The Three Witches and Vegas

I was intensely focused. I was at the tail’s end of Ender’s Shadow (a compelling read) and wanted to punch it home. But I felt something- of extraneous force pounding away. Annoyed, I reluctantly tore my eyes off the book and looked up. Bobby’s prim face appeared in the front, he seemed to be excited and his fist finally stopped pounding the poor Corrolla’s (or Leaning Tower) ceiling. “We are here! Las Vegas!” The ingurgitation was such that I hadn’t noticed that we were, indeed, rolling into the heart of Sin City. Suddenly, I was afraid.

One of the first stores that chanced upon my eyes was a bond one. Apparently it was some kind of a store that gives out cash to bail out people from the jail with “lowest interest in Las Vegas!” I wondered, what have we gotten ourselves into? Our trip thus far was an odyssey in the natural world…we felt one and secure with trees, canyons, rivers, and animals (even insects). We were now thrust into a whole different world, and our wallets were no longer safe. Here, all of the indulgences of our human race were whetted and sharpened.

There were so many casinos sprinkled on the Strip, so many that we had trouble picking one. We finally ambled ourselves into the Luxor, a faux looking pyramid. The urge to gamble was instantaneous, I made a beeline straight to a sports betting section and placed a 50 bucks bet on the Miami and Boston (game six) and Scott (the connoisseur) quickly cashed in 100 bucks on a blackjack game.

On a side note, we cannot help but to marvel at the greatness of innovation on the designers’ part in casinos. Everything is engineered or made it so in a way to make people splurge their money. For example, we noted that there was a walking escalator GOING in the casino but none going out. What purpose would that serve? Imagine a guy losing 400 bucks to the game of Blackjack. Pissed, he walks out of the Casino…he knows that he cannot spend any more (he promised his wife that 400 is the limit) but boy, the walk out is sure a long one. He continues walking and thinking about the bets that he had hedged wrong, the lucky 21’s on dealer’s part….The enticement is too strong to resist…he turns around and loses another 400.

Or how the lights illuminate the playing tables. There is a subtle glow, golden one- like the pot of gold at the Rainbow’s end. Your eyes cannot help but to be drawn to the table and its cards. The cards’ number and suit give off a special glow akin to the glow on pregnant women’s skin. You start thinking about the 20’s in your wallet- how they suddenly felt expendable. You start rationalizing things, how the 20’s were not supposed to be there anyway! Before you know it, you are sitting at the table and smiling.

The air! Scott claims (the connoisseur, remember?) that casinos have a special machine where they vent air and keeps it flowing in order to keep people awake. Did you ever see anyone yawning in the casino? What about when the pungent smell of the cigarettes come across your nose, along with the consumption of alcohol (free, if you play!)- it all just feels right. The stars have aligned for you, all you have to do is let the 3 witches that weave the fates of world take over.

Fate is woven. Scott loses his 100 bucks, and then goes for another ten. I later dove headlong into the fray and lost 60 bucks. I was fortunate enough to win the basketball bet ($45). Bobby proved to be the smart one, betting nothing and losing nothing. Maybe these architects need to study people like Bobby and figure out how to get him gambling. (Personally, I believe they’ve got no hope…such is Bobby’s formidable willpower)

The Three Witches snigger over our forthcoming destitution, of that I’ve got no doubt. However, one of them (name’s Helga) felt genuinely bad and appeased other two to give us a sprinkling of hope. It came in a form of free alcohol vouchers. The line to check in Luxor’s rooms were so bad, stretching as far back as eye can see, zigzagging through different betting games, slot machines, restaurants, bars, and so forth. A foul up on Luxor’s part, and to placate the growing agitation among the line, vouchers were given. On the voucher, it says- A free drink. Us, being the clever geniuses, would act like we were standing in the line and then request for a voucher (I think I mastered the technique of showing a vexed face, as if I were standing for a while). We would take turns, and in the end, we enjoyed around 15 tickets. We have to thank Helga for that, and we reeled out of the casino, blinked in surprise at the sunlight.

Lucky for us, there were some deaf people in town. Gallaudet friends! We met and caught up. The night was spent in a deaf corner, and it was spent well. Helga, however, decided that she has given us enough and left us. The drinks cost 17 bucks apiece. That led Danny Markowski to quip the comment that sums it all up, “In order to  truly enjoy Las Vegas, you need to have a 10k ready to spend with.” We definitely didn’t have 10k to toy around with, and with our wallets thinning, prudently careened out of Las Vegas Boulevard.

Into the sanctuary of the wild.

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A Walk in the Park

We bagged Humphreys Peak today.

Driving south to Flagstaff from the Grand Canyon, we passed the San Francisco Peaks. Humphreys, the highest peak of them all, rose above, but it seemed squat somehow. Like its girth was more overpowering than its height—not an observation usually made when referring to a state’s tallest peak.

Scott, from the backseat, called Humphreys “cute.” I was doubtful; I was still reeling from the slap in my face Wheeler Peak delivered for my insolent arrogance the week before. But Scott went further. He spat in the face of Humphreys, peaking at 12,637 feet, and called it a “walk in the park.”

*    *   *

We spent the night at Flagstaff. Flagstaff, you could say, is an oasis—even though it’s smack dab in the middle of the Arizona desert, its elevation and the surrounding San Francisco Peaks award the town with four seasons a year.

All over town, we saw stores selling outdoor gear. A couple bars boasted a ski/snowboard theme. We wandered over to the Plaza, and everywhere we looked, we saw bikes, bikes, and bikes. People stood on their bikes on the sidewalk, cars waited patiently for bikes on the street, and by every store was a multitude of bikes, locked to bike racks.

If you could say one thing and one thing only about the people at Flagstaff, it is that they’re skinny. Not thin in an awesomely attractive, supermodel-hot way—they’re just fit. Really fit.

*    *   *

The next morning, when we pulled up to the parking lot by the Humphrey Peak trailhead, it was full of cars. Granted, it was Saturday morning, but at most of the other parking lots by trailheads, there weren’t nearly as many cars.

The trail, while not exactly a ‘walk in the park,’ was easy enough. When the trail becomes easy to hike, a neat thing happens: the mind wanders. The continuous rolling motion of the trail passing beneath my feet hypnotizes me, sending my mind into a trance where my thoughts fly far and away. It’s the same kind of trance, I suppose, that long distance runners enter in the middle of a ten-mile run. They’re able to detach their minds from the physical function of putting one foot in front of the other again and again. Or if you’re like my mom, you can enter the same trance while putting together mammoth 2,500 piece jigsaw puzzles.

My mind wanders all the time on long road trips, when I’ve got the car on cruise control, and we’re just coasting along. So I call the trance ‘cruise control mode,’ when all you’ve got to do is nudge the steering wheel this way or that once in a while, and daydream all day long.

When my mind’s on cruise control mode, I think of a lot of different things. The grandeur of sunset at the Grand Canyon. Why the hell I still haven’t finished The Stand after more than two weeks. What I want to do after this road trip ends and I return to reality. Whether or not climbing Humphreys Peak is worth it (still up for debate).

Lately, a certain thought keeps worming its way into my cruise control mode. This thought first appeared some time ago at Mt. LeConte, and has reappeared to entertain my mind each hike since. The thought reasserted itself with a vengeance on Humphreys Peak, mainly because of the type of people (and dogs) we shared the trail with: elderly couples, college boys and girls, middle-aged couples with their hyperactive ten-year olds, and an array of canines, from pit bulls to dachshunds  (yes, a wiener dog!). Humphrey, indeed, was a family-friendly destination, one for people of all ages. This fact only encouraged my recurrent thought.

The thought was that these trails we’ve been hiking on, from Old Rag to the Grand Canyon to Humphreys Peak are Nature’s version of the StairMaster… only better.

Yes, on these trails you can’t manipulate the ‘steepness’ of the climb with the press of a button. You cannot avoid the rocks and tree roots that so often obstruct the path. There’s rarely a shower immediately afterward. There’s no cupholder for your water bottle. And perhaps worst of all, there’s no flat-screen TV showing CNN, ESPN, or some sappy soap opera.

But… these trails have an allure that’s uniquely their own. You’ll be able to take in the aroma of pine trees of blooming flowers, and witness indigenous species like the mule deer at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon or brown bears at Smoky Mountains. Along the way you’ll meet others on the same path, and there’s a sense of quiet camaraderie as you go forth to the destination. Hike long enough, and you’ll fall into a trance of your own, catch cruise control mode, and perhaps you’ll find that the inner depths of your own imagination are more entertaining than SportsCenter or Days of our Lives.

Last and best of all are the destinations. When you get there, whether it’s the majestic Colorado River, the windy top of Wheeler Peak, or even a tiny serene pond, Nature’ll lend you an awe-inspiring view. There, you can exalt in your accomplishment. You did this yourself. Your legs got you here. Before you trek back to your car and rejoin the mass of humanity, you can take pride in your accomplishment.

On the way down the Humphreys Peak trail today, we passed by a rather perplexing sight. An elderly lady was perched on a rock abreast of the trail, an e-reader balanced on her lap. We’ve no idea what this lady was doing—maybe she came out just to read in the solemn peace of the forest, or she got a little weary, decided to take a break and take in a little literature. Either way, she was reading from her e-reader in the middle of the forest, instead of on a StairMaster at a LA Fitness gym.

*    *   *

Flagstaff, as stated before, is an outdoorsy town. Its residents are fit. Obviously there’s a correlation. It works.

All over America there are countless gyms, fitness centers, community centers, YMCAs. Yet we read every day how obesity is the fastest-growing cause of disease and death here in the United States. The gyms and their StairMasters can only do so much.

If a little wiener dog could actually get all the way up to the very peak, perhaps Humphreys was a walk in the park after all. But hey, everybody in America should be taking more walks in parks… at Humphreys, any National Park, or even your local park.

So return the cobweb-covered StairMaster in your basement to the store. Revoke your fitness center memberships. Use the money instead for some hiking boots, or even trekking poles if you’re ambitious enough.

A million-plus miles of trail all across the grand ol’ United States of America awaits you.

Bagging Humphreys Peak (a.k.a a “Walk in the Park”)

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Grand Canyon is sunny

Grand Canyon. The mother lode of all canyons. You know what they say about the first steps leading to the rim where nature reveals itself- the immediate reaction, the apparent shock-awe that inevitably come along. We were well read on the subject of the “first sighting” and excitement was palpable among us as we took the necessary steps. Man, the whole package that Grand Canyon has to offer doesn’t just give a good right punch, it does much more than that, using a three punch combo and a roundhouse kick (Chuck Norris style) and a knee up to our groins. Yup.

We read it somewhere that the 95 percent of people who visit Grand Canyons never venture out of the South/North rim. Balls! Not happening to us. We decided that it would be totally off the hook, Chuck Norris awesome if we hiked down to see the massiveness of Colorado River at work. However, there are dangers of journeying into the valley of death. 1) Sun is an absolute beast, obliterating any opposition or clothing layers 2) water is almost nonexistent on the trail that we would be undertaking 3) did I mention the sun? What put us off was as we were getting our permit to descend down the Canyon and sleep at a campground, we came across a poster. On the poster, posed a healthy girl running the Boston Marathon. The line blared out, “Could you run the Boston Marathon in 3 hours?” A sub header read “she did” and the following information told us that she didn’t bring enough water and food and died while hiking down the Grand Canyon. Needless to say, we took precautions to ensure such a fate shouldn’t befall upon us.

It was strange sensation, to hike downhill to reap your reward. We were accustomed to start our hikes climbing upward, our lungs heaving, to reach the lofty heights of the peak, along with it, the panoramic views. In this case, our “reward” was the ancient Colorado River, and the views from bottom out.

The hike down began cheerfully enough as we all were in good spirits and made steady pace, however, as the sun crossed the P.M., it bore heavily down on us. Nonetheless, we plugged on. The switchbacks of the canyon were brutal, with the edge of trail hanging precipitously down.

The notorious switchbacks

As we pushed forward, we were finally rewarded with the view of Colorado River. By gods, it was majestic. The river is the biggest reason why we have the Grand Canyon, as it essentially shaped the landscape that we learned to worship. The Grand Canyon itself is a tribute to Colorado River’s sheer persistence, every year the Canyon is deepened by the thickness of a single paper. Less than a millimeter for seven million years and behold! The wonders of nature and time, indeed.

It was truly gratifying to be finally able to plunge into the icy depths of Colorado River, the master architect.

As we dillydallied around, talked about the wonders we saw en route- two huge ass rafts with around 10 people on each made their landfall next to us. Before I proceed, to be able to raft on Colorado River as it courses through the Grand Canyon are one of the most coveted experiences an adventurer could have. To obtain an independent permit is almost impossible, thus many people decide to join on rafting outfitters. Back to the point, we were stunned to see pork limbered, pale faces, and double chins people step off the raft. They contribute nothing to the expedition, sitting thorough the sheer magnificence of Grand Canyon (the whole 277 miles of it) while their guides handle things from A to Z. They had something that we didn’t. Money, moolah, greenbacks, and more money. The indignation we felt on our part could be compared to how the pure mountaineers felt when they saw people that had no place on a mountain being dragged up to the peak of Mt. Everest. Money. It served as a harsh reminder that money does really make the world turn.

We lingered around a bit at the bottom of Grand Canyon (we couldn’t obtain a permit to sleep there- we had to hike 4 miles uphill to other camp) it was brutally hot. Don’t believe me? Just check this picture out! I didn’t believe it either.

As the sun made its way toward the west, the air got cooler and it was time for us to embark to our camp. We crossed the Colorado River via a bridge, and it was one awesome sight. The trail slithered near the river for a half mile or so, along with the softening sun- it served as the most beautiful and tranquil sight I have ever beheld. As we reached our camp (the uphill hike was strenuous to say the least), to our chagrin, it was chiefly full. Luckily for us, we found a nice family who agreed to share their lot with us, as we conversed using primeval sign language, we discovered that the family planned to wake up 3 a.m. to get an early start and to avoid the bastion of heat, sun. We discussed and agreed that it would be prudent on our part if we woke up 5 am and make some headway to reach the top of GC before the sun could toast us. However, being the geniuses that we are, we dozed till 6:45. BAM! Everyone, I mean, everyone in the camp (it was full remember?) was gone. Late at 6:45 a.m.? Pretty weird, huh? We made our way upwards, and the sun came out grinning. It was like he was saying, “You thought you would out-smart me, pal?!?” and grinned even harder. In total, we hiked for 16.5 miles (first via South Kabib trail then Bright Angel)

Grand Canyon has left us mesmerized and wanting. Until the next time, folks!

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Wheeler Peak and the Mayor of Taos Ski Valley

“The wind’s blowing at sixty miles an hour up there,” the Mayor of Taos Ski Valley  told the women at the Village’s sole Fire Department station, a message the women relayed to us. We were deep in the heart of Carson National forest. We’d come with one goal in mind: to conquer Wheeler Peak, at 13,161 feet the highest point in New Mexico.

Let’s backtrack a bit here. A day before we were chilling at The Big Texan Steak Ranch, a Route 66 attraction whose claim to fame were  free 72 oz. steaks (free, provided that you finished the steak, a salad, a baked potato, ranch beans, shrimp cocktail, and a dinner roll, all in less than an hour… those who failed had to pay $72). Our next planned destination was Mesa, Arizona, where we planned to go tubing at Salt River with some friends during Memorial Day weekend. But we had a couple days to spare until then. Naturally, we Googled up the tallest mountain in NM and decided to use our spare time to climb it. No big deal, just another Peak to bag on the way, we thought.

Fast forward back to the Fire station. We had stopped there to find more information on how to get up to Wheeler Peak. There we found a trio of lovely ladies, who were more than happy to give us all the information we needed- plus a fair share of motherly words of caution.

Suddenly the door opened and the Mayor strolled in. Here was the Mayor in all his glory: grey white hair, amiable smile, plain blue t-shirt and khaki shorts. Instead of a belt, the Mayor wore a black threaded strap around his khaki belt loops, a strap that also held a walkie-talkie. As he looked us over, one of the lovely ladies behind him put up seven fingers. “Seventy years old,” she mouthed. Another lady wrote, “The mayor goes hiking all the time. Three times a month he goes up Wheeler Peak.”

The wise mayor pointed out all the reasons we shouldn’t go up Wheeler:  May was too early, the wind was really a-gusting today, and the snow (“up to your hips” one of the ladies gestured) still covered most of the trail- we wouldn’t be able to find our way up the mountain. After some contemplation and a brief discussion with his three female co-workers, he came up with a suggestion. Hike up to Williams Lake, about a couple miles away. From there, if we found the trail easy enough to follow, we could take another trail that led up to Wheeler Peak.

Heading up to Williams Lake, we shared the trail with none but the wind, the trees, and the snow. For the past day, we’d driven to Taos through the seemingly never-ending desert. Stretched for miles around, we could only see sand, plateaus, short scrub brushes, and the scorching sun. Indeed, on I-40 I saw the first tumbleweed I’d ever seen. But here in Carson National Forest, we were in a pocket, a bubble of stunning natural beauty. The surroundings invoked in us images of Colorado and Alaska, the snow-covered wilderness.

The night before, we camped beneath pine trees by a creek. The water in the creek cascaded over rocks nearby, creating a continuous dull roar. It was the best camping spot we had so far, and as I lay in my sleeping bag that night the rhythmic roar of the creek cradled me to sleep, like a mother stroking a baby’s back.

The idyllic spot we camped in, near the creek.

On the trail, we passed by another creek by an abandoned ski lift, closed for the summer. The creek passed over a waterfall, coursing down the mountain. But as we entered the wooded area, we met the biggest hiking adversary thus far: snow. Preserved late into the month of May by the shade of the trees, the snow lay on the trail in layers two, three, sometimes even four feet thick, almost untouched by human feet. We trudged through, me in my cutoff shirt and shorts—despite the snow it was warm enough to be a mid-summer day in Minnesota.

Scott and Kevin in knee-deep snow

We braced the snow, which covered the trail almost the entire way to Williams Lake. We rested at the lake, marveling at the snow covered peaks that surrounded the crater-like lake. To the west we could see Wheeler Peak, its snowless face peering down at us.

Williams Lake (Wheeler Peak is off to the left, not pictured)

We are three college-aged boys, with a healthy amount of cockiness stored in our beings. I said, “This hasn’t been so bad. The Peak’s right up there. This is easier than LeConte was (see Kevin’s previous entry on LeConte).”

On the way up to Wheeler Peak, we endured more snow-covered ground. But once we got past the tree line, the snow disappeared, and we were faced with the last couple miles of trail crisscrossing up Wheeler’s rocky summit.

The air gets thin, real thin at 12, 13,000 feet. A simple 100-yard ascent becomes quite an ordeal when your body cannot refill your lungs with sufficient oxygen. The sensation is oddly similar to the one you get when blowing up a balloon. As you push air out of your lungs and into the balloon, the shortness of breath leaves you lightheaded. It’s a brief, mild sort of high. Now take that lightheadedness, and imagine it multiplied by three or four. As we staggered up Wheeler Peak, my mind was positively floating. I couldn’t keep my mind on one thing, and my hunger seemed insatiable. My mind distanced from my body, and it felt like someone else was taking each step for me, carrying me forward. Worst of all, I felt like I could go right to sleep up there on Wheeler.

But we pushed on, one stretch of mountainous trail at a time. When we finally got to the ridge, a few hundred feet from the peak, the wind just about blew us off the trail. The wind plowed through us, unrelenting. If I’d only opened my jacket zipper, I would have blown off Wheeler like a kite, floating as high as my mind was. Instead we hunched our backs and nearly crawled the last stretch.

At this point, I was realizing, sadly, that my hubris had badly underestimated the highest point in New Mexico. The altitude, the wind, the rocks that scattered with each step… Wheeler had seen our arrogance and raised the bet, and we suffered the consequences.

On the very summit, 13.161 feet up, we shared the moment with a sixty-something year old New Yorker. With his brother, he was on a quest to conquer each of the fifty states’ highest points. Wheeler Peak was #35 on his list. We ate our sandwiches with our backs hunched against the wind, which blew at 65 MPH, the New Yorker said.

The wind blows heavily at the highest point of New Mexico.

The descent was brief and easy. Always on the ascent it seems like it’ll take forever, but coming back down the whole trek felt as if it passed during the blink of an eye.  It’s a sensation which is true of many things in life, I suppose. When the going gets tough, time seems to stand still, stretching the agony on and on.  But just when the tough gets going, the time suddenly picks itself up and runs even faster than you ever thought it could.

Back down from Wheeler Peak, we stopped by the Fire station again. The Mayor wasn’t in, so we left a message explaining our day’s exploits. A day later, he responded with this:

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Tentsations 101: A glimpse

Te-nt-sati-ons (noun)

informal interchange of thoughts, information, etc., by signed words; hands communication between persons; inside of the tent, or in near vicinity of tent.

Perhaps the favorite highlight of the trip thus far would be the conversations that spring out of nowhere. The matters discussed and said vary greatly; however, there were one constant factor- the underlying foundation of it….tent. We were always in the proximity of our beloved (newly degraded tent of $40 bucks!) Therefore, the introduction of Tentsations! (will be in dictionary before the decade’s up)

I woke up with the New Mexico sun beating down on the tent and consequently me, it was merciless. My attempts to shade myself or to alleviate the apparent heatness were both futile and foolhardy. Suddenly, I found an inspiration to get out and do a morning workout! I got out of the suffocating tent and prepared my workout on paved cement right across our tent. Just as when I was starting, both Bobby and Scott got out of the tent, squinting and was confounded by my newed energy.

Scott: What the hell are you doing? It is 8 am!

Kevin: Balls! Got to keep myself in shape.

Bobby, with perhaps the most philosophical comment of the trip quipped,

“Your body is a temple- you have to maintain it, improve it, and preserve it!”

That comment didn’t only trigger Scott to join in our fun, it also set in motion of a flunky and quite entertaining discussion on “what building would your body be if it was a building?” We all came to a conclusion and here it is;

ImageMe doing some preservation work.

Kevin: Macchu Picchu. Set in the highlands of Peru, it is lofty and picturesque. To see the wonders of Macchu Picchu, one has to trek the infamous “Mayan Trail.” It’s no easy work to see the magnificent structure, just like Kevin’s body, made and hardened through years and years of hard work. Macchu Picchu was also hidden from civilization for many years, until recent archaeologists found it….this remains the question for Kevin…has his body been discovered yet?

Bob: Stonehenge of England. It is a squat and sturdy construction, spanning for over two millennia. Its purpose on planet earth is unknown, and so is Bobby’s body. It is of high materialistic value, strong, seemingly capable, but no knows why it is made. It is very enigmatic, just like Mona Lisa’s smile (or frown) — Scott and I have been moving heaven and earth to discover the purpose of its existence. (quite possibly hiking?)

Scott: Tower of London. It is a beautiful bastion, with centuries of history behind her. She also had seen good times and unfortunately bad times. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Tower of London was used as a prison, and oft called as a “Torture Chamber.” Plenty of political enemies suffered unknown depravities within the Tower. Scott has had tortured his body by sheer negligence, not exercising for a year or so. However, good times are on horizon, the Tower would know.

An outsider!

Andy Bonheyo: Roman Coliseum. It is centuries old, but still glorious. It stands in the heart of Rome, the city of probably the greatest empire in history; Roman Empire. It is the home of countless violent confrontations between men and beasts, a gridiron of Ancient World if you will. Replace men and beasts with men and football, and you will discover Andy. Resplendent and always sure.

Lastly but not the least;

1998 Toyota Corrola: The Leaning Tower of Pisa. The leaning tower leans. It leans ever so precipitously, and it leans so beautifully that it warrants millions people to flock to the city of Pisa. It has received worldwide fame attention for leaning. It was simply a blunder on the builders’ part, building a tower on soil that wouldn’t absorb its weight. Yet it became the symbol of enduring beauty and persistence .Just like our beloved Toyota, it leaks oil and the engine eats it. It is cramped, and the lights don’t always work, but oh such a beaut.

Now you guys see the dangers of having too much time on hand and being away from civilization!

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In Between Destinations

As a child, I learned how to approximately judge the distance to the point a lightning bolt struck the ground. This indispensable piece of knowledge I learned from a Berenstain Bears book.

Count the seconds after seeing the flash of the lightning, Papa Bear told his frightened Bear children. Count until you hear the rumble of thunder. Each second counted in between the flash and rumble of the bolt equaled a distance of a thousand feet. Count to five before feeling the rumble, the lightning struck five thousand feet away, approximately. This I learned more than a decade and a half ago as a five-year-old, and remains embedded in my head, making itself useful every time I passed underneath a thundercloud.

It certainly made itself useful the night we drove from the Smoky Mountains to the Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Near the Mammoth Cave, with Scott and Kevin sound asleep, thick sheets of rain started assailing the Corrolla. Bolts filled the air with brief shocks of light, but they seemed far away.

That is, they seemed far away, except for the one that struck just as we turned into the National Park access road. First, the flash of lightning, then, almost instantaneously, the menacing roar of thunder. Even with the hum of the engine, I felt it within the floorboards. Not even a second passed in between the flash and the rumble. Using my Berenstain Bear smarts, that meant the bolt struck less than a thousand feet away. Way less.

Worse still, we were headed straight towards the thunderclouds, bringing the bolts ever closer to our fragile Corrolla.

It was almost midnight at the time, and I was on the tail end of a five-hour drive, and that day we’d hiked up and down Mt. LeConte(See Kevin’s previous entry). Needless to say, I was tired. My mind was fried and frightened, and it progressed into the early stages of delirium. Sort of.

In this state, I started imagining a battle between two Bobbys, perch on each shoulder. On my right, righteous Robert was saying “We’re driving right towards the source of the lightning. This is madness!” In response, reckless Rob on my right says “Madness? No. This is MAMMOTH!” And with a round house kick, he knocks righteous Robert off my shoulder and into the aromatic depths of the Dunkin Donuts coffee cup in my lap.

(I know, I know, it’s a cheap parody of a famous scene from a well-known movie. My mind was over tired—please don’t blame its imagination for its lack of creativity at the time.)

The delirium subsided as Scott and Kevin woke, and we got to the campsite soon after. By then, the rain had subsided, and we got the tent up before the torrents returned. Inside the tent, we discovered a small leak. 67-dollar tent, a hole already, what do you expect?

Scott was asleep in no time, but Kevin and I made a mistake, the worst possible in such conditions: we started talking about all the bad things that could happen. Stupid, huh?

I told him of the possibility of a bolt striking a tree nearby, tearing it from its roots and sending it careening towards out tent. We’d be flattened in an instant, pancakes, anybody?

He imagined an intruder coming up to our tent, axe in hand, silhouette visible each time the lightning flashed. He’d be dressed kinda like the guy from I Know What You Did Last Summer only with an axe instead of a hook. We fed the fire that was our paranoia.

I touched a root beneath the tent’s tarp floor and recalled a story where a couple campers lying beneath a tree root had died, electrocuted by a lighting stroke that had struck the root’s tree. The paranoia was ablaze, only to be seen in our fearful eyes.

And so the horror stories came, us each taking turns feeding the fires. It was a long time before we flicked the flashlight off for the final time. In the dark, the flashes of lightning still came. At each flash, I used the Berenstain Bears trick, assuring myself that the charges of electricity were coming down three, four, even six thousand feet away. After a while, the flames of paranoia died down, replaced with the warm embers of exhaustion. Finally, I dozed off to sleep at Mammoth Cave National Park.

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Mammoth Blurb!

Image

Us posing with the coveralls we used to burrow into the unknown depths of Mammoth Cave. The adventure, which is known as the Wild Cave Tour, consisted 5.5 miles of crawling, creeping, squirming, and hiking in the darkest bowels in America. Needless to say, we came out feeling exhilarated, but at the same time- thankful of the fresh air.

Ok ok…this picture is from google (we didn’t bring camera with us) but you guys get the idea of how nerve-wracking it was.

Note: The tour which we partook- is not for the fainthearted or those who have claustrophobia. (Nyle and Gabriel! miss you guys btw)

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Fun in the Smokies

Balls! This word, although a tad bit on the rough side, is best used to describe our relentless and unstoppable ascent of Mt. LeConte ( in the Smoky Mountains. We were so consumed with the idea of backcountry camping. To be clear here, the term ‘backcountry camping’ delineates the concept of roughing it out. In National Parks, there two methods to camping- one is the quintessential campground with all of the amenities provided, or there is backcountry- where it is free for all. You have to hike miles and miles and camp wherever the group sees fit, whether it be a quaint clearing or on a 20 degree slope.

With both our eyes on Mt. LeConte and unquenchable thirst for backcountry camping- adventure comes gliding along. Instead of taking a standard day hike to the summit, we decided to take a long and circuitous route to the summit. We all packed for a night out in the wild, ensuring that we brought all supplies necessary such as tent, food & water, and of course books. (We debated heartily over the matter about bringing a toilet paper-it was decided quite democratically that using leaves were much more naturalistically heroic) The beginning stages of our hike went glidingly, stopping ourselves to dip into the icy waters of a waterfall, and then pushed onwards up. As we climbed, the sun went deeper on us. It was time for us to make camp; however, there were absolutely no adequate camping grounds anywhere near to us as the terrain was very steep. Scott and Bobby sat down on a monstrous log and their faces showed failure. Digging deep inside down, I felt a surge of Lewis and Clark inspiration and decided to explore off trail for a place. Presto! There was one, just 50 feet of the trail. Scott and Bobby were surprised that there were such a place, clapped on my back in an awe-struck way. (The proudest moment of my life right there) However, what we didn’t know…hilarity followed us into the deep woods.

Scott executed the “bear bag hang-up” successfully

Sun and backcountry

We were sound asleep. It was really dark, so dark that you couldn’t see your hand in front of you. Bobby’s bladder decreed to call its master’s attention. On all counts, it was persistent with its mission, nagging and prodding. Bob finally gave in and got out of the 67 dollar tent to take a lovely 3 am piss. As he emptied his apparently insistent but not so large bladder, he suddenly heard someone shout “HO!” He didn’t want to address the phantom voice because 1) we were camping in a place that was outside the boundaries of the backcountry areas permitted by Park authorities. 2) it was (expletive) 3 A.M. in backcountry Tennessee! He quickly scampered into the warmth of the tent and his companions. However, the “HO’s” didn’t stop. “HO!” called the apparition, a bit louder than the earlier one. Bob didn’t know what to do, as he quickly got into his 30 degree sleeping bag, a third “HO!” was sounded. Three HO’s followed again in rapid succession with the last one being exceptionally loud. Bob was so sure that the caller was in the front of the tent, his poor heart thumped about wildly as his eyes pored over his two companions who were soundly asleep and deaf to Bob’s 3 A.M. fiasco. Suddenly all was quiet on the western front. Needless to say, it took Bob awhile to fall back into stupor consciousness. As he related his 3 am pee session and the “HO!” affair, Scott and I found it to be of surpassing comedy value. When we hiked up to Mt. LeConte, I couldn’t resist the temptation to yell “HO!” six times. Which spurred the ever feisty Bob to hurl a sizable wood stick directly at Kevin. Hilarity ensues.

In all seriousness, the hike was a great one, 13.7 miles in total. A good practice, one would say, before the mighty peaks of the West- however, mountains like Mt. LeConte serves as a reminder of how every mountain has its own charm, uniqueness that sets itself apart from other mountains. As you can see, the views on top are spectacular.

Us bagging our second peak

Scott and the majestic view

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A Surprise at Shenandoah

Our first destination was Shenandoah National Park, about 75 miles southwest of DC. To be honest, if there was a ladder of U.S. National Parks, Shenandoah’s rung wouldn’t be above the halfway point. Essentially, the Shenandoah National Park is a quaint spot preserving a stretch of the Appalachians, and the only notable thing about it is the 105-mile Skyline Drive. In the fall after the foliage turns, they say the view from the Drive is absolutely glorious. Orange, yellow, dark red, the leaves form a natural kaleidoscope. But in the spring, the mountains everywhere sprout their bushy leaves a static green color, making each mountain on the Appalachian range another ‘piece off the assembly line.’

So why go there now, in May? To hike up Old Rag Mountain, Kevin suggested. To  this, Scott said, “An eight-mile trek roundtrip for a 3,300-foot peak? The view from the top won’t be worth the effort.” And he was right, the view was relatively unspectacular, consisting of mostly the ‘static green’ colored mountains as previously described.

But Kevin countered, “Old Rag’s got Class III rock scrambles, it’s gonna be sick mountain climbing near the top.” And he was right, as well. So we all went, figuring that it’d be a good warm up for the (much) taller mountains we’d face down the road.

Old Rag started out as a mud-slash-rock trail winding through the heavily forested base of the mountain. It went on like this for a time, during which me and Scott were making fun of Kevin, putting the pressure on him. Then suddenly, we emerged from the tree line– it was like the mountain gods from above opened up their arms and showered us with mountain-climbing bliss.

What I experienced that day could only be described as Nature’s Playground. The trail transformed into a jungle gym of sorts. We had to dive under five-ton boulders, sidle up narrow rock walls, climb up granite steps, slip into nearly-invisible openings, side-step small streams, and swing over rocks using nearby small trees. I was finally introduced to Class III rock scrambling.

Basking in Nature’s Playground

You know the kind of introduction where an old geezer steps on a basketball court and the youngsters laugh, but when he steps off, the kids say “Damn, the old man can play”? I stepped down from the mountain saying “Damn, Old Rag was fun.”

Me and Scott, who’d ragged on Kevin for taking us to Old Rag (pun intended) swallowed our pride and gave Kevin a few pats on his ass, sparking the kind of smile that showed relief.

Kevin, sitting at the edge of the world.

On the Peak of Old Rag

*NOTE:  Scott was reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and came across a small passage which said that Chris McCandless, the protagonist that died in Alaska after turning his back on society, used to go and climb Old Rag every year with his father. McCandless is sort of a thematic hero on this trip, and it was inspiring to find we’d scaled the same mountain as he did.*

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Why do I climb?

67 dollars. The tent we bought to shelter us, to ward off the notorious pelting rain of the northwest. To protect us from the brutal winds of alpine Colorado up 8,000 feet. 67 dollars it cost us, and would it be enough? In all likelihood, no…but what is new?

I have splurged on this trip. I splurged by buying $90 Merrell hiking shoes. I went over the precipice and bought a North Face trekking t-shirt for an explosive price of 35 greybacks.

The reason why I splurged? The Mountains beckoned. They are steep, relentless, and challenging. They look down on me with an authoritative jutted chin. They laugh at my mere mortal attempt to summit their mighty peaks, instead of being let down…I feel indignation, a surge of determination on a scale of Zeus’ thunderbolts zip up and down inside me.

As you can see right now, my passion for this trip is mainly oriented on the hiking/climbing aspect. It’s funny really, on how I first was introduced to the intricate art of mountaineering. We (Bobby, Scott, Fava and I) were at Europe, roaming the countryside of Slovenia and came across to probably the most breathtaking lake in world in Lake Bled. Looming over the picturesque lake was the monolith giant- Mt. Triglav. It rises and rises until it dominates the landscape with a sheer pugnacity that simply screams, “Climb me, I dare you.” Being all the nineteen year old that I was, I responded to the challenge and dragged my companions to join in the fray.

Taking in the glorious scenery of Julian Alps.

Nearing to the top…so close yet so far away

8 hours later with aching legs, we crashed the base camp. Our thoughts were littered with the magnificent views, throbbing legs, and a sense of achievement (and then the aching legs).Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the infatuation with mountains kick started inside me. There was something primordial, primeval about climbing a mountain, where epic battles of man vs. nature- mental vs. physical take place, and the sheer elation one feels when he’s on the top. Many reasons vary from person to person regarding why they feel the urge, the irresistible tug to scale peaks…however my favorite reasoning goes like this….

Sir Edmund Hilary was preparing to become the first person ever to summit the unsumittable, Mt. Everest. Before he left for his journey, he was accosted by reporters. One reporter asked him, “Why do you want to climb Mt. Everest? What drives you? What is the motive?”

 Hilary replied, “Because it’s there.”

 This trip is going to be loads of fun. Unquestionably, there will be challenges and unexpected situations that serve to impede our trip. They need to be ruthlessly trampled down, if they cannot be trampled then, by gods, we will climb over it!

Mountains that we have in mind to conquer;

Old Rag; Shenandoah National Park, VA—Elevation: 3,291 ft.

Hawksbill; Shenandoah National Park, VA—Elevation: 4,050 ft.

Charles Bunion; Great Smoky Mountains NP, TN—Elevation: 5,565 ft.

Mount Le Conte; Great Smoky Mountains NP, TN—Elevation: 6,621 ft. (time permitting)

Longs Peak; Colorado—Elevation: 14,259 ft.

Storm King Peak; Colorado—Elevation: 13,752 ft.

Chicago Basin 14er Circuit (Windon Peak, Sunlight Peak, Mount Eolus) Elevation: 14,060 ft.

Mount Elbert; Colorado—Elevation: 14,433 ft.

Mount Whitney; California—Elevation: 14,505 ft.

Mount Shasta; California—Elevation: 14,179 ft.

Half Dome; Yosemite, California—Elevation: 8,840 ft.

Grand Teton; Wyoming—Elevation: 13,775 ft.

Gannet Peak; Wyoming—Elevation: 13,809 ft.

Kings Peak; Utah—Elevation: 13,528 ft.

Last but the not the least…

Mount Rainer; Washington—Elevation: 14,411 ft.

 (Disclaimer)

 In no way whatsoever a promise was made to you from us that we would scale them all. 🙂

-wolfman berrigan

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