonians, who share a border with Russia, are anxious for the rest of the world to know about them and appreciate and value their beautiful country.
After my recent bicycle accident, I even more appreciate the time I spent bicycling through the Happy Isles of Western Estonia. Although there won’t be any bike camping trips this year, I’m working hard in Physical Therapy to be able to do something similar in the near future. Until then, I will satisfy myself with memories of this wonderful trip!
To keep the memory of this trip alive and to promote awareness to my community of Estonia and the Baltic States, I often fly the Estonian flag at my house. I also just ordered an infrared sauna, which I hope will arrive within a week. When it is set up, I’ll sit in it, close my eyes and transport myself back to the Happy Isles of Western Estonia…
At some point in our lives we will all be faced with becoming John Wesley Powell in one way or another.
I’ve always admired the famous explorer John Wesley Powell (1834-1902). He was one of the first explorers to run the mighty Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869.
He was an explorer, geologist, professor and ethnographer. I admired him in many ways. However, he also had a darker side. I always wanted to emulate only his better qualities. But on March 22nd of this year, I’ve come to be like him in a way that I never intended to. And that terrifies me!
A river trip is one of the ultimate geographical journeys. A river trip through the Grand Canyon takes it to another level.
A journey down a river can be a symbol for or journey through life. Like rivers, our lives have a starting point (headwaters). Our lives, like rivers, often take sinuous paths through the landscape, passing through place after place only once until we reach the end of our route. Sometimes the water is calm and flows slowly. Other times, there are wild rides through big rapids. The destination may not be as significant as the journey.
I relate to Powell since we both had a penchant for exploring, although the world was much more wild at the time of his explorations than were mine. He spent four months walking across Wisconsin in 1855. I’ve spent at least that much time walking the Pacific Crest Trail, parts of the Appalachian Trail, and other long distance trails, but with the walks spread over many years. In 1856 he rowed the entire Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The following year, he rowed the entire length of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to its confluence with the Mississippi. In contrast, my longest water trips were only one week; a 150 mile canoe trip down the lower Stikine River from Telegraph Creek, B.C. to Wrangell, Alaska, and one-week sea kayak trips through various fjords in Southeast Alaska. It seems he was much tougher than I was.
We did have a few other things in common. We both became college professors later in our lives; he in Geology and me in Geography. We both were fascinated with landforms; their patterns on the landscape and the processes which form them. We both care about conservation and land preservation for future generations. We both were interested in studying other cultures. But that is where our similarities end.
There was a darker side to Powell which I did not want to emulate. While he did publish an ethnography and classification of Indian languages, and studied the effects of acculturation on aboriginal peoples, he had a paternalistic view toward native people. It is no coincidence that the timing of his geologic expeditions overlapped with the time of imperialistic military ventures associated with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Powell advocated for resource exploitation and Native removal from their lands. This is where our outlook on the world bifurcates. Maybe we were both products of the times that we lived in.
There were other major differences between us. Powell was a veteran who fought in the Civil War for the Union Army. I have no military experience, as the Vietnam War and the compulsory draft were over just before I was of age to serve. Powell was shot in the right arm during the Battle of Shiloh and had most of his right arm amputated. Which means he did his epic 3 month river expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers with only one arm. I had two arms for my river and sea kayak expeditions.
That is, until this March 22nd. That was the day I became like John Wesley Powell in a way that I never wanted to.
While taking a short training ride on my bicycle for an upcoming trip, I slowed the bike down to get around a gate blocking the paved bike path. I could not get my foot loose from the toe clips and crashed and fell hard on my left side. Foolishly, I instinctively stuck out my left elbow to protect me from the fall. The sickening sound of my humerus bone shattering was an explosion in my ear, and I felt excruciating pain from my elbow to my shoulder. I lay on the ground writhing in pain while hoping that someone might be walking their dog or riding their bike to come by and help. Now I know how helpless a turtle flipped upside down on his shell feels. I wriggled on my back for more than 10 minutes. Finally, someone saw me, came over, and called the paramedics.
The injury was more severe than a simple broken bone. It was a compound fracture in five places, where the head of the humerus bone split in half. After a four and a half hour surgery, two metal plates and countless screws installed, I was sent home from the hospital on the fourth day. Over a month later my arm is still mostly useless. In the blink of an eye, I became a one-armed man like J.W. Powell. It could happen to any one of us.
Daily life is a challenge having only one arm. I wondered, “How did Mr. Powell pilot a raft down the mighty Colorado with only one arm?” He surely was a much tougher man than I will ever be!
Fears of what my life might look like from now on begin to consume me. What if I am never able to paddle my kayak again? Are my days of camping, hiking, and exploring in the outdoors gone forever? With just one functioning arm I can’t even tie my own shoes, let alone set up a tent. Forget about being able to cut a piece of meat at dinner. Other things one cannot do with just one arm include completely toweling off after a shower, practicing archery, folding clothes well, shucking corn, threading the belt loops on the pants you are wearing, uncorking a bottle of wine, trimming your fingernails, opening a lid on a jar, flossing, using loppers to trim bushes in your yard, signaling a touchdown in football, peeling potatoes, using a broom and a dustpan at the same time, popping a pimple, clapping in applause, serving in tennis, slicing a baguette, driving a stick shift, and cleaning the armpit of your good arm, among other things. Tie your own arm behind your back for one full day and I’m sure you will come up with many more examples. It is both humbling and scary when you realize just how fragile our existence really is. What it really does reveal is that no matter how independent you might think you are, we all depend on help from someone else from time to time.
All of this makes me appreciate John Wesley Powell even more. Not only did he lead the first government expedition down an uncharted dangerous river through lands where the natives were often hostile, but he made a couple more scientific expeditions down the Colorado. The 1869 trip proved the river could be run. That made him a national hero. The subsequent expeditions in 1871-72 were accompanied by photographers, artists, cartographers and other scientists. From riverside camps, Powell would often scale vertical cliffs with his one arm, to take rock samples and find perches for the artists to document the extent of the canyon country. What he could do with one arm was unbelievable.
But Powell made his first down the Colorado a full seven years after losing his arm. Maybe at first he was just as scared about his disability as I am about my own now. Maybe it took him a few years of living with his disability to adapt to it and overcome his fears. He certainly still did need help from others though. Somebody had to tie his shoes for him each morning before they got back in the boat. Somebody else was peeling the potatoes and cleaning the fish he was eating at camp.
Which makes me realize that we ALL have a disability in life to overcome or adapt to. You may have two good arms, but possibly have some other type of physical impairment. Or, your challenge might be psychological or economic. You might be handicapped by having to be a caretaker for someone in your family who would be lost without your help. Or you might be a minority living in a society dominated by a different culture. That doesn’t make you the disabled one, but it sure may handicap your ability for upward social mobility. Which is why John Wesley Powell’s trip down the Colorado should be on the top of our minds if we are to ever form a more perfect union in our country.
Historically, we are in the middle of a very big set of rapids on our downriver journey. Rising inflation, ongoing issues with global and domestic supply chains, disasters associated with climate change which increase in frequency as well as severity, vitriolic hate speech in our society combined with hyper-partisan rhetoric, scenes of death and destruction in Ukraine, fear of global thermonuclear war, social and economic upheaval are all boiling up all around us. It seems that we may be smashed by any of these rocks amid the rapids. We’re desperately looking for a back eddy to find a safe haven and some calmer water. But even if we manage to find one which affords us a brief rest, we will still have to finish running the river. And we’ll need to channel our inner John Wesley Powell to do it.
But simply mustering up grit and courage from within is not sufficient enough. We’ll have to learn to rely on one another too. There are just some things we cannot accomplish by ourselves. We will have to be open to accepting the helping hand of others, while at the same time doing all we can to help ourselves AND each other. If we learn to take the best lessons from Powell while eschewing any similarities to the ethnocentric and imperialistic views that he held, we will again have hope for the future.
Although I only have one arm at the present time, unlike Powell I still have two hands. With a long road of physical therapy ahead of me, I still have hope of regaining most of the use of my arm. Even if I eventually do, I will remember the lessons from Mr. Powell and be more empathetic towards my one-armed fellow citizens. As long as they will strive to do the best that they can with their one good arm, I will be happy to tie their shoes for them. I will also happily shuck the ears of corn that we can dine on together.