A dark caterpillar weaved through Bethnal Green, revealing an eruption of life – as one tends to find in even the most unassuming corners in London.
Offbeat ceramic fair? Hoards of bespeckled 30 and 60 somethings awash in knitted garments. Basement photography exhibit on circus life? Boxy college students pointing avidly. Bar dedicated to KGV-style service and cocktails? 30 minute wait.
Primary-colored houseboats magnetically lined the edges of Regent’s Canal. Some smoked from their slender pipes, adding more grayness to the sky, others sunk into the water as if their batteries needed recharging. A twiggy blonde sat on the top of his abode in a miniature director’s chair, smoking and sipping wine to sultry French tunes emitting from a small 90’s boombox.
Rain trickled down, reflecting a baritone of city lights. Under a now-suspended chess set, a balding, woolen man has found his temporary shelter. The jingle of the shifting pieces accentuated by the treble of cyclists’ bells screeching along like piercing morse code.
I was a thread running through the tail end of rush hour, nearly catching my forehead on brick overpasses or sliding near the canal’s edge after taking a corner too quick.
Packs of oncoming commuters – only noticeable by their bodies radiating yellow in the darkness – shot out of sidestreets like pinballs. French bulldogs emerged from every footpath, adding a comedic sense of ridiculousness to the chaos of the scene.
A short-circuit lamp transformed into a strobe light, freezing still shots of my body’s gestures on the sidewalk, an exercise crime scene.
Mind your head, mind your toes, mind your side.
Minutes later, the sky cleared. Moisture hung in the smoggy air but with the cold it felt deceivingly fresher. The sun had set leaving behind a trace of sublime light in the corners of the sky.
In London there is no uncovering the unknown. The discoveries have been unearthed and broadcasted. What is left is the uncovering of a perfectly timed glance. Or a stranger’s unconscious, submarine movements that bask you in an entire life lived.
It’s 5 am. A band of knee-high crows are cowering outside my window, seemingly very disgruntled. Their calls range from a cranky baby to a gremlin to an old, curmudgeon. And now I realize where my supernormal dreams originated.
The place is a vinyl box, plastic-coated and purposeful. Each item, knob, hook, cabinet is multi-purposeful and strategic, making use of the mere 500 sq ft. The only clutter was the clutter itself: a 5-division, 8-lid trash and recycling separation system that would confuse anyone who actually knew Japanese.
If there was ever a feeling of needing to escape the confides of a 1950’s Sears catalog, it was now. The muted pink Pepto Bismol decor was all but compelling me out the door. Outside, Tokyo was waking up. I meandered, a witness to the disorderly, comforting nature of society getting their bearings as one. Otherwise orderly, perfectly timed pedestrians and cyclists swayed and wobbled. Disoriented as if they had been playing dizzy bat or were a newly birthed stumbling calf.
It was April, the time for sakura. Bits of pink petals gathered in the curb crevices like discarded confetti and sparklers on January 1st. A disappointing reminder that the cherry blossoms had come and gone.
Multiple Starbucks, brand name megastores sat on the main streets while quaint, compact local store fronts squatted in the narrow side streets and back alleys. Sprouting plants tiered and huddled in every sunlit gap. Bicycles patiently sat unlocked, donning their flimsy, makeshift plastic baskets and showercap seat coverings.
Vending machines sat out of place, seemingly discarded like a worker misread the directions, shrugged and unloaded the shipment. Glossy posters of unrevealing, winking pinups layered the entrances of unassuming, windowless buildings. A three-storied cement crossway straddled a sleepy intersection, I looked around curiously, peering side-to-side. A one-millon dollar extravagance to nowhere.
Slowing down was apparently sanctioned on Sunday. As I continued my run into Yoyogi Park, a expressionless guard scolded me ‘No running!’. A harmonized group practiced Tai Chi on a grassy knoll next to the Meiji Shrine, metallic skyscrappers towered in the background.
The streets remained hypnotic until midmorning at which point people seemed to quadruple in numbers. The air was dazzling and alive with the sweet smell of wafers and incense streaming from temples. Joggers donned yellow jumpsuits and bright blue Adidas-knockoff tracksuits bounced by, old men with lizard-eye bifocals crumpled newspapers, pedalers took long wavy turns. The bevy of life only adding a decibel to the noise level. Quietly synchronicitous but full of life.
There is a short catalog of Christmas songs repeatedly played all over the world. Imagine that. The same 1957 Jingle Bell tune that plays while you pass off a store-bought Albertson’s pie for home-baked is the same one playing for half a year in balmy Cadiz. Tallinn was no different.
The Christmas Market in Paekoja Plats was a maze of sugar-coated nuts, unruly hair-balled mittens and wooden spoons. In the midst of free samples and overcrowded corridors, everyone who passed had a revolting quality of ‘me-ness’ about them. They moved without any acknowledgement for other passersby, whether it be in their steps or eyes. It was a bizarrely vengeful atmosphere to behold the tune of Christmas music. No one made eye contact or even flinched a smile. A seated woman clicked her unforeseen heels on the cobblestone from beneath a plastic-lined booth, a strange sound among a woolen array of goods.
With somewhat-morbid curiosity, I continued to meander around the selfie-stick tourists.
Draggy teenagers layered in traditional garb, tower of Pisa berets and long, dangly fur vests, hoisted pictorial menus to white-haired, holiday-obsessed bumbling women.
I wondered, who does this reenactment act work on?
Enamored children pleading susceptible parents
Old, cruiseship couples whose sole interests stem from the pictured in the brochures
Those whose pastimes evolve around genealogy
Photographers set on reproducing pictures found in in the guidebook
And finally, drunks.
To unfold the layers of Tallinn outside the Old Town, I headed toward Põhja-Tallinn. Past the quotidian babushkas hawking Chinese-knitted scarves to the backdrop of Bremeni Tower. (It’s gritty granite made the patterned, knock-off knits look slightly more appealing.) Through the multitude of fortresses, rounded, wet manicured gardens and barren trees.
The Peeter Suure rajatised, a crumbling, puke-yellow fortress covered in graffiti – illiterate and unimpressive scribbling – was surrounded by a paper mâché moat of burnt brown leaves and globs of mud. The sky was perpetuated with lines of dusty smoke emitting from indiscernible holes atop nearby buildings, from grumbling trucks, from wool-laden old men’s cigarettes. The air smelt of rank, dead ocean life and long gone port workers’ sweat.
An old woman slugged her carriage through gray clay pits. The same shade as the concrete encroaching on the sea. Her skin. The December sky. The peckish pigeons. The puddles of rainwater. The congruent gray abounded.
As water dripped into my eyes, my shoes. I paused, catching the eyes of a bundled man as we both snatched a ray of partitioned sun. A finite pleasure of winter in Eastern Europe lies in the monotonous cast of dull light, sprawling its long shadows. You can stare directly into the sun’s eye. That is, if you can find it.
The rounded haze of light smudges late night walks.
Wait, it’s 8am.
If you go:
Venture out to Telliskivi for food, coffee or a drink. There are tons of places in this area, venture to the side streets or ponder at Sveta Baar.
Metsakalmistu – a huge park with a cemetery amongst a forest.
Green had never been such a complex yet vague idea. Seafoam, ivy, sage, spruce. Sharp needles, crosshatched blades, overhanging branches. As I wound through the wild coastal grasses of the Great Ocean Trail, parts of the trail rode the ridge high, performing optical reveals when emerging from a burrowed, cored-out meadow’s nest. The wind pushed and shoved in all manners of direction giving me a drunken gait as I ran.
Glenaire-Melba Gully bellowed dark alleyways of green canopy, knotted branches of broomstick trees twisting into gray scribble atop a glistening meadow. I could have been a superhero who could brandish the wrath of a tornado by the looks of how many flies hived & swirled around my limbs as I dug along. At Princetown, 72” reeds shot out of the Gellibrand River like whiskers.
As the light diminished from the sky, the clouds vanished along with it. Filling its space was the whooshing of the tide – a deep, voluptuous breath during wintertime. The birds sung their glory bells, tapped their 80’s keyboard keys, clinked champagne glasses – tink, tink. One periodically gurgled in glory as if it was downing salt water with a raw throat. A faint mist began to set – smudging the tops of the eucalyptus.
I leapt out of the door at sunrise the next morning for more of the Great Ocean Trail and within a few minutes time I was sticker than a cinnamon bun. After breakfast, I angled down to the Glenaire Campgrounds where brambling red gum trees stacked neatly near the river’s shore. Coffee in hand, I wondered if the koalas would be obvious enough to spot. I surveyed for knappy balls of fur in the trees. After only a few minutes I spotted a pineyed furball coiled in a metronoming branch. The wind pulled the limbs for feet in either direction but this did not concern the marsupial from following my step and gaze.
// Up Binns Road was a slippery track through gargantuan beeches & ferns that put the palms of Santa Monica to shame. Beams of light emphasized the towering bohemeths. The road dropped down into a redwood forest with a suspicious lack of green underbelly – devoid of all but the carmelized needles that had piled year over year. A few steps away, a river scrambled over sharp green lichen and capsized timber that was gradually assuming a new shade of green. Lake Elizabeth sounds like a pleasant, convivial spot where one would picnic on crustless sandwiches while wearing straw hats. In actuality, it feels like a trapdoor into purgatory – dark, mysterious. An erie timelessness engrossed the area, recalling Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil. Topless, dagger-like trees jutted from a murky lightless pond. Crawling ivy enmeshed with a mischievous purple flower seemed an innocuous highlight meant to distract.
As the story goes, Lake Elizabeth was created a century ago after a year when the rains never stopped. The water led to a mudslide, blocking off the waterflow and creating this mysterious home to the coy platypus. A sign announced ‘beach’ at the banks of a sludgy, immobile green river surrounded by jagged rocks. The path led down to the banks of the whiskey colored water, shards of decapitated white beeches stood erect in the middle. Black cockatoos whistled in the trees, everything else was noticeably still. As soon as I had begun to let my guard down, and get used to this evil lair, I turned the corner and nearly stumbled into a gigantic black & red snake at my feet. I nervously turned on my heels to make my way out, cataloguing each branch and dutifully playing the game ‘snake or stick’? An echo emerged and the sound of the trees creaking like rusty hinges of wooden doors filled the void.
I shambled out back towards the town of Forest trying to shake off the abnormal air and headed back towards the ocean.
Grab specialty picnic items at Battaglia’s Marketplace in Lorne and hit the beach but beware of aggressive seagulls.
Glenaire – I can not say enough about Chi Medicinal Farm & the couple behind the operation. A lovely, natural space that incorporates the plant life and natural elements into the lodging & food. Plus the location is to die for: right off the trail, next to a koala habitat & lucious meadow.
Make sure you pick up groceries & wine before heading to Glenaire. There are NO services.
Other places to check out:
Grampians – Hall’s Gap – an entry point for an outback experience. Combines ochre cliffs & red gums with boundless opportunities to watch marsupials and variety of bird species. White cockatoos the size of rabbits, kangaroos galore. Utah-like hikes and spectacular syrah winemakers to partake in. Stay at the Stone Cottages in Grampians Pioneer Cottages.
Royal National Park – Run the perfectly laid trail along the eastern coastline of Australia, just south of Sydney. Outstanding views for just a short drive.
The journey was windier than I could have possibly imagined. The road leapt over mountainsides, through chalky gray rivers swirling with metallic reflections of the sky. Emblazoned, minted. As we traversed Sur Lipez, the water diminished, reminisces of the last rain gashed into the rivers edge. A drawbridge spanned sandpaper. Windowless mudhuts dotted the hillside. The only variance from the muted terra firma was the shimmer from the corrugated steel roofs and the darkness of an impending storm.
Remote outposts, destinations for mere minutes, inferred generations of life.
Some were narrow passageways between rows of connected camel row-houses, where squatting old ladies retreated like turtles into their rainbow woolen ponchos. Tiled public squares freckled with energetic children wreaking havoc on a brood of hens. Teenagers lazied on abandoned metal sheets jutting from the ground burning holes with their universal bored stare. Other villages were mere dots on a map, an analogy for the particles of dust that swept and stained everything – not a color besides blackening bananas in sight.
Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna National Reserve, 2019 A strange alagam of diligence, exertion and tedium extended everywhere. A fence marked by rocky cairns extended for a mile. Road hazards were recognizable by strewn rocks or metal abruptly positioned in a lane. Road maintenance was done by the hands of leathered, shrinking men in whose vests had nearly lost their reflective sheen. One man pushed, rolled, scooted a boulder across the nadir of a winding valley, valantly entrusting oncoming drivers to anticipate and react to sudden hazards in the road. On top of a snow-speckled mountain, the wind smacked like waves and we came to an abrupt stop. At each unsuspecting town or approachment to a random site of interest, there was always a kid and a man to pay. Their scattered system of tolls. Donde vas?
That was a good question. Where were we going? Yes, there was an itinerary that we had, places to be by the end of each day. Towns were supposedly our end destinations. The dusty, ragged frontier of Tupiza. It’s colors faded like an old shoe, all of its white yellowed, smelling of everything it’s been through. Sol de Manana, a town spaced between two smooth volcanoes whispering a bitter wind between the quiet streets. The gigantic palms of Villa Abecia shading the bodegas peddling mapley sweet wine, it’s streets echoing the crackle of parrillas and the squeaking of one little boy’s bike. But these were simply the cornerstones to the pocked dirt roads atop endless mountain-passes in the clouds.
Over the years, I have come to shun a constant travelers proverb. It seemed to emit from tongues like the greeting ‘How are you?’. Yet I found myself reflecting over the hundreds of miles/hours as I stared into the endless valleys, watching the shadows of the various peaks play out on the hillsides.
No other expedition had the saying ‘It’s more about the journey than the destination’ been more applicable than that of Bolivia.
If you go (& you should), practicalities:
THE ROADS: If you want to be able to take in the scenery and get through the long distances each day without wanting to scream, I highly recommend hiring a driver.
Between Sucre –> Tupiza, roads are decent and paved
Between Tupiza–> Eduardo Avaroa –> San Pedro a driver is a Godsend. ‘Roads’ – dirt/rock paths – will be washed out and will require a car with sufficient clearing. Typically cost/price is less to hire a driver than to rent a car.
Between Santa Cruz –> Samaipata a driver is not necessary and many agencies run transfers like Kaleidoscope Travel paired with a hiking guide in Amboro. A hiking guide is required for hikes that take place in the protected rainforest/ fern gullies. A local lady checks with guides to get to the final trailhead.
THE CLIMATE: If you are planning to go during the rainy season, the Altiplano is where you want to be. The weather is likely to be stable and your journey relatively easy. Steer clear of La Paz & the Amazon. Samaipata and the Southeast will be a bit wet but not near as bad as La Paz.
Stay at least two nights at Ckamur Atacama Ethnolodge. Spectacular property with biking distance to San Pedro town & park. You’ll see the stars and sunset away from the hoards of tourists in a ethno-property. The photos online do not do it justice. Unlimited trail running, hiking, biking around Catarpe valley. Don’t take a tour to the Valley of the Moon or you will be annoyingly chaperoned. Eat at Baltinache.
Stay at least two nights at La Vispera in Samaipata, it is a lovely ecoreserve on the hillside, with a wonderful garden-based & property-sourced restaurant in walking distance to town. Take the hike behind the property, up the mountain, and look out over the lush valley and vineyards.
Stay at least one night, two full days at Hotel de Sal Luna Salada in Uyuni. Spectacular decor, even though the staff is a bit odd…. BYOW!
Stay one night at Hotel Parador Vina de Pereira in Villa Abecia. Hike to the outlook, swim in the springs. Be wary of the wine….
And now, take in these spectacular snapshots from Bolivia:
Circling the roundabout for the fifth time, my patience began to wane. The backpackers that I had seen walking from the bus stop on the main highway had almost made it to their destination. I knew were they were heading. The one hostel in town, the Ginger Monkey, where I had originally planned on staying but decided last minute against for seclusions sake. I cursed myself, if I had stayed there I would be drinking wine by now! Finally, I parked at the one restaurant and desperately waited for a passersby.
Two little old ladies, each draped in floral prints (red poppies and yellow daffodils), shuffled on their evening stroll up the solitary road with a panoramic view of the High Tatras to their right. I attempted my best Slovak pronunciation. An instant click of comprehension and she was off pointing and motioning. ‘Obviously it’s up that side gravel alley behind these abandoned buildings’, she implied.
Relieved, I pulled up to the lodge – reminiscent of a kitsch wooden lodge you’d find in the Appalachians, adorned with all types of multicolored windmills and objects. The owners were gathered inside talking loudly, inattentive to the tv that blared out the open doors. I excitedly put off dinner to share wine with a supposedly English-speaking Slovak. ‘What time does the restaurant close?’ He assured ‘10pm’. Since the options were abounding, I was hankering to get his local take on hikes. But, surprisingly, his were identical to the English blogs that I had read: ‘Zelené pleso’. Only when he repeated the directions to the trailhead did I realize what little English he spoke. At that minute, I dashed down to the restaurant.
The place was as dark as a medieval tavern, one obviously drunk couple remained, their heads swaying to & fro while they attempted to gaze in each others’ eyes. I begged for bread. The waitress replied that they only had frozen loaves. I could try the restaurant in the next town over – 20 minutes away. She must have seen the desperation in my eyes, she rushed back to the kitchen and returned with the drunk couples discarded bread basket. I was overjoyed.
I knew from the start that I was going on the wrong hike. None of the names matched up – not the chata, nor the medley of hikes stacked on the posts. But, I reasoned, I signed up for this hike. One I didn’t read about in countless blogs – it felt more adventurous, more mine.
Ahead, a Slovak man ferociously trekked through the forest with his poles swinging, it appearing to be his morning routine. The trail overlooked a stream rushing with winter’s water, sprouting wreaths of yellow flowers. I soon reached a chalet hunkered in the one nook the mountain had to offer. Every hike in Slovakia has a beer chalet waiting to reward you.
Nearly down, I ran into a shirtless man starring at the trail pole. ‘You are alone?’ Well, there is no denying it. We are in the middle of the woods.
I asked why he was so shocked. His frightening reply, ‘Sometimes it’s good, man and woman being alone. Sometimes not so good.’ Broken English can have wondrous implications.
It was a breezy hike that I decided was to be the warm up before Zelene pleso, I was craving more of a reward than beer. 5 minutes away was the unmistakable trailhead for Zelene pleso. Cars lined a dedicated parking area, a large wooden map showed the path. Along the way, several crews of men were constructing new bridges – pulling the timber from the forest, halving the logs and sawing them into place. Dust & shards of wood flying through the air, none of them sporting eyewear or protective gear of any kind. I passed a dipshit wearing a ‘Budafuckingpest’ shirt, one earphone dangling out of his ear. I wondered if the construction guys would give him a go on the saw.
// The trail wound through the lush, bright green forest and emerged in a col-de-sac of limestone peaks spotted with snow. The lake an emerald green, reflecting the surrounding foliage. A barrage of tourists had schlepped their photography gear up and were manically snapping photo after photo of the lake as the clouds rearranged its overhead lighting. I tried to sit in seclusion and reflect myself, but each time feet would find their way to me. I had to keep myself from snatching at their ankles. After a dozen miles, the chalet was definitely calling me. I counted my euros, and realized the parking fee had dissolved my chances of beer. Defeated, I began to turn back when I heard a manly roar, ‘Colorado!’. It was the group of Slovak men I had seen hiking in the low Tatras a few days earlier. They summoned me over for beer and tripe-stomach soup.
If you go to Slovakia:
This blog is about Zelene Pleso but the real gem is Velky Rozutec.
The train is slow and the transfers many for outdoor adventuring. If you have limited time, rent a car.
– Stay in Štefanová and hike the Veľký Rozsutec loop (it is technical at the top). It is an amazing quaint town in the middle of Mala Fatra that has unlimited hikes. I could have stayed here for 5 days alone. I highly recommend Penzion Sagan. – Make sure you pick up groceries & wine before heading into the High Tatras. – Stay in the new building at Hotel Nad Przełomem in Sromowce Niżne, Poland. Kayak the Dunajec, hike Trzy Korony, you can bike along a river trail forever. Pieniny was amazingly underrated.
// Mt. Rushmore Road had a new median: rows of bumbling motorbikes. Each with the heft of an antibiotic, force-fed cow. And the same went for their owners, who were parading around like Macaque monkeys in their cheek-perforated leather pants. One of every two bikers tramping around was grossly overweight and the same statistic was applicable to the quantity of bored, stupefied facial expressions on the passersby as they peered into Rattlesnake Jakes, Full Throttle Saloon, and Dakota Leather Outlet.
Cabo San Lucas t-shirt vendors had made the journey north for the month of August, and left behind their beachcombing, shot-sipping and sunburnt gregarious customers for, well, the same. Only this time their patrons digressed to hair metal instead of chicano rap.
They had reassembled their hawker stands with banners loudly pronouncing their menu del dia: Sleeveless Denim, and Gun Pocket Vests (which pictured a sinister pocket knife emblazoned with the American flag).
Two Polaris mules pulled up and parked, three more inches and they would have made it inside. The drivers were clad in fuzzy house slippers and carried themselves with the implied attitude associated. As the man picked over the merch, he revealed the ink show on his arms: a hollowed skull bedazzled in a headdress next to a PBR. Thirty minutes later I would see them processing behind a skinny Indian boy carrying a wicker replica of a motorcycle.
The absurdity of Custer was soon to be trampled by the Crazy Horse Memorial – yet another monstrous human defection on the granite walls of the Black Hills. This memorial seemed even more outrageous and hypocritical than Mt. Rushmore as it ran contrary to the Native American tenant of good stewardship of natural resources.
// All night long, sleep was interrupted by the rumbling of motorbikes on their pilgrimage. I awoke the next day with an annoyance and desire of flight similar to how one feels at the end of a soured relationship. I had to get out and take refuge somewhere where the sound would not carry or a knife fight would be imminent. The strangeness had also reached another level as an 8 y.o. child had been running through the campground at the break of dawn wielding an axe shouting ‘DIE’. I peered at the map and headed to the nearest trail system and body of water, Sylvan Lake. After a nice respite, it was finally time to head west towards the Badlands. Beheld on the drive west:
In the town of Keystone alone, I passed the following: Presidential Wax Museum, Horror Antiques, Cosmos Mystery Area, Christmas Village + NFL Shop
VIP Property Listing: 730 acres and Cave
Reptile Gardens: Reptile Gardens houses the largest collection of reptiles in the world. Look for the giant glass dome at the bottom of the hill.
Bear Country USA: Enjoy the playful antics of bear cubs and other park offspring in the walk through Babyland. See where the animals roam free!
Wall Drug: Plan a road trip through South Dakota, and do not forget to stop at Wall Drug, the ultimate South Dakota tourist attraction known around the globe for its American charm and FREE ice water.
Dinosaur Park: Did you know there are dinosaurs looking over Rapid City? They’ve been there for nearly 80 years. The park contains seven dinosaur sculptures on a hill overlooking the city (not real dinosaurs).
Corn Palace: Some 500,000 tourists come from around the nation each year to see the uniquely designed corn murals.
// Everything is gargantuan in South Dakota, the road signs, the parking lots, the baby blue sky. And then, at once, the vastness becomes meticulously fine-tuned. The Badlands is its own space, with its own canon. The sky grays, colors fade into a matte, dusty palette. The crusty earth exposed, frothing up, writhing. Soft yet stolid. Hints of green swaths providing the only depth perception.
If you go: Horse Thief Lake Campground Sylvan Lake – Cathedral Spires Trail Sage Creek Campground – Badlands (enter from the east side of the park) Castle Trail – Badlands’ longest trail, it’s easy to complete all the trails in one day/ one attempt
Make sure to buy the food for the Badlands in Rapid City
Wind is pretty bad at the Sage Creek Campground but it allows for more seclusion and views of the night sky. The trails are at the other end of the park and it takes a decent bit of time to travel between the two sides, so keep that in mind.
Two days went by without seeing another soul. I slept to complete silence and perpetual daylight in a cabin sprouting turf. I hiked deep into forests worthy of Midsummer’s Night Dream, picked distant mountain tops and found my way to the top. Then I arrived at the edge of Lake Bessvatnet to a slammed parking lot.
The night before, Marcel the Belgian had arrived and we spent the night drinking bottles of wine and discussing our route. We scoffed, mocking the herds who had taken the typical route written in guide books and travel blogs. We knew they were at the other end, simultaneously staggering in queues up the trail like the start of an oversold marathon. They had taken the boat to Memurubu, the tiny compound along the end of the trail, to start their hike and stroll to a finish at their cars in Gjendesheim. We chose the opposite and figured we would use the boat only as a scapegoat on the way back.
The purples, yellows, and pinks that sprouted along the trail were a mental softening. We made our way up the well-maintained ramp and the views became astounding in no time. We reached the apex in little more than an hour. Only when we were dangling our feet over the edge, taking in the lines of peaks that flooded the sky, did the herds start to ascend, snapping photos of their formulaic poses. Hands on knees. Ducklipped selfies. Friends forever arms intertwined. ‘I was just sitting there on the edge and this stranger took a photo of my back as I postulated on life.’ We had inadvertently chosen to reap the reward before the work and now we had to swim against the current.
The first step was to avoid stepping on hands or laughing as we descended from the mountaintop. Thus we had to avoid looking into the wide eyes of the struggling, cringing zombies with their outstretched hands, wearing shirts declaring their sporty superiority. Or inadvertently kicking a small dog over the edge. Or kid. The second step was to determine our route back. The night before, in our wine-induced arrogance and haze, we had planned to summit a second ridge to complete the loop back.
If we were to take that ridge, we’d be hiking well into midnight. I sped up, cursing myself for relaxing at the top. I caught up to two hikers in front of us – two of the mere six that had chosen the same direction. All had massive packs, obviously staying overnight in Memurubu. Do you know the time of the last boat? The blonde one pointed: ‘That is it’.
The sky continued darkening, provoking an internal sense of urgency. Even though we had hours of time, It had been sunny for ten days straight and it felt like dusk. When the black roofs of Memurubu were in sight, a Norwegian crispy whisked by. I thought I would ask as once last hopeful, desperate measure. ‘I believe another boat at 5:30 was added.’ It was 5:12.
We we’re lucky, though. there was an alternate trail out following the water. It was a 10 mile stroll comparatively.
// When I resumed thought or sensation in my limbs, I thought of the truly hopeless and destitute roaming the cracked earth, desiring merely a sip of water. Or the true adventurers – the hikers that made these journeys without. Then I would think of me. Me with my gortex, sunscreen, Camelback, Salomon runners with the tire soles, my shelf-stable prebaked bread and croakies. Croakies! Fucking croakies! The absurdity and embarrassment of croakies consumed my thoughts for several bends. When the end was in sight, we sat along the shore to sip a Pilsner and stare at the still-dusky sky. In that moment, the fabled boat sped by to dock for the night.
I ran down the path on the spare energy reserves and slid into the dock. I reread the schedule, checked my watch. Reread the schedule, glared into the distance of the lake. Yes, a 5:30 boat was added. Starting next week.
We we’re in a time crunch. The storm had maniacally thrown remnants of ancient trees onto the road, blocking the only route to Cochamo. Highway 65 stitched along the Estuaria Reloncavi fjord and, on its left, a wall of ancient trees towered. Row boats bobbed, a lone cow stood motionless, stranded by high tide on a sliver of land in the bay. One goofy orange-clad attendant stood pushing around the limbs, either meticulously or lazily, I could not determine.
The directions per Refugio Cochamo denoted the entrance closed at 4:00 pm. It was 3:51 and we were dodging buses and babies in a Versa on a gravel road. At 3:58 we pulled up to the parking area, rushing with impending doom to get to the trailhead. The lot and sandwich steward assured us that the trail would remain open until 8pm. How foolish to think that there were actual time restrictions imposed in South America.
We prepared our sacks and stuffs, opting for more than necessary – denoting the distance of the hike and not the elements and obstacles that existed along the way. It was amateaur packing at best. Cloth napsacks weighed down with inessential rubbish. My shoulders shrugged at ear-level while my arms hung – lifeless pendulums. The first hour was gruelling for what was normally such an easy trail. The rain from the days prior packed the crevasse with feet of mud. It was hard to adjust to the weight of the packs. Footwork wasn’t trustworthy, balance faulty.
During the 3 miles of mud-tunneled Viet Cong canals, we encountered, at a minimum: 30 high lunge steps, 50 pole vault body- thrusting swing arounds, thousands of Satanic horseflies, 20 rolling log river crossings (with false sense of safety), 15 false checkpoints and 100 minutes of cattle-crossing planks.
In return for our miserable existence, we reaped a river-bed lined with smooth, bleached logs, clear to the depths, a valley cradled by sculpted granite trickling with linear waterfalls, a sublime palpa filled with an idyllic commune, and the sole satisfaction of seclusion from the leeches of modern society.
// The light slowly made its way to my eyes. The short night had finally fallen near 10:20 and speckled the sky with glistening sequins and smocks of blackness. I had awoken during the night, convinced it was time for morning but was mistaken. For when day lasts for over a dozen hours, day becomes the norm.
The dorm’s window that had earlier framed the gargantuan granite kings of Anfiteatro and Laguna displayed a dense fog – a disappearing act. I lay relieved, for if the granite was too wet the route to the top would be foolhardy to attempt. A reprieve from testing my courage, a cop-out. Only after studying the map and evaluating alternative trails did I realize that it would be foolhardy not to attempt the Acro Iris. A regret that would last infinitely.
Arco Iris did not offer an introduction, it began in the crux of the plot. The earth ascended straight to the sky, aligned with the trunks of the Alerces. Bamboo shot out of the mountainside, flimsy and silly compared to the thousand-year old Alerces that dominated the sky (whose roots had sprouted ‘new’ trees older than all the trees in Louisiana combined). We climbed for hours until we reached a slab of wet granite. A deteriorated rope lapped with the streaming water that ran down the center, the route up. There was no margin for error, we were on the edge.
If you go:
Refugio Cochamo – Book in advance and plan on delays getting there. They offer pricey meals each day and if you’re vegetarian you will be eating a lot of rice. Warm showers! Bring insect repellent and a towel. Booze too. Arco Iris – The trail became impossible, unkempt and in rough condition from the elements. No one that day was able to summit but the views were still worthwhile. Check out the trail description here.
Rental car – we found Seelman to be fairly priced and flexible.
In and around:
Volcano Osorno – Amazing place to ride or run. Plan at least a few hours, if not a whole day and night in Petrohue. The beaches may seem like a great idea but you will be harassed by gigantic horse flies.
It began with a drive in the dark. For the first time in a day the streets were empty. So we ran the lights. All of them. We passed by self-declared luxury housing developments with delusions of grandeur: Dreamland, Time Square, English Gardens. Frumpy, deteriorating housing complexes beside an ‘American FastCook’ and numerous windows shouting ‘PIZZA!’.
We arrived at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in one third of the time than the journey the day prior. On the prop plane, I fell asleep immediately and dreamt that the old man in a newsboy cap declared ‘We will be there in one mile!’ and I raised my fist in solidarity.
Bound for Dayan Lake, Mongolia 2016 I awoke two hours later with a burdening sense that the propeller out my window would be hovering in the depthless white clouds forever. At the brink of hopelessness, the sky opened up to a smooth suede mountain range engraved with a silverback river.
// For days we passed over mountains – passing on barely visible paths into valleys formed by ancient glaciers, over white sand and cracking earth, wading through rivers that met the sideview mirrors. The sun which beamed from the blue sky was no match for the Siberian wind. Winter crept in during the night, engulfing the surrounding land – forming a circle of white. Our plot of land was left untouched, like a lone tree that survived a tornado’s path. Inside our spackled dwelling, the pelts of four wolves hung from a wall layered with crooked vinyl flooring. A stack of bananas, fried donuts, smokey dense air. A stubble-haired man held his shotgun nonchalantly as if it were a titled tea cup. He kills wolves as a hobby during the winter, a bounty hunter to the “neighboring” families during winter (read: 10 miles away on roadless terrain).
Outside I quickly gave up my attempt not to step in shit while searching for a place to go to the bathroom. Pellets layered the ground as snow does in the surrounding high country.
// We kept driving, scratching our way along the range. Columns of dung remained where families had left their summer properties and retreated for their winter bases. Erie scarecrows dotted the hillside, loose borders speckled the ground around the remaining gers, idling dogs barked – an attempted protection from the roving wolves.
Hundreds of sheep watched patiently, their eyes blank, unwavering. Only the rushing sound of the icy water and occasionally the flap of a bird’s wing broke the silence. Along a river, we spat out watermelon seeds staring at the orange and yellows of one of the few forests. The limbs parted, materializing a border controlman on horseback. He jostled over, asking for our permits to be in the preserve. A surreal, outlandish plot. True travel. The unknown around every corner, no map, no building, no expectations. Wide open earth.
// In the Mongolian countryside there are only two cooking techniques, pan-frying or boiling, and there is only one seasoning: salt. The spread and dishes are invariable, yet expected with anticipation. Bowls of cream, butter, fried bread, dried curds, and a platter of sheep pasta to be washed down with milk tea.
As far as I’m concerned, breakfast without coffee is not breakfast and a cold meal is not a meal in Mongolia. No matter the outside elements – skirting a rocky mountain top, bouncing through the snow, toppling around a wind tunnel – a meal could be prepped. If a yurt was in sight when hunger called, we would drive up to the front door, ask if we could cook, and intrude with five cardboard boxes of food stuffs, pots and pans, a plastic folding table chair set, and a butane stove.
Sometimes we would stay the night – in which case there would inevitably be at least one child, a baby, three adults plus our party of three in the yurt (‘ger’). The combined noises were raucous. If that weren’t enough, one night I lay awake grimacing from an overwhelming nauseating smell. I thought of plugging my nose with my earplugs and, if it wasn’t for the human symphony, I would have succumbed. Fidgeting, I tried to jam my backpack under the cot but something was preventing it from fitting. I leaned over with my flashlight, buckets of dismembered, skinned sheep. Oh, so that’s the smell. The smell of rotting blood.
If you go: UB (Ulaanbaatar) : 1 – Naran Tuul: Get seedy in the black market. The sheer amount of Chinese knock-offs is impressive. 2 – Mongolian National Art Gallery: spectacular collection and they have interesting contemporary openings. 3 – Choiijin Lama Temple Museum: Unique art and artifacts, I’ve never seen anything like it. 4 – Bogs Khan Summer Palace 5 – The Zaisan Monument – climb here at night. 6 – Gandantegchinlen Monastery
Bayan-Oogli: Do not spend more than 36 hours here. You’ll probably wind up eating at one of the only restaurants, the Turkish joint.
Altai Mountains: The best time to go is before October. Once October hits, the weather is unpredictable and can throw a hatchet in your plans to hike to the Glacier (Tavan Bogd).