The Enchantments

Colchuck Lake with Aasgard Pass and Dragontail in the distance

During the 2020 quarantine, we added two more destinations to our bucket list: Leavenworth, WA and The Enchantments. They both happened to be in Central Washington and, as luck would have it, they were just minutes apart. But visiting them meant at least a 13 hour drive each way from our home in Granite Bay, CA. The Enchantments is a very popular hiking area and nearly impossible to score an overnight camping permit. We decided to attempt the entire trail in a day, which is possible just not necessarily advisable. The official distance listed on the Washington Trails Association website (https://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/enchantment-lakes) has the point-to-point hike at 18 miles. Most reports from other hikers using GPS show 20-22 miles. I thought both sounded too far and estimated a more manageable 17 miles.

So we used the July 4th holiday to make a family trip up through Oregon and into Washington. On Thursday, I stopped working around 3 PM and we loaded the Jeep and hit the road for Bend. A number of forest fires were burning along I-5 near Mt. Shasta and the fastest route to Bend, along Highway 97 was closed. The firefighting planes were literally dropping fire retardant on I-5 to prevent the fire from jumping the interstate. What should have been about a 7 hour drive from our house to the first stop, ended up being more like 9.5 hours. We drove in the dark from Medford to Bend, but would love to make the trip again in the daylight as it looked very mountainous with dense forests as we zipped along the Rogue River.

The next day we cruised the downtown streets along the older section of Bend and also made a quick trip to REI for last minute supplies. Then we continued our drive north to Leavenworth. The drive along this part of Oregon, taking Highway 97 north, is pretty spectacular. 8 months ago, we had never been to Central Oregon. But we’ve now made 3 different trips there all in the last 8 months. And each time we like the area more and more. Driving north, the snowcap peaks of Mt Bachelor, The Sisters, Mt. Washington, Mt Hood and Mount Adams all sit off in the distance to the west. As we drove, it’s a remarkable sight as we made our way along the high desert but saw the peaks on the horizon reaching up to 12,280′ and still covered in snow in July.

Mount Adams in Washington

We stopped for lunch along the Columbia River and reached Leavenworth by late afternoon. The town really does resemble a small Switzerland, Austrian or German village nestled against the mountains. We walked the streets and had dinner outside. There was even a Starbucks in town but you would never know as it was styled like all the other small Bavarian shops and restaurants. Visiting this place during Christmas with snow covered streets must be magical. By early evening, we were back in the Jeep and made the 20 minute drive east to Wenatchee, where we had booked a room for the night.

Leavenworth, Washington

The alarm clock sounded at 4 AM and we were up in a matter of minutes. We opted to take the “easier” hiking route, starting from the Stuart Lake trailhead and finishing at the Snow Lakes Trailhead. Easier? Primarily because all the hard, uphill climbing is done in the first half and we could mainly descend the second half of the day. It’s a point-to-point hike and requires a shuttle. Nicole would drop us off at the Stuart Lake Trailhead, about 40 minutes from Leavenworth and up a rough, back wrenching, dirt road. Then she would meet us about 20 miles later at the Snow Lake Trailhead, only 20 minutes outside of Leavenworth. We scheduled a 4 PM rendezvous. Well, that was the plan anyway.

From our hotel in Wenatchee, it took about 1 hour to reach the drop off point. There were probably 30 cars parked at the trailhead and no more empty spaces when we pulled into the parking lot at 6 AM. We covered ourselves in bug spray and sunscreen, issued ourselves a day use permit, said our goodbyes to Nicole and were heading towards Colchuck Lake a few minutes later.  Would have loved to take Obi with us but, first dogs are not permitted in The Enchantments and some of the boulder scrambling would have been a challenge for him.

The first couple hours hiking to Colchuck Lake we followed the well marked trail through the mosquito infested forest. Mosquitos were everywhere! But the sounds of flowing water to our right from Mountaineer’s Creek kept us relaxed. Occasionally there would be an opening in the trees and we could catch a glimpse of the valley walls surrounding us. You have to ascend 2,280 feet to reach the lake so most of the time you are climbing. We passed some other hikers on their way up to the lake and were passed by a few others doing the entire route like us. It seemed to be farther than the advertised 4 miles but we eventually reached the lake. In my 50 years on this earth, I don’t think I’ve seen a more magical alpine lake setting than standing on the edge of Colchuck in the morning and looking across the azure waters and up at Aasgard Pass and Dragontail. We took a few minutes to soak in the masterpiece before us, but knew the biggest climb of the day was up next.

The trail followed the edge of the lake while we made our way to the far end. It was easy to lose the trail as the trail entered the bottom of Colchuck Glacier and we jumped from boulder to boulder, every now and then spotting a cairn (rocks piled on top of each other to mark the trail). The path around the lake provided us with so many incredible views. Even if you don’t have the desire to hike the entire Enchantments, just seeing Colchuck Lake is worth the price of 4 miles up and 4 miles down.

But we knew it was going to cost us a little more in order to reach the upper Enchantments and that required a pretty hard climb up Aasgard Pass. Everything we had read warned us to stay left, especially if there is snow and ice as you could be climbing right on top of a waterfall. But there was very little snow and there were enough other hikers ahead of us that we could spot a few of them as they made their way up.

The boulder scramble up to Aasgard Pass

And it was during this climb that we spotted our first mountain goat, standing just a couple dozen feet away from us. Like us, the mountain goat stood atop a boulder admiring the view. I abandoned the trekking poles and was using my hands more often than not to grab a boulder. Dylan preferred to climb with his trekking poles. To each his own. It took a couple thousand feet to climb to Colchuck Lake and then another couple thousand feet more to climb Aasgard Pass. Remarkable to gaze back and consider it was only a few hours ago that Nicole dropped us deep in valley that we could barely now see.

Looking down at Colchuck Lake

We took a short break at the summit (7,800 feet) and were greeted by another mountain goat and her baby as they strolled by us.

Baby mountain goat keeping an eye on us

We had reached the Upper Enchantments. In many ways, it reminded me of Desolation Wilderness near Lake Aloha. It resembles a moonscape: barren fields covered only in rocks and scree dotted with ice filled azure lakes. At the top of the pass, other hikers basked in the sun and a few rock climbers made their way to Dragontail. Every few minutes, we would pass a couple mountain goats feeding on small patches of grass on the edge of the water.

This section was enjoyable on many levels. Water flowed everywhere, connecting many of the lakes. There was still a lot of snow and the views were in every direction. Seeing this with our own eyes and seeing it together was worth the effort. At this point, our water bottles were dry so we used our water filter to refill from one of the lakes.

Pass through the Upper Enchantments

Always the eternal optimist, I entertained the thought at this point we were about halfway done. Not even close! But there was no complaining. The scenery was too spectacular not to enjoy as we strolled from lake to lake. I can’t put a name to all the lakes we passed but they were all crystal clear and many with waterfalls flowing into or out of the lake. If we lived near these mountains, I envision spending a lot of summer days exploring.

For the next few hours, we hiked mainly by ourselves. We crossed paths with what appeared to be another father/son duo (with the son in his early 20’s) and one other couple. We were all heading in the same direction and enjoying our own journeys. With no cell coverage, I sent Nicole a message using the Garmin InReach Mini letting her know we were probably a couple hours behind our 4 PM predicted finish. The InReach Mini is a small device that I now carry with me whenever I’m in the backcountry. With just a couple button presses on my watch, I can send/receive messages using the Iridium satellite network. I can be just about anywhere in the world and send her a message that includes my location. In case of an emergency, we could also use the SOS feature to summon emergency help. Probably overkill for most of our adventures but a nice safety device.

One of my favorite sections in the Lower Enchantments was hiking along the shore of Leprechaun Lake. There were some snow bridge crossings, some more scrambling, some glisading, some moments where we just stopped and tried to take in the view and moment. Eventually, we reached a vista point near the far end of Lake Viviane.

A few minutes later, we were surprised to see a ranger that was checking for permits. We could see the Upper Snow Lake way down below us. When I asked the ranger how much farther to the Snow Lakes Trailhead, he hesitated. Not quite sure, he estimated about 1.5 more miles to Upper Snow Lake, then between 5 and 10 miles to the trailhead. “Hey Dylan, only 6 1/2 more miles!”

Upper Snow Lake sits way down below

It was a pretty tough and rugged descent down to the Upper Snow Lake. We lost the trail a few times and did more sliding than hiking. It was steep and sometimes it was too steep to go down along a sheer granite wall so we traversed side to side. Eventually we reached the first valley floor as the trail slipped under the shady protection of a thick forest along the edge of Upper Snow Lake. Our pace quickened as the trail was either level or descending slightly. More than once, Dylan wished he could bring his mountain bike and ride the trail through the lush landscape floating over the twisted tree roots snaking along the floor.

The last few miles were a combination of endless switchbacks and a view of the parked cars waiting in the parking lot below us. We could see we were close but it seemed to take forever to cover those last few miles. Long past our 4 PM anticipated finish, we finally crossed over the Wenatchee River bridge and arrived at Snow Lake Trailhead around 6:30 PM where Nicole was waiting.

Wenatchee River at Snow Lakes Trailhead

Our bodies done for the day, we climbed into the Jeep and Nicole drove us into Leavenworth for a well deserved round of milk shakes at Heidleburger Drive In. Then it was off for a couple nights in Seattle and then driving home along the Oregon Coast.

It Takes A Village To Push These Products Out The Door

I’ve been fortunate to work on some pretty exciting and rewarding projects. For the past few years, I’ve developed and worked on software that was used by millions of people these past few weeks. If you worked at a Polling Place/Voter Center in one of these California counties: Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Nevada and a few others, you may have used “Panorama” to check/register voters. I prefer my products to have code names, usually after mountain peaks. So I called it “Panorama” and it stuck. “Panorama”, the highest point in flat Nebraska, was something I developed and it first launched in Nevada County, CA in the 2018 election. It now belongs to another company but I learned it was used in the 2020 General Election in a number of California counties. The other product is something I’ve been working on the past 2 years. It takes a village to get these products out the door. If you live in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Kansas, Nebraska you would use it to check your registration and/or ballot status online. I didn’t have the opportunity to name this one so it goes by the name VoterView. You can search for it online and it’s usually on your Secretary of State’s website. There’s other projects but these have been my favorite so far. It’s been a crazy few years. 5 years ago I took a chance and walked away from a successful career. I wanted to pivot. Learn something new. I could have stayed on the sidelines. But I find it’s better to still be in the game. Make no mistake, most days we’re hustling. My life is never a straight line from Point A to Point B. But every now and then, it’s good to look back and see how many twists and turns you took and eventually, miraculously, you made it. Once at Point B, you discover Point C is around the next bend. Now onto the next thing.

Rae Lakes Loop

Jody and Dylan Descending Glen Pass

Whenever I backpack, I’m always reminded how much I enjoy hiking in the wilderness. If nothing else, it keeps me in the moment. There’s no breaking news, no politics, no COVID, no economic disaster on the horizon. It’s about getting from here to there, keeping each other motivated, sharing stories with each other along the way, enjoying the scenery, food and water and finding a good place to sleep. The Rae Lakes Loop is a 41.4 mile hike deep in the Kings Canyon National Park a couple hours east of Fresno. From start to finish it offers some of the most scenic views I’ve come across in California. Earlier in the year, I scored a permit for a group of 4 going clockwise on the loop August 21-23. The ranger advised against trying to cover the entire loop in just 3 days. With work demands and using the weekend, I could only take Friday off and that would give us 3 solid days of hiking. Jody, Dan, Dylan and I were excited to cover this area as none of us had been on this trail before. A year ealier, I had never even heard of Rae Lakes. I was familar with the area and the John Muir Trail but somehow this route had never crossed my radar. After reading some posts about it, suddenly it shot to the top of my bucketlist for 2020.

We left home Thursday evening around 5:30 PM and camped at the Princess Campground maybe some 30 miles from the trailhead. Princess Campground was literally around the corner from Hume Lake which was a camp I visited a few times in high school. So driving up from Fresno brough back some memories but it had been a long time since I had been in the area.

August equals wildfire season in California and much of state was buried under a thick haze of smoke. Leaving home, I think our visibility was about 1-2 miles and it didn’t improve much the entire drive through the Central Valley. I was a little concerned about hiking in the smoke and being in this incredible scenic setting yet not being able to see a thing. Jody was already at the campsite by the time we arrived and slept in his car while Dan put up his tent and Dylan and I slept in our tent. Up at sunrise the next morning, we had a quick breakfast and packed the gear. After a car ride further into the canyons, we eventually reached the end of the road, appropriately named: Road’s End. Here we found a parking spot and would begin our journey. By 9 AM, the cars were locked and we were on the trail.

Myself, Dylan, Dan and Jody At The Trailhead

The first 1.8 miles is on a wide crushed granite/sandy trail passing thru a meadow. In so many ways, the area looks like Yosemite. The Woods Creek trail begins at a junction and makes a left turn climbing along the left side of the canyon, just above the flowing waters of Woods Creek. We ran into a few hikers but for the most part the trail was empty. We were stopped by a ranger coming down from the other direction. He checked our permit and warned us he had spotted a some rattlesnakes on the trail and that bears were active.

The Trail Along Woods Creek

Even though the name of this section, Woods Creek, refers to it as a creek, it’s really more like a river or fast moving stream with pools and rock waterfalls. For most of the first day, we followed Woods Creek, heading upstream with the sound of rushing water to our right. Just the sound of rushing water within earshot kept me cool. A couple miles in, just about at the base of Mist Falls, we had our first encounter with a black bear. Dan was maybe 100′ ahead while Jody, Dylan and I were walking together and trailing behind. All of the sudden, a mama bear stepped onto the trail coming up from cooling off in the water. She had two cubs next to her and looked at us. Then she turned her head and looked at Dan. Eventually she and the cubs scrambled into the woods and watched as we passed. She was much closer to Dan but it was pretty awesome to see her with her cubs. I’ve encountered a bear while running but seeing a black bear with cubs was pretty special.

Dan, Dylan and Jody Making Their Way Up The Woods Creek Section

Originally we planned on covering 11 miles on the first day, then 10 miles day 2, then trying to finish the last day with 20 miles. But Dan had a better idea of splitting it up into 3 even sections, each between 13 and 15 miles a day. It was a better plan and we decided on 15 miles the first day, then 13.5 miles, then 13 miles. The section from Rae Lakes up to Glen Pass was going to be the toughest stretch and it made sense to try and get that done on day 2 instead of trying to hike 20 miles on day 3 while also trying to climb Glen Pass on the same day.

Some sections left us exposed in sun and heat. During lunch, we took a dip in one of the pools and lasted less than a minute in the ice cold water. Constantly hiking next to a watersource gave us endless opportunities to refill our waterbottles. The South Fork Kings River bridge is still washed out so we had to cross jumping from rock to rock. Jody was the only one not carrying treking poles and this was one of the spots they came in handy. But he managed to make it across and keep his feet dry.

The Woods Creek Bridge Was Out

It was nearly another 6 miles until Woods Creek Crossing and where we planned to camp for the night. In these canyons, peaks towered above us in all directions. I kept being amazed at how big the mountains looked. Some seemed to be around 13,000′ feet. When hiking around Lake Tahoe, most of the mountains reach 10,000′ but nothing comes close to 12,000′ or 13,000′. It’s just a completely different perspective when looking up bigger mountains with their jagged ridges and peaks.

15 miles in the bag and 4,000 feet of elevation gain behind us, our shoulders sore, feet tired, backs drenched in sweat, we finally pulled into the campsite around 6 PM after crossing the Woods Creek Suspension Bridge.

Dylan Crossing The Woods Creek Suspension Bridge

One of the campsites had a bear locker but we grabbed a site next to the creek and hid our bear canisters in some rocks. Jody was in his tent before we knew it. Dylan lit a small fire while we ate dinner. But we were more than happy to find our own tents and climb into our sleeping bags. It was a long 1st day but covering 15+ miles was a great start.

Backpacks were loaded and ready by 8 AM the next morning. We continued our journey expecting Saturday to be the most picturesque day since we would reach the Rae Lakes area. But day 2 would also mean the most difficult day as we needed to climb up and over Glen Pass at 11,926 feet.

In the cool morning temperature, it felt great to be back on the trail. We were now on the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail (JMT and PCT) and would be on it for most of the day. Throughout the morning, the trail gradually climbed but nothing too severe. Yet again, all throughout the morning, I was blown away but the mountains and cliffs towering above us on both side.

It seemed to take longer than expected to reach the first lake, Dollar Lake. Maybe a mile before, we encountered a solo hiker, Ryan, moving in our same direction at a slightly faster pace. He had started on the PCT at the Oregon border and was averaging 30 miles a day. Ryan travelled super light. We peppered him with questions about choices of gear, etc. He took time to chat with us and advised to take a good lunch break before trying to conquer Glen Pass. He was dealing with an achilles heel issue and wasn’t sure he was going to be able to continue towards Whitney. The only exit point would be where we parked, about another 20 miles of hiking. We thought we had a lot of ground to cover that day but he had twice the amount of miles. He disappered on the trail ahead and we never saw him again. I suspect he successfully finished his journey.

Dollar Lake

Shortly after Dollar Lake, we reached a large meadow with a stream running through the middle. Off in the distance up ahead, we could spot Fin Dome which meant we were getting close to Rae Lakes. We took the opportunity to fill up our water bottles again and take a short break. On the other side of the valley, it looked like the backside of Mt. Whitney. I was convinced we had Fin Dome on the right side and Mt. Whitney on the left. Spectacular. But I quickly learned Mt. Whitney was still a ways away and out of view. Nonetheless, the setting as we hiked proved nothing but amazing. We’d been gradually climbing and were now at around 10,000′.

We found a nice spot for lunch at the first of the Rae Lakes where a water snaked emerged from the shore and greeted us. It felt good to unload our packs and, other than one tent across the lake, we had the lake to ourselves. We swam. We ate. We relaxed for a bit and enjoyed the setting, knowing the hardest part of the day was just ahead.

After lunch we continued south on the JMT, passing a couple of the other Rae Lakes. The last one, right before the climb to Glen Pass, probably was my favorite. Surrounded by immense cliffs the lake had some islands sitting in the middle. Something to explore next time. Again, we took time to refill our water bottles knowing that this was likely the last water source for some miles.

Climbing up to Glen Pass was a beautiful but hard effort. About halfway up, a plateu revealed a couple of small alpine lakes carved out of the rocks. A few hikers were descending and coming down from the other direction as we were climbing up. Every now and then, you had to turn around and appreciate just how high we had been climbing.

Jody On The Summit of Glen Pass With Rae Lakes In The Background

By late afternoon we reached the summit. We still had another 3 miles if we wanted to camp at Charlotte Lake or 4 miles to Vidette Meadows. Charlotte Lake would mean camping and water but also meant a detour of .7 miles off the trail. We opted for Vidette Meadows.

Dan, Dylan and I Descending Towards Charlotte Lake

The next 3 miles were a quick descent down from the ridge. Pretty soon, we spotted Charlotte Lake off in the distance. We continued on and didn’t take trail to Charlotte Lake. A mile or so past the Charlotte Lake junction we found a nice quiet camping spot on the edge of a meadow next to Bubbs Creek. 13.5 miles done and another 4,000′ of elevation to wrap up day 2. Again, Dylan built a fire for us and we enjoyed dinner around the fire. Tired would be an understatement as I seemed to sleep much better the 2nd night. I thought for sure we would have some large furry visitors during the night as the setting was perfect. But either we slept through the commotion or the bears left us alone.

We slept in an extra 30 minutes and were not on the trail until 8:30 AM. Thunderstorms were in the forecast for the last day but the skies were clear as we set out. Only 13 miles to go and mostly all downhill!

Dylan and Me On The Last Morning

Similar to the first day of following Woods Creek and hearing the sound of rushing water as we hiked, the last day paralled Bubbs Creek and we again hiked all day to the sound of rushing water. In many ways, it reminded me of hiking in the Alps.

A couple hours in, again Dan was out front on his own. Suddenly, a big bush moved a few feet above Dan and out popped a large black bear. Jody yelled “Don’t move!” and Dan asked, “Is it a bear?” The bear took a look at Dan and slowly turned away, walking up the hill but in no apparent rush. That was close! We gave the bear a few minutes and then made our way down the trail. Heart rates spiked, the next hour passed in just a few minutes. Until Dan stopped and yelled “Rattlesnake!”

Jody had been ahead and must have stepped right over a rather long rattlesnake making its way across the trail. Dan was just behind Jody and almost stepped right on top of it. I think after the bear, we were on the lookout for bears and not snakes. Dylan and I were a few feet behind Dan. The snake was not in a hurry to let us pass. Dan took one of his treking poles and kept hitting the ground to encourage the snake to move along. Eventually the snake slithered into some the bushes and we made our way down the trail again. Again, heart rates spiked.

Rattlesnake Along Bubbs Creek

Now with our senses on high alert, we picked up our pace. Just after lunch, the skies darkened and we heard the sound of thunder overhead. Raindrops dotted the trail and soon the skies opened and we were hiking in downpour. It lasted maybe 20-30 minutes and by the time we were back at the Woods Creek Junction, the skies were clear but the bugs were out.

Dylan and Me Just After The Rainstorm

The last couple of miles seemed to take the longest but we eventually made it back to the cars. There’s not a bad section the entire loop but after 40 miles, you just want to be done. I think we were on the road by 3:30 PM. This is an incredible loop and probably deserves 3 nights instead of 2. I enjoyed the clockwise direction. Plenty of water sources and camping options and very few people. We crossed paths with a couple runners. I’d love to be able to cover it in one day as another option but that would be one long, tough day.

I’ve enjoyed watching Dylan progress over the summer. From hikes like Castle Peak and Pryamid Peak, to Mt Shasta, Grand Canyon and now Rae Lakes. It seems each one is a stepping stone to the next and he has embraced each one.

Grand Canyon – The Not Recommended Way

Looking Back Down The South Kaibab Trail

Jody, my adventurous longtime friend, invited us to join him in his Grand Canyon weekend of rest and relaxation. In 3 days, Dan, Dylan and I drove 1665 miles, passed Mt Whitney, made it thru the heart of Death Valley (118 degrees), hit the Las Vegas Strip, met the group in Tusayan, hiked 10 miles down the Bright Angel Trail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, swam in the freezing Colorado River (42 degrees), had our food eaten by squirrels and ring-tailed cats, got a couple hours of sweat induced sleep (temps in the canyon were well above 100 degrees), up at 3 AM next morning, hiked 7 miles back up the nearly 5,000 feet via the South Kaibab trail (no water sources going up). The shuttle bus waiting for us at top promised by Jody, never arrived due to COVID. So we had to hide our backpacks behind some trees and slowly jog 5 miles back to our cars. Drove back to the trail to collect our gear and the rest of the group. Left the Grand Canyon at noon on Sunday and made it back home at 1 AM. Jody has a wicked sense of humor.

If you do this, it’s recommended to go in the opposite direction: descend the South Kaibab trail since it has no water sources and climb out on the Bright Angel Trail where there usually is a water source every couple miles. In our case, Jody led us in the more challenging/picturesque direction.

Mt Shasta – Turn Up The Fun Meter

The alarm clock sounded at 1 AM but the alarm proved unnecessary. By the time it started beeping, we were already awake and ready to start the day. The clanging of footsteps walking over scattered rocks and scree right outside our tent was the only sound in the air at this hour. In fact, the entire side of the mountain we were perched on was nothing more than a pile of rocks known as Avalanche Gulch. I stuck my head outside the tent. Dan’s tent glowed 50 feet away. In the moonlight I could see the valley below. We were sitting at 9,500 feet and even in July, the air temperature was in the low 30s. Far below us, we could see the lights of the tiny town of Shasta flickering a dozen or so miles away. But I didn’t spot a single headlamp from any other climbers making their way up along our route. It looked like we would be leading the way up for the first section. Turning my head around, the mountain loomed above us in the dark with white patches of snow leading up the sides. The clusters of snow eventually disappeared under a group of clouds collecting a few thousand feet above us. No headlamps above us either. Somewhere beyond the dark ridges and above the clouds, the summit waited for us. At 14,179′ our goal for the morning was the summit of Mt Shasta. The mind is eager to get going but the body would do anything for a few more hours in the sleeping bag. Within minutes, Dan, Dylan, our guide Matthew and I gathered around a boiling pot of water so we could fill ourselves with breakfast and coffee before starting our push for the summit. 

Dan Burri, Dylan and I have been hiking and mountain biking together for about a year. Last summer, Dan hiked the entire beautiful, yet grueling, 165-mile Tahoe Rim Trail. Together we have climbed some of the highest peaks around the Lake Tahoe area. But this summer, we decided to put Mount Shasta on the calendar. I had climbed it once before and was looking forward to getting back and reaching the summit with Dylan and Dan. Mount Shasta stands at 14,179 feet and requires some conditioning and determination. There’s usually snow and ice along the route so proper equipment is critical. You need crampons for climbing as some sections are very steep: 30-35 degrees and covered with ice. As you climb, an ice axe is always in your hand just in case you lose your footing and need to self-arrest. The life you save may be yours. A slip on the ice in some sections could mean a potential fatal fall of a couple thousand feet. Once the sun comes out and the ice starts to melt, another danger emerges: falling rock. Small boulders that are frozen into the sides of the mountain can come loose and tumble down the side of the mountain. Other than that, it’s just a 5.5 mile climb up 7,000 feet, snap a picture at the summit, and then turn around and enjoy the ride back down.

Day 1 started on July 2 at 3 AM as we had to be on the road by 3:30 AM so we could meet our guide, Matthew Morse, in the town of Shasta at 8 AM. We met Matthew at the SWS Mountain Guides headquarters. After introductions, he went through the gear we had stuffed into our backpacks. Making sure we carried only what was absolutely necessary, he had us discard extra socks, clothes, batteries, stuff sacks. We were cutting weight left and right! Then we had to add some weight back in. Boots, crampons, helmets, tents and some cooking gear. After a couple hours, we were on our way to the Bunny Flat trailhead just 30 minutes out of town.

Some people break the climb into 3 days, some into 2 days and some do it in a single day (sometimes starting around 11 PM the night before). We decided to break it into 2 days. We also opted to hire a professional guide, mainly to help keep Dylan safe and to help manage the pace. I have a tendency to put my head down and charge up the mountain so I wanted to maintain a more sustainable pace instead of trying to race to the summit. For Dan, this was the highest peak he has ever attempted. For Dylan, at 12 1/2 years old, this was going to be the hardest climb he’s attempted. So 2 days meant we could climb to 9,500 feet on the first day and that would leave us with a little under 5,000 feet of climbing on day 2. But day 2 would still be a really long day without much sleep on either day. After summiting, we have to turn around and descend the roughly 5,000 feet we just climbed, get back down to the tents, pack everything up, descend a few more miles to the trailhead, then finally make the drive home. Could we make it to the top and still make it back home before midnight? The few minutes of glory on the mountaintop are often sandwiched between days and hours of grinding away.

The Bunny Flat Trailhead, at 6,950 feet, is a pretty common starting point for climbing Shasta. You can park your car here, issue yourself a permit for the summit and follow the dirt trail to Horse Camp.

Bunny Flat Trailhead

I was surprised at how much weight we each carried for just 2 days of hiking. I would estimate we each had about 35 pounds of weight in our packs with Dylan carrying a little less weight. A few weeks earlier, Dan, Dylan and I had driven up to this same spot for a day hike up to Helen Lake at 10,000 feet to get a feel for the mountain and test our legs.

Hiking with Matthew definitely lowered the anxiety level as I could focus more on the enjoyment of the climb and not worry about the details. Early on, Matthew taught us about the different levels of fun (or the fun scale by Kelly Cordes). Type 1 Fun is enjoyable while it’s happening. Think water balloon fight. Birthday parties. You’re having a blast in the moment. Type II Fun is miserable while it’s happening but fun in retrospect. Running a marathon. Maybe a long hike. You get the picture. In the moment you are asking “Why?! Never again!” But a couple days past and you look and think “That was awesome!” Type III Fun is no fun at all. Not even in retrospect. It started as a good idea but something goes terribly wrong. For Shasta, we were hoping for Type I Fun but would settle for Type II Fun. At all costs, we wanted to avoid Type III Fun!

Dan making his way up Avalanche Gulch from Horse Camp

Even in summer, you have to prepare for any condition in the mountains. Just 3 weeks earlier, we were climbing up this same trail with snow falling and the mountain hidden under heavy clouds. Here’s a picture of Dan climbing the same section of trail 3 weeks earlier.

Dan Climbing Avalanche Gulch near 50/50 on June 13, 2020

But this time, we had ordered and were served perfect weather. With clear skies, from the parking lot we could see straight up Avalanche Gulch all the way up to the Red Banks. From the Bunny Flat Trailhead, it’s a nice hike along a dirt trail for about 2 miles to Horse Camp. This portion is mostly protected from the sun by pine trees along the trail. Matthew did a fantastic job keeping a nice and easy pace. It felt almost too easy and I kept thinking we should be pushing a little harder. But I quickly realized his pace was sustainable and would be more consistent as the trail steepened and we were carrying a lot of weight on our shoulders. We stopped at Horse Camp for lunch and topped off our water bottles. After Horse Camp, you follow the causeway which is a long series of stone steps through the loose scree at the bottom of Avalanche Gulch. Eventually the stepping stones end and you begin to climb.

Making our way up Avalanche Gulch

And that pretty much describes the next couple of hours. You climb and traverse through the giant rock fields. Most 2 day climbers hike up to 50/50 at 9,400′ or Helen Lake at 10,443′ and camp. Our plan was to camp at 50/50 which would be a little quieter than Helen Lake.

Matthew, Dan and Dylan making their way up Avalanche Gulch to 50/50 on July 2, 2020

Around 3PM, we arrived at 50/50 and picked out some spots for our tents. Dan and Matthew each had their own tents and Dylan and I shared one. Once our tents were pitched and packs unloaded, Matthew spent about an hour going over proper usage of the ice axe and crampons. This gave us a chance to practice self-arrest and glisading/braking in some snow near the tents. Then it was dinner time. From atop a large boulder near our tent, my cell phone could pick up a single bar. But unfortunately no luck on having DoorDash deliver dinner. Instead, we feasted on some tasty dehydrated packaged meals. Just add hot water and let sit for 10 minutes. Each package has 2 servings and each serving is about 200 calories. It’s pretty easy to eat the entire package (2 servings) as your dinner. When you’re really hungry, just about anything tastes good. Dan had been singing the praises of these Mountain House brand meals, and Dylan and I were both pleasantly surprised with how well they tasted. A solid meal before the push for the summit.

We retreated to our tents as the sun was still setting. Dylan fell asleep in a few minutes in his sleeping bag next to me but I don’t think I went into any sort of deep sleep for more than 10 minutes at a time. I was tired yet so much was going through my mind about the upcoming day that it was hard to relax and fall asleep. By 1 AM, I was already awake when the alarm on my watch sounded. I could hear Matthew emerging from his tent and walking around. Within minutes, he had some water boiling for everybody. Most of our gear was already packed so it was just a matter of getting up and moving and getting some warm food in our stomachs for breakfast.

By 2:30 AM, we were moving along and on the trail. I thought we would be starting with some other climbers, but the beauty of starting on a Friday is there wouldn’t be very many other climbers. We didn’t see a single light ahead or behind us. There’s something surreal hiking under the stars hours before the sun comes up. You have a headlamp that shines just a few feet ahead of you. You’re in this beautiful setting but so focused on just the path ahead. These are often the hardest hours mentally as the body is usually sleeping at this time. The sun is still hours away and, when you stop, it’s so cold your body starts shivering. Best to keep moving.

Pretty soon we arrived at Helen Lake and took a short break. Usually Helen Lake is a popular camping spot and there can be 20-30 tents dug into the snow field. It’s a spot where climbers can acclimate to the elevation. It’s also a spot where some people end their climb and turn around. This morning, there were only a few tents. A woman emerged from one and asked if we had an extra AAA battery. Given that we had only about 2 hours of darkness left and plenty of juice left in our headlamps, I offered her one of my batteries from my pack. We put on our crampons and pulled out our ice axes at this point since they would be put to good use over the next few hours. The soft snow during the day had frozen overnight. Crampons would be necessary from this point as the climb was about to get real steep. In 10 minutes, we were walking over ice and making our way up to the Red Banks. Again, we couldn’t spot any lights above us which meant we would continue to lead the way.

Our first “Check Engine” light flashed around 4:30 AM. We had been climbing for about 2 hours and Dylan’s energy level suddenly dropped noticeably. We were heading up but his energy made a U-turn and went the opposite direction. He had been chatting away since we started when Matthew began to notice his feet were starting to drag. Given the hour, it wasn’t surprising. In my experience, the hour or two before daybreak are mentally the toughest. Matthew stopped us in our tracks. “Dylan, how you feeling? Looks like you are at redline!” Dylan said he was OK but a little tired. Matthew took the opportunity to give us the talk. It’s not only about getting to the summit but we also need to have some energy in reserves for the descent. Calories. We need to consume calories every hour in order to make it up AND DOWN. So we started pumping Clif Bars into our mouths and did so every hour. Dylan would also chew on a couple Clif Bloks every 45-60 minutes. Within minutes, Dylan’s energy level spiked and he was back to swapping stories as we climbed. One of the headlamps from another climber coming up tagged along behind us while we climbed up the Avalanche Gulch towards the Red Banks. He was a lone climber and stayed with us for awhile. Eventually, a few more climbers passed just us as the morning light started to appear.

Our climbing party making their way up Avalanche Gulch

Nearing the Red Banks is an awesome experience. When the skies are clear, you can see forever behind you. The town of Shasta is far below you, Mt Eddy with a sliver of snow running along the top stands on the other side of the town, and then you can see the Trinity Alps off in the distance. Not to mention your eyes can follow the route you have been climbing. About halfway up, Matthew roped us together. We climbed together like this as a single unit. Ice axe in the upper hand and one pole in the other, zig zagging up the side. As we climbed, the sun was rising which cast a giant shadow of the mountain below us. We had to take a few minutes to admire the sight.

Closer to the top, a boot pack formed in the ice, sort of like a rough staircase made by all the boots digging into the snow from the climbers. We followed this boot pack the rest of the way to the base of Red Banks. My hiking boots needed to be re-laced as I felt a blister developing on my heel with each step. So we found a rock and carefully made our way over so I could pull out my feet and stick a bandaid on each heel. Crisis averted and we were heading back up a few minutes later.

There are a couple of options at the base of Red Banks. You can go right and around the Red Banks towards what is called the Thumb or Thumb Rock. You can also find a chute and make your way through the rock walls, going right through the Red Banks. At this point, you are close to 13,000′ and it’s one of the steepest sections of the climb. This is also another spot where a lot of people decide to turn around. You’ve been climbing and, from below, it looked like the Red Banks was the summit. But when you get here and realize there’s still a good amount of climbing left, tired and discouraged, it’s all too easy to call it a day.

Dan making his way through the Red Banks

Matthew opted to lead us through the Red Banks. I think the group may have let out a cheer as we pushed our way up and into the Red Banks. We stayed roped together through this section as it seemed the steepest while still covered with a sheet of ice. It wasn’t too long before the steepness started to lessen and we were done with one of my favorite sections. Now, with the hardest section behind us, we stood together staring up at Misery Hill.

The wind picked up noticeably at this point. We took some protection behind a rock wall and removed the loads from our backs. Our guide, Matthew, sprawled out on the ground as flat as possible, covered his face and tried to take a quick nap. We were sitting right above Konwakiton Glacier and it looked like we were on top of the world. We sat here for a few minutes and gathered our strength for the last section. Dan looked good and was ready to go ahead. However, Dylan looked spent. We still weren’t to the top and I was running out of energy bars. I was giving Dylan as many energy bars as he could consume. He was eating all of mine and his. After a few minutes, it was time to get moving. We were huddled against the rocks getting ready to tackle Misery Hill and Dylan looked up at me. “Do you think I can do this?” he whispered. I wasn’t sure if he was asking me or posing the question to himself. The fight’s there but doubt’s desperately trying to take hold. We were so close. Just an hour or two more. As any father would, I looked deep into his eyes and said, “I know you can do this. We just have to finish it.”

The trail up Misery Hill (another Mt Shasta false summit) looked clear of snow so we removed our crampons and went with just trekking poles. Dan led the climb and before we knew it, he disappeared over the top of Misery Hill. He had a burst of energy now that we were so close to the summit. Behind us, or rather below us, the peaks and ridges that seemed so tall the day before, now were thousands of feet below. It’s hard not to keep stopping and basking in the views. Although this portion can be miserable, the views are well worth the effort.

It wasn’t long before we crested Misery Hill and spotted the summit. We had a snow field to cross ahead of us and Shastina sat below us to our left. Now we could see and smell the summit. Dan was up ahead and we could see him beginning the final section right below the summit. From here, there was almost no wind. And we could also see some climbers making their way up from the Clear Creek route. Matthew’s experience really came into play here as there was no rushing, just a nice steady pace.

The final section above the snow field is a short but steep 15-20 minute push to the summit. No crampons needed as most of the snow had been driven from the summit by the wind. Dan was already waiting for us on the summit when we arrived. He had signed our names in the summit book while he had been waiting for us. Felt special to share the summit with Dan, Matthew and Dylan as I was extremely proud for everyone making it to the summit. We couldn’t have had better weather. Absolutely no wind as we sat, soaking in the sun and taking in the views. Redding and Mt Lassen were visible off in the distance. We could see Oregon to the north and Nevada to the east. A few clouds lingered below us but they only added to the breathtaking scene. I was out of Clif Bars with caffeine so Dan gave Dylan his last pack of Clif Bloks for the descent. We spent a total of 30 minutes on the summit, snapping some pictures, videos and eating whatever food we had.

Dan Burri on the summit of Mt Shasta
Dan, Dylan and I on the summit
Dan, Matthew, Dylan and I

Soon we were making our way down. I had a minute or two by myself on the summit as I trailed the group. Extremely thankful to have shared the climb with this group and really grateful to Matthew for his guidance. Without a question, it’s a challenging yet rewarding climb. It’s easy to find yourself tired, discouraged, hungry and suffering from the effects of altitude. But everybody did a good job of taking it one step at a time. We lucked out with the weather and very minimal climbing traffic.

Going down seemed to take no time at all. In less than 2 hours, we were back at the Red Banks. And from the Red Banks we were able to glissade a couple thousand feet to just above Helen Lake. What took hours to climb in the morning took just a few minutes sliding down in the snow.

Dan sliding down to Helen Lake

Back at 50/50, we had been up for over 14 hours and still had more to do. We had to pack our tents and the rest of our stuff and hike down another few miles back to the cars. I’m not sure how, but it felt like we were leaving with more than what we came with. Like a vacation, you end up not being able to stuff everything into your suitcase on the return trip. But with some finagling, we managed to squeeze it all in and found our way back to the parking lot a little after 6 PM. Back at the starting point, we counted our fingers and toes and were relieved to learn nobody had lost any. Overall success! Tired and hungry, we still had 4 hours of driving ahead of us to get home. But first we had to eat and eat something other than energy bars! The Black Bear Diner in Shasta had our names written all over it. We pulled our dusty and tired bodies into the booth and ordered the biggest hamburgers on the menu. When the food arrived, we were too hungry to even pull out a phone for a quick picture. So you’ll just have to trust us: food never looked or tasted so good.

If you have the desire for some adventure, I highly recommend this climb. It takes some planning and preparation, but it’s guaranteed to be fun. What type of fun, that is up to you.

Clouds Rest

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Dylan on top of Clouds Rest (9,925 feet elevation)

I still have a few hikes/climbs left on my bucket list and Clouds Rest in Yosemite has been on my list for awhile. Running from Lake Tenaya, up and over Clouds Rest, past Half Dome and then down to the Valley floor has been a route that I’ve wanted to do, but arranging a ride back at the end complicates that course. So, instead Dylan and I decided to conquer the trail as an out and back. I had a few days off around the 4th of July and baseball for Dylan just ended which meant our days off were free. With a couple free days on the calendar, we picked Monday, July 2nd for our adventure and left the house at 4 AM. I had contemplated leaving Sunday afternoon and setting up camp outside the park, but decided we could attempt the drive and hike in a single, albeit long, day. No dogs are permitted on the dirt trails in Yosemite so we had to leave Obi at home. The weather smiled on us as we had been dealing with 100 degrees temps at home in the days before but on July 2nd temps in the upper 70’s and low 80’s throughout the day. Also, fires had pushed a lot of smoke into the Central Valley as we drove from the Sacramento area but the air was pretty clear in Yosemite on this day as the smoke was sitting just on the other side of the mountain range.

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Lake Tenaya at the trailhead (8,150 feet elevation)

Clouds Rest is about a 6 1/2 – 7 mile (each way) hike from Lake Tenaya. The Sunrise Lakes Trail trailhead sits on the west side of Lake Tenaya off the Tioga Pass road. Take note: this is only a trip you can take when the road is open and clear of snow. The night before, I downloaded the route to my watch so I could make sure we followed the right trail. We just needed to stay on the Sunrise Lakes Trail which would take us all the way to Clouds Rest, but since I hadn’t been in the area before, having the route on my watch would keep us pointed in the right direction. I hadn’t even thought about mosquitos which meant I didn’t pack any bug spray. This could have proven a fatal mistake as we were nearly eaten alive the first mile passing through the meadows as our path paralleled the Tenaya Creek. Thankfully we ran into a couple that offered us some bug spray from their pack. With the fresh smell of insect repellent emanating from our bodies, we pushed forward.

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Crossing Tenaya Creek

Around the 1 1/2 mile point, we encountered the first big climb. A moderate climb for about a mile might cause you to question if the hike will be worth the effort. Don’t turn around here as it will get easier. Unfortunately, we passed a couple that was already turning around and giving up their quest for another day. The trail is a little thin in a couple spots however as long as you keep heading up you’ll find it again. Even the views at this point are postcard worthy as the rising sun lit up the granite mountain ranges behind us. And at some openings, we could spot Lake Tenaya off in the distance as a reminder of how far we had already climbed.

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Eventually we reach the summit of the first climb at about 9,100 feet. A group of hikers had gathered at the summit and were sitting in the shade at a trail junction. We passed through and went straight ahead and were soon heading down. We dropped a few hundred feet in the next 1/2 mile and I reminded Dylan that climbing out of this on the way back was going to be tough. At one point, we passed another hiker sleeping in the shade but for the most part we had long stretches of walking and talking by ourselves.

Another mile or so later, we were passed by a young guy running and asking if we knew where Henry Lake was. We said we didn’t. He thought we might have passed it but neither of us had seen any markings or lakes. Dylan and I had a little ray of hope that we might be able to jump into a lake and cool off. We hadn’t encountered any water sources since leaving Lake Tenaya and were only climbing higher so it didn’t look promising. However, in 20 minutes or so, we rounded a corner and came up a small lake/pond. It was pretty shallow so neither of us were tempted to jump in.

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Passing Henry Lake – At least we think as it was not marked

At about the 5 mile point, the trail noticeably started to go up and the trees began to thin. We had glimpses of little Yosemite and some incredible peaks to the east. One of those was Mt. Florence that stood proud and tall above the others around it. I don’t know if Mt Florence can be climbed but it looked incredible from our vantage point.

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Mt Florence off in the distance on the left

About 2/3 of the way up the last climb, we stopped and decided to have lunch. It was around 12:30 and we were both hungry. We found a log under some shade, pulled out our sandwiches and took about 20 minutes to fuel up for the last part of the climb. The last 1/3 of the climb offered more amazing views in all directions. We could even spot Lake Tenaya way, way off in the distance. It looked so small that it was hard to believe it was the same lake we started from earlier that morning.

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Looking back at our route. Lake Tenaya and our car is somewhere out there.

And before we knew it, we were climbing up to the ridge of Clouds Rest. We were rewarded with some jaw-dropping 360 degree views as we scrambled up the last 100 feet to the very top of the ridge. Both sides had drops of over 1000 feet and we could see Half Dome and El Capitan and the rest of Yosemite all around us.

At the top, we claimed an empty rock, sat next to each other and tried to appreciate what was before us. There were probably 30-50 people at the top. On a weekend, I could see this being a very busy spot so I’d recommend a weekday attempt if possible.

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The hike from Lake Tenaya to the Clouds Rest is a moderate hike and Dylan did great as a 10 year old. This was his longest hike and I think the highest altitude he has reached by foot. It’s well worth the effort and even though there are some awesome views along the way, nothing can compare to the views atop Clouds Rest.

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As we started down, I pulled out my GoPro to snap a quick video of Dylan walking along the ridge. It’s hard to tell scale from a video but I wouldn’t want to be up here on a really windy day.

On the way back, we connected with a couple visiting from Tasmania. The two of them were travelling around the western states for a couple months, backpacking and sightseeing. Chatting with them made the next couple miles click off before we knew it. We parted ways near the bottom of the climb and followed the path back to the car. After we said goodbye, Dylan said, “They spoke English with just a little accent. What language do you think they speak in Tasmania?” That explanation took the next 30 minutes.

Dylan had a headache so we took our time and took some breaks in the shade. We were back in the car around 5:30 PM and them home by 10:30 PM. Couldn’t have ordered a better day.

Here’s a link to the hike on Strava if you want to see details or download the course:

https://www.strava.com/activities/1677387122

“It’s 90% Mental And The Other Half Is Physical”

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I love the game of baseball because baseball is a metaphor for life. We don’t play to prepare for a chance in the major leagues. We play to prepare for life. There’s so much to learn. Practice. Preparation. Hustle. Being part of a team. Taking advantage of your opportunities. Keeping your eye on the ball. Taking calculated risks to put yourself in scoring position. Swinging for the fences. The frustration of crushing the ball only to get robbed. Playing hard. Striking out. Stretching a single into a double. Missing a sign. Dealing with a bad call. Making an error. Getting dirty. Suffering an injury. Battling and staying alive. Getting yourself out of a pickle. Keeping your head in the game. Having someone pick you up. Playing when it hurts. Making it home and knowing you’re safe. Winning with grace and losing with dignity. It’s all there in a single game in one afternoon. I love watching my son and all the kids play. Some days he’s on fire and some days he’s watching that 3rd strike go right by. I’m not going to lie, I’m pulling my hair out half the time. I’m no perfect father having my share of strike outs. 80% of the time I come up short. The other 20% I completely miss the mark. Honestly, I’m a work in progress. I know it and my family really knows it. Nothing exposes my faults more than being a husband/father. Yet, the best part of being a dad is just being there, front row with Nicole as our son plays his games while we’re cheering for him to do his best. For the most part, we are hoping nobody gets hurt and everybody has a good time. If only that was our aim in life: nobody gets hurt and everybody has a good time. Every now and then I try to celebrate the wins. So looking back, that’s what I’ll do: celebrate a few wins this past season. Our All-American All-Star baseball player brings so much joy (and a little gray hair) to my life, how lucky am I to have him call me dad. Super proud of his efforts in the classroom and on the field.

Remember what Yogi Bera said about baseball (life), “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”

Let’s go out today, enjoy the game and cheer our loved ones on.

Join Us On Some Summer Hikes

Each summer I look forward to spending time hiking in the mountains with Dylan. As the snow begins to melt, I start itching to explore some of our familiar trails and discover some new ones. The Sierra Nevada mountains offer so much variety, from short afternoon hikes to weekend backpacking trips. We have endless possibilities with the long summer days. Often we decide to go at that last minute so we haven’t always coordinated the hikes as a group event. This summer, I wanted to open up these hikes to friends that might be interested in joining us on one or more occasions. Our pace is relaxed and we stop for pictures and take time to appreciate the views. These are not races and are open to all abilities. I’ve listed tentative dates below. These may change but we’ll try to keep them close to what’s shown below. If people are interested, I’ll work on confirming the dates as they get closer and keeping you updated. We’ll start with some of the shorter distances first and work our way up to some longer ones. If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll keep you posted.

Date Description
June 16th or 17th Castle Peak – Distance 6-7 miles
July 1st Sugar Bowl to Tinkers Knob to Squaw Valley – Distance 15 Miles
July 21st to 22nd Penner Lake Overnight Backpacking – Distance 7-8 Miles
Early August Flume Trail Bike Ride – Distance 14 Miles
Late August Desolation Wilderness – Distance 20 Miles

Castle Peak – Distance 6-7 miles (June 16 or 17th Father’s Day Weekend)
This is located just off Highway 80 across from Boreal Ski Resort. It’s about a 6 mile hike, 3 miles there and 3 miles back.

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The trail meanders through a meadow at the start and connects with the Pacific Crest Trail. The early section is shady in late spring and in the beginning of summer will have a few streams. There should also be lots of flowers blooming. If we are lucky, we may cross paths with a backpacker attempting to cover the entire 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. If we are really lucky, we may spot a bear. After a couple miles, the trail begins to climb and the last section is steep but manageable.

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Nearing the summit

This last section is short and can be slow going. We’ll take our time as the top is just ahead of us. There may be some snow patches left over from winter so look out for the kids throwing snow balls. As we hike this section, we can turn around and look behind us to see just how high we have climbed. At the top, we can take time to enjoy the views and our lunch.

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Top of Castle Peak looking toward Northstar and Lake Tahoe

We can also extend the hike by another mile by following the ridge over to Basin Peak and returning along the Pacific Crest Trail. This section is a spectacular spot as we follow the ridge from one peak to the other.

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The top of Castle Peak looking north toward Basin Peak

This is an enjoyable hike and we’ll cross paths with other hikers of all ages. Just make sure to bring water, snacks, camera and a positive attitude and we’ll have a memorable experience.

Total distance is between 6-7 miles. Best to start early in the day to avoid any late afternoon thunderstorms. The ridges are exposed and we don’t want to be at or near the top during any lightning strikes.

GPS Link: https://www.strava.com/activities/1121234331

PCT – Sugar Bowl to Tinkers Knob to Squaw Valley – Distance 15 Miles (July 1st)

This is one of my favorite trails. There are two options with this one. We can either turn around at Tinkers Knob (about the halfway point) and do an out-and-back, or continue the rest of the way to Squaw Valley. If we want to go all the way to Squaw Valley, it just means we need a way to get back to the original trailhead. So either a car is left at Squaw Valley or someone performs shuttle duty and meets us at the finish. Either way, the hike offers amazing views pretty much the entire route. And if we decide to go to Squaw, we can jump on the Squaw Tram at High Camp and ride it down (no charge).

The hike begins right next to Sugar Bowl as the Pacific Crest Trail crosses on Donner Pass Road. The first 1/2 mile is a rocky climb along some switchbacks above Lake Mary but then it levels out to a gradual incline as we cut across some of the Sugar Bowl ski runs. Pretty soon we’ll reach the summit near Mt. Lincoln at Sugar Bowl as we follow the ridge with Donner Lake down below on the left and Northstar and Tinkers Knob ahead in the distance.

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If you love mountains and high altitude, you’ll love this section. It will be like this for the next few miles as we’ll dip off the ridges and then the trail will traverse one mountaintop to the next. This is one of the best hikes and it’s right in our backyard. We’ll pass some impressive rock formations and cliffs. There’s nothing technical about the route but a lot of it is exposed to sun and wind.

Look Out For Falling Rocks!

Look Out For Falling Rocks!

After about 7 1/2 miles, we’ll reach Tinkers Knob. This is a good spot to pick out a boulder, take a seat and have a bite to eat. The views are unmatched as you can see Lake Tahoe and all the surrounding areas. This is the halfway point where you can turn around or push on ahead towards Squaw Valley. Either way, the distance is about the same.

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Tinkers Knob Just Ahead

The next part on the way to Squaw Valley has some variety with some valleys and dense bushes and some views of the Sierras some never get to see. You won’t be disappointed with the scenery.

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From Tinkers Knob to Squaw, there may be some small streams running but don’t count on any water sources. In fact don’t count on any water sources the entire route. Carry plenty of water and calories. The trail is easy to follow and will eventually lead into Granite Chief Wilderness as we start to pass some of the ski lifts at Squaw Valley. Eventually, we’ll spot High Camp and the tram where we can follow a gravel road to the High Camp resort. There we can take a break, give ourselves a pat on the back, make sure we aren’t missing anybody, then jump on the tram and take it down to the parking lot.

Total distance is between 14-15 miles. Best to start early in the day to avoid any late afternoon thunderstorms. The ridges are exposed and we do not want to be at or near the top during any lightning strikes. There are no options to hitch a ride back to the parking area during the hike so we’ll give ourselves plenty of time (7 hours or more). It’s an incredible hike and well worth the effort.

GPS Link: https://www.strava.com/activities/1572827887

Penner Lake Overnight Backpacking – 8 miles (Late July)

We discovered this last year and promised we would be back. Behind Spaulding Lake, there’s a chain of alpine lakes (Carr Lake, Feely Lake, Island Lake, Crooked Lake, Penner Lake, and more). Island Lake is a popular camping spot and more crowded. But there’s a gem of a lake called Penner Lake. Penner Lake is deeper in the forest and has fewer campers. It’s a perfect destination for an overnight backpacking trip as it’s only about 3 1/2 miles from the parking lot.

Probably the hardest part is finding the trailhead. It’s about a 30 minute drive down a rough dirt logging road behind Spaulding Lake. The trail begins under some shade as we’ll hike along Carr Lake then Feely Lake. This section is a relatively flat with a couple short climbs to each lake.

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Feely Lake

Pretty soon we’ll arrive at picturesque Island Lake with its granite rocks surrounding the lake and mountains rising as a backdrop. You might be tempted to pitch your tent here but we’ll keep going as this is a much more crowded lake.

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Island Lake

We’ll continue on along the Crooked Lake trail and take in the views along the way. In many ways, this area reminds me of Desolation Wilderness.

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After 3 1/2 miles, we’ll arrive a Penner Lake and find a spot to pitch the tents. You can fish and swim, explore or just relax by the water.

 

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Penner Lake

 

Total distance is about 8 miles. It’s a fairly easy hike and a good chance to camp under the stars and do a little backpacking and use some of that REI gear. We can start in the early afternoon on the first day and be home in the afternoon on the next day.

GPS Link: https://www.strava.com/activities/1189337624

Flume Trail Bike Ride – 14 Miles (Early August)

If you have never been on the Flume Trail, then this is a must do. Even if you can’t do it in August, try to do it sometime this summer. I promise you will treasure every step/pedal along the way.

We did this last year; Dylan rode and I ran. We may do something similar or we may both ride. If someone wants to run it, let me know. This one also takes some logistics as it’s a point-to-point: Spooner Lake to Incline Village. We can park at Incline Village and take a shuttle with our bikes. I think the shuttle has a small fee or is free if you rent a MTB bike from them. Here’s more info: https://flumetrailtahoe.com

The shuttle drops us off at Spooner Lake and we take the trail up to Marlette Lake. This is by far the least favorite part as it’s a climb and the last 1-2 miles to Marlette Lake is a grind and can turn into a slow march in the heat. You may be tempted to turn around and call it a day. But don’t! At Marlette Lake, we’ll find a good spot to take our shoes off and jump in the lake to cool off.

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Marlette Lake

We’ll follow the trail on the west side of the lake for a mile or so before connecting with the Flume Trail just on the other side of a little the dam.

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This is where the trail earns its reputation as one of the best trails in Tahoe. We’ll traverse the edge of the mountain along a trail a few feet wide at about 1,000′ above Lake Tahoe. We’ll follow the trail as it floats above the lake for the next few miles. It’s nothing short of an amazing experience as we’ll want to keep looking out at the vistas but need to keep our eyes on where we’re going.

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There are plenty of spots to stop and sit on a boulder and just take in the views. There’s no reason to rush this section. Eventually, the trail will head inland again and connect with a fire road and all we’ll have to do is coast into Incline Village for the last couple of miles.

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We’ll finish where we picked up the shuttle and you’ll be talking about this one for a while.

Total distance is about 14 miles.

GPS Link: https://www.strava.com/activities/1066508305

Desolation Wilderness – 20 Miles (Late August)

I hope to cap the summer off with a 1 or 2 night backpacking trip through Desolation Wilderness. Starting off at Echo Lake and taking the Pacific Crest Trail to Lake Aloha which is about 7 miles.

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In The Heart of Desolation Wilderness

That might be a good place to stop or we can continue on up over Dicks Peak and camp at Half Moon Lake or Dicks Lake.

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Heather Lake – A Perfect Spot for a swim

The next day we can continue towards Eagle Lake and eventually drop into the Emerald Bay area. Desolation Wilderness has lots of options as there are numerous lakes along the way.

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The view from Dicks Peak

I did this hike in 6th grade and I’ve been back on my own but not with Dylan. So I’m very excited to introduce him to this part of the Tahoe area.

Total distance is about 20 miles with climbing to Lake Aloha and then again up and over Dicks Peak. Should be challenging but very rewarding. Desolation Wilderness does require a permit just to enter the area for hiking/camping so we’ll have to plan accordingly. And if we make it a point-to-point from Echo Lake to Emerald Bay, we need to drop a car or two off at Emerald Bay or arrange a shuttle.

GPS Link: https://www.strava.com/activities/1572838260

What The Heck Happened in 2016

“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” – CS Lewis

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Family ride at Folsom Lake

Back in January I panicked. I’d wake up, drive the morning carpool to school and then maybe go for a run or ride. Then I’d sit around and waste too much time doing nothing. I was bored. Dylan was back in school and Nicole was busy preparing for her spring season. I’d wait for the weekends when we could hit the trails or Dylan and I could take our bikes down to Folsom Lake. Gone were the days of interacting with customers or digging through code while stressing over some obscure problem. I missed having something to build. I longed for a problem to solve. There are only so many days I can attempt to clean out the garage and the lawns didn’t need mowing every day.

Writing gives me an opportunity to be honest with myself as well as reflect, determine what worked, and what needs to change. I’m often slow to change. Once I set my mind on something, I can be tenacious and then my attitude is “Full Steam Ahead!” However, making that initial decision can often prove elusive to me. I’ll second guess, waver, doubt and spend too much time worrying about making the wrong choice. I didn’t write at all in 2016 and now that I’ve waited there’s too much to say.

I thought our time in Spain last year would give me time to plan and decide what I would do. But we were so busy enjoying the country that I never had the time to fully consider what I should do next. Part of the problem was too many choices. Checking out career sites provided too many choices. And when there were too many choices, I found myself in analysis paralysis. Should I do something not related to technology? Or should I try something with hardware or mobile? Maybe we should move and experience a new city? I would then start clicking through houses on Zillow and another day would be gone…

So in January I realized I needed some goals in order to move forward. I kept things simple and identified 3 new career goals:

  1. The technology needed to be web/cloud based software or at least transitioning to that model.
  2. The type of business had to be something new for me. Something different than medical/pharmacy software so I would have to learn a new type of business.
  3. I wanted to contribute to a team environment and be sitting amongst the team a couple days a week with the ability to work from home. The office had to be close enough so I could commute on my bike.

That was it. I didn’t really have a dollar amount and was excited to see if something was out there that would be a good fit.

Because it had been nearly 20 years since I’d been on the other side of the interview table, I needed some practice. I’d been in plenty of interviews over the years, but always on the interviewer side. Having a compelling story and being able to weave my job experience into a tale that could be translated into any business needed practice. I enjoy the writing process but don’t revel in talking about myself. So I started posting and sending out my resume. Almost immediately, I received a call from a consulting company that had a client that wanted to bring me in for an interview. I spent about 20 minutes talking with the recruiter. He told me the company was Election System & Software (ES&S) and it would be a good technology fit. Though it would be a step down from what I was making before, he was one of the only recruiters that left me with a positive impression. So we scheduled an interview “so I could practice” before other opportunities surfaced.

The day of the interview, I had lunch with Kayden Kelly and his developers at Blast and we talked about their products and their vision. I then had about an hour until my interview so I reviewed my notes on the company at a coffee shop around the corner from the ES&S offices. I packed up my notes and headed down the street so I would be a few minutes early to the interview. Except as I looked at the building numbers, there was no 299 Douglas Blvd. I circled back and thought I must have missed it. Nope, 10 minutes driving around and there was no 299 Douglas Blvd. Now I started to panic. Only 10 minutes to go and I can’t even find the building, let alone parking. I called the recruiter to confirm the address. I had written down 299 instead of 2999. I was on the wrong side of the city and 20 minutes away from an interview that was starting in 10 minutes. Well, there goes this interview.

I placed a quick call explaining my mistake and letting them know I’d be about 10 minutes late. Luckily they sounded understanding but I knew I had already lost the job.

Eventually I arrived and walked into a conference room 10 minutes late. Between 8 and 10 other men, mostly my age and older, sitting around a table had been waiting for me. The sheer number caught me by surprise as I was expecting maybe 1 to 3 people during the interview. I did my best to apologize and then spent the next 75 minutes sharing my story and listening to theirs. My story is relatively simple yet nearly impossible to fully describe. Driving home, I couldn’t help but compare my meeting earlier in the day with the younger, ambitious developers at Blast to the large group of more seasoned developers in the interview. I had no job offers, but two roads seem to be approaching in front of me: familiar or unfamiliar. As is too often the case, I drifteded towards the familiar even though I had every opportunity to use this time to embrace the unknown.

It wasn’t long before my phone rang and I had an offer to work on voter registration software during an election year. Rightfully so, Nicole couldn’t believe I would even entertain the offer as I had intended this exercise to be just for practice. I went back to my checklist and with the offer I realized I could check 2 of the 3 items: new type of business and team environment and I could bike commute on some days. We went back and forth on my hourly rate. It was all happening too fast. I needed to sleep on it. I went back and forth some more and reasoned that this would be a good fit for a few months. Contracting would provide flexibility and not commit me to anything permanent. So I waited a couple more days to be sure, then decided to enter the world of contracting.

Why? Why would I do this?

There is high demand for software developers. If you watch your pennies, coding can provide a good living. To be sitting around when so many opportunities exist is hard to justify. Early in the year I had lunch with our financial advisor and his son. His son had recently graduated from college and was looking for ways to get his foot into the technology sector. He asked about my experience and if I could recommend any advice. If he was serious, my advice was to consider a coding school/boot camp. Invest a few months of your life learning, because some of these schools already have companies looking to hire graduates. At this point, acquiring experience is the most important step. Most companies value experience over education so keep your expectations realistic: intern, tester, anything to get a foot in the door. Spend a couple years problem solving, creating and building. Save as much as you can and then reevaluate in a few years. You will have gained skills you can use for the rest of your life. After a few years, you may decide to do something entirely different, but the money you make and invest in those earlier years can open up tons of possibilities down the road. Developers, they are the gold miners, the prospectors of our era.

The stock market had been kind to us the last few years. We’d been making more on our investments each year than I could earn working. We have no debt. Why subject myself to the grind? It goes back to my checklist: the desire to contribute, to learn, to build and create.

Before I knew it, I had a little cubicle in the corner of a big office building. The adjustment going into an office 5 days a week wasn’t easy. The first adjustment was when they issued me a laptop. The handed me a 5 pound laptop complete with a DVD drive and every imaginable port and connection. They handed me a monster. Actually, the handed me a dinosaur. The behemoth “laptop” was so big, I could not squeeze it into my backpack. So commuting to work on my bike was going to be a challenge if I needed to tow my work home. I settled in and did my best to help. It’s difficult coming into a situation with tight deadlines because there’s so much product knowledge you need to gather but you don’t want to steal valuable time away from the existing developers.

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Corner office

A few weeks after starting, I was sitting in a morning meeting and received a frantic call from Nicole as she was driving to the emergency room in Roseville. Dylan had crashed on his bike and it looked like his arm might be broken. I was only 15 minutes away from the hospital, so I quickly headed over and met them in ER. Walking into a hospital in search of a loved one is never a good feeling. We spent the next 5 hours in the ER, active spectators to Dylan having his arm reset. The pain of helplessly watching your child look at you with tears and pain in their eyes and knowing more pain is right around the corner, left me sick to my stomach. Not fun times but fortunately the bone lined up nicely after the reset and no was surgery required.

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Preparing to set the bone

That was in February so the rest of ski/snowboarding season was shot. Baseball season was next. Dylan tried to play Little League with a cast, but the first half of the season was limited to swinging with just his right hand. The team ended the season with a few strong wins and we lost in the playoffs, one win away from playing in the championship game. Swim team also started before the bone was fully healed and Dylan had to deal with the frustration of swimming one armed for a bit. Needless to say, there were some tears when all you want to do is run but the only thing your body can handle is walking. Time passed, and by the middle of May his bone was strong enough for his doctor to give him the green light.

Nicole’s schedule also turned busy as winter gave way to spring and there was a pent up demand since she had been “closed” for business the 2nd half of last year while we were in Spain. On days of her shoots, it meant having Dylan enrolled in an after school program for a couple hours. Not ideal, so I started to work at home twice a week so between our schedules, one of us could always be home. We were busier than expected and juggling multiple schedules and priorities was challenging.

I had been contracting for a few months and wasn’t sure how much longer the job or I would last. The beauty of contracting was the implication of no commitment. Yet suddenly, I was faced with a decision: the company offered me a salaried position to convert from a contractor to an employee. Instead of the future being clear, at that point things started to get a little fuzzy. Grateful and appreciative of the offer, I asked for some time to think it over. A couple weeks passed and I still couldn’t come to a decision.

As the days became longer and warmer and Dylan’s arm strengthened, we could start riding our bikes on the trails during the weekends. For me, the times on a trail or in the mountains with Dylan are the times I store in a special place in my memory. Those times become a part of my soul and later, I might be sitting at my desk and I’ll suddenly stumble across one of those memories. I’ll linger with it for a few minutes and it brings me such joy. My hope is he will seek his own treasures and discover an enthusiasm for exploring long meandering trails in the mountains. Sometimes I’ll ask and it’s a push and pull to get him to head out with me. But the days when he perks ups and says “Yeah, let’s go!” – well those days are unforgettable. They’re not as often as I’d like, but I’ll take them when I can.

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Dylan heading up to Lake Clementine on his bike.

Last year, we had made promises of bringing home a puppy. It seemed like once a week, Dylan kept asking if I had found a Ridgeback. Toward the end of April, I connected with a breeder in Wisconsin that had a litter and some of the puppies would be available and shipped to Sebastopol, CA at the end of May. I sent a deposit for one of the male puppies. She had one male puppy in particular that was not going to be show quality due to a little crook in his tail and would be $500 less. Since we had no intention of showing the dog, I thought he might work out just fine.

Back when I was in my junior year at Colorado State University, I drove down to the dog track in Colorado Springs one Saturday to look at adopting a retired greyhound. There was a kennel next to the race track that housed between 30-50 dogs. I walked in and played with a few of the greyhounds. They were all recently retired racing dogs. There was one that kept following me around the yard and giving me hugs with his 2 front paws. He was a 4 year old fawn colored greyhound and he was known as James Gang on the race track. I took him home, named him Harlem and we were constant companions over the next few years. He’d squeeze into the back of my 260Z and wait for me outside of classes. He loved to run, especially in the fresh snow. He could catch just about anything, but if you kept running once he hit the first mile marker he was done. His specialty was sprinting. He just didn’t know how to pace himself. So years later when I started to look for another dog, I stumbled across the Rhodesian Ridgeback breed. From Rhodesia, they were bred to hunt lions (among other things). But you would never know as they are the calmest and most relaxed dog I’ve seen. They are known for the hair on the ridge of their back that runs the opposite direction. A loyal family dog, intelligent, quiet but strong (both in will and body) they have incredible endurance (as in they can run at the pace of the horse for about 30 miles). So as I read about the Ridgebacks and then met a few, as someone who can spend hours running on mountain trails, I knew this was the only dog for me.

After a swim meet on a Saturday, we made the 2 hour drive over to Calico Ridge Kennels in Sebastopol. They had 5 puppies and we spent about half an hour playing with them. We liked the puppy with a crook in his tail but one puppy kept climbing into Dylan’s lap. His nose and mouth area were colored black which gave him a more distinguished look. He was show quality which meant full price but as I spent a few minutes with him, he picked us as much as we picked him. Nicole preferred a female as they would be smaller but I couldn’t resist the little puppy with wrinkles in his forehead and big paws, all curled up in Dylan’s lap.

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At the Ridgeback Kennel, one kept cozying right up to Dylan

An hour later, we had our Ridgeback and named him Obi Juan. Although now that we’ve had him a while, Leo may have been the more appropriate name. We stopped in Santa Rosa to visit some friends and family then made our way back home. It took a few nights, but eventually little Obi was sleeping through the night in his crate. He would let us know when he had to go outside and quickly became comfortable going up and down stairs. We weren’t prepared for having a 8 week old puppy at home. I envisioned walks on the trails and Nicole and Dylan spending summer days at the lake. Well the first couple months we had him we were pretty much quarantined to the house since he couldn’t get his shots until 3 months old. No parks. No trails. No lakes. Even walks around the neighborhood were forbidden. Not very much fun. And since I was still working, Nicole took much of the brunt during the weekdays of watching him. Because he still had a lot of growing before he could start running, he wouldn’t be joining me on any runs in 2016.

 

Looking back, the summer was a blur. I was back to working more than I had anticipated. I found myself spending hours in the evenings and weekends running down work issues. When I could, I would commute to work on my bike but there were two problems that made commuting difficult. The first was the monstrous work computer that I was bringing home each night. It was too big to fit into my backpack. The second was just timing. Often Nicole had a session in the afternoon so it was a rush to make it home. So although the goal of bike commuting to work was noble, it just didn’t materialize.

Little League and swim team filled our evenings and weekends in the early part of summer. Once Dylan’s armed healed, his swing came around and his stroke smoothed itself out. When he first picked up a baseball and bat years ago, I only allowed him to swing from the left side of the plate. So although he is right handed, he has always hit from the left side. And only being able to swing with one hand for the first part of the season helped strengthen his bottom hand. He continued to improve in swimming which is the one sport I think he enjoys practicing above all others. It was a good year for him in the pool and he earned the honor of swimmer of the year on his team. In the summer evening, we enjoyed winding down the day by watching the swim events at the Rio Olympics. I think I finally understood and could appreciate the different strokes.

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Dylan working hard in the Butterfly

Also during the summer, we spent some afternoons and picked different sections of the Pacific Crest Trail in our area to hike. And each time, we seemed to encounter a pass-thru hiker doing the entire trail from Canada to Mexico (all 2,650 miles). Some of my favorite places to run are the areas surrounding the Pacific Crest Trail near Donner Summit. In the summer, we took time to hike those trails a few times. In fact, we made it to the top of Castle Peak, did an overnight backpack trip to Loch Leven Lakes, hiked portions of the trail between Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley, tackled the Sierra Buttes Lookout tower and went south to Horsetail Falls near Echo Lake.

Loch Leven was a test to try out the backpacking gear and see how we would do camping. It was about a 3 1/2 mile hike up to the lakes from the trailhead. We had done a test run a couple weeks before and hiked portions to see how Obi would do with the climbing and altitude.

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Dylan and Obi doing a test run near Loch Leven Lakes trail

The trailhead sits off Highway 40, next to the South Yuba River between Cisco Grove and Kingvale. The first few miles are mainly up and there are portions where you find your own path as you scramble over giant granite boulders. Dylan was spent after the climb and thought the first lake was good enough to call home for the night. The first lake already had a couple campers so we kept moving to the second lake and found a nice spot next to the shoreline. We pitched our tent and watched the stars come out and then woke up to an amazing Sierra Nevada sunrise.

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Dylan and Obi ready for some breakfast

We loved the experience and it’s close enough that we can easily do it again during the summer. Although our next backpacking adventures should take us through Desolation Wilderness this coming summer. The hardest part of Loch Leven is the climb getting to the lakes. It’s manageable; just take your time and talk about Minecraft to keep things moving.

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Our camping spot at Loch Leven Lakes

This trip gave me a chance to try out some equipment and I realized we needed a lighter and smaller tent. Dylan carried his own bag but I was left carrying a heavy 3 person tent along with my own gear which did wonders for my back. My backpack for a mere 7 mile hike had probably more junk stuffed into it than those PCT hikers covering the entire trail from Mexico to Canada.

In July and August, our house was busier than normal. I had planned to work just the first 6 months of the year but now was thinking I should stay through the election. Nicole’s dad and fiancé were visiting from the Czech Republic and stayed with us for a few weeks. We also had my dad sleeping on the downstairs couch for a few nights as he was passing through while moving from Anchorage to Phoenix. Plus our little puppy kept doubling in size every couple of days. Nicole handled it all with patience and understanding. Some days, it seemed like we were just in survival mode, just trying to manage through the day.

I talked Nicole into joining us on the Sierra Buttes Lookout hike. Again, this was on a portion of the PCT and near the general store in Sierra City we ran into a hiker heading south to Mexico. He was almost halfway through his hike having started at the Canadian border. This hike surprised me on how beautiful and different the Sierra Buttes were compared to the mountains near Donner. Jagged and almost red, it was a stark contrast to the smooth granite I’m used to hiking. Just getting to the trailhead is quite the drive from Auburn but the views were spectacular most of the hike.

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Midway through the hike and looking east towards Sardine Lake

At the top of the hike, there’s a staircase you can climb that will lead to the lookout house used to spot wildfires. From this spot, on a clear day you can spot Mt. Lassen to the north and Castle Peak to the south. We took a few minutes at the top and pointed towards some of the different parts of the PCT we had already hiked over the summer.

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Sierra Buttes Lookout

Near the end of September and before the snow started to arrive, I wanted to hike one more portion of the PCT. Nicole was quite busy during this time with lots of shoots and speaking at the occasional conference so Dylan and I had time to hike and explore. One of my favorite trails, if I could only pick one, would have to be the section between Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley. I hope to explore some of the John Muir portions between Yosemite and Mt. Whitney in the coming years. But until then, if I had just one more run left in me, this is where I would head out. So before any snow covered this portion of the PCT for the winter, Dylan and I headed south from Sugar Bowl shouting “Vamonos a Mexico!”. The wind howled along the summits, nearly blowing us over. We hiked a few miles until the sun started to set and then we turned around and headed home. I don’t know how much of an impact these hikes make on Dylan. All I can do is try to plant the seeds and keep sprinkling some water on them whenever I have the chance…

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In October, it was time for the annual Sky Ridge Jog-A-Thon. Robin and Troy Soares put the event on each year and it’s exciting to see the young kids with their cheeks flushed red trying to run as many laps as they can. So I squeezed into the pickle costume again and dressed as Mr. Pickle, with the duty of chasing 3rd graders around the field for a few miles. Their goal was to run as many laps as they could in about 30 minutes. My goal was to not pass out and keep the Pickle moving. I’ve done this before and it’s always a blast, although running in that outfit is like running in a sauna.

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Keeping pace with the 3rd graders

This year, my luck ran out. About halfway through, I tripped and landed awkwardly on my left foot. It felt like I rolled my ankle so I picked myself up off the ground, dusted myself off and carried on. Every step with my left foot was met with some pain but I figured I could run it off. As Mr. Pickle, the DNF was not an option. Another mile or so later, I chased the last few runners across the finish line, dragging my worthless left foot behind me. That was on a Friday and all weekend I could barely walk. The foot was swollen so much I thought my skin was going to tear. Between going up and down all the stairs in our house and taking the dog on his walks, I was in more pain than I was willing to admit. Nicole kept urging me to go to the doctor but I would reply “I’ll be fine in a couple days.” Finally, 3 days later with the foot black and blue and about ready to pop, I gave in. X-Rays confirmed a fifth metatarsal fracture both at the neck and near the top bone. The orthopedist felt no screw and no surgery was required and crutches with a walking cast/boot would do the job.

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I was sent on my way with another appointment in 6 weeks to evaluate. It’s hard to describe the loss of running for a lengthy period would take on me. Especially during the Fall when the evenings are cool and the leaves soften the trails. It’s my favorite time of year to be outside even though every season has its own reasons that draw me out. Within a few days I was able to start hobbling around with the walking cast so my spirits lifted. I rationalized that 6 weeks might actually heal all the nagging aches and pains I’ve ignored over the past few years. Could I finally rid myself of my plantar fasciitis? Maybe this break would be just what I needed.

Soon I could endure longer walks and short hikes. We had planned a trip to China and Thailand for late November but cancelled those plans due to the foot. I couldn’t let Fall slip away without any more time in the mountains, so Dylan and I headed south and hiked to Horsetail Falls just off Highway 50 near Echo Lake. I struggled to keep up with Dylan and Obi but we managed to make it into Desolation Wilderness and had lunch, sitting on the side of the cliff overlooking the waterfall. Even though I was crippled, it ended up being one of our better hikes.

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Hiking Horsetail Falls

In November, Nicole attended a conference in Palm Springs so Dylan and I planned a camping trip to the Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree National Park. The plan was for Nicole to fly down on Wednesday, then Dylan and I would drive down the next day and camp in Mojave Desert and Joshua Tree for a few nights. We’d pick Nicole up in Palm Springs and drive back home together on Sunday afternoon. I was still in my walking cast, reinforced with a couple layers of duct tape so I was pretty much unhindered. The drive down took forever but we passed the time by listening to the book “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio (a book Dylan and I thoroughly enjoyed). We finally exited Highway 40 around 7 PM then had to drive another 20 miles along a narrow road under a black sky to the Hole-In-The-Wall campsite. Along this section, an occasional rabbit would dart out into the headlights and hop across the road. There were countless car vs. rabbit near misses as we headed deeper into the desert. Finally we spotted a few lights and pulled into the campsite. We set up camp, enjoyed the stars and talked until we fell asleep.

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Hiking near a campsite at Hole-In-The-Wall

The next morning, we hiked around a bit, did some rock climbing and removed countless cactus needles from Obi’s paws. By late morning, we were packed up again and on our way to Joshua Tree. I didn’t want to arrive in Joshua Tree too late in the afternoon as the campsites are on a first come first serve basis. But I figured camping in November wouldn’t be all that popular. I couldn’t have been more wrong. At the ranger station in Twentynine Palms, we were told all campgrounds were full and nothing would open up over the weekend. I had read online that the rangers often say there are no more campsites when some may still be available, so we drove through the park just in case. But sure enough, everything was packed. Our only option was pitching our tent on a spot in the Bureau of Land Management space on the edge of the park. Not ideal, but Dylan’s main objective was having a campfire so as long as we had a fire we were set.

Next morning we rose early, drove through the park and miraculously found a freshly vacated campsite at the Ryan campground. We quickly claimed the spot and spent the night in Joshua Tree.

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Our campsite in Joshua Tree National Park

At an elevation of 4,300′, once the sun went down we had to bundle up to stay warm. Obi kept shivering in the tent and tried crawling into our sleeping bags and snuggled with us on our pillows. At around 5 AM, the sounds of a howling pack of coyotes woke us up. They sounded fairly close the tent and Obi bolted straight up, looking around nervously. The howls faded and we fell back asleep.

I was surprised at how incredible the scenery is once you are inside the park. I’d passed by (both by car and bike) numerous times but never took the time to drive into the park. It’s amazing.

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With the weekend over, we picked up Nicole from her convention in Palm Springs and then made the long drive home.

November also meant a return to the orthopedist to check on my foot. My foot was feeling much better but there was a slight burning sensation if I put pressure on the outside of my foot. But overall, the foot was feeling great and I was feeling optimistic.

When I went in for my X-Ray, I asked the technician if I could take a peek. When she showed me the slide, I thought I was looking at the one from 6 weeks ago. There must be some mistake. The bone was still split with a large visible gap in the neck. It looked as though nothing had changed. My appointment was a couple days off and I had a rough time sleeping, worrying I had encountered another setback.

It wasn’t long after until I was back in the examining room at the orthopedist. They took one look at my boot and said they had never seen a boot so completely worn as the one duct taped to my left foot. There was some good news. The orthopedist confirmed the new X-Rays did indeed show healing and said things looked great but the bone still needed more time. His comforting words were: “If you were 18, it would have healed by now. But at your age, things take a little longer.” My prescription refilled: another 6 weeks of no running. It was settled, there would be no more running in 2016.

We closed our year relaxing at home and spending time with friends. Lisa and Steve came over and Steve took Dylan and I fishing to Collins Lake where they landed 2 decent sized trout. I lack the patience fishing requires so I did my best to stay out of their way. I would occasionally pester Steve with questions to give the appearance I thought I knew what I was talking about: Hey Steve, what weight fishing line are you using? PowerBait or worms? But what I really wanted to ask was: How do I tell the difference between a trout and bass? We had a great time and enjoyed 2 home cooked meals from the catch.

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Dylan and Steve reeling in the first of two at Collins Lake

The pivot of 2016 resembled more of a stumble through 2017 as I’ve floundered in my direction. I’ll soon find out if my foot has healed enough to start running again. I have absolutely no idea what’s in store for 2017. We could end the year on the other side of the planet or end up exactly where we are now and possibly somewhere in between. Eight years is the longest we’ve ever lived in the same house and now that we’ve been here that long it’s hard to uproot ourselves. No matter where this year takes us and where on earth we end up, we know the best journeys are the ones we share together.

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Shrinking A Lifetime Experience Into Just A Few Months

 

“Either you decide to stay in the shallow end of the pool or you go out in the ocean.” – Christopher Reeve

“Either you decide to stay in the shallow end of the pool or you go out in the ocean.” – Christopher Reeve

I admit that I put my family through a lot and have taken them on journeys that might have broken other families. I’m not sure how many families would survive over three months of living out of a suitcase and not knowing where they’ll be going next, how they’ll be getting there and what they’ll do once they get there. But that’s exactly what we did. And as we are nearing the end of our time traveling through Europe, I finally have a few days to sit down to reflect on all we’ve experienced. I had meant to post more frequent entries during our trip but finding time to write proved elusive. How do you ever explain everything we’ve experienced on this type of trip? If friends ask what it was like I can smile and respond with “Amazing…” and “Unbelievable…” and in a few minutes we’ll both be on our way because there’s not really a way to fully describe this journey. I doubt we are going to be able to process all that we have experienced. Details will be forgotten. Sights will fade from memory and my account of some parts will go missing.

It’s a lot to ask after 20 years of marriage to one summer day pack our bags and leave everything we know behind, to walk away from a well paying career and convince my family to wander through Europe together and wait to discover where the wind takes us. First, some might argue it is a terrible financial decision. Luckily we had planned for this time, and more importantly, we base our decisions more on accumulating experiences rather than things/money. Also, it made us spend almost all of our time together and I mean 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. If you don’t get along with the people you are traveling with on a trip like this, it’s not going to end well. This was by no means a luxury vacation. We’ve seen and experienced some amazing places on this journey. However much of the time we shared a single room, traveled by public transportation and tried to save a few euros by eating out only once a day, or buying a loaf of bread, some cheese and salami at the local market and having our dinner on the beach.

There were a dozen reasons not to make this journey. We would both be missing out on career and business opportunities. Our son would miss a big part of the school year. He would miss participating in sports, birthday parties and holidays. We don’t speak Catalan (the language spoken in Barcelona). Most of the time, we would be living outside our comfort zone. Other than the first 2 weeks, we had no idea where we would go or how we would get around. What if one of us came down with something and became ill? What if something happened to us? So many things could go wrong. But there are always a hundred things that can go wrong even if we stayed home and stuck with the normal routine. I just need to constantly remind myself there are a million things that can go right. And just in case we ran into an emergency, we kept a FUBAR fund of money on the shelf for unexpected disasters and expenses along the way. Without a doubt, something we hadn’t anticipated would come up. Something would break. We knew we’d eventually need to pull money out for these unplanned expenses.

I’ve talked of pivots and game changers. Through the years I’ve come to realize when I have the chance to make a big decision, to try to make a game changing decision. Obviously it’s impossible to predict the future and know what will be a game changer versus a huge mistake. And every decision cannot be a game changer. Yet when I thought about this time in my life, I had to ask myself what we would most remember and what would have the greatest impact: doing the same thing I’d been doing for the past 20 years or packing our bags and exploring the world together? If at the end of my life, I could go back and do something different: what path would I choose? Make more money or make more memories? In the end, the decision became so clear it was rather easy to let go. Not to say I didn’t lose sleep or had to overcome some fears. There is always the chance of something going wrong. If I watched the news every night, I would never leave the comfort of our house. Most of the news reports the world as a scary and dangerous place: a world teetering on the edge of disaster. I could spend my whole life afraid to live. Lately, I’m trying to avoid the news. I think Plato expressed it best when he said “Courage is knowing what not to fear.”

Like everyone else, we have our moments of complaining and the stress can get the best of us. We are not immune to experiencing hard times and things don’t always go right for us. We have to deal with being tired, hungry, bored, frustrated, upset and all the pressures that go with traveling around and just plain living together for months. When we started this trip, I had envisioned us settling in one place longer, but we found once we arrived there was so much to see that we were travelling much more than we had expected. It goes without saying that it’s not always easy but the last few months went remarkably smoother than I had expected.

So here’s a more detailed account of where we went and some of what we saw.

For the first leg of our journey, we flew from Oakland to Oslo, Norway. Originally our plan was to fly to Spain but when we started looking at airline tickets, it looked like we were going to have a stop-over in Norway. So we thought, why not extend our stop-over for a week and drive around Norway? Having never been to Norway, we weren’t sure what to expect. We landed in Oslo and spent two rainy days in the city before driving to Lillehammer and eventually to the coastal city of Alesund.

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The Ski Jump in Lillehammer

The beauty of Norway was one of the biggest surprises of our trip. As we drove, we couldn’t believe the beauty of the entire country. Our car would come around a bend to an incredible view (something like driving through Yosemite) and we’d the awestruck. Then a little while later, we’d come across a more amazing view. This went on for hours and hours over the span of the whole week.

Some of the fjords near Geiranger, Norway. Yes that is snow in August.

Some of the fjords near Geiranger, Norway. Yes that is snow in August.

A few things really stuck out about Norway. There must be an unspoken rule about making as little noise as possible as it was the quietest country I’ve ever visited. Since we stayed for only 1-2 nights at each stop, we stayed in hotels or bed and a breakfast type inns. Every stay included a delicious Norwegian breakfast. Each morning as we sat eating our breakfast with the other guests or had a meal in a restaurant, nobody made a noise above a whisper. Cities were void of honking cars, sirens, trucks beeping or the typical city construction noises. The experience was eerie. The Norwegians were never rude or unfriendly, rather there was an air of indifference. We noticed many things were left to self-govern. The local parks had trampolines built into the playground and weren’t surrounded by safety nets, something you would never see in a city park in the United States, as the city would be sued bankrupt when the first kid went home crying from falling.

Jumping for joy at our stay in Sogndals

Jumping for joy at our stay in Sogndal

Driving through the countryside with homes on the shores of picturesque lakes with gigantic mountains looming above, the scenes were all void of people. For the entire week, the amazing Norwegian countryside and towns we drove through were missing Norwegians. The lights were on in the houses and the people home. However for some unknown reasons the majority of Norwegians prefer to spend their August days inside. We drove over 1,000 miles and outside of Oslo and Bergen I never came across any law enforcement. Driving, I kept wondering where all the highway patrol cars were and why I never saw any police cars on the roads. Then I started spotting them: video cameras. All over, we were being watched by cameras. Soon after that we stopped at the edge of a lake for some pictures. A few minutes later a Russian tourist pulled up and asked me about the speed limit signs. I told him I wasn’t sure but I found the speed sometimes marked when entering a town. He told me he was worried because his friend had driven around Norway and was rewarded with some expensive speeding tickets when his vacation ended. Speeding tickets all captured by roadside cameras. I suddenly panicked about how many speeding tickets I might have already racked up. From then on, I kept my eyes peeled for speed limit signs and cameras. All toll booths were unmanned. You just drove through and a camera captured your car and we would receive a bill at the end of our journey. And the system worked. Incredibly efficient but somewhat unnerving.

I had pictured the fjords as an area in Norway we would drive to and see for a day, when in fact fjords are all throughout the country. Enormous mountains with jagged cliffs shot up at the waters’ edge. One of the highlights of our time there was taking an inflatable speed boat tour through the fjords near Flam. Our little boat sped across the fjords, crisscrossing from one side to another. We passed homes and farms only accessible by boat. At one point we got so close to the rocky shore that a herd of goats grazing on some lonely cliffs mistook our little boat as their farmer’s boat and they gathered on the shore, ready to jump in if we edged any closer.

Taking an inflatable boat ride through the fjords near Flam, Norway

Taking an inflatable boat ride through the fjords near Flam, Norway

And to drive through Norway, we literally drove through the country. Most of the time, we were driving through tunnels or over bridges as Norway demonstrates an enormous engineering feat with their highway system. We even had a chance to drive through the Laerdal Tunnel, the world’s longest road tunnel (over 15 miles long with other tunnels connecting to it).

Laerdal Tunnel, the world’s longest road tunnel (over 15 miles long with other tunnels connecting to it)

Laerdal Tunnel, the world’s longest road tunnel (over 15 miles long with other tunnels connecting to it)

At one point, we exited one long underground tunnel through a mountain immediately onto a bridge spanning a massive fjord. The bridge carried us over the fjord and once on the other side, we immediately entered another tunnel built halfway up the side of the cliff. Other times we would exit a tunnel and there would be no bridge, just a fjord that we needed to cross. At these spots, we would drive our rental car onto a ferry and would enjoy a nice boat ride across the water.

All in all, Norway has to be one of the best places we have seen. The price of food and eating was in the stratosphere so if you go be prepared to spend a lot of money on food. Gas wasn’t cheap but we rented a small diesel so it wasn’t too bad. The layover in Norway was something we hadn’t planned to do but, again we decided to try something different and are so glad we did. Had we not gone, we would have never known what we would have missed. Just like in life, most of the time many of us are happy with the path we have chosen, but if we never try a different path we’ll never know what we might be missing.

Our last two days were spent in Bergen, which was totally different than the rest of Norway. Lots of people out walking the streets. The sun shone bright and we strolled through the fish markets at the wharf and sampled moose jerky.

The waterfront in Bergen, Norway

The waterfront in Bergen, Norway

Had our journey ended there and we boarded a plan back to California, it would have been an incredible trip. Yet, our journey had only begun.

From Norway, we flew to Barcelona and started our time in Spain. Our friend, Ines, surprised us at the airport and picked us up and drove us to our hotel. The next day we found our apartment and needless to say, it was not what we were expecting. For the first 2 weeks, we had rented an apartment in the Gothic part of Barcelona just a few blocks off the famous Las Ramblas. One of our goals was to experience city life on a daily basis and everything the big cities offers. We live a pretty sheltered life in our small town of Auburn and wanted to expose us and Dylan to, not just a different culture, but a different type of living. So our first place was a bit of a shock.

Our apartment in the Gothic area

Our apartment on Carrer d’Obradors in the Gothic area

Looking back, that apartment was not the best for us but we would not have appreciated other places had we not started there. It was dark with almost no natural light. The family across the alley could be heard yelling at 1 AM most mornings. Around the corner looked to be the local drug dealing spot. One evening we were eating some pizza at the corner pizzeria (at the infamous corner before we knew it was infamous) and sitting in stools looking out the windows as people streamed by. In the flash of an eye, two guys came crashing against the window, fists flying and tackling each other. We immediately grabbed Dylan and scrambled to the other side and then tried to find our way out of there. We were definitely in the midst of the big city and, for the most part, we tried to embrace it.

In order to stop working and embark on this type of a journey, I had forecasted all types of income scenarios and played with dozens of retirement calculators and it looked like as long as we could maintain a 6% annualized return, things would be manageable. I would stop fretting about the daily performance of the market and try to look at things once a week, on Saturday mornings. We also had Dylan pretend to buy stocks in his four favorite companies: Amazon (he loves reading the reviews on the new Lego toys), Apple (it’s all about the iPad), Google (YouTube), Microsoft (he can’t wait for the HoloLens). He had some fictional money to trade with and bought stocks in each of the four companies.

A couple days later, the market corrected. First lesson he learned was: stocks can go down! Even though I knew it was probably coming and it was much needed, it was a little hard to swallow. Suddenly I could feel myself starting to worry and I kept checking how the stock market was performing during the day. My plan of not paying close attention to the market seemed to go right out the window when the stock market went into this much needed correction. I had just moved half of my 401K into Google (Alphabet) stock and was kicking myself for moving too soon. Within the first few weeks of being unemployed, I had managed to watch a substantial amount of money vanish. Second lesson: Don’t panic.

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Settling into a daily routine the first few weeks wasn’t as easy as I expected. Tourists packed the city streets and crowded the Barcelona beaches so a few times we would take the bus outside the city to the Magicwave Gava beach area. We could spend the late afternoon lying on the sand while Dylan played in the waves. Nicole also came down with a severe cough the last couple of weeks. So sometimes Dylan and I would head out while Nicole could rest.

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We found a tennis club, Club Esportiu Laieta, on the north side of town right next to Camp Nou where the FC Barcelona soccer team plays. The tennis director let us join and pay for a few weeks without having to pay the normal initiation fee since it required a 6 month membership. So for the next few weeks, every afternoon or evening depending on the temperature and humidity, Dylan and I would take the metro to the tennis club and hit tennis balls to each other for about 60-90 minutes on the Spanish red clay courts. We played nearly every day while we were in Barcelona.

It's not Roland Garros but it will do

It’s not Roland Garros but it will do

What I hadn’t anticipated during our time in Barcelona, was the amount of time spent just getting around the city. It usually took about 1 hour each way to take the metro to the tennis club. So at least 2 hours of the day were spent just getting to/from the tennis club. We would wake up in the morning and usually walk to one of nearby cafes for fresh bread or croissants. Come later afternoon/evening, since so many sites are located near Las Ramblas, we would often walk around and stroll through the cobblestone streets and alleys enjoying the atmosphere and discovering a new gelato shop. By the time our feet made their way back to the apartment, we were averaging between 20,000 to 30,000 steps a day. My feet were killing me and the Roman cobblestone streets were not helping my plantar fasciitis!

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After our 2 weeks staying near Las Ramblas, we decided to move to another part of Barcelona. Ines had an extra apartment near the Glories and Sagrada Familia area and offered it to us for a week while we found a new place. It was the exact opposite of our Obradors apartment. Light and airy with a view of Sagrada Familia, now we didn’t avoid spending time in the apartment like we had avoided spending time in our last one. The streets were quieter and very few tourists roamed the neighborhood, instead it was local families and older couples. In the evenings, the older couples would congregate in the plazas and sit on the benches chatting and laughing, and the young families strolled through the streets with their children. It felt good for the 3 of us to walk down the streets and through the plazas and see everybody out and socializing. It was like this every evening and we loved it.

One day we took the train south along the coast to the town of Tarragona, which contains some ancient Roman ruins. The train ride only took 90 minutes each way and we spent the day seeing a nearly intact amphitheater, an impressive aqueduct, some other ruins and spent some more time playing at the beach.

Roman amphitheater in Tarragona

Roman amphitheater in Tarragona

As we sat on the beach next to the amphitheater, we wondered if in the Roman era families would make their way to this same beach and spend the afternoon playing in the water. Sadly, probably not.

Spending most afternoons in the shadows of the Camp Nou stadium and seeing FC Barcelona jerseys all over the city, we started to notice we had come down with the soccer itch. We checked to see if it was possible to get tickets to a soccer game. After tennis one afternoon, Dylan and I walked over to the stadium and bought 3 tickets last minute to a game that night. Not knowing what to expect, we had a blast watching the 90 minute match versus Malaga (Barcelona won 1-0). Hearing the crowd sing songs and shout chants all throughout the evening made it as exciting as being in the stands at an SF Giants game. The stadium would fill with whistling whenever the hometown crowd felt the referee missed a call.

Watching FC Barcelona versus Malaga

Watching FC Barcelona versus Malaga

That evening is an example of spending money on an experience rather than burning money on another thing. It was an evening that we’ll probably remember for the rest of our lives.

Days would often be spent traveling around or outside of Barcelona and learning about the area and sights. We toured all the usual spots: Sagrada Familia, Tibidabo, many of the Roman ruins in Barcelona, museums and even the Costa Brava area. One of the more interesting sights we visited was of the old bomb shelters under Mt. Juic, just a few blocks from Las Ramblas.

The city life began to wear on us and we started looking forward to trying a different part of Spain. Eventually, we would find a cycle that worked well for us: after a time traveling and absorbing so many sights, we would escape to a quiet location that would serve as a retreat for a few days where we could recover and rejuvenate. This was a pattern we found ourselves following the next few months.

In the second week of September, we packed a suitcase with all the things we thought we’d need for a couple of weeks (incorrectly assuming we’d be back in Barcelona in just a few weeks), and took a plane to the Spanish island of Ibiza. Everything we thought we would need, had needed or might possibly need in the future needed to squeeze into either one suitcase or one carryon that the 3 of us were sharing. Suddenly our wardrobe turned very simple. We had been debating between Menorca and Ibiza. In the end we settled on a room at the Club Hotel Portinatx in Ibiza because it was an all-inclusive resort and we liked the idea of having all the meals and activities covered. Since Portinatx is on the far side of the island and Ibiza has no public transportation to get around the island, it’s the one time in Europe we rented a car. We landed and took a shuttle to the GoldCar rental agency. When the shuttle dropped us off, the line of people waiting to pick up their cars snaked out the door. You could smell that rain would soon be falling as the morning sky darkened. Had I known we were about to be scammed and would have to withdrawal from our FUBAR Fund, I would have headed right back to the airport and rented from a more reputable agency. After waiting nearly an hour in the rental car line, we finally were waved up to the counter. The rain had started and it was pouring with lightning and thunder outside. The agent gave the normal upsell on upgrading to a bigger model and graciously said he was going to upgrade us from a compact to a midsize at no charge. Then he gave us the hard sell on upgrading to full insurance coverage. He spent about 15 minutes going over reasons we should upgrade our insurance even though we had already purchased full coverage from a 3rd party when we rented the car online. When he finally realized that I was not going to pay another 170 euros for his insurance, he stated he could no longer rent a car to me. A few minutes later I relented and reluctantly agreed to fork over the 170 euros. After well over an hour, they had worn me down and all I wanted to do was get a car and get on our way. We loaded our luggage and drove away. This would not be the last time we would regret using the GoldCar rental car company and be forced to dip into the FUBAR Fund.

Portinatx sounded perfect and looked even better on the website. The hotel sat on a peninsula with its own private beach and had a couple tennis courts. We never had the chance to use the courts. In fact, for the next 2 months we carried our tennis rackets around Europe but never had a chance to play after leaving Barcelona. The hotel sat atop a small cliff at the edge of a bay.

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A tiny beach sat at the bottom of the cliff that was meant just for the hotel guests. The beach also had a few kayaks we could use or we could just swim at the beach so long as we avoided the jelly fish.

Kayaking in Portinatx

Kayaking in Portinatx

Our room had 3 single beds, 2 pushed together to resemble something of a queen bed. Many of our stays in Europe included this type of a setup and it was never comfortable. Sometime during the night, either Nicole or I would find we had fallen into the crack that had opened between the 2 single beds pushed together. We would have to wake up and push the beds back together and work out the kinks in our backs. The crowd at the hotel was a little different as was the food. We couldn’t really put our finger on it but we realized we were on this amazing island and not enjoying our time. I discovered a narrow trail to run that took me out to the lighthouse.

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Soon into our stay, Dylan came down with something and just wanted to stay in the room. So one afternoon we took the rental car and explored the island and found an apartment outside Sant Antoni with 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen and large balcony, much bigger than our single room in Portinatx, and for less. So the next day we relocated to this apartment that was only a quick run from Sant Antoni. As the days passed, Dylan seemed to be getting worse and not better. When we went to a beach and he didn’t want to swim and just wanted to sleep on his towel, we knew he wasn’t well. Over the next week he was fighting a viral croup infection (something he seems to get once a year), had absolutely no energy and the nights would be spent coughing for hours. Again, this turned into an example of something you don’t really plan on happening. Maybe a reason some parents wouldn’t take their kids on this type of a trip. But, it’s just as likely he could have come down with something at home.

Our time in Sant Antoni ended up being close to ideal given the circumstances. We were able to get out a little when Dylan had the energy. The coastline around that part of the island had a variety of different beaches. Some were rocky cliffs where we would claim a flat part of the rock as our own and sit and watch the waves or jump in from one of the rocks for a swim.

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Other beaches were flat and sandy and more popular with the crowds. One routine we only noticed in Ibiza was that people would find their way to the beaches around sunset and everyone would enjoy watching the sun sink into the Mediterranean and then clap and cheer for having lived and seen another beautiful day.

Sunset on Ibiza

Sunset on Ibiza

Near the end of our time in Ibiza, we took the ferry to the neighboring island of Formentera. Dylan said he was feeling up to it so we took the chance and ventured out for the day. By the time we decided to give Formentera a try, it was late in the morning and the last ferry to Formentera was leaving soon. We raced our little car over to the main town of Ibiza to catch the last ferry but could not find a parking place. We circled and circled the port looking for a place to park and finally found a spot just as the ferry was scheduled to depart. We ran down to the beach expecting to have missed our only chance at making it to Formentera when we spotted the ferry still at the dock and blowing its horns. We made it with less than a minute to spare. Crisis averted and our day saved.

Our day in Formentera was pure bliss. When the ferry docked, we rented 3 bikes and rode to the end of the island and spent the afternoon at the beach, Playa de Ses Illetes. That beach is near the top of our list of the best beaches we have ever put our feet on.

Formentera

Formentera

After 11 days on Ibiza we flew to Madrid, but not before GoldCar raided our FUBAR Fund one more time. We returned our rental car early in the morning and took the shuttle back to airport (about a 10 minute trip). Within a few minutes of arriving at the airport, we realized Dylan had left his iPad in the rear seat pocket of the rental car. Right away, we called GoldCar to have an employee check the pocket. They replied the car would be cleaned and checked and they would surely report anything they found when they cleaned the car. Sure you will, I thought. I pleaded with them to check the car at once but they “assured” me they would notify us later if anything was discovered. I had absolutely no faith but poor Dylan kept asking for days when they were going to return the iPad. A few weeks later I received an email saying nothing was recovered from the car.

While in Madrid, Nicole attended a photo retouching workshop while Dylan and I mostly laid low as we tried to let him recover his strength for the next leg of our journey. From what I experienced in Madrid, there were some aspects that I like more than Barcelona. Madrid was more spread out with lots of large parks throughout the city. When walking around, the city didn’t feel so crowded with people. We only spent a few days in Madrid and then took the train north to visit Bilbao.

At this point in our journey, I began to get more comfortable with Renfe, the Spanish train system and booking trains through their website. So from Madrid we took the 6 hour train trip to Bilbao to visit the hometown of our friend Mercedes and her family. With destinations like Barcelona, Madrid, Ibiza, Granada and Ronda, Bilbao wasn’t particularly on our radar and we weren’t expecting much. However, when we arrived in Bilbao and spent some time with Mercedes and her family, walking around town and near the river, we immediately fell in love with Bilbao. This city sits in the valley with a range of hills rising on both sides. The river splits it into 2 sides with walking and cycling paths running along both edges. In the last 20 years, the city has gone through a revitalization and it shows. There’s a metro but everything was so close that we could walk to wherever we needed to go in less than 15 minutes. Runners and cyclists flowed up and down the river every afternoon and well into the evenings. It seemed like everyone in Bilbao is either a runner or cyclist.

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On one rainy day, Mercedes took her youngest son (he’s about Dylan’s age) out of school and drove all of us 1 hour north to the coastal town of San Sebastian. The clouds broke just as we arrived and we spent some time walking through the city’s seaside aquarium. We continued walking along the old city streets and eventually followed the beach up to Monte Igueldo. There was an old amusement park at the top of the mountain that provided spectacular views of San Sebastian. Even though the park was closed, Mercedes somehow sweet-talked one of the operators into starting up a roller coaster and letting us ride it once around.

We enjoyed the time in Bilbao so much that we extended our stay a few more days. The Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships were coming into town for the weekend so there was tons of entertainment. A diving platform was built on the side of one of the tall bridges that crossed over the river. During high tide on Friday and Saturday the athletes would dive off the bridge into the river in front of hundreds of thousands of people that had flocked into the city for the event.

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Before we had to leave, all I wanted to do was find a dirt trail and explore some of the surrounding mountains. So Saturday morning, Mercedes’ husband Manu took me for a run on one of his favorite trails outside the city. As we were ending our run and coming back through the city, I mentioned to Manu that I was sad we were going to miss going further north in Spain and seeing the El Camino de Santiago. At about that moment, he pointed to 2 hikers with backpacks strolling down the city street on the opposite side of us and said they were hiking El Camino de Santiago. I thought I misinterpreted what he was saying and asked “Isn’t El Camino de Santiago at least 100 miles away?” He turned to me and said, “No, it runs right through Bilbao. Let me show you!” And with that we took off towards old town and found El Camino de Santiago right in Bilbao, less than 1 mile from where we were staying. All week I had been running up and down the river and passing right by the famous El Camino de Santiago and never even knew it.

We were sad to say goodbye to Bilbao and Mercedes and her family. We even debated getting an apartment and extending our stay even longer. But we decided to continue exploring other parts of Spain and head south back to Madrid and then Toledo. We realized that, should we come back and spend a longer time in Spain, Bilbao will likely be the place we will call home. At some point in the next 5 years, we can picture ourselves spending 6-9 months living in Bilbao and having Dylan attending one of the local schools.

Returning to Madrid on the train, we spent a few more days in the city as we figured out where to go next. We also took a day and visited the town of Toledo just a quick 40 minute train ride from Madrid. The first thing we had to do when we arrived was get up to Toledo. It’s an old medieval city built on top of a hill and is best explored by foot. The old part of the city is surrounded on 3 sides by the river and cliffs which makes it easy to defend. Luckily, in the 21st century they installed an escalator that takes you from the bottom to the top in less than 10 minutes.

Little shops selling swords and armored knight gear lined the streets. We took a walking tour of Santa Iglesia cathedral, the original city gate and city walls and wandered through the old streets. There’s a path outside the walls that circles the entire city (it’s probably only a few miles total) that would be an awesome daily run if we lived in Toledo. We took a late train back to Madrid and then booked 3 bus tickets heading south to Granada. We were on the move again.

Toledo

Toledo

Up to that point, we had either been traveling between cities by either rail or air. The train is easy and usually less expensive than flying but flying between cities and countries in Western Europe can sometimes be unbelievably inexpensive. But we discovered private buses also run between cities and can be even more economical. So we decided to take a 5 hour bus trip from Madrid down to Granada. It was actually pretty comfortable, with WiFi and TV screens in the back of every seat. The bus was nearly full of travelers just like us. Halfway through the trip it made a 30 minute stop so everybody could stretch their legs and grab something to eat. The scenery from Madrid to Granada consisted of miles and miles of olive orchards. That was pretty much all we saw for 5 hours: one olive orchard after another stretching across rolling hills as far as the eye could see.

The time traveling between cities was the best time for me to catch up on reading. Transitioning from city to city or country to country gave me time to read. I was finally able to finish “Show Stopper!: The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft” by Pascal Zachary. Although over 20 years old, the book is a classic technology story and shows how much work goes into creating the software we use and develop. If you like to read the story behind the story, it’s well worth reading.

We had rented a large downtown apartment in Granada off Calle Recogidas and only about a 15 minute walk to the entrance gate leading up to The Alhambra. Outside our apartment, lining the street and most of the streets throughout Granada were orange and pomegranate trees. You could literally walk down the street and pick fruit off the trees. Another thing we loved about Granada were the tapas. Every restaurant in Granada serves free tapas with every drink. So if I ordered a Coke for 1.50 euros, it also included a free plate of tapas. And the tapas were delicious. This was a great way for us to eat a meal yet sample a few different types of food. I should mention that throughout this trip, Dylan ate everything served to him. We never had to worry about ordering something from a “kid’s menu” or had to find an American restaurant. Granada introduced us to eggplant fries with honey and molasses sauce, and cherimoya, which is also called the ice cream fruit because of it’s creamy taste and texture.

We spent a day walking up to The Alhambra and touring the grounds and learning the history and finishing up in Generalife area.

The path up to The Alhambra

The path up to The Alhambra

For me, the parklike setting surrounding The Alhambra was more enjoyable than what was inside the walls. Sure, the different style of buildings and the courtyards and gardens were beautiful, but just strolling the paths up to the garden hand-in-hand with Nicole while Dylan played with the water flowing down the hill was the best part of our day at Alhambra.

The Alhambra at sunset

The Alhambra at sunset

We had originally planned to stay in Granada for just a few days but we enjoyed the area more than we thought we would. Even more, I really enjoyed getting out for runs in the hills above The Alhambra with the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains as my backdrop. After a couple days, we decided to stay a few extra days.

Twice I became lost during my runs in the hills above Granada. Not terribly lost, but I had followed a nice single track trail above Generalife heading towards the mountains.

In the hills above Granda

In the hills above Granda

A couple miles in, I decided to head back. Instead of just turning around the way I came, I decided to try and cross over the valley and take the other side back toward the city. So down the side of the hill I went and soon became lost in a series of dead ends. Disoriented, I ended up in an encampment where some people were living in caves. I received a few strange looks as I tried to find my way through the shrubs and paths and was eventually chased by a few dogs. Luckily I followed the river safely back towards town and vowed to avoid that particular area in the future. A couple nights later, I would find myself in a similar situation but in a completely different area. Apparently, people living in caves above Granada is not uncommon.

After Granada, we boarded another bus and headed northeast through the Andalucia region of Spain to Cordoba. We had debated skipping Cordoba, but had heard good things about the Moorish Mosque-Cathedral there. So we opted to use the bus system again and stay a few nights in Cordoba. The day after we arrived, we walked under threatening skies from our hotel over the Roman bridge to the Mosque.

Roman bridge in Cordoba

Roman bridge in Cordoba

That afternoon when we left the Mosque, it rained harder than I have seen it rain in a long, long time. We spent the rest of the afternoon and a couple days exploring the city of Cordoba. It was likely our most uneventful stop as we were again tiring of the big city, busy crowds and cobblestone streets. We were longing for a more quiet and quaint location. Our next two destinations would prove the perfect retreat.

After Cordoba, we again used the Renfe train system and took the train south to Ronda. We found an apartment in the old historic part of Ronda that we could rent for a few nights. The town sits high up on a mountaintop and the two parts of the city are connected by amazing stone bridges. One bridge is referred to as the new bridge, yet that is because it was built only 300 years ago. The other bridge is much, much older. There was a walking path that led down to the valley below and we followed it for a bit to take some pictures.

Ronda at sunset

Ronda at sunset

There was a magical feeling staying in Ronda. Many years ago we visited Eze, a medieval village that sits high atop the cliffs on the French Mediterranean near Monaco. It’s one of the places you never forget and remember fondly. Being in Ronda, we experienced those same feelings. It was like going back in time. We also visited La Casa Del Rey Moro where there’s a secret passage of stairs leading down to the river in case the town was ever attacked. Ronda is also where Spanish bull fighting started and there is still an old bull ring near the center of town that is used once a year.

Inside Plaza de Toros

Inside Plaza de Toros

After Ronda, we needed to find a way to get to our next stop: the Hotel Fuerte near Grazalema. The little town of Grazalema was only about a 45 minute drive from Ronda, but we had no car. No trains passed through Grazalema. In fact, our hotel was not even in Grazalema. Instead it was a couple miles before Grazalema. Luckily, we found a bus that went to Grazalema twice a day and were told we could ask the driver to drop us off near the entrance to the hotel. So we caught the bus and trusted the bus driver had heard of our hotel and would know where to drop us off.

Luckily it all worked out and the bus driver dropped us off by the side of the road near our hotel entrance, and we rolled our suitcases down the road to the hotel. It was beautiful, and the ideal retreat for a few days. The description had mentioned it was situated within a national park and there were hiking and biking trails. Well not exactly. There was 1 trail that led out the back of the hotel. Every few hundred feet, the trail had a gate that I would need to open and close as it passed through some goat and sheep farms. Eventually it led to a gravel road that would continue into the town of Grazalema.

Hotel Fuerte Grazalema

Dylan diving into the pool at the Hotel Fuerte Grazalema

The 3 of us took the trail and walked into town one afternoon. There’s not much to the town but there are better hiking trails on the opposite side of town. We had lunch and bought a flute for Dylan that he played it the entire way back. It was one of the best 2 euros spent as he kept himself occupied and we never once heard the usual complaint during our walks of “I’m tired. How much further?”

Playing the flute in the countryside near Grazalema

Playing the flute in the countryside near Grazalema

The hotel included delicious breakfast and dinner every day, and that made our stay even more enjoyable. We also had time at this stop to use our baseball mitts and play catch on the grass, feed the animals in the nearby stables, walk through the countryside and just sit and enjoy the views. The days passed quickly as we tried to plan the next leg of our journey.

From the beginning to the end of our trip, technology played a crucial role. We relied on Google Maps to navigate around Norway and used our mobile devices/laptops all during our stay to research and book hotels and apartments. Getting around most cities was easily accomplished using Google Maps. And Google Maps had all the metro and bus lines in the big cities so it made it very easy to get from point A to point B using our phones. However, the free WiFi provided by most apartments/hotels was almost always a problem. Usually it was too slow and inconsistently unreliable. We struggled with WiFi the entire trip. We use T-Mobile which has free international data and our phones could act as hotspots which was awesome. Yet the free international data comes at a cost as they throttle the speed down to 3G. So for using Google Maps and TripAdvisor or uploading a picture to Facebook, it works. But anything that required a fast internet connection we would try to use the faster WiFi. For example, Nicole couldn’t SnapChat as often as she would have liked. As a backup, I bought a Vodafone SIM card with 1.5 GB of LTE data we could use in a pinch. The intermittent WiFi meant that each night after Dylan went to bed, we would be on the internet for about an hour or more researching the next day’s activities or the next possible destination.

While staying in Grazalema, I was scrambling to make arrangements for the next stage of our trip down to Tarifa where we could catch a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar and over to Tangier, Morocco on the northern tip of Africa. The first big problem was arranging a ride back to Ronda so we could catch the train at the Ronda train station. Morocco was meant to be more “been there and done that” type of trip. We were already so close to the Strait of Gibraltar that to not set foot on a new continent would be a shame. Making it to the ferry was going to be the hard part. We had to make it back to Ronda in order to catch a 9:19 AM train and then make a connection for another train that would take us to a Algeciras where we would have to take a taxi to the hotel and then catch a bus to the town Tarifa further down the coast. All of this had to be done before noon. At each connection, we had about a 10 minute window otherwise we would miss the next connection and miss the ferry and all would be lost.

We found the same bus company that dropped us off near the hotel also operates a bus that runs twice a day from Grazalema to Ronda. The hard part was catching that bus. We were told if we stood out on the road, a yellow bus should pass around 8:15 AM and we could wave the driver down. And so that’s what we did. We rolled our luggage out to the road before daybreak and waited for the yellow bus. At 8:25 AM, I thought our day was doomed. Then we heard the bus come around the corner and jumped up and down, waving our arms in joy and flagging the driver down.

Waiting for the yellow bus to Ronda

Waiting for the yellow bus to Ronda

Luckily we made all the tight connections and took the FRS Ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar and landed in Tangier later that day. Tangier happens to be in a different time zone (1 hour behind) even though it is only 8 miles from Spain and on a clear day you can see Africa from the Spanish coast. So we gained an extra hour to spend in Tangier.

Tangier gave us the advantage of experiencing Northern Africa and walking through the markets, eating the food, seeing the city and the people, and still being back in Spain at the end of the day. We quickly toured parts of the city which in some ways reminded me of San Francisco. At one of the parks, we paid a few euros to ride a camel and I led Nicole, Dylan and the camel around the streets for a few minutes.

Our new form of transportation

Our new form of transportation

For lunch, we ate at a local restaurant while a Moroccan quartet played music in the background. Nicole and I shared subtle looks of concern when the food was served but not Dylan. He will try anything. Whereas I had to wash the soup, meat kebabs and cous-cous down with a Coke, he ate and never complained. We spent more time browsing the various vendors and shops near one of the main markets. The people were very friendly but everybody was trying to sell us something. Often the price started at 20 euros when we walked in the door but by the time we had looked around and were leaving, the prices dropped to 5 euros. We were quickly exposed to a very different culture. It’s not often we see most of the men walking down the streets wearing kaftans. We encountered kids and adults on the streets with physical ailments that we normally don’t see and would have a difficult time describing.

We were only in Morocco for half the day and after enduring a lot of traveling in the morning, that half day proved to be enough. I’m glad we made the effort and took the ferry. There was nothing epic about the day but it was pretty special to have been able to put our feet on another continent and witness a completely different culture.

We spent the night back in Algeciras and there was nothing in Algeciras we wanted to see or do so we caught the train the next morning to Malaga. Since we could see the Rock of Gibraltar from Algeciras, I had hoped to take a run around the Rock of Gibraltar in the morning. However, when I looked on the map, there was no easy way to run there without going way out of the way. And I didn’t want to put another bag of wet clothes in our suitcase.

The area near Malaga had not been on our list of places to visit. We meant to spend a few days in Seville but a couple reasons changed our mind. We had gotten tired of exploring similar big cities and felt, although Seville had its own unique aspects, it would be similar to some of the Spanish cities we already visited. We were also looking at flying to Rome and Italy for a week or two. If you fly out of the right city and to the right destination, there are some unbelievable deals on European flights. The best deals we could find to Italy were from the Malaga airport. Also, given the choice of visiting an inland city versus a coastal city, the coastal city won easily.

So we booked a room in a hotel in Fuengirola, a beach town about 45 minutes south of Malaga by train. The clerk at the desk kindly gave us a queen bed with a rollaway for Dylan and we had a small private patio with views of the beach. We used the beach for playing catch and tried to swim but the water temperature in mid-October was too cold and we couldn’t last for more than 10 minutes. The area felt like the Florida of the Spanish Mediterranean. Lots of senior citizens and the younger and family crowd seemed to be a mix of locals and travelers from Great Britain.

Our first night there we wandered into the city’s carnival. It was 9 PM on a Sunday night, and it seemed the entire city had come out to celebrate at the carnival. Vendors were selling all types of Spanish food and treats. Chestnuts were being roasted and sold around every corner. We bought a serving and the vendor scooped a handful right from oven with his charcoaled stained hands and dropped them in a bag for us. It was the first time we had tasted roasted chestnuts. Nicole and Dylan liked them but they were too soft for me.

As we walked around and watched the kids having fun on the rides, a popular attraction and our favorite by far was the bull ride. The bull ride was three bulls. Each bull could hold about 5 riders each. The ride would start and the bull would start spinning and twisting and the kids tried to hang on. Music would be blasting and the announcer would shout words of encouragement to the kids in Spanish. It was a classic ride. Dylan rode it a couple times and it provided some of the best laughs.

Riding the bull at the carnival

Riding the bull at the carnival

Real estate seemed reasonable and the weather in October was ideal. I’m sure the summer months can be hot and humid but I can see the advantage of why so many people retire to this part of Spain.

The day before Dylan’s 8th birthday, we flew from Malaga to Rome. We took the train and public bus from the airport to the hotel, but that was a mistake. Google doesn’t have all the latest Italian public transportation data integrated into Google maps and there is no integration with the Rome metro system. So we were left with trying to get information and directions from the local Italians on the street. Big mistake. We had become pretty familiar and comfortable with the Spanish public transportation system but now we had to learn an entirely new system in a language completely different than Spanish. You might think that Italian and Spanish are fairly similar and one could get by in Italy with some Spanish. But don’t be fooled. If you try to ask something in Spanish pretending to have an Italian accent, you will receive the most dumbfounded stare and the Italian you are asking will most likely dismiss you with a wave of their hand. Eventually we found our way around, but they don’t make it easy. Just a few hours after arriving in Italy, we were already homesick from Spain.

We discovered most of the Italians we had to interact with were usually dismissive. The hosts at our hotels were terrific and some Italians were friendly, but we had more unfriendly encounters during a short stay in Italy than during all of our time in Spain. It may have been us. I’m also not a fan of the service charges Italian restaurants will add to your bill. Usually there’s a cover charge just to sit down and order. The cover charges usually start around 2 euros for each person. They will then bring you a basket of bread for the table before you have a chance to know what is going on. There’s goes another few euros as the bread is not gratis. Before you know it, 30% of your bill will be spent just on getting in the door and looking at a basket of bread you probably won’t eat.

For Dylan’s 8th birthday we toured the Roman Coliseum and the Roman Forum. There was a lot of walking on his birthday and a lot of history to process. In the midst of the crowds, it can be difficult to fully appreciate and grasp the significance of what was before our eyes. We learned about the lives of the gladiators and how the day would unfold at the coliseum during the Roman times. This was Nicole and my second time to Rome and the coliseum and the magnificence was not lost the second time around.

Dylan celebrating his 8th birthday inside the Roman Colosseum

Dylan celebrating his 8th birthday inside the Roman Colosseum

From the Forum area it was a short walk to the Pantheon and then it was time for Rome’s best gelato shop: Giolitti. It was the best we could do as a substitute for a birthday cake.

The next day we spent touring Castel Sant’Angelo and then taking a guided tour of the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican was overcrowded as expected. We spent nearly 4 hours walking through the Vatican and had about 10-15 minutes in the Sistine Chapel. You aren’t suppose to take pictures in the Sistine Chapel and you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a few hundred people in silence, as there is no talking allowed except the shouts of the security guards yelling, “No cameras!”. As we stood there and stared at the ceiling, it was difficult to grasp what we were seeing. Everything was there, the art and its stories in its vibrant colors that took Michelangelo about 4 years to complete. Nothing else we saw that day compared to those few minutes staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Still there is more to the Vatican than the Sistine Chapel. We walked down halls with incredible sculptures, art tapestries, other paintings and spent time in St. Peter’s Basilica where St. Peter is believed to be buried. By the end of the day, our feet were exhausted and our brains pounding from processing so much in the last couple days.

From Rome, we used the Italian train system to travel to Venice. It was only about a 5 hour train ride but try to avoid using the bathrooms on the Italian trains. Even in the 21st century, we found that when you flush the toilet on an Italian train, it empties right onto the tracks. So the recommendation is if you have to use the bathroom, it’s best to go when the train is moving.

In Italy, it's best to use the train's bathroom only when the train is moving as it empties directly on the tracks below

In Italy, it’s best to use the train’s bathroom only when the train is moving as it empties directly on the tracks below

In Venice, we stayed in the town of Quarto d’Antino at the Villa Odino. Quarto d’Antino is a little town only about a 20 minute train ride from of Venice. It was the ideal situation. It was a family run villa in the country that was quiet, relaxing and provided a delicious breakfast we looked forward to every morning. We found a large grassy area out back where we could play catch. A bike path ran along a river next to the hotel that I could follow in either direction for a run. We could take the train into Venice for the day and then come back in the evening.

Venice

Venice

We liked Quarto d’Antino so much that we stretched our stay to 6 days. We spent 3 days seeing Venice, Murano and Burano. The crowds in Venice weren’t my favorite but if we wandered off one of the main streets, we could experience a more peaceful atmosphere. For 2 of the days we bought a water taxi pass and could use any of the city run water taxis to jump from island to island. Part of the fun was just sitting back and taking one of the taxis though the canals and around the outside of Venice.

On Murano, we visited a glass blowing factory and watched a presentation of a few glass blowers at work. Some shops charge for the presentations and some are free. The free one showed us everything we needed to see. We watched as men in shorts and flip flops would dance around holding burning glass that was dripping from the poles held in their hands. This was glass they had just pulled from a furnace set to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. They’d swing and spin the poles in their hands to mold the glass then hold it up to their face and blow on it. I was wondering how many times they had burnt each other as it all seemed haphazard. There were no safety goggles, no protection suits, no gloves. In fact a few worked with a cigarette hanging from their lips. Yet they were masters in action and the finished products held so much more significance when we realized how Murano glass blown products are made.

Glass factory in Murano, Italy

Glass factory in Murano, Italy

We spent a few hours on the island of Burano. It’s known for the bright and colorful houses along the canals and streets. Much smaller than Venice and even a little smaller the Murano, there was not a lot to see on Burano after walking along the two main canals. We did find time for Dylan to take some pictures of Nicole and I using the bright colors as a nice backdrop.

Dylan taking a photo of Nicole and me in Burano, Italy

Dylan taking a photo of Nicole and me in Burano, Italy

Our days in Venice were more sublime than we could have predicted. We were looking forward to seeing Venice and had pictured Venice being a few streets along the waterfront with some canals flowing in and out of a few neighborhoods. But it is so much more and bigger than we thought. It’s one of those things that you can see in pictures, movies and read about but you have to see it in person to fully appreciate the beauty and allure.

After being in Spain and Italy, it finally hit me there’s Spanish time and then there’s Italian time. It’s common for many businesses to shut their doors in the middle of the day. In Spain this was siesta. Stores would often close at 2 PM and reopen at 4:30 PM or 5 PM. We got used to it. But in Italy we learned business days/hours are very flexible. Stores may choose not to open during the Monday morning hours even though their sign shows they are open Monday’s from 9:30 AM to 12:30 AM. When asked, the locals would tell us matter-of-factly that of course they are closed this Monday morning. Then they would say they “should” open in the afternoon. Some of restaurants in Quarto d’Antino don’t open on Tuesday. Why Tuesday’s? We had no idea but wished we did since we had walked to town on a Tuesday night to find dinner.

From Venice, we didn’t know where to go next. We struggled finding our next destination. Should we return to Barcelona? Go north to Austria or Switzerland? Take the train to Milano? We looked at a different options and in the end settled on taking a flight to Sardinia and then heading back to Barcelona. It was so inexpensive to fly to Sardinia from Venice and then we could get another very inexpensive flight from Sardinia back to Barcelona. By the time we added things up, it was about the same whether we went back to Barcelona and rented an apartment, or flew to Sardinia first then continued to Barcelona. So we booked flights on Ryanair and found a hotel for a few nights near Alghero on the Mediterranean coast of Sardinia. However, unbeknown to us at the time, this decision would also require another dip into the FUBAR Fund.

When we arrived at the Venice airport to catch our flight on Ryanair, we arrived 1 hour and 50 minutes ahead of the scheduled departure time. We were proud as this was well ahead of our typical arrive within a 30 minute window of takeoff. When we walked up to the check-in counter, we were informed there would be a charge of 150 euro “convenience fee” that Ryanair charges to check-in at the airport. To avoid paying the convenience fee, we should have checked-in online when we purchased our tickets. It’s all spelled out in their terms and conditions in very fine print somewhere on their website. There was no way to avoid paying the “convenience fee” as we needed to catch our flight. So we had to go to the FUBAR Fund. It cost us more to check-in at the airport than it did to purchase the tickets!

Our time in Sardinia, much like many of our other stops in coastal towns, was perfect. The weather held the entire time we stayed. The El Faro Hotel was situated on the edge of a picturesque bay and within a national park. And this park was more like the park I was expecting back in Grazalema. There were miles of trails that I could run through the park and follow the coastline.

A trail near in Sardinia near our hotel

A trail in Sardinia near our hotel

The coastline was very much like the coastline near our apartment in Ibiza. It was a rocky coastline with some flat areas and we could sit and enjoy the views for hours. Dylan and I jumped in the sea for a swim but only lasted a few minutes. In the summer months, I could imagine the area full of swimmers jumping off the rocks and playing in the water.

Dylan swimming at the beach at the El Faro Hotel

Dylan swimming at the beach at the El Faro Hotel

The hotel included breakfast, but we were on our own for lunch and dinner. The hotel did have a restaurant but since dinner was 25 euros each, I couldn’t justify spending almost 75 euros each night just for dinner. Since we had no car, I’d walk into town and buy some bread, cheeses, meat and drinks and we would have dinner on the beach at sunset. At night, we would sleep with the door open so we could listen to the waves hitting the beach. We will be soon heading home with our suitcases stuffed with memories, and Sardinia was a good one.

Sardinia had never been on our radar and it was a last minute addition but we were so glad we decided to make the trip. Our flight back to Barcelona left from a different airport on Sardinia, the Cagliari airport on the opposite side of the island. I had no idea how big the island of Sardinia was. I was miffed when I found that a taxi was going to cost around 350 euro just to get to the airport. Again, we used the bus system and found a bus that went from Alghero to Cagliari and only took 4 hours. It worked out since there was only a midmorning bus and our flight left in the evening. And this time we had already checked-in for our Ryanair flight so we were good to go. We caught our flight and landed in Girona, Spain later that night.

We had driven past Girona on our way to Costa Brava back in August but skipped stopping in town. From the highway, back in August, it didn’t look like much. My image of Girona was a small and quaint mountain town set on the edge of the Pyrenees mountains. It is close to the Pyrenees but Girona is more flat and rests in a valley between a couple mountain ranges.

Since our flight on Ryanair flew into Girona instead of directly into Barcelona, we stayed the night in Girona and spent the next day walking through Girona’s old town. To my surprise, it was more what I had envisioned. The old town was filled with narrow cobblestone streets and alleys, kept clean of litter, garbage and graffiti. We found a café, La Fabrica, for coffee and some baked goods that catered to the local cycling crowd. It rained most of the day we were in Girona which limited the amount of walking and exploring we could do with the little time we had. Had I brought my bike, it might have been a good spot to rent an apartment for a few weeks and do some riding and running in the mountains.

 

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Deciding what’s for dinner in Spain: jamón, jamón or jamón.

 

That afternoon we took the train from Girona into Barcelona and settled into our last apartment in the Gracia neighborhood. We’ve been most happy here and are disappointed our time is coming to an end. The last week has been spent catching up on the things we missed while we were here a couple months ago. We finally made it out to Montserrat. And finally bit the bullet and scheduled some time to wait in line for the Picasso museum (best time to go is in the morning).

The cable car to Montserrat

The cable car to Montserrat

I’ve finally had time to sit at the computer and start to digest the past few months. And we’ve had to dip into the FUBAR Fund a couple more times before heading home. Over the weekend, we were riding the metro to the Funny Car races on Mt. Juic and someone pickpocketed my wallet with about $200 and all my credit cards and ID. The metro was packed and I let my guard down. It could have been anyone and happened in just a few short minutes. In fact, it could have been the unsuspecting old lady pretending to read a newspaper next to me. I had received all new cards just before the trip. Why the United States credit cards companies did not go with the chip and PIN system with the new cards is beyond me. Had my credit cards been secured with a PIN, my anxiety would have decreased the hour or two after having my cards stolen. The next day something bumped into Nicole’s purse and cracked her relatively new S6 Edge’s screen. So it was an expensive weekend. Our FUBAR Fund is now nearly empty so we can’t afford any more mishaps.

I imagine life as a sort of TV show and we are director, actor and audience. When time allows we sit back, turn on the show and watch our lives unfold before our eyes. Love. Pain. Joy. Sadness. Victories. Defeats. Reflections. Lessons. It’s all there for us to touch and experience. We can script what we, the actors, say and do. Hopefully the director side of us points us in the right direction and we find the script and storyline captivating and rewarding. No one wants to watch the same storyline over and over and over. What are you doing today? Pretty much what I did yesterday. What you are doing this weekend? Pretty much what I did last weekend. What are you doing this year? Pretty much what I did last year. If I’m capturing the same scene over and over, week after week and year after year, I’m wasting the one opportunity I have to script our story. When I find it too predictable or monotonous, it’s time for a change. If some consider this a luxury they cannot afford, they are mistaken. The locations may differ, the props may change, but your life is telling a story. Make it a story you will remember and be proud to have directed, lived and experienced. Life is a series of trade-offs. Saying Yes to one thing means saying No to something else.

There are a lot of things we had to skip this year and purchases we didn’t make. The number one reason why we shouldn’t have done what we just did is that it’s what you do when you are older, retired and your kids have grown. But what a mistake it would have been to wait. So many times the past few months, Nicole and I have been walking hand-in-hand down a cobblestone street with Dylan running off ahead or trailing behind, our feet tired and our brains a little over processed. Yet we’ve repeatedly turned to each other and said in those moments and said how lucky we are that we did this now.