Photos, Novels, and Trips, Oh My

clarionwestIt’s been a busy August, and it’s likely to get even busier… more on that in a moment. But first, thanks to everyone who sponsored me in the Clarion West Write-a-thon. It’s been a fun Clarion season, with lots of get-togethers and writing evenings… and congrats to my friend Folly Blaine for finishing the full six-week workshop!

For the write-a-thon, my goal was to write the second draft of my current work in progress, Noah’s Dragon. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite finish that– I got about three-quarters of the way through. As I approached the end, I realized that the amount of work the end needed was going to be larger than what I had time for, and so instead of doing a full second draft, I worked on doing a read-through, and planning what needs to change in the third draft.

In the meantime, in addition to working on the third draft, I’m planning to write a synopsis and hopefully get things in shape so I can send out a few agent queries before I travel to Nepal for six weeks in the fall, starting in mid-September. Which will be its own bundle of planning work, even though I’m very much looking forward to it.

Earlier this year, I got an invitation from a friend travelling in Asia to hike the Annapurna Circuit, a three-week walk through the valleys and mountains of Nepal. And since I’ve never been to Asia, and this would be a dream backpacking trek in almost every sense of the word, I decided to seize the opportunity. Now my plane tickets are bought, my destination date is less than six weeks away, and there’s an ever-increasing list of things I want to accomplish in those six weeks before I leave.

One of the things I’ve actually managed to check off my list is rework my photography website, Journeys in Color, to include a comprehensive list of portrait packages, event photography, and retouching services for sale. If you live in the Seattle area, please take a look! I’m hoping to particularly cater to the geek and cosplay communities, since that’s what inspired my original passion in portrait photography.

I’ve also set up a shop where you can buy photo prints (including standard prints, bookmarks, cards and stamps) of selected pictures. You can also buy photos as digital backgrounds, for computers or mobile devices, which have been pre-cropped to 16×9 horizontal and vertical resolutions. If you enjoy seeing the pictures I post, and you’d like to support my photography, please consider taking a look at the store. If there are any pictures which you’d like to buy but that aren’t available in the store, send me a message and I’ll see what I can do!

So I’m attempting to be a bit more “commercial” with my photography. If you have any feedback on the site itself, or the shop, drop me a note via the contact link in the previous paragraph. Also, note that I won’t sell pictures of people without a release, so I won’t use any pictures that I take of cosplayers at cons for commercial purposes unless I have a written agreement with them to do so. I still plan to do hall cosplay, and I still plan to make digital copies of those pictures available for free to people who are in them– though I might offer people the ability to purchase physical prints if there turns out to be any demand for that.

Besides the big Nepal trip coming up, I’ve also gone a few smaller excursions, and had an awesome time. On Tuesday I got to go hiking with some good friends at Sunrise, on Mt. Rainier, up to the Mount Fremont Lookout. It was a fun day– the Sun was sweltering, but the breeze at 6500 feet generally kept us cool. It was also the 34th entry in my Journeys Around Seattle photo series, and you can read the entry and see the pictures at my photoblog here.

The previous week, I went backpacking at Garibaldi Provincial Park with my girlfriend, Lisa, for a few days. We camped on the edge of Lake Garibaldi, which was a beautiful shade of turquoise thanks to all the glacial runoff in the water. The Flickr set of those photos is here, but I’ll also be making some of those landscapes available as prints and pre-cropped backgrounds in my shop. (Did I mention I have a shop over at Journeys in Color?)

Anyway, that’s my life right now. If it seems focused on the photography side of things, that’s kind of because it is, but it’s also because I’ve got a lot of really cool travelling going on right now, and those sort of go hand in hand. I’m also reaching the point where I need to focus on getting the ol’ revenue stream going again, and photography is the first (but not the last) of those endeavours. My writing is still happening, as mentioned above, it’s just that writing tends to take much longer to pay dividends (or even to have interesting news updates).

Lots of cool stories, updates and pictures coming down the pipeline. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

Olympic Peninsula Redux

Last June I spent a few days driving around the Olympic Peninsula. I made it up to Hurricane Ridge, to the Hoh Rainforest, and the beaches, and even though the weather wasn’t always great, I enjoyed it immensely.

Later, relaying the details of the trip to my Dad on the phone, I mentioned that it would be a good place for us to go exploring and hiking for a few days. Dad and I have made plenty of similar trips before– in 2003, we went hiking in Wales, and in 2008, we spent a week together in Europe, taking the train from London to Berlin and stopping in Normandy for a few days to pay our respects at the D-Day sites. Not to mention all the trips we took when I was growing up.

Dad and I don’t get to see each other much these days– we live in opposite corners of America, and Dad’s work and travel schedule have kept him busy. So last Friday, May 3, when we met up to go exploring the Olympic Peninsula, it was the first time we’d actually seen each other in over 2 years. Not due to avoidance or anything…. just due to life. (Side note: one really shouldn’t let life do that.)

Anyway, our trip consisted of lots of driving, lots of hiking through the woods (and in snow, and over sand), lots of eating in greasy spoons, lots of talking and catching up, and (perhaps most surprisingly for the Olympic Peninsula) lots of sunlight. There were snow-capped mountaintops, clear views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and deep into Canada, vibrant sunsets over the Pacific, and warm sunlit beaches bearing more resemblance to the South Pacific than Washington state– at least until you stuck your foot in the water.

I’m really pleased with the entire set of photos I got from the trip (the full set can be seen here on Flickr), but here’s a few of my favorites:

Looking from the Dungeness Spit across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with Mt. Baker in the distance:

Seagulls nesting on a rocky stack off Cape Flattery, at the very Northwest corner of the United States:

A Coast Guard cutter crossing La Push Harbor at sunset:

The Visitor Center at Hurricane Ridge:

Deer along the road near Hurricane Ridge:

The stacks at Rialto Beach (with my Dad in the foreground for comparison), with the famous hole-in-the-wall in the distance:

A sea anemone surrounded by pink lichen:

Starfish in the intertidal zone:

Ferns (and a spider) in the Hoh Rainforest:

An oceanside waterfall, at Third Beach near La Push:

Looking south from Third Beach toward The Giants’ Graveyard:

Marymere Falls:

A bald eagle high up in a treetop, overlooking the beach:

Looking from Port Angeles toward the Olympic Mountains:

I’m sorry, did I say “a few?” I meant fourteen. It’s just that the number of environments and ecosystems we crossed was so huge– from the ocean (above and below the water), to the coastal forest, to the inland rainforest, to the snow-capped mountaintops and everything in between– that it’s difficult to capture the range of what we saw in just a few pictures. And we had perfect weather the whole way, which is pretty extraordinary, given that most of the Olympic Peninsula is absolutely inundated with rain (the Hoh rainforest gets 140 inches a year).

And to get to spend four days catching up with Dad in the midst of all this cool wildlife and weather and scenery? Made it just about the best trip ever.

Mountains and Forests and Beaches, Oh My

There were a lot of events going on in Seattle last Saturday: the presentation of the Locus Awards (congrats, winners!). The Seattle Solstice Parade (which I took part in last year). My bi-weekly writing group. Throw in other interesting-sounding events like the Seattle Iranian-American festival and there was simply going to be no way to do everything I wanted to do.

Sometimes, the only way to win is not to play.

So instead of picking between various events in Seattle, I went on a road trip. I hadn’t been a good road trip since September of last year, and besides, I had a long weekend coming thanks to my night-to-day shift change at work. So on Thursday I packed up clothes, hiking gear, and camera, and caught the ferry, heading to Bainbridge Island and the Olympic Peninsula.

The Olympic Peninsula, for those of you unfamiliar with Washington state geography, is the huge chunk of land between Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. It’s surprisingly remote, despite its size and proximity to Seattle. The Olympic Mountains take up the vast majority of the interior, and pretty much prevent travel through the middle of the peninsula– except for forest service roads, all the roads circle the perimeter.

When I set out, I didn’t have a specific plan in mind. There were a couple famous spots I wanted to see, but other than that, my plan was how my travel plans usually go: get there, explore, and see what there is to see.

My plan paid off almost right away, when I happened upon Dungeness, home to a rather stunning spit of land that juts out five and a half miles from the coast, steep oceanside bluffs, and some spectacular ocean views:

I spent the night at a little motel in the town of Port Angeles, and then on Friday headed into the mountains. Deep in the Olympics, almost twenty miles away from the highway turnoff along a winding, uphill road, lies the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center, at 5,242 feet. It’s high enough that my ears popped plenty of times on the way up from sea level, but still well below the tallest mountains, which top out near 8,000 feet and are covered in snow 12 months a year. Even at the Visitor Center, there was still plenty of snow around the parking lot.

Walking along a short path and cresting the ridge, you could look north, all the way across the Salish Sea to Victoria, Canada, and even further, to the San Juan Islands and the British Columbia coast range many miles beyond.

Here’s a panorama of the view south from the Visitors Center (click for much larger):

Afterward, I headed all the back down out of the mountains and continued my loop around the perimeter of the peninsula. The whole area is rainy, especially the west side, which gets 140+ inches of rain a year. But even the dry side of the peninsula is still wet and lush, and all around the base and valleys of the mountains is dense, green rainforest. At the Sol Duc River, I stopped and hiked about a mile in to see Sol Duc Falls.

Afterward, I headed back out of the rainforest and drove all the way out to Cape Flattery, which is the Northwestern tip of the continental United States. Once again, utterly spectacular, albeit in a totally different way.

There’s a lot of Native American history on the peninsula as well, and several reservations, including the Makah Reservation, which consists of about forty square miles around Cape Flattery. The major town on the reservation is Neah Bay, and there’s a really good cultural museum there, although it was too late in the day to pay a visit. But I wish I had. There’s a tremendous amount of history on the peninsula, but unfortunately it’s easily lost in the current day poverty. Neah Bay was one of the most impoverished places I’ve ever seen, and the signs placed every hundred feet along the road saying things like “Meth equals Death” and “Drugs are not the Makah way” suggested that there are a lot of modern-day struggles that threaten to destroy a proud and ancient culture. It did, indeed, make me sad, although it also made me want to come back and learn more.

Here’s a panorama of Cape Flattery, and the view from the far Northwestern corner of the continental U.S:

I spent the night in a little motel along the north shore road, and on Saturday woke to a dreary, misty day. My plan had to do some beach hiking on the Pacific Coast, but the dramatic sea stacks that line the coast were barely visible in the mist, and the wind was fierce. Plus, the water was too high to see any of the area’s famous tidal pools (starfish and other such critters are apparently a common sight, when the tides are right). Alas, because of the weather, I didn’t stay long.

Instead I drove through the town of Forks. The town’s biggest claim to fame these days it that it’s where the Twilight books/movies take place, and it’s exploited that to boost its tourism industry, although it’s really too isolated to take great advantage of it. It’s a five-hour drive from Seattle, and the fact that it’s gained fame through a book series doesn’t change the fact that it’s a rainy, dreary place.

Clearly not all the residents feel the Twilight love, as seen in the window of one particular trailer:

Stopping at Forks just long enough for lunch, I made my way further south to the Hoh Rainforest, which is probably the rainiest place in Washington state (that’s saying a lot) at almost 150 inches of rain a year. It’s in a valley on the western side of the mountains, where all the Pacific weather gets trapped, and the result is a lot of rain, and an incredibly dense forest. There’s not a square inch of ground that doesn’t have something growing on it, and the air is so rich with nutrients and moisture that certain mosses are able to subsist directly off the air. In the second picture below, there are Hemlock trees that have grown so dense that they’ve actually fused together.

After about an hour hiking through the rainforest, I headed back out to the beach to see how things looked at low tide, but still didn’t have much luck. Not surprisingly, the coast was as rainy and windy as ever.

I had been planning to stay on the peninsula one more night and head back, but it was early. Thanks to the poor conditions on the beach, I hadn’t stayed long, so I headed back to Seattle early. I definitely want to come back, though. There’s all sorts of cool day hikes and multi-day hikes out there, and I want to give the beaches another shot later in the summer.

For those interested, here’s the full photo set from the trip.

Now I’m back in Seattle, back at work (on the day shift now, yay!), and shifting gears to focus on the Clarion West Write-a-thon. Life goes on, but pictures remain… and, I hope, hint at more adventures to come.

Photography at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park

It wasn’t my intention to do two photo-heavy blog entries in a row, but I ended up spending most of the afternoon with the Seattle Flickrite Meetup Group at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park, about half an hour’s drive north of Seattle, and wanted to post some of my better results. As in the last post, I’ll be linking the pictures to their super-huge original versions on Flickr.

I’ve been teaching myself photography in much the same way I explore new cities: I get lost and see where I end up. I start with some basic knowledge and then spend a lot of time seeing what works and what doesn’t.

This probably isn’t the most efficient way to learn photography, but it’s fun, and it prevents me from taking things too seriously. Writing is what I want to do for a living– photography is what I do for fun. (Although, come to think of it, this is largely how people learn to write, too.)

I’m much more of a nature photographer than a people photographer, and generally I prefer close-up shots to long distance. Mountains looming in the distance have a certain majesty that I’ve never seen recreated in a photo… not that this stops me from trying.

At Mukilteo, my favorite subjects were the birds and the waves. Since this was Puget Sound, and not the Pacific Ocean itself, the waves weren’t that high, but still– where a rock or a piece of driftwood jutted out of the water, there was a chance for some decent action shots.

Catching waves at the right moment is largely a matter of luck; I kept the shutter snapping through the action and hoped I got the exact moment when the splash was at its peak. Without a digital camera, I would have had to try and manually time it… egads!

Catching birds in flight worked on basically the same principle as the waves– keep the shutter snapping.

There was other wildlife, too, but it was harder to spot.

Looking in the opposite direction, the sky was an unusual color for February in Seattle, but nevertheless welcome:

Between Mukilteo Park today and downtown Seattle yesterday, it was a rather photography-intensive weekend. But it’s been a very writing-intensive week (and next week promises more of the same), so it’s been a nice change of pace.

If you’re interested in seeing the whole Flickr set from Mukilteo, here it is.

The Saga of a Decision

So as I mentioned at the end of the last blog post, I’ve quit my job. Well, technically, I haven’t quit yet. I’ve given my notice, though, and Friday, October 15th will be my last day of working in North Carolina. On October 18th, I’ll pack up what fits into my Hyundai Elantra and drive west– basically, until I can’t drive west anymore. Destination? The Emerald City. Seattle. Land of rain, coffee, Puget Sound, Mt. Rainier, and the Science Fiction Hall of Fame… among plenty of other things.

It’s a decision that’s been a long time coming. As far back as March, I was hinting about it— though what finally arose from months of agonizing looks a lot different than my original plan. Originally, I had planned to sell my house in the Spring and move to Europe in the summer. That July trip I took to Europe? It was supposed to be a one-way trip.

But things happened– for example, the housing market. I bought my house in 2007, right as the market was peaking. Back then the conventional wisdom was “Of course you should buy a house! It’d be stupid not to! You’re just throwing money away if you don’t!”

There’s an expensive lesson in there about listening to conventional wisdom.

Long story short, the house didn’t sell. I decided to rent it out, although things didn’t come through until less than two weeks before I was due to leave for Europe. I decided to go anyway (after all, I wanted to go to the Rock Harz Festival), then come back and sort things out before leaving for good.

But other things happened, too. I came to the realization that I really, really wanted to be a writer. Enough to consider it a life goal and not just a hobby. Writing is, to put it simply, what I want to do when I grow up. And that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, or accomplished in a short span of time… but just because a goal is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth having.

In the meantime, being in Europe for two weeks quenched my travel-around-Europe bug a little bit. I was lonely traveling by myself, and wasn’t really anxious to do it again. I was more interested in moving to continental Europe than the UK… but in that case there would be a language barrier to surmount, on top of and amidst the general chaos of moving and settling down somewhere. And while I’m not opposed to learning a new language by any stretch, moving to a foreign country just wasn’t a leap I wanted to take when I could be writing instead. Admittedly, moving could also help my writing, especially in the long term… but enough had changed that I was no longer so enthusiastic about moving across the Atlantic.

Seattle, however, began tickling at my mind. It’s much more urban than Raleigh (an aspect that had also drawn me to Europe), but for the outdoor enthusiast in me, there’s also Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean, and the Cascades right there. It’s a large, left coast city, with lots of culture (the Pacific Northwest is particularly packed with writers), it’s a tech hub (for the tech geek in me), consistently ranks high on the singles scene (one site suggested 30% of its residents are single), and plenty of coffee shops for me to get my write on. And moving there gives me the opportunity to do something else I’ve wanted to do for years: EPIC ROAD TRIP!

Yep, I’ve written about trips to Australia and Europe… might as well do one through America. I’ll be swinging north through Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, then heading west, through Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone, Montana, and whatever destinations I find along the way.

So there you have it… the saga of my decision. I’ve lived in the Raleigh area for sixteen years now; as much as I love it here, it’s been all too easy to get stuck in a rut. It’s time to throw caution to the wind. It’s time to have an adventure.

Reminiscing from the Roan Highlands

The Roan Highlands is a stretch of the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, and it’s famous for having some of the beautiful mountain meadows in all of Appalachia. It’s also famous for its wildflowers, particularly the rhododendrons, which bloom in June… right when we happened to be visiting.

So with that in mind, I enthusiastically packed my camera and headed off, hoping that our worries about rain that weekend would prove to be nothing more than worries. The plan was to park at a bed and breakfast near the trail, then get the owner to shuttle us to a place called Carver’s Gap. From there we would then walk about 15 miles along the Appalachian Trail (and a third of a mile along a road) back to the bed and breakfast.

As we parked and unloaded our gear, it began to rain, and we began preparing for a long day’s hike through the wet. But almost as soon as we had donned our rain gear, the shower stopped. So when we reached Carver’s Gap and began our trek upward into the mountains it was cloudy and humid, but pleasantly cool and most importantly, not raining.

Sure enough, the rhododendrons were on full display, with countless clusters of pink blossoms scattered across the hillsides. Plenty of other wildflowers were competing for attention, too, and we saw lots of cameras mounted on tripods as seemingly hundreds of photographers swarmed along the trail, seeking to capture the beautiful displays of not just pink, but yellow, orange, red, white, and purple as well.

As we rose higher into the mountains, the number of dayhikers and photographers dwindled. Eventually we left the meadows for the cover of forest, and the wildflowers too became more scarce, though what flowers we did see were still impressive. The most interesting find of the day was a Gray’s Lily growing on the side of the trail. Gray’s Lily is a rare, possibly even endangered flower that only grows in a few locations in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, mostly high meadows above 4000 feet. Apparently one of the causes of its rarity is that it’s often eaten by grazing cows (more on this later), so we were lucky to find one mere inches off the side of the trail.

There were also entire fields of Queen Anne’s Lace (aka Wild Carrot), which unlike Gray’s Lily is an invasive species and generally to be considered an obnoxious weed. But it was still pretty in its own way, mainly for the arrangements of flowers which branched out by the dozens from the tall stems, and the flurry of tiny insects that created a hive of activity (no pun intended) on each bunch of blossoms.

By the time we reached Overmountain Shelter, a massive barn-like structure that was to be our stopping point for the night, the skies had cleared and the afternoon Sun was shining overhead. We discovered that we would be sharing the shelter with a few other hikers and a large crew of volunteers who were in the midst of doing a trail reroute, so we made friends (I cozied up to the people who were listening to the US-England World Cup match on a portable radio), and then spent the afternoon relaxing. We explored the area around the shelter (including traipsing down phantom paths that gradually disappeared into overgrown brush), and watched our fearless leader Josh Hartman stand on one foot and juggle. I even took a turn myself, just to prove that I could indeed keep all 3 balls in the air at once (ignoring the way they all fell to the ground about two seconds later).

As the sun went down, Josh and I used the zoom lenses on our cameras to take pictures of cows grazing on Big Hump several miles away. Big Hump is the largest of the Roan Highlands meadows, and we could see it quite clearly, stretching along the top of a ridge which loomed large on the left side of the valley. Conquering it would be tomorrow’s work.

As we arose the next morning, we were greeted by a foggy, humid day. Big Hump, which had been so clearly visible the previous night, was now socked in by clouds. Rain had fallen in the night, but except for a brief sprinkle as we were having breakfast safely under the shelter roof, it seemed to have tapered off. So we crossed our fingers, hoping that like the tease of a shower we had endured before setting off the previous morning, that would be the end of it.

But a few minutes after we began our ascent, the skies opened up, and soon we were trudging along, heads down, making our way up a steep climb in the pouring rain. As we walked, the trail turned in a muddy little creek, rivulets of water flowing down the mountain and soaking our boots and shoes in the process. The nine miles to the road was beginning to look like a very long hike indeed.

The reason I titled this post “Reminiscing from the Roan Highlands”, in addition to having an affinity (some would say ailment) for alliteration, is that the last time I hiked this stretch of the AT was in 2004, during my Georgia-to-Maine thru-hike. It was winter, so the landscape was brown, the trees were bare, and there wasn’t a wildflower to be seen for miles, but we did get some amazing views. In my trail journal entry from that day, I described being able to see Mt. Rogers and White Top in Virginia, Mt. Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, and in general I remember this area as having some of the most spectacular scenery of the southern AT, sort of a Franconia Range for the southern Appalachians.

But views were not to be had today, so I had to make do with reminiscing. The rain stopped as we reached the top of the ridge, but the clouds stayed, and so we made our way across wide, grassy meadows that, while still pretty on their own, were completely socked in by the fog.

The climb up Big Hump was a long one, and since we could only see about fifty feet in front of us, it kept looking like we might be nearing the top. But whenever we moved a little further up the mountain, we would see that the length of our climb had extended by exactly as far as we had walked. Doug, one of my hiking companions, accurately described it as “Nature’s Treadmill.”

We reached the top, hoping for a miraculous parting of the clouds, but alas, it was not to be: the fog was as dense as ever. We did get some sporadic parting of the clouds on the way down, offering a few tantalizing glimpses of distant ridges, but by and large the clouds stayed with us until late morning, long after we had made our way off the grassy meadows. Back under forest cover, we began to push harder to get to the road, scrambling over long stretches of very slippery rocks (including one which gave me a nice bruise on my ass as a souvenir), which finally, a couple of miles before the road, gave way to a gently-downward sloping dirt path and a much simpler and more pleasant hike through the woods.

All in all a good trip– we missed out on some views, but the wildflowers were amazing, and I got a lot of practice with macro photography. If you’re interested in the full set of pictures, click here.

Tidbit of the Day: Mountain Streams Are Still Cold in April

Last weekend a group of us headed down to Caesar Head State Park in South Carolina. It’s a beautiful area, with lots of creeks and streams that course and burble their way through lush, picturesque valleys and forests. And because it’s on the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains, there are plenty of waterfalls as well– not just little rocky cascades, but tall ones, which drop tens or hundreds of feet down sheer cliffs and from jutting overhangs.

When I was about five years old and living in Houston, our house backed onto a medium-size creek that ran through a wooded area. It became known in our family as the Creeky Place, a little area I could go to watch the water flow over the rocks and under the canopy of trees. It was too dirty (and likely too dangerous) to swim in, but it was relaxing, and fun to go back and visit. Ever since then, there’s been something about forest streams and creeks that I love. Particularly if it’s the sort of area that runs over rocks and creates paths that you can scramble across, or calm pools amidst the chaos of the running water, or places you can sit and read a book. Simply being in the vicinity of a forest creek recharges my batteries, even inspires my writing, and serves as a great reminder that the simple pleasures in life really are the best.

For someone like me, Caesar Head State Park and the surrounding area was heaven. I could have spent
entire days not going more than 500 feet from our campsite on a creek, and that was just one little area. Creeks crisscrossed each other all over the park, and there were picturesque campsites galore… I’ll definitely have to visit here again, sometime when I can take it at my own pace.

This time, though, we had an itinerary, places to explore, and waterfalls to see– all of which were impressive. My favorite was Rainbow Falls, a 100-foot cascade where you could pretty much get right under it (hence the title of the blog post). Luckily, it was a warm Spring day, and my clothes dried pretty quick.

Moonshine Falls was another fun one, with a little cavern in the back where some old rusty barrels still sat, left over from the illicit operation that gave the falls their name. (Click here for the full photoset on Flickr.)

So all in all, a good trip. Spring is probably my favorite backpacking season; hopefully we can squeeze in another trip or two before the heat of summer sets in.

Back to Backpacking: A Trek Through the Highlands

After two months of not being able to do much backpacking thanks to lots of snow and ice, we were finally able to head out this weekend. The destination was Grayson Highlands National Park in Virginia, the temperature was chilly but bearable, and the weather was probably going to rain. Sounds like fun!

The plan called for us to hike along the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the area, from the parking lot to a camping area a few miles down the trail, and back again the following morning. Simple enough, really, as long as you can actually follow the trail. A winter with lots of ice and snow had rubbed the characteristic white blazes that mark the path of the A.T. off a lot of rocks, and following the trail was not always easy. We never got really lost, although we did occasionally meander a bit.

Grayson Highlands is famous for a couple of things: first, it’s dominated by wide-open meadows (called balds) that give it an Alpine feel, which is unusual for the Southeast U.S. Second, wild ponies are allowed to roam across the entire area. They’re very accustomed to humans, and will usually let you get quite close for pictures, although feeding them is forbidden (A.T. thru-hiker lore tells of people who fed them and were then followed for miles by pesky, hungry ponies.)

There was plenty of snow still on the ground, especially under the shelter of trees. This made things particularly interesting when we reached the campsite, as we had to either pick between a campsite that was out in the open and exposed to the wind or a campsite in the trees which was covered in six inches of snow. In the end, we chose a more exposed campsite, and as a result, that night was marked by fitful bursts of sleep punctuated by long periods of nervous wakefulness. Laying awake, watching the wind warp and bow the side of the tent like a particularly flimsy boat sail, and listening to the velcro-fastened vestibule snap back and forth in the gusts, I wondered how long it would be until the tent just collapsed. But as the light of dawn broke, the tent was still standing proudly. It held up just fine until a few minutes later, when someone tripped over one of the stake lines as they were walking by. (Luckily, by then it was time to pack up anyway.)

All in all, a fun trip. The first day was beautifully clear (albeit windy), and the second day… well, it was fogged in, wet, and cold, but still fun. Let’s face it, if you can’t have fun in bad weather, or at least bravely fight your way through it, then backpacking probably isn’t for you.

That said, I am looking forward to maybe one day having a trip that doesn’t involve testing my tent in rainy, high-wind conditions.

Australia Day 5- Blue Mountain Blogging

Today’s entry finds me in Katoomba, amidst the Blue Mountains, about 2 hours inland by train from Sydney. I was sorry to leave the city– I could easily spend two weeks just there, but in the interests of seeing all I can, it was time to move on. And there were aspects of my Sydney stay that I was ready to leave behind, like my hotel, which had a certain “charming ambience” exemplified by the solicitations for gay sex that were etched into every stall door in the communal bathroom. At least I had my own bedroom; I’m staying in a dormitory-style hostel now. It’s easier to meet people this way, though, and harder to be lonely.

My last day in Sydney took me to Taronga Zoo, which was much like any other zoo, except for the view it provided– since it was on the hills of the harbor opposite the Opera House, the entire zoo looked out over a full view of central Sydney’s skyline (the giraffes had an especially good view, and not just because of their long necks).

There was one particular section where kangaroos, wallabies, and emus wandered loose in a large enclosure that visitors could walk through, which meant a kangaroo with a joey in its pouch might come up and sniff your leg, or if you left your belongings lying on a rock in order to take a picture, they might get attacked by emus (this actually happened to a Japanese tourist, when an emu tried to eat his umbrella).

After strolling through the zoo and dodging the hordes of hyperactive, screaming schoolchildren who were also there (some things are constants in human society, and one of them is the behavior of kids in large groups), I made my way back to central Sydney, then out of Sydney into the mountains.

After spending the morning hiking through tourist-laden but beautiful forest paths and along spectacular cliffsides, I’m now back in the hostel, resting my feet, which reached their limit, oh, I’d say sometime in the afternoon of Day 1.