It’s Called Ride and Tie

 

I run.  A lot.  But, I am not fast.  Non runners are impressed by my resolve (insanity), health (why else would anyone run on purpose?), and unstoppable (ludicrous) urge to never DNF (Did Not Finish).  Runners, though, will eventually get around to asking my pace, or my PR (Personal Record) in a specific race distance.   When they learn that my pace is a mediocre 10 minute mile and that my PR’s put me squarely in the middle of the pack, they are either pleasant at my non-achievement, or unsure how to follow up.  Pity?  Advice on how to get faster?  Offers to train me?  Now, I am dedicated to my mediocrity.  I run around 30 miles a week on a regular basis.  When marathon training, that number falls closer to 40.  Running slowly, that’s a lot of time spent pounding the pavement, or the trails.  I am proud of my achievements – I’ve finished four marathons.  Three were on trails.  One was in Death Valley.  Two were the Black Mountain Marathon – which is a trail marathon run in the winter, through snow, ice, and cold, up the mountain and then back down it, and I am preparing to run it again next month.  Yaktrax, shoe traction devices are usually required.  And I love it.  Every minute.  Ok, maybe not every minute, but I do love it.  I read somewhere recently that some sports scientists think that we don’t build a strong running base until we’ve been at it consistently for ten years.  If that is so, I didn’t start seriously running until eight years ago.  Maybe I will magically find new lungs and legs in three years and run a BQ (Boston Qualifier).  Since I am over an hour off, that would be amazing.  Finally, my hard work will pay off!  But I am not holding my breath.  No, I run because I do love it.  The feeling after a run, when I am eating a bag of chips and chugging a Coke.  The beautiful trails I have seen.  The moment when everything clicks and I am gasping towards the finish line faster than the last time.  The people I have met out running, both in races and out training – when you’re slow and definitely not winning anything (probably not even an age group award), you can make friends with others out there struggling away.

I’ve recently discovered Ride and Tie – a relay race that involves three partners, one of whom is a horse.  Yup, a horse.  Let me explain – Human #1 takes off at the start on the horse.  Human #2 follows behind on foot.  Human #1 at a time or place designated by the team (but not usually the same place or time as the other teams out on the trail) stops and ties the horse to a tree, then takes off running.  Human #2 catches up to the horse, unties, mounts, and passes Human #1.  Then the cycle repeats.  I’ve been lucky enough to find people out there willing to let me ride their horses, since I do not have one of my own, though I have loved horses since my mom first boosted me up on Queenie, the resident Shetland Pony at the barn my sister was taking riding lessons at when I was four years old and she was eight.  My sister is also the one who introduced me to Ride and Tie.  These races range in distance, but my favorites have been 25-30 miles.  I’ve chased off bears and wrangled rattlesnakes off the trail.  (My partner, trotting up behind me on our horse, “What are you playing with now?”)  The runners in these races are endurance athletes, many do back to back races two days in a row.  I love the intellectual challenge of Ride and Tie – in regular races, all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other, not fall, and make sure I eat and drink.  Sometimes, I can convince myself to run faster.  Sure, it is a mental game, but only with my own limitations.  In Ride and Tie, I have to be constantly considering not only how I feel, but how my partner and our horse feel.  Steep hill?  I should slow the horse down, and tie somewhere in the middle so my poor partner isn’t running up the whole thing.  Rocky ridgeline?  If I am out front, running, I probably won’t see my horse and partner for a while since they have to slow down.  Vet check?  Mandatory at the beginning, middle, and end of a race, the horse’s heart rate has to slow to a certain point, and he has to pass other tests as well, such as being properly hydrated.  Runners have to switch at vet checks, so strategy is involved there too.  Run the horse in too hot, and as you run out on foot, you know it’ll be a while before you see your teammates again.  The more often you tie, the faster you can typically complete the course, but that means you have to mount and dismount constantly – most teams learn to do this from both sides of the horse though a horse is traditionally mounted from the left.  Some partners are stronger runners, and some are stronger riders.  During a race, this can change rapidly since a lot can happen over 30 miles.  If your human partner is tiring, then you might have to run more.  Some teams go into races knowing that one partner will run more than the other, and plan ties and pace accordingly.  The horse has his own thoughts and opinions about where to go on the trail, and even the most steady horse will spook when he sees certain things in the woods – like a hunter dragging a fresh killed deer.  Those who aren’t familiar with riding will say we get a rest when we mount up, but that isn’t necessarily the case.  Riding muscles get sore too, and steering, holding on, and changing pace all require work.

This past season I raced 289 miles in 12 different races, ranging in distance from 10 to 30 miles.  I rode six different horses, with nine different partners, in three different states.  At the East Coast Championship race in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, my partners, Diana, Stetson, and I finished second!  In the national individual rankings, I finished 5th in 2015.  I am very proud of that.  Every run I go on, I am thinking about Ride and Tie season, reflecting on the fun, the laughter among teams, the friendly competition, the constant joking, and the mental fortitude required to finish these crazy races.  My Ride and Tie family is broad, and contains some of the most diverse, entertaining, and tough people (and horses!) I’ve ever met.  We’ll race each other, testing ourselves and the terrain, during the day, then laugh together over a fire in the evening, good natured jokes flying over anecdotes from the race.  There is nothing like the start of a Ride and Tie.  Horses cantering off into the woods, runners huffing and puffing behind, searching the trees for your horse, wondering if you missed him (happens quite frequently, magically these 1,000 pound animals find ways to camouflage with the trees), then chatting with the competition as you tackle a particularly muddy patch of trail together, listening for hoofbeats behind you, quick exchanges with your partner, all the while managing to stay on a horse, or your own feet, on technical trails in all sorts of weather.  I’ve been moved to tears on those trails, of joy, of pain, of frustration, but mostly I am running with a smile on my face, in between forcing gels and snacks down my throat.  

I must thank Greg Bradner, Diana Burk, Rick Noer, Mary Gibbs, Sarah Krueger, Greg Cumberford, Courtney Krueger, Rick Koup, and Janice Heltibridle for partnering with me this season.  Likewise, Mary Gibbs, Lea Krueger, Carol Federighi, Brian Coss, Greg Cumberford, and Janice Heltibridle for letting me borrow and ride their horses – it is not only incredibly generous, but also brave, to allow someone else to ride your horse off into the woods.  Also, Bob Heltibridle and Lea Krueger for always being selfless crew members, especially Lea, who crewed for us with a broken leg!  Last, but definitely not least, my husband, who supports my love for this insane sport, and even though I’ve only managed to get him on a horse once, has spent countless hours waiting for me at finish lines of various races.  For more information about this sport, click here: Ride and Tie.

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Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Our next stop was Yosemite National Park.  We spent over a week there, part of it backpacking, and part of it with my parents – who were gracious enough to plan a vacation to Yosemite and then invite us along!  Yosemite is crowded, the valley is mobbed, especially in the middle of summer, but there is a reason that it is so full of humanity – and that is the sheer, unadorned beauty of the monolithic granite rising up out of the valley.  No one can deny the heart stopping views, and it is not surprising that people flock here, clogging the roads and filling the lodging.  Unfortunately, some people do very stupid things here – you put together a lot of humans who do not go out into nature often, within arm’s reach of animals and hiking trails, and you tend to have clashes.  I like to think that most people though, leave Yosemite with a renewed sense of the importance of preserving nature, and a reverence for the sublime – John Muir called this area the “range of light”.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

The backpacking portion of our trip included 50+ miles over five days and four nights in the backcountry.  We applied for our permit months in advance.  In fact, we had our permit in hand long before we even had plane tickets!  Still, we had to wrangle our hike because so many permits had already been taken.  We hiked out of Wawona on the Chilnualna Falls Trail.  That meant we gained approximately 3,000 feet on our first day of hiking.  We started around 4,000 feet and on our third day, topped Red Peak Pass at a little over 11,000 feet.  Our first night was spent at Johnson Lake, falling asleep to the gentle plopping of fish in the otherwise still lake, where we awoke to frost on the ground.  As the sun rose, it quickly melted, but I still registered my complaints and refused to leave my sleeping bag until the sun hit our tent.  Late on our second day of hiking, we spotted our first views of the high Sierra, where the peaks are barren and covered in moraines.  Through fields of wildflowers and forested hills, we spent the day rolling up and downhill until we reached the final push to the Ottoway Lakes.  We spent the night camped on the shore of the lower lake, enjoying the tinkling of a small creek through the evening.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Day three took us up and over Red Peak Pass, and though the temperature hovered in the 60’s the mountain sun was intense.  That, combined with the altitude, made for slow going up the pass.  The area is above tree line, therefore completely exposed.  We arrived at the summit around noontime, and while Anthony huddled in the shade, I tried in vain with my camera to capture the sun on the rocks and the view of the various tarns dotting the horizon.  The hike down from the pass seemed to take much longer than it should have, but we did stop several times to dip our feet in mountain streams, or swim in lakes.  Anthony swims, I am the toe dipper.  The freezing cold glacier meltwater does not seem to bother him.  Our third night was spent next to Triple Peak Fork, which eventually dumps into the Merced River.  We hadn’t seen another human since the night before, and we were camped completely alone out in the woods.  It’s amazing to be able to do that in a park that sees over four million visitors a year.  The following day we followed Triple Peak Fork down to the trail junction at Merced Lake, where there is a campground with platform tents.  We spent some time resting on the shore of Merced Lake, enjoying the quiet beauty.  From this point on, we were on a highly traveled trail down to the valley, so our days were not as peaceful.  Up until we arrived at the Merced Lake area, we’d seen less than a dozen people total.  After Merced Lake, I stopped counting as we ran into people backpacking up to the platform tents, mule trails, and as we got closer to the valley – day hikers.  I found a secret camp spot up above the Merced River that night, and we enjoyed a warmer night in the shadow of a granite dome.  Our hike out was stunning, even though we had to share the trail with so many others.  Following the Merced River was magical, and we found many places to cool off in its waters.  We hiked down the grueling steps by Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls, admiring the views with literally thousands of other people, to end our hike back in the valley.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

We spent the next couple of days with my parents, enjoying the less rigorous pursuits in Yosemite – a short walk to Lyell Fork in Tuolumne Meadows was a highpoint.  We also took a drive up Tioga Road, and then down to Mammoth to visit Devils Postpile National Monument.  60 foot high towers of basalt rock, that look like french fries to me, are the reason this was declared a protected area in 1911.  Another day we drove to Glacier Point for unobstructed views of Half Dome and the valley below.  It was a wonderful few days in an amazing park and I am glad we spent an abundance of time here, especially since we were able to enjoy such a wonderful place with my parents.

Upon leaving Yosemite, we made our way back to the San Francisco area.  We spent a morning at John Muir National Historic Site.  It was really fun to go there right after being at Yosemite, since John Muir loved Yosemite and was integral in pushing to get it protected.  He adored Yosemite, and spent days upon days wandering footloose through the peaks, with barely any supplies and a carefree regard for the natural world.  At the site, we were able to walk around his family home and read much of his original work.  As always, the park rangers were helpful, friendly and talkative.

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park

Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park

Our next stop was Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park.  When Anthony and I first met, our first date began at the Oakland Airport.  We had planned a backpacking trip on the Lost Coast.  Before we headed up north in our rental car, Anthony suggested we check out the new National Park Site that had just opened – Rosie the Riveter.  A memorial sculpture had already been built, which is what led to the designation and participation by the NPS.  We both remember going to the site, and wandering around the memorial, but at that point, in 2007, there was nothing else there yet.  Now there is a gorgeous visitors center, with amazing exhibits, films, and photographs – all commemorating the women who worked and toiled in the war effort of WWII.  The Rosies are inspiring and the history presented and the care given to preserving it, make this site a very special place.  Dinner was at Souley Vegan, in Oakland, where we ate piles and piles of starchy goodness.

Our last day on vacation began with a visit to Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site.  Open rarely, and only accessible by park shuttle, we had made reservations the previous morning, but the shuttle never appeared – so we waited the next morning, a Saturday, for a shuttle that did not require reservations.  In the meantime, we discovered Ike’s Place, an amazingly tasty sandwich shop.  It’s not an all vegan place, or even vegetarian, but they have an extensive vegan menu that includes all kinds of meats and cheeses.  I think both of us would agree that these were some of the best sandwiches either of us has ever had.  Back at the site, the lives of Eugene and his family made for an incredibly interesting tour of his house.  Being an English teacher, I was of course fascinated to see his library and hear about his writing practices.  He was very reclusive while writing, and “trained” his wife Carlotta to ensure his privacy while working.

Our last stop of vacation before flying a red eye out of SFO, was Jelly Belly, where we took a factory tour and bought a lot of Jelly Belly Jelly Beans.  Anthony spent a lot of our visit on the phone with his work, because within the hour of us arriving home from vacation the next morning, he left for Alaska with work!

All in all, an amazingly wonderful three week vacation – lots of memories, good food, and beautiful scenery.  An added bonus was spending time with my wonderful parents!

Northern California

Whiskey Town NRA

Whiskey Town NRA

We left the cool weather of the Bay Area behind, and headed north to Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, where temperatures soared over 100 degrees.  Most come to Whiskeytown to enjoy the lake, and we were no exception.  We went swimming twice, once at Crystal Creek Falls, and then again in Whiskeytown Lake.  Since the temperature was so hot, it was a welcome relief.  We also took a short walk to a few relics of the mining past surrounding the area.  Even walking less than a mile was taxing in that weather!

Lave Beds National Monument

Lave Beds National Monument

Our next stop took us on a drive up to Lava Beds National Monument.  We spent two nights camping there in the Indian Well Campground.  A smaller park, we had a great time exploring.  Lava Beds is known for the extensive system of caves located beneath the surface of the park.  We trekked through three of them, some of the easier ones to walk through.  We didn’t attempt any of the more serious caves.  Golden Dome is so named for the glowing bacteria on the ceiling.  It really does glow golden in the light!  We also walked the length of Sentinel Cave, and climbed down into Skull Cave.  There is a permanent ice floor when you get all the way to the base.  The temperature in the caves is a cool 50ish degrees all year, a welcome relief from the sun and heat of the rest of the park.  While staying there, we also experienced a hail storm so severe we feared for the paint job and dinging of our rental car.  One night we ventured down to the amphitheater to listen to a ranger led discussion of the Modoc people who have lived in the area for thousands of years.  We also visited the remaining petroglyphs at Petroglyph Point, which were actually created by people on boats, though now the area is dry.  We didn’t know what to expect from Lava Beds, and were greatly impressed by the array of landscapes to be explored within its borders.  Far from other cities, it is also pretty secluded, so we took a ride up to Klamath Falls one evening for dinner and the movies, something we both enjoy doing anytime.

World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument

World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument

While in the area, we were also able to explore one unit of World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.  A relatively newer site, set aside in 2008, the Tule Lake Unit encompasses sites were both prisoners of war and Japanese internees were housed during World War II.  A sobering part of our history, it was powerful to stand on the grounds where Japanese citizens were kept and basically imprisoned during the war.  As the wind ceaselessly poured down from the hills, we read inscriptions about the difficulties the POW’s and Japanese had adapting to this harsh environment.  The visitors center has a comprehensive museum of the area, that includes many exhibits and relics from this time period.  Fascinatingly, after the war was over, and the interns sent away, many people repurposed the barracks into homes.  As we drove around Tule Lake (sometimes written as Tulelake), we were able to pick out these houses by their characteristic rectangle shape.

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Our next drive took us to Lassen Volcanic National Park.  Beautiful, remote and not very crowded, Lassen was a direct contrast to other, more popular National Parks.  We were both amazed and surprised by just how stunning the scenery was in Lassen, and by how calm and quiet it was compared to other National Parks.  We camped at Manzanita Lake for two nights, and though the campground was full, it was still pretty peaceful and did not feel overly crowded.  Upon arrival, and acquiring our stamps at the entrance station, we set up our tent, and then embarked on a drive around the park.  There is one long road that goes from entrance to entrance.  Within the park, there are also many miles of backcountry hiking, including a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada along the spine of the Sierra Nevada in California.  It is a life-long dream to hike this entire trail, which is 2,650 miles long.  Unable to climb to the top of Lassen Peak (which is only open a few times during the year), we settled for a walk down to Bumpass Hell, a geothermal area.  It is a fascinating, smelly area with steam rising into the air and muddy sludge bubbling out of the ground.  You can hear the hiss of the steam and the burping of the water as it boils beneath the surface, as well as observe the varicolored ground and impressive array of features within a small area – all accessible by boardwalk.

The next morning we went on another short hike, this time to Paradise Meadow.  The climb to the meadow was well worth the effort, as the view was stunning.  We spent some time laying in the meadow, eating snacks, and chatting with other hikers.  It was an absolutely beautiful spot, and I think we could have laid there for hours.  We truly enjoyed our time in Lassen, and we would love to return and spend more time there.

To be continued…

San Francisco and the Bay Area

This summer, Anthony and I were able to take a three week vacation out to California.  We began our trip in San Francisco, and spent several days in the city before heading farther north.  We of course visited National Park Sites – 14 in all!  We unfortunately could not visit Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial because it was closed to visitors.  On an active base, visitors must receive permission from the Army for a tour.  Even though I contacted them several months prior to our visit, we were not able to gain access.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

Our first morning after flying into SFO, we walked from our hotel to San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.  It was only a couple of blocks, and so we spent a while meandering through the extensive museum, checking out the exhibits.  There are several ships to be toured along the pier.  The site is located right next to Fisherman’s Wharf, so many tourists were perusing the area and examining the ships along with us.  San Francisco has a rich maritime history, and this museum and pier detail the power held within her bay.  I found several penny smashing machines too!  Along we passport stamps, we also collect Pressed Pennies.  I even have an app on my phone that finds the machines for me.  Since there are so many tourists in Fisherman’s Wharf, there were over 50 machines!  I did not get to every one, but did manage to hit up several during the day.

Fort Point National Historic Site

Fort Point National Historic Site

After a quick lunch at a Thai restaurant we stumbled upon, we took a walk along Crissy Field and the Presidio.  Both part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, we walked with the foggy bay as our backdrop towards the Golden Gate Bridge.  There were many others walking along and enjoying the area, families flying kites, cyclists pedaling along the paths, and dogs playing frisbee.  Also, the America’s Cup was going on while we were there, so we viewed several of the boats sailing through the bay.  Once at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge, we visited Fort Point National Historic Site.  Fort Point was constructed beginning in 1853, and was meant to guard San Francisco during the Civil War.  The enemy never showed up.  One Confederate ship did plan to attack through the harbor, but on the way there the USS Shenandoah learned that the war had ended.  The fort never fired a shot, and though was randomly used for other purposes, it was basically abandoned afterwards.  Preservation became important when the Golden Gate Bridge was constructed, and the span of the bridge arches directly over the fort.  Existing in the shadow of the bridge, Fort Point now demonstrates an example of the thick masonry characteristic of the period before proven ineffective against rifled artillery.

After Fort Point, we walked a couple of miles to dinner at Golden Era, a vegan Asian restaurant serving a wide variety of Thai, Chinese, and Indian delicacies.  My favorite part was the vegan blueberry cheesecake at the end of our meal!

All in all, in one day, we walked about 8 miles through the city!

The following day, we picked up our rental car.  As fun as it was to explore the city on foot, we were excited to be able to drive to some other places hard to reach when walking.  We drove over the Golden Gate to the Marin Headlands.  We stopped by the visitor center for more passport stamps, and lighthouse stamps, before taking a short hike to Point Bonita Lighthouse.  The walk to the lighthouse is only open at certain times.  Volunteers lead tours through the tunnel in the rock to the precariously balanced lighthouse.  There is a short suspension bridge now, but when the lighthouse first opened, keepers used a buoy pulled through the water to transport themselves and supplies across the water!  Still an active lighthouse, though automated, Point Bonita is a great little spot.

Heading back into the city, we stopped at Enjoy Vegetarian Restaurant, where we had a fantastic lunch.  We then drove south, searching for NPS stamps at the various locations of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  We ended up at The Cliff House and The Sutro Baths, two fascinating historical structures frequented by the wealthy of the past.  The Sutro Baths are all ruins now, but the Cliff House built in 1909 still stands – though it is the third such structure by that name on the site.

That evening we drove into Berkeley for dinner at Herbivore.  An all vegan establishment, we were delighted with the food.  I had a chocolate shake and beef stroganoff.  Just looking at the menu now, as I write this later, my mouth is watering!  We do love to eat!

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island

The following morning found us on the early morning ferry to Alcatraz Island.  Part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Alcatraz has a varied history that does not just encompass the famous prison.  I had visited the island when I was young, though mostly I recall my father becoming target practice for a seagull.  The ferry ride is quick, and once on the island we were given a briefing by a park ranger, then into the first building for the introductory film.  Alcatraz was first built upon with a lighthouse in 1854, and contained the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast.  With threat of war, Alcatraz then housed a fort.  Though, with advancements in weaponry, the defenses quickly became obsolete.  It was decommissioned in 1907.  But Alcatraz had already held its first prisoners.  In fact, when the first permanent garrison arrived, 11 soldiers came with them.  Deserters, Indian warriors, murderers, and Confederate soldiers were all confined at Alcatraz before it was opened as a Federal Penitentiary in 1934.  Only 1,545 men did time there, including Al Capone and George Kelly.  They were unruly escape risks, prisoners that were troublesome in other locations.  We both found it very interesting that Alcatraz’s prison was considered so secure, that the families of the men stationed there as guards and prison workers rarely locked their doors, and in fact many of the children recall a halcyon youth.  In 1963, Alcatraz was closed due to the intense operating costs.  Then, in 1969, a band of Native Americans from many different tribes, occupied Alcatraz for 19 months, taking a stand against poor treatment they felt they had received from the government.

Now visitors can tour the cells and barracks, as well as bird watch.  When we were there thousands of birds were flying and walking around the island, seemingly unruffled by the thousands of tourists also walking the island.  In fact, some of the island is closed to visitors because of breeding habitat and nesting.  I was also delighted by the gardens.  Inmates, bored by the lack of activity on the island, gained permission to create gardens.  These gardens are currently maintained by volunteers interested in restoring them with historical accuracy.  The varied history of Alcatraz is fascinating and we happily spent several hours wandering around the island in the gorgeous sunshine.

Lunch was spent at Gracias Madre, a vegan Mexican restaurant in the Mission District.  Anthony had the Nopales, while I had tacos.  Really yummy, though a little pricey, we were able to sit outside and enjoy the warm weather and entertainment on the streets.  If you know us, or have read our blog, you know we love to eat!  So after a relaxing afternoon wandering through Haight-Ashbury, where we visited Super7, a store owned by acquaintances, we went to Nature’s Express in Berkeley for dinner.  Serving mostly sandwiches and burgers, we both enjoyed a pretty simple, tasty burger dinner.

The following morning we went to not just one, but two vegan bakeries.  It was our second wedding anniversary after all!  We began at Pepples Donuts.  We were both under impressed with the offerings.  They were slightly dense, and very, very heavy.  I always want to support vegan donuts, because they are the number one thing I miss being vegan, but these were just ok.  So we continued to Timeless Coffee Roasters, an all vegan coffee shop with lots of yummy baked goods.  In Oakland, we were able to get vegan cake sandwiches (“Twinkies”) and drool over all of the other offerings.  Sadly, we could not eat every single one!

We then spent some time with a friend who has an office in the Financial District, right on the edge of Chinatown.  Afterwards, we ate at another location of Enjoy Vegetarian Restaurant where one of the owners recognized us from the other day!  We tried different dishes and again loved everything we ate.  On our way out of the city, we stopped at Lucasfilm, so that Anthony could stand next to the Yoda statue and walk around the lobby.  There are guards at the entrance to the parking lot, but Anthony told them we were there to see Yoda and they invited us in.

Muir Woods National Monument

Muir Woods National Monument

Our next NPS site was Muir Woods National Monument.  A very popular destination for residents and visitors to the Bay Area alike, it took a while to find parking in the busy lot.  In 1905, the Kents bought the land in order to preserve the Redwoods.  They then donated the land to the government so that it would remain protected.  Wishing to name it after John Muir, who was well known for his conservation efforts, Kent had not yet met the man but admired him greatly.  We meandered along the two mile loop walk through the trees, craning our necks to see the tops, while fastidiously trying to avoid the children rushing around our legs.  Though crowded, Muir Woods still manages to be peaceful.  Something about the giant trees inspires reverence.

To be continued…

Shining Rock Wilderness

A few months ago we hiked the beautiful Shining Rock Wilderness, located on the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. We went from Black Balsam to the top of Cold Mountain, enjoying the amazing views the whole way. Carrie is a huge fan of the novel Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, so she was thrilled to hike this influential mountain. I strapped my GoPro camera to my chest and took several thousand photographs along the way, this is the end product.

Goofing Off in Honolulu

Just a silly video of some friends and I goofing off in a swimming pool in Honolulu. Be warned, you might get motion sickness…

National Park of American Samoa

When my husband and I decided to get married on the island of Oahu (though we live in North Carolina), we had to consider where else we could possibly go for a honeymoon.  Since we were already so far out in the Pacific, we decided we take the trek down to American Samoa.  While working on our goal to visit every national park site, and get the corresponding stamps, we figured we wouldn’t often be this close to National Park of American Samoa.  And a honeymoon is a great excuse for extravagant travel.

The beach on the Island of Ofu

Our journey began at the Honolulu International Airport, where we boarded one of two weekly flights between Honolulu and Pago Pago.  The flight is about five hours long, and packed with Samoans returning to the island from Hawaii, burdened down by many packages.  (There seems to be no charge for luggage on this flight, so many people were obviously taking advantage of this by bringing cheap supplies back with them).  Pago Pago is located on the island of Tutuila, though usually the entire island is referred to as just Pago (pronounced Pungo).  We had made reservations at Sadie’s By the Sea, one of about three hotel options on the island.  American Samoa does not really cater to tourism.  There are cabs readily available, and some lodging options, but it seemed to us that most people visiting Pago were there for business related to the tuna industry.  In fact, we were asked several times if we were there for either business or missionary work.  Sadie’s was a perfectly adequate hotel, although previously we had heard that American Samoa, though an American territory, is more like a foreign country .

Lots of time to relax on Ofu

The following morning we returned to the airport to try to get ourselves to the other outlying islands, specifically the island of Ofu.  Until a few years ago, a flight existed between Tutuila and Ofu, but that has been discontinued.  While in Samoa, we heard several reasons why.  The first is that the airstrip on Ofu has been shut down because the FAA deemed it too short and dangerous for flights, and to lengthen it would require great cost and the destruction of many delicate and precious coral.  We were also told that the airline itself decided not to fly there anymore because the one plane they had, that could land on the runway, was broken with no timeframe on repair.  Whatever the reason, we had read beforehand that it is difficult to get to Ofu now.  The method we heard others use was to fly to the island of Ta’u, then pay a fisherman to transport between the two islands.  There is no scheduled ferry.  The islands are only about six miles apart.  We knew this could be a lengthy and complex undertaking, especially with the concept of “Samoan Time”, in which it is perfectly acceptable to show up three hours late.

At the Tutuila Airport, we were given our first lesson in “Samoan Time”.  We had tried many times to contact Inter Island Air, through both email and over the phone – to no avail.  No one ever returned our inquiries.  We arrived at the airport at 9am, to be told there might be room on the flight to Ta’u but we needed to wait until 10am when they would begin checking in the flight.  10am came and went, with no indication that the flight was leaving.  The man behind the counter typed furiously on a keyboard, but that was the only activity in the terminal.  Everyone else sat patiently waiting, with stacks of boxes to transport.  In the meantime, we were able to contact Jim at the Vaoto Lodge on Ofu and he said he would do whatever he could on his end to get us over there.  Eventually there was an announcement that the flight would check in at 11am.  That time came and went, with another announcement that the flight would leave at 2pm.  At 1pm, we were called into the office and asked to pay for the round trip flight, but without a guarantee for a return flight on any specific day.  They checked in our bags and gave us a handwritten boarding pass, on which was simply written our first names.  We waited at the gate until about 3pm, when we were unceremoniously told to walk out to the plane – a small prop plane with no temperature control or door between the cockpit and the passengers.  We were arranged by weight, and though we had been told there might not be room for us on the plane, it was not full.

National Park of American Samoa

Despite all this, our flight to Ta’u was uneventful.  Upon arrival at the Ta’u Airport (a tiny airstrip and outside gate area) we weren’t sure what to do.  We approached the woman who looked like she was in charge, and asked her how to get to the harbor.  There are only a couple hundred villagers living on the island, and no cabs in sight.  Everyone else on our flight was quickly being picked up by family.  Loafy (as we were later told was her name) sighed and said Jim had called her and we were to hop into the bed of her truck for a ride across the island.  Loafy is the woman to know on Ta’u.  She decides who flies and when on Inter Island Air, as well as seeming to control much of the local politics.  It is good to make a positive impression on her, we were told.  The road through the villages was under construction, but it was a quick ten minute drive to the harbor.  There were two boats tied up, and one was piloted by Mike, who was to take us across to Ofu.  We had to pay $150 each way for the ride, on the tiny fishing boat, controlled  by an outboard motor.  We were warned the seas might be too high for the crossing, but they relented at the last minute, gladly, since there are no accommodations on Ta’u.  We would have been taken in by a family for the night, until the seas were down.  The crossing took about an hour and a half, through waves easily ten feet high.  Luckily, neither of us are the sort to get seasick, but this journey is not for the faint of heart.  There is no radio, and though the men communicated via cell phone, they only received reception close to land.  The rolling waves were crashing over the front of the boat, and the captain and his two men were constantly wiping water off of their faces.  We were crammed into a small plywood enclosure on the front of the boat.  Seated, we barely fit.  At times, we were able to stand and look around, but the rocking and rolling of the boat made that quite interesting.

Boat trip to Ofu

Once we arrived on Ofu, Jim picked us up at the boat dock.  Ofu is a tiny island, connected to the island of Olosega by a bridge.  We drove the mile from the dock to the lodge, through a very small village.  There are no resources on the island, except a small store that sells only the essentials – like sugar and flour.  Supplies arrive weekly on a government boat from Tutuila – which also takes passengers.  This is another option for getting to Ofu, though the boat runs on a rough schedule, takes eight hours each way, and you’ll be seated in the hold with livestock and supplies.  Sometimes it doesn’t run at all.  The Vaoto Lodge was built and maintained by the Malae family.  There are several private cottages, each with its own bathroom.  Meals are served family style in a community kitchen.  Jim and his mother Marge were fantastic hosts.  We are vegan, and they were able to provide wonderfully fresh baked bread, just picked fruits, rice, and veggies for us at every meal.  Right next to their lodge is the location of the Ofu station for the National Park of American Samoa.  We were told Carl, the new ranger, had arrived recently with his family.  What a job!  He mostly helps out the multitude of researchers who come to Ofu and stay the Vaoto Lodge, attracted by the pristine waters, coral, and virtually unpolluted air quality.  We met him and he assured us he had a stamp, and that he’d bring it by at dinner that evening – which he did!  Little did we know that this stamp falls under the “most wanted” category, though we knew we were traveling to spot many would not be able to access.

Snorkeling in Ofu

Time on Ofu is best spent snorkeling, swimming, and laying on the beach.  The water is warm and usually within a few degrees of the air temperature.  Jim even took us to jump off the bridge between Ofu and Olosega.  We were told that the hike to the top of Tumu Mountain was overgrown, and not to bother, unless we brought a machete with us to cut down the undergrowth.  We instead spent more time in the water.  Multitudes of fish and coral were easily visible in the clean, pure water, especially at low tide.

We spent three amazing days on this island paradise, which has been touted as the most clean, uninhabited beach in the world.  We mostly had the beach to ourselves, since Islanders do not go there anymore.  They believe that archeologists disturbed the spirits of their ancestors when a dig was completed several years ago.  We were the only guests at the lodge that week, besides a lone scientist doing research on the coral reef.

Our return trip was as eventful as our trip to the island.  Loafy had to be contacted and sweet talked into giving us a spot on the return plane from Ta’u.  Since there is no telling when the flight will leave Ta’u for Tutuila (there isn’t a schedule on their website, and rumor has it they only fly when they have enough passengers to make a profit) we had Mike the fisherman pick us up early in the morning, though we had to wait for the seas to go down again and for him to finish fishing, which he still did on the way back to Ta’u.  We spent only about an hour at the Ta’u airstrip before our plane showed up to fly us back to Tutuila, and then we took a very slow cab ride back to Sadie’s By the Sea.  (Cars rarely travel above 20 mph).

The next day we rented a car so that we could visit the National Park on the island of Tutuila.  We first went to the visitor’s center, which has been relocated to Ottoville because of the damage to the original visitor center during a hurricane.  It is in a strip mall type area, and the rangers there were very friendly.  As well as our stamp, they gave us some information on drives through the park and hiking trails.  We did not have enough time to hike either of the Mount ‘Alava trails, though they sound like they’d be a lot of fun.  We did drive up and over the Mountain and on to Vatia, passing through several picturesque villages.  The herds of wild dogs (a big problem on Tutuila) and villagers watched us pass, the latter with a friendly wave.  Several trails have very interesting descriptions in the brochure.  “Park at the private house without blocking driveway access. Ask for permission from the house owner to hike the trail.”  Also, “Due to unfriendly dogs, please drive past the last house at the end of the paved road in Vatia Village.”  We were able to locate each place, following the map, and took a short hike on the Lower Sauma Ridge Trail, with views of Pola Island, a nesting habitat for birds.  We also ventured through several villages, drank juice and soda with a chief, and tried Samoan Mexican food.  We departed from American Samoa back to Honolulu after a couple of days in Pago.

Tutuila is a beautiful island, looking past the tuna factories and other signs of urbanization, but nothing compares to Ofu.  It is truly an untouched beauty.

Bridge Jumping in Ofu

Here is a little video of us jumping off the bridge between the islands of Ofu and Olosega, which is in the Manu’a Island chain in American Samoa. You really couldn’t ask for a more scenic place.

Asheville to Cold Mountain

Here is a time-lapse video I made with my new GoPro camera. This is the drive from my house to the Cold Mountain parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway in about 3,000 photos.

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