Exhaustion

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The nature of the north

Written by Chaz on 21 October 2012

Fueled by our fond memories of the road trip we took last summer, Emmy and I wanted to relive our glory days on the western highways with a miniature road trip at the end of our time in Maine. I devised a plan that would take us deep into the Canadian province of New Brunswick first, to visit Fundy National Park, then back into Maine for a stop at Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land, a not-quite-state-park just shy of the Canadian border in a section of the state known as the Bold Coast. In both parks we planned to backpack into the woods and spend the night, reminiscent of our canyon days.

And so it was that we rose around 3:30 on Saturday morning, made coffee, said goodbye to my mother, threw our things into the car, pointed it east and were on our way to Canada by 3:45. As we drove along the so-called “airline route” to Calais, Maine’s easternmost moderately-sized town, we had a good two hours before the sun finally began creeping over the horizon. Unsurprisingly, we did not see many fellow travelers.

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Before long, we were in range of the end of the United States, and after a quick stop for a much-needed coffee refill and one last refuel on American soil, we hopped over the St. Croix River, stopped for a brief passport check and found ourselves in beautiful New Brunswick — or, if you prefer, Nouveau Brunswick. New Brunswick is Canada’s only constitutionally bilingual province, and nearly a third of the population speaks French, though very few of those don’t speak English. (Quebec’s language status isn’t mentioned in the Canadian constitution, and French is the only official language of that province. The federal government of Canada is also constitutionally bilingual.)

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The highway from the Canadian border was a model of infrastructure investment, and before long, the city of Saint John — population 70,000 — was beckoning to us.

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We pulled off the highway, got a bit lost and eventually found our way to the Saint John City Market, Canada’s oldest farmer’s market, which our usual sources had recommended as one of the city’s few sights and perhaps the best place to find breakfast at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. Sure enough, it was an adorable market, and the various stalls were all setting up for the day’s business. We were beckoned into a small restaurant, Slocum & Ferris, by none other than the proprietor, with whom we dined and discussed our voyage north.

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We did only the tiniest bit of exploring in the small city, including a short walk through King’s Square and a quick look at the Loyalist Burial Ground, before hopping back in the car and getting back on the very impressive yet equally rural highway along the southern coast of the province.

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We pulled off the expressway onto the two-lane highway that leads to Fundy, and after a bit more driving on one of the more abandoned roads we have ever traversed, we entered the national park. We were almost immediately met with stunning views across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia. A nice French-speaking family took our picture.

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We continued down the highway to the visitor center, where we picked up our backcountry permit from a park ranger who was not as excited about our visit as we were. Adjacent to the visitor center lay Alma Beach, where we were told we could see the legendary tides of the Bay of Fundy, which are some of the largest in the world. Of course, it’s hard to see tides in one instant, but we took another look across the bay to Nova Scotia.

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Our first hike of the day was the Dickson Falls trail, a very short jaunt through lush woods. The best view of the hike may have been from its trailhead.

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Our next hike was to Matthew’s Head, a beautiful forest trail to a rock outcropping where we enjoyed a picnic lunch — sandwiches of turkey, muenster, horseradish and cranberry — surrounded by excellent views and few other travelers.

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We made a quick stop after our second hike at the Point Wolfe covered bridge. For some reason, Fundy is known for its several covered bridges.

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As we drove to our third hike, though it was only about 1:00, we were realizing that we were incredibly tired. I guess getting up at 3:30 will do that to you. So we pulled into the parking lot for the Laverty Falls trail, which was unpleasantly full, and promptly fell asleep for about 30 minutes. We were barely able to pull it back together and hit the trail. Though it was beautiful, it was unfortunately much more crowded that we were hoping for. The trail took us through forest to a trio of waterfalls, then along the stream back to the trailhead.

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From Laverty Falls, we drove to Bennett Falls, where we parked the car and prepared for our short hike to Tracey Lake, where our campsite for the night was. As we have done on several previous journeys, we had already begun to develop a new nonsensical way of referring to our belongings. We had two backpacks for the trip: one brand-new overnight pack that I had purchased at L.L.Bean on the way up, and one day pack that had previously been converted to a overnight pack for our somewhat improvised Grand Canyon backpacking trip. This day-night dichotomy led us back to yet another television show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the two bags became “day man” and “night man.”

The acquisition of a true overnight pack meant that our packs were much easier to carry than on our last backpacking adventure, but that still didn’t allow a less humiliating place for my Crocs than simply tied on for all the world to see.

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After about an hour of hiking, we arrived at our personal slice of paradise. There was no one else in sight as we set up our tent and made ourselves at home. I even took a quick swim on our private beach.

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Obviously our remote location did not lead us to compromise on cuisine, and we began with cocktail hour: red pepper dip, carrots, celery, cheddar bunnies, and a shared gin & tonic that was a bit more like warm lime water — and about as refreshing as that sounds.

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Emmy broke in our new lightweight camp stove with our shrimp fettucini dinner, mostly prepared in advance.

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After dinner, as the sun began to fall behind the trees, we realized we had to do something with our food in case of bears. Though the ranger at the visitor center had told us they had never had any problems, we still didn’t want the food in the tent with us. So I slung day-man, full of every food product we had, up into a tree a couple hundred feet from our tent. Was it the safest way? No, but it made us feel better.

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We turned in early, exhausted from our long day and truly one with nature.

Beasts of the northern wild

Written by Chaz on 26 September 2012

I had planned for us to rise early on Saturday morning in Bangor and high-tail it down to Mount Desert Island for an early hike to introduce the newcomers to the park. But a canceled flight got in my way, and so our Saturday turned out to have a more relaxed cadence than I had originally envisioned. But no matter — we more than made up for that on Sunday.

We woke up at four, poured coffee into a thermos and piled into the car for the drive to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the U.S. East Coast, where the sun’s rays first hit the United States each morning. We made it to the top with plenty of time before sunrise, and were among the first to settle onto the granite ledges and hunker down under blankets to protect ourselves from the chilly morning. There was already a bunch of fire-red light on the horizon, and morning fog was rolling across Schoodic Peninsula and Frenchman Bay.

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Before long, the sun was peeking up over the horizon. It was a perfect, clear morning to watch the sunrise.

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The sunrise was one of many moments that I have loved all my life and loved even more as I shared it with some of my closest friends.

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We drove back down the mountain and over to Upper Hadlock Pond, where we left the car and began our morning’s hike, which one guidebook lovingly calls Peak Bagger’s Delight because you can summit four peaks with relatively low mileage. Sure enough, before long, we had make it to our first peak, Bald Peak.

We had made such an early start that we had the trails entirely to ourselves, and we were on our second summit, Parkman Mountain, by 8:00. We continued to have stunningly gorgeous weather, which we were very fortunate to have for almost all of our time in Maine.

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The troops began to tire as we approached the top of Gilmore Peak, but our hike was far from over.

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Another push took us to the top of Sargent Mountain, Acadia’s second highest peak, where there were more panoramic views, a bit of a rest, and, best of all, snack.

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From Sargent, we were due to head back down to the car. But it was still very early, much too early for lunch, and though there was a bit of dissent among the ranks, I guided us onward to the top of yet another mountain, Penobscot Mountain. The hidden benefit of this added effort was that we would pass one of Acadia’s few truly hidden gems, Sargent Mountain Pond.

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By the time we got to the pond, we were all hot and tired, and we peeled off our clothes and dove in to the small body of water (allegedly Maine’s first lake). It was unbelievably refreshing, and so quiet and secluded, and we swam and splashed for a while.

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From the pond, we bee-lined back to the car, where the scene was quite a bit more crowded than when we had left it before 6:30.

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By the time we returned to the car, it was noon, and we were all more than ready for a hearty lunch. So we drove down into Northeast Harbor to one of my oldest favorite places, the Docksider. Though the restaurant is world-famous for its lobster roll, I’m a relative newcomer to that menu item, as my seafood odyssey is much newer than my family’s Maine tradition. But lobster roll it was, except for Seth, our resident vegetarian. We each also began with a cup of chowder.

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Though I of course was overcome by nostalgia, temporarily incapable of rational analysis, and completely in love with the food, there was not overwhelming delight with the lobster roll at the table, unfortunately.

After lunch, we headed home for some much needed naps and relaxation after a quick grocery stop in Northeast Harbor. We drove back across the island for an early movie at Reel Pizza, my personal favorite movie theater. You order pizza in the lobby and are alerted that your order’s ready using a bingo board in each theater. Even better, the pizza is phenomenal. We went for the Babette’s Feast — chicken, avocado, roasted garlic, walnuts and sweet red pepper sauce — and the Five Easy Pieces — breaded eggplant, spinach, garlic, summer squash and tomato. Both excellent.

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Our film for the evening was “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a fantasy based loosely on the real-life location of Isle de Jean Charles, where people continue to live on land that lies outside the levee system and is therefore sinking into the sea. The film, which had a mixed reception among the group, seemed to ask more questions than it answered, and for me personally, it was difficult to enjoy a story described as fantasy without desperately trying to understand how much of it pertained to actual lives in coastal Louisiana. We spent much of the drive home frantically researching the movie’s origins and the reality of the Louisiana bayou.

We continued the vigorous discussion over port when we arrived home, and before long, we were all heading off to bed, exhausted by the day’s agenda.

Emerging from the canyon’s depths

Written by Chaz on 7 October 2011

The alarm went off at 4 a.m., and we were up and striking camp by 4:15. We had made the decision after packing all our things the day before that we could afford to bring the requisite items for making hot coffee, and I was extremely grateful that we did. (Even if we did have to both drink the coffee straight out of the percolator.)

Though it took us a little while to take down the tent, pack everything up and tie everything back onto our backpacks, both of our packs ended up much more securely attached than they had been the day before, when there had been a little bit of uncomfortable shifting back and forth. Given that we had the much harder trek out of the canyon ahead of us, we were both happy about that.

We got on the trail at about 5:45 after filling our water bottles and making one last stop at the composting toilets at our campground. Though the sun was still at least an hour from rising over the crest of the canyon, it was already light out, and we were able to put away our flashlights nearly immediately. We made excellent time, setting a timer to ensure that we took regular stops for hydration and snacking. We took a long stop for more turkey-muenster-avocado sandwiches, and to prop our legs up, which we read helps your body drain waste products out of your leg muscles to reduce soreness. (Ew, though.) We met a few interesting people along the way and enjoyed sharing and hearing Grand Canyon stories.By the end, we were sharing our tips, experts that we had become.

Though the last, steepest 1.7-mile section after Supai Tunnel wasn’t exactly fun, the hike out really wasn’t that bad, and we returned to Dorothy in a mood of extreme triumph by about 10:15. We threw all our things in the car, refilled our water bottles, and headed back down to the North Rim Lodge, where we walked out onto Bright Angel Point to reflect on where we had just come from.

After a few more bathroom stops (that hydration really gets to you), we drove away from the rim to a picnic area that overlooks the canyon for one last meal with a view. We couldn’t resist a celebratory cocktail — we considered that we had more than earned it — and we whipped up the leftovers from Mexico night as well as some macaroni and cheese, doctored to have some Southwestern flair.

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Amazing memories made, we packed everything back into Dorothy and said our goodbyes to the Grand Canyon, grateful for a wonderful visit.

Into the canyon

Written by Emmy on 5 October 2011

On Monday morning, we rose early, ready for adventure. We made coffee at the campsite and started to get organized, but decided that we were making way too much noise for the early hour and so packed up camp and relocated to the trailhead. Once we had parked Dorothy, we got to work trying to assemble our make-shift backpacking packs. To the expert hikers in the parking lot, we must have been embarrassingly amateur — our belongings were spread around Dorothy, we were tossing twine and a knife back and forth, things were falling out of the car and all the while, I kept yelling, “Hydrate!” (I was concerned about our insufficient water intake.)

After over ninety minutes of struggles, we got it all together. Highlights included a percolator strapped to the outside of my backpack and Chaz’s Crocs dangling from his.

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Inside (and outside) of those two packs, we were carrying:

  • One tent
  • Two sleeping bags
  • One makeshift first aid kit
  • Two flashlights
  • Extra clothing, fleeces
  • Crocs
  • Four sandwiches
  • Five waters
  • Six Clif bars
  • Three apples, one banana
  • Two cereal bars
  • One gallon Ziploc cashews, one small bag honey roasted peanuts, one small bag Thai chili lime cashews (collectively referred to as the NUT EXPLOSION)
  • One bag peanut butter crackers
  • One bag cheddar Bunnies
  • One giant tupperware of tortellini and spicy chicken meatballs
  • One Ziploc bell pepper strips
  • Map, permit
  • Car keys
  • Two wallets
  • Two phones
  • Camera
  • Knife, twine
  • Two packs of baby wipes
  • Sunblock, chapstick
  • Trash bag
  • Two toothbrushes, toothpaste, face wipes
  • Two packs gum
  • Ground coffee in Ziploc
  • Percolator, pot, stove
  • Propane, lighter
  • Fire-handling gloves

Puts our previously excessive-seeming Half Dome list to shame. Finally, at 8:03 a.m., only about an hour after predicted start time, we were on the trail.

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We hiked to Supai Tunnel, the first destination along the North Kaibab Trail. Mules (carrying people) go just as far as the tunnel, so we encountered quite a bit of their droppings along the way. The walk was just under two miles and was fairly steep. As we criss-crossed down the hill on switchbacks, I could only imagine — with slight fear — trying to walk back up them the next day.

Just like I had a difficult time imagining what the Grand Canyon would be like until I saw it, I had not known quite what to expect when climbing down the inside. Here was this giant thing and we were going to get in it. The first part of the trail was not entirely dissimilar from hiking down a steep peak, like Angels Landing. What was strange was just that the downhill was coming first. It was an odd feeling to descend on fresh legs.

From Supai Tunnel we continued past Eye of the Needle, a landmark on our map, but we’re not quite sure what it was. We crossed over a bridge and then came to a fork in the road. Roaring Springs was to the left — the endpoint recommended for a day hike — and so we decided to go check it out. We hadn’t realized it would be a detour off the planned path, but figured we’d see what was up.

The springs themselves were not especially noteworthy, but we found a bathroom, a water fountain and a good place to take a snack break.

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We headed back to the main trail and kept walking. We were now far enough into the canyon that the landscape really began to change into one of a desert. The top of the North Rim, at over 8,000 feet, resembles more of a dense forest. Much of the elevation change we endured was at the start of the climb, condensed into the first few segments, but we would ultimately lose over 4,000 feet over the course of the day — the very reason why I kept insisting we hydrate.

If I had been awestruck by looking over the rim and into the canyon, being inside it was a whole other story. Here we were, scaling down the wall of the Grand Canyon. The facts themselves were pretty awesome, plus the view wasn’t too bad either.

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We stopped at Pumphouse Residence, a ranger station complete with a helipad that received equipment drops all day. We tried to make friends with the project managers and park rangers, but they were busy. So we kept on walking. Finally, after 6.8 miles with our packs, we reached Cottonwood Campground. We set up our campsite, one of our more basic but with undoubtedly the best views of all. From our campsite, we could make our the faintest glimpse of the lodge at the North Rim. We had traveled so far during the course of the day, but because our journey had been mostly just downhill, we weren’t actually that far from where we had started.

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IMG_4844We gobbled down a lunch of turkey, roasted eggplant and tomato spread on whole wheat with a side of several water bottles each. We took a little walk to explore the creek beside the campsite and got our feet wet. We sat down on a bench and I announced I needed to close my eyes for 10 minutes. An hour later, Chaz announced it was time to get up. During my accidental nap, he explored our surroundings and made friends with some natives, pictured to the right.

We put on more casual footwear and took a brief 1.5-mile walk to Ribbon Falls, a highly recommended sight of beauty just beyond the campsite. The walk was gloriously flat, a nice change on our feet, and our singular backpack was very light. We carried only a water or two and a few cashews, a downgrade from our earlier heft. As we approached the falls, the path splintered — it seems that no visitors could agree on the best route, and so everyone had formed their own. We followed the most legitimate looking one (and also followed the sound of rushing water) and soon found ourselves in front of the majestic falls, which get their name from the unusual way they flow, appearing just like ribbons.

Hot and eager to cool down, we each took a quick rinse in the falls, which were flowing quite intensely. I gave Chaz a lot of abuse for his Crocs over the course of our two-week trip, but they came in handy in this particular moment.

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IMG_4884After thoroughly rinsing ourselves off in Ribbon Falls, we began to make our way back to Cottonwood. Because it was so late in the day, we were really the only ones on the short trail. Most people begin their hikes very early in the morning so as to avoid the heat of the day. During the summer, temperatures inside the canyon can reach 120 degrees. Park rangers also recommend hiking after 4 p.m., but we’re still perplexed as to why you might want to do the whole hike in the dark.

The distance from the North Rim to the Colorado River is twice that of the South Rim to the Colorado River, the reason why we did not go all the way to the river but many South Rim hikers do. There are also many people who hike from rim to rim in a day, about a 21-mile journey. We also heard in the visitor center about hikers who do rim-to-rim-to-rim in one day, but that’s a journey we’re not quite ready for yet.

Back at Cottonwood, we unpacked our propane stove and began preparing dinner. Most hikers carry down freeze-dried food, but the checkpoint never compromises on cuisine. We had lugged a very heavy tupperware full of leftover tortellini and meatballs, to which we added a few slices of bell pepper. When I played soccer in high school, we always had a pasta party the night before a big game in order to load up on carbs for energy. I viewed this dinner as our personal pasta party, preparation to climb out of the canyon. Never mind that we were both eating out of the pot; we still managed a gourmet experience as we watched the dimming light in the canyon change from desert orange to salmon.

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By 7:30 it was getting dark and we seemed to be losing the battle against a herd of angry bees eager to eat our food. Because we planned to get up before the sun, we decided it was about time to get into our tent. As we climbed in, we could see the stars beginning to shine overhead. I don’t think I have ever seen such a clear view of the constellations in my life.

Our biggest challenge yet

Written by Chaz on 28 September 2011

We awoke on Friday at 4:15 a.m. sharp, immediately jumping out of our sleeping bags excitedly (yeah, right) to strike camp, pack the car and brew a much-needed pot of coffee. Our plan was to spend two nights in Wawona, in the south of the park, and two more in Crane Flat, in the northwest, closer to our eventual destination of San Francisco. Unfortunate scheduling meant that this change of camp coincided with our day on Half Dome. But even so, we were out of Wawona by shortly after five, and as I drove us back into Yosemite Valley, Emmy served a light continental breakfast and began packing our backpacks.

All told, by the time we arrived at the parking lot at Curry Village where we left our car, our two packs contained no less than:

  • Six Clif bars
  • Two bags cashews (assorted)
  • One bag Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, a snacking essential
  • Two apples
  • Two peanut butter sandwiches
  • Two tuna sandwiches
  • Eight Oreos
  • Two packs chewing gum
  • Two containers chicken sausage and vegetables, leftover from dinner
  • Eight water bottles
  • Two raincoats
  • Two sunblocks
  • One hat
  • One extra shirt
  • Two lip balms
  • Baby wipes, without which the checkpoint does not leave home
  • Wallets
  • Phones
  • Flashlight
  • Toilet paper

Shortly after leaving the parking lot, we realized that we had made a huge mistake. There was a parking lot closer to the trailhead than the one in which we had left Dorothy, adding a total of about three-quarters of a mile to our day’s already-long journey. But we soldiered on, walking through the forest to the actual trailhead at Happy Isles and setting foot onto the trail at 6:35 a.m. Not too bad.

The first part of the hike took us up the John Muir Trail, an alternative to the thousands of stone steps we had descended the day before on the Mist Trail. Though slightly longer, we figured switchbacks were a much better way to ascend than stairs. By 8:30, when the sun really started hitting Yosemite Valley, we had already gained thousands of feet and had a beautiful view across to Nevada Fall.

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We veered off our route from the previous day onto the trail up to Half Dome, taking a short detour through a backpacker camp that enabled us to make the hike, usually almost entirely out and back, into a tiny bit more of a loop. As it turned out, hiking is a pretty tiring business, and long before we made it to the summit, we were more than ready for lunch. Or, at least, round one of lunch. We stopped for our tuna sandwiches (never have I had such a delicious tuna sandwich experience) as we gained even more elevation.

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The trail grew ever steeper as we approached Sub Dome, Half Dome’s much smaller sibling which sits immediately north of it and looks like a little bubble growing out of its side. At this point, the hike, which had seemed to be flying by in the first couple hours after we left Curry Village, began to drag. But at long last — about 11:30 a.m. — we arrived at the permit checkpoint, and chose to mark this joyous occasion with a frank discussion with the two rangers of the various ways in which we could die on Half Dome. “Honestly, most of the rescues we do are actually body recoveries,” one told us. (Just before we left on our trip out west, the New York Times ran an article about the growing death count within Yosemite’s bounds. This article, along with our previous day’s warning about lightning-caused death, really set the tone for our ascent.)

We began climbing the steep, winding granite stairs up the side of Sub Dome, and after a few exertion-filled minutes, arrived at its narrow but flat summit. Already, the views off to the north were spectacular.

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Soon after, we found ourselves face-to-face with what we had been dreading all morning: the infamous Half Dome cables.

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The cables stretch up an extremely steep granite face to cover the final 400 feet of Half Dome’s immense height. I had trouble picturing what the cables were going to look like, but that was because we were missing a key fact: The cables are connected to steel poles which are bored into the granite, and above each set of poles is attached a wooden two-by-four. As you pull yourself up to each set of poles, you can balance yourself, and nearly stand, on each two-by-four as you wait for the person in front of you to clear the next two-by-four. These pieces of wood totally answered my question. You’re never actually hanging off the side of the mountain by a little cable; you’re pulling yourself up to the next place where you can pause a second. And when traffic is heavy, you can expect to wait quite a while at each two-by-four.

As we starting ascending Sub Dome, Emmy started freaking out a bit about what was to come, and while I remained more stoic at that point, I too start to lose my calm as we picked out gloves from the enormous pile at the bottom of the cable and began to make our ascent. It was, in short, terrifying, not least because of the continued lengthy waits as people above us climbed, which we spent perched on the side of the rock clutching on for dear life. Not to even mention that it was becoming quite clear that the advertised storms were somewhere in the area, though it was still blue skies over Half Dome.

But once we got to the top, and heaved ourselves off the ascent onto Half Dome’s flat 13-acre surface, I forgot all my fears and all the effort we had expended as I took in the amazing view.

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IMG_1074We stopped for a quick picnic of our leftover chicken sausage, which we’d like to think is among the more gourmet of meals served on top of Half Dome, and for pictures. But we could see storm clouds rolling in off in the distance, and we were reminded that the cables act as lightning rods during a storm. (Is that not the scariest thing you’ve ever heard?) So, after a brief celebration of what we had accomplished, we headed back to the cables. I think both of us were almost more worried about descending, even though it would clearly be physically easier, but I realized as soon as we started that it was really no problem. Again, the two-by-fours were the key to the whole system.

We ended up making it off the twin domes safely, and sure enough, it started raining about half an hour after we reached tree cover, though very little rain fell on us. (Fortunately, we had packed our raincoats — see above.) The nine-mile slog back to our car was arguably more difficult than the ascent since we were so exhausted. Simply the pain in my feet was more than enough of a reason to stop. We opted for the Mist Trail again, so thousands of stairs and a few miles after that later, we made it back to Dorothy, who was truly a site for sore eyes.

We drove north out of the valley to Crane Flat Campground, where we hastily set up camp and fixed an appetizers course of chips, hummus, guacamole and a few well-earned cocktails. Emmy once again mastered the camp stove to produce a delicious dish of pesto-filled tortellini and roasted eggplant in marinara sauce.

IMG_4355Though we had long lost the light required for photography, here’s the dish in its lunch reincarnation.

Despite being essentially on the ground, I don’t think I’d ever fallen asleep so quickly.

In which we meet Dorothy and our adventures begin

Written by Emmy on 25 September 2011

On Wednesday (September 7th — it’s been a while), we began our west coast adventure road trip. The day began early in each of our hometowns, as Chaz boarded a plane before 7 a.m. and I boarded one just afterward. Several hours and plane rides later, we reunited in the Salt Lake City airport. We nearly missed our last flight and had to be paged to the gate, though we’re not really sure how that happened because we were waiting at the gate. Mishap was avoided and we took the short flight to Fresno, Calif.

We touched down in the small airport just after noon and made our way to baggage claim. In celebration of what the region is most known for, the airport was filled with giant redwood trees (truly — they were poking out of the ceiling). We simultaneously addressed two hurdles: the baggage and the rental car. We had reserved a car as part of a great Hertz deal: rent in California and return in Arizona in exchange for a great rate. (They need more cars down south for winter vacation.) This deal guaranteed us a small car and we were prepared to take what we could get. When we reached the counter, the woman explained that due to a series of regulations, there were only two cars available to us: a Chevy Aveo, which would barely have fit the two of us, let alone our luggage, and a Dodge Grand Caravan. We weren’t thrilled about the minivan, but said we’d take it, especially since we didn’t have to pay extra since it was their mistake. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we had basically won the rental car lottery.

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Our baggage made up the vast majority of what had been on our little plane and we loaded it into the minivan, which we formally named Dorothy. For the record, we’re really not sure how we would have fit into a smaller car; we left the airport with three suitcases, a cooler, a huge box of camping supplies, two backpacks and two additional carry on bags. We then went to Trader Joe’s and loaded the car up even further with food. After making our way toward Yosemite, we bought more supplies at a second supermarket stop. Less than two hours in and Dorothy was reaching capacity.

After about 90 minutes on Highway 41, we reached the outer perimeter of Yosemite. Yosemite is a large park — larger than little old Rhode Island — and there are campgrounds throughout. We headed toward Wawona Campground for our first night, which is conveniently close to the entrance nearest to Fresno.

We set up camp and began preparing dinner after a quick appetizer of guacamole, chips and mango salsa. Camping really challenged my culinary abilities, but we persevered in an effort to eat and create beautiful food. The first night’s menu featured turkey burgers and so we tried to use charcoal, but those coals took a while longer to heat up than we might have hoped. We were aiming to eat in enough time to be able to watch sunset from Glacier Point, about a 30-minute drive from Wawona, but the burgers just weren’t cooking. So in a moment of desperation, we put them in a pan, popped them on top of the propane stove, aggressively cooked them and then ate them while en route with muenster and avocado atop honeywheat buns. Though we faced some technical difficulties, dinner could at least be classified as gourmet to go.

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Chaz navigated the winding roads of the park while I handled the car-based cuisine, a common theme throughout our trip. We got to Glacier Point, one of the best (and most accessible) overlooks in the car just as the sun was setting.

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From Glacier Point, we could see all of Yosemite Valley stretched out in front of us, waiting to be explored.

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After watching the sun dip below the mountains (and taking the obligatory 20+ sunset photos) we headed back to our tent and quickly fell asleep, tired from our day of travel and ready to wake up bright and early for adventures in the park!

Back in the north

Written by Chaz on 10 July 2011

Ah, Sweden.

My trip so far has been the perfect counterpoint to our month in Asia: calm, quiet and relaxing. I have lots of great things to say about our trip, but those three adjectives do not come to mind immediately.

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IMG_2784The flight over the Atlantic seemed ridiculously short compared to our flights to and from Asia. I had watched part of a movie and slept a little bit, and hey, we were getting ready to land. After a confusing trip through the Paris airport, I found myself in a glass pavilion that closely resembled an airport terminal designed for Lilliputians. I grabbed a quick bite to eat — goat cream cheese, mountain sausage, and salad on a baguette — and made my way onto the flight to Stockholm. I slept for most of the flight, missed my chance to have coffee and thus arrived in Sweden a little out of sorts. But I quickly recovered when I was reminded of the real reason I studied abroad here.

ABBA, living legends

My contact family met me at the airport and whisked me through the Swedish countryside to their summer cottage in Lögla, nestled in Stockholm’s pride and joy, its skärgård, or archipelago. Hundreds of small islands protected the city for centuries, and today they make Stockholmers’ favorite vacation spot. Anna, my contact mother, said she doesn’t like to go abroad for vacation during the summer because Sweden is just so nice at this time of year. Their summer house is a perfect getaway: only an hour from the city, but it feels like a different world entirely.

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I jumped right back into Swedish traditions with a fika, or coffee break. Fika is coffee and a little snack — in this case, cheese and bread to make smörgåsar, Swedish open-faced sandwiches, and a delicious variant on the traditional kanelbullar, Swedish cinnamon rolls. The coffee made me a real human again, and the little snack made me a real Swede again.

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After a quick swim in the Baltic Sea (it’s not cold, it’s refreshing!), we had a great dinner of beef and vegetables straight from the grill, plus young Swedish potatoes and a fresh salad. Before I knew it, it was nine o’clock, but the light hadn’t diminished at all, thanks to Sweden’s northern location. As we sat in their yard, enjoying our food and conversation, I felt like I was in a place very near to paradise.

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We followed dinner with a homemade pie made of blueberries, freshly picked from right near their house, and crumbled oatmeal dough on top, followed by a healthy dollop of vanilla sauce. It was fantastic. Enough has been said about the importance of ingredients on this blog, but truly, they make or break a dish.

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After some more conversation, reading and relaxing, I finally headed up to bed after midnight, at which point it still wasn’t completely dark. During the summer, it never gets pitch black dark in Sweden. It gets to the darkest part of twilight around eleven, and then the darkest part of sunrise by two, and everything starts all over again.

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I slept like a baby thanks to the Isakssons’ terrific hospitality, dreaming of midnight sun and pickled herring.

Home sweet home

Written by Emmy on 5 July 2011

We arrived at Singapore’s Changi Airport, bleary eyed, at just after 4 a.m. on Thursday. With no flight other than ours set to take off for hours, we moved through the deserted airport quickly. In an attempt to send some love back home (and use up our extra Singapore dollars), we bought postcards, which turned into a mini-adventure as Chaz then ran around the airport looking for stamps. Finally, with postcards stamped and mailed, we boarded our flight to Tokyo. I think I slept for the entire seven hours.

We landed in Tokyo and waited on a long security line with all of the other passengers (read: Americans) transferring onto flights to New York, Atlanta, Salt Lake City and several other stateside destinations. Vernie’s final food recommendation had been to eat ramen in Tokyo’s Narita airport, but our 45-minute layover made that impossible. We even tried to get takeout, but as it turns out, small Japanese airport stalls do not have a mechanism for allowing you to carry soup onto the plane.

Flying from the U.S. to Asia (and vice versa) is long and disorienting. Things like movies and snacks and Ambien are very helpful for passing the 12 hours, but there is just no way around the longevity of traveling such a distance. On the way over, we lost a full day, which was kind of confusing, but on the way back, the whole business of time zones was even more complicated. We left Tokyo just after 3 p.m. on Thursday, and landed in New York just before 3 p.m. on Thursday.

Despite the fact that we seemed to travel backwards in time, we did live out a very full day on board our massive plane. In our final act of Asian food photography, behold, Delta’s Japanese breakfast noodles.

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We landed at JFK on time, but could not deplane for a while because there was so many people stuck in customs that we could not have fit in the building. (Knowing JFK, I thought this could have been due to ongoing back up from the turtle incident the day before.) The problem was one of building capacity. Too many planes had landed at the Delta terminal for the customs agents to handle them, and so we waited. It was almost ironic that after enduring immigrations inefficiencies in Thailand and Vietnam, the slowest process was to get back into our own country. By the time we finally cleared an hour later, all of the bags from our flight had been dumped off the conveyor belt and onto the floor.

With my rice patty hat on, we left the airport and parted ways for our respective homes (with a few days to spare before celebrating America’s birthday!).

In the coming days, we’ll be doing a bit more reflecting on our trip as a whole. We’ve also posted hundreds of photos and videos that never made it onto the blog. We just want to take a moment first to thank you for keeping up with us on our journey. We hope you enjoyed reading about our travels as much as we enjoyed recounting them to you.

The final countdown

Written by Chaz on 5 July 2011

And so it arrived: our last full day in Asia. Faced with the prospect of a 5:50 a.m. flight the next morning, we had planned to stay out all night and then head to the airport, so we allowed ourselves to sleep in on Wednesday to enable late-night fun.

After our relaxed wake-up, we went with Vernie’s dad to a coffee shop (remember that this means basically a food court in Singapore) for their favorite noodle dish, bak chor mee, or minced pork noodles. We had originally planned to go on Sunday, but our rescheduling meant that we could go to the original outlet of this noodle shop, which is closed Sunday. The recipe has been passed down through several generations of a Singaporean family. The sons of the proprietor of this stall have opened their own branches around the city, but Vernie insisted that the original is best.

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The noodles were served “dry,” meaning in sauce rather than in soup, and the soup came on the side. They were spicy without being hot, and the subtlety of the dish was in the quality of the ingredients. Vernie and her family visit the stall every week, and it was great to have one of our last meals at a place they love so much.

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After lunch, Vernie’s dad dropped us off in the middle of the Southern Ridges Walk, which I had discovered on Wikitravel. It’s very new, so Vernie wasn’t even aware of it, but it ended up being quite a nice walk. Most of the path was on an elevated walkway over lush forest, allowing for dramatic views of the skyline, port and ocean. One of the highlights of the well-architected path was the Henderson Waves, a gently curved wooden bridge over a major highway. We also spotted the cable car that we had taken to Sentosa.

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Despite ominous clouds, there was only a brief moment of spotty rain, and we were able to take shelter under a pavilion. Conveniently, the trail ended at the MRT, and we headed back to Vernie’s for a very relaxing afternoon swim followed by some reading in the sun.

After cleaning ourselves up, we set out for the center of the city again to visit Raffles Hotel, the home of the original Singapore sling. It was a tourist trap, to be sure, especially in the drink’s pricing, but it was unmissable. The hotel, allegedly a six-star property, has a distinct colonial appearance, right down to its tradition of serving you a bowl of whole peanuts. You’re supposed to open them and throw the shells right onto the floor.

Our drinks tasted like bubble gum — which, coincidentally, is illegal in Singapore.

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We migrated next door to watch the sunset from the Swissotel’s New Asia Bar, which is perched above the city on the 71st floor. We enjoyed a couple more beverages and some sweet but spicy chips while we watched night envelop the island.

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We left New Asia Bar and had an amazing dinner of chicken rice. We returned to Vernie’s again to put on our dancing shoes before heading out to Zouk, Singapore’s oldest and most well-known nightclub. In Singapore, Wednesday is ladies’ night at the clubs, so girls get in free. At Zouk, it’s also mambo night, which apparently means that old Western music is played while Singaporeans dance and do memorized hand gestures along with the lyrics of each song.

We left Zouk around 2:15 and cabbed it back to Vernie’s neighborhood, where we sat down yet again for supper, which in Singapore refers to a late-night meal. We revisited roti prata, one of our favorites, which definitely gave Providence’s drunk food selection a run for its money.

We walked back to Vernie’s, threw our stuff into our suitcases, took quick showers, put on our traveling clothes, and headed down to the curb to hail a taxi to the airport. Vernie gave the driver instructions in Chinese, confirming that he would accept a credit card as payment since we had run out of all of the various Asian currencies we had been handling.

We exchanged a near-tearful goodbye with Vernie on the side of the road in the middle of the night on the other side of the world. And our trip thus drew to a close.

From Chiang Mai to Hanoi

Written by Chaz on 27 June 2011

We left Chiang Mai early on Tuesday after encountering a bit of a runaround at the airport. We arrived at the domestic terminal, since our first flight was a Thai Airways jet back to Bangkok to connect to a Qatar Airways flight to Hanoi. But we were told that since our ultimate destination was international, we had to hoof it over to the international terminal. After a few more escalators and checkpoints, our bags were successfully checked to Hanoi and we were comfortably borrowing Wi-Fi from an airport coffee shop.

The food on each of our flights was actually quite delicious. Both airlines are well-known for their in-flight service, and they didn’t fall short. Thai Airways gave us a phenomenal croissant with some kind of curry confection inside, along with a peanut butter cookie and a selection of coffee and juice.

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We had been given special stickers in Chiang Mai, and we were instructed to wear them on our shirts to identify us as transit passengers. Sure enough, they came in handy when we were led through the Bangkok airport to a security checkpoint before being left on our own to hike all the way across the several terminals, through the most upscale duty-free selection I have ever seen, to the Qatar Airways transfer desk, where we were given our second boarding passes. Our second flight was equally nice, with hot chicken sandwich wraps and a full selection of beverages.

We were met at the Hanoi airport by our hotel, and the difference between Thailand and Vietnam’s development level became immediately obvious as we left the airport and immediately began driving through rice patty after rice patty, punctuated only by dilapidated buildings. After settling into the very nice Maison D’Hanoi in central Hanoi, we headed out onto the city’s streets for a uniquely Vietnamese experience: bia hoi, or fresh beer, on a street corner. This local concoction is made every day and sold all over the city to local regulars and unsuspecting tourists for about 25 cents a glass.

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We were only able to make it to the beer stand thanks to the advice of a friend, who warned us about the insane traffic in Vietnam. And we thought traffic in Thailand was tough! In Hanoi, where 90 percent of the traffic is motorcycles, you have to just look straight ahead while crossing the street. No looking both ways — there will never be a moment when the road is clear. Instead, you have to ignore the dozens of oncoming motorcycles, trusting that they will swerve to avoid you, and walk steadily but slowly across the street. It was absolutely as terrifying as it sounds, and we are lucky to have made it out of Hanoi alive.

After our drinks, we headed to 69 Restaurant, widely reviewed as one of Hanoi’s best restaurants for authentic Vietnamese food. We started with fresh spring rolls and a Vietnamese chicken salad. We were almost taken aback by the spring rolls, which were very different from what we’d been having in Thailand, though equally different and very similar to the best Vietnamese food I’ve had back home. The salad was equally great, though again, it was very different from Thai salads. I think both of our taste buds were in shock to have a full meal in which no item was numbingly spicy.

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I had my favorite Vietnamese entree from restaurants in the U.S. for the main course: bún chả, or pork on vermicelli noodles and greens in sauce. Emmy opted for a similar dish but with fish, complete with veggie accompaniments and served over a charcoal fire to keep it sizzling hot. Because we were seated directly under a high-powered fan, the ash started getting blown at us, and we had to switch sides of the table.

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IMG_2462The dishes were excellent. They made a great change from Thai cuisine and a wonderful introduction to Vietnamese cooking. We were seated next to another table of American travelers, recent Penn grads who are also documenting their travels around Southeast Asia in a format you’ll enjoy reading. After dinner, we grabbed a quick drink at a pub recommended by one of our guidebooks, and spotted a great sign. We headed back to our hotel on the early side, exhausted from our travels and looking forward to starting early to hit Hanoi’s sights.