The Guad Blog

If you're going to drive to Guadalupe Mountains National Park from Austin, or really from any direction, just know that you will be second guessing your navigation multiple times before you finally see the mountains rising up in the distance. 

McKittrick Canyon at sunrise

I would classify Guadalupe Mountains National Park as remote. Once you get on the other side of the hill country, the west Texas desert is as flat as a crepe (a really thin pancake) for many hours. The good news is that you can see something coming for miles. The bad news is that there is nothing to see coming. So fill up with gas early and often. 

After seven hours and the fourth time of saying, "There should be mountains somewhere around here", Julie, Brandon, and I finally saw the mountains appear way on the other side of the crepe desert. Not dessert. The road leading to the Guadalupe Mountains is long and memorable. Watching the mountains grow will stick with you. 

The Guadalupe Mountains are rugged, shrubbbed, desert mountains. They are rocky and provide excellent views in all directions because of the lack of trees and the flat landscape around. The desert around the mountains gets more and more impressive as you gain elevation and see it from up on the mountain trails. From higher up you can see how the wind has shaped this land. The dunes that ripple across the desert are so obvious and natural from the top of the mountain, but when you are coming into the park and driving between and around these big dunes, they seem a little random.

Texas dunes

Once Pete made it down from Colorado there were four of us. The campsites at the main visitor center campground, Pine Springs, are all first come first serve. We thought getting in around mid-afternoon during the week between Christmas and New Year's would be easy, and we would have our pick of sites. Not true. I would recommend getting to the park as early as you can the first day so you can either get a spot at Pine Springs or have enough time to get up into the backcountry sites. Don't worry though, worst case scenario you end up cramming into an overflow group site with several campers and a guy who dog sleds with his two huskies across the country... more on Georgie later. 

Guadalupe Peak is the obvious destination in this national park. It is the highest point in all of Texas at 8,750 feet. It is a satisfying feeling to know that you are taller than anybody else with their feet on the ground in an entire state. I would put it up there with crossing a state line on foot. It is just so satisfying. Try it. 

So after a night of chicken tacos and a morning of finding a new campsite, we started our first trek into the mountains. The route is a little deceiving. From Pine Springs you look up to see a peak looming just above you. It seems obvious to think that is the peak - the tallest peak. But you are wrong my friend, and so was I. Once you make it up that little peak, you see there is a whole 'nother mountain behind it and you are maybe halfway to the summit. Life tip #1: Assume everything is a false summit. 

We took it slow since going up and down this mountain was the only thing we had to do that day. And when going up and down a mountain is the only thing you have to do in a day, that's a good day. The weather was perfect, and when we got to the summit we relaxed in the sun and the breeze. The view was incredible as we drank our warm and shaken up beers. Life tip #2: Always carry a beer to the top of the mountain. 

We headed back down, slowly again. We saw the sun set on our way and it was getting dark by the time we reached our camp back at Pine Springs. When we were already below the false summit and could almost see our camp, we met Georgie making his way up with his two pups and two new friends. This was just a little concerning since there was absolutely no way they were going to make it to the summit before well past dark. So we told them this and said good luck. Then kept an eye on the mountain as we ate our bolognese until we finally saw some headlamps bobbing down the switchbacks way up there. When we saw Georgie again he was as happy and optimistic as always. They didn't make it to the top, but his huskies did hear a deer while up on the mountain and take off down the trail, dragging Georgie holding the leash behind. Luckily he got it all on video. 

So colorful at first light on McKittrick Ridge

Our next adventure was an overnight backcountry hike from McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center back to Pine Springs - about 19 miles. You can really only do this if you have two vehicles to get from one trail head to the other and back, or you can try hitch-hiking. Unfortuneately Brandon was feeling a little altitude sickness and dehydration so he didn't join us on this hike and decided to check out some desert dunes instead. Don't worry Brandon, this hike wasn't that great, but you should stop reading now.

#calves

Heading into McKittrick Canyon

This hike was THAT great. McKittrick Canyon Trail was awesome from start to finish. It started in a desert valley following a small creek - then into a thicker forested valley with more color - then a climb up and through a notch into a canyon on the other side - then across a windy, narrow ridge that drops off on both sides - then follows the ridge atop the canyon wall overlooking the valley below. Pete led the way with Julie and I behind stopping for photos constantly. It was too beautiful not to. We had walkie talkies so when Pete would reach a view or a intimidating rock staircase on the side of the mountain, he would give an encouraging yell into the radio so we knew we had something good coming up ahead of us. We camped up on that ridge in the trees at McKittrick Ridge Campsite just a couple minutes walk to the most perfect overlook to watch the sunset with victory beers, and then some hours later the sunrise with hot coffee in the cold morning. 

The hike back to Pine Springs was a beautiful, fun, relaxing day with a little spritz mixed in. Brandon came up from camp and met us along the trail. We all descended back down to camp amid beautiful views on a sunny day. We enjoyed our last night at camp eating everything we had left, bartering with Georgie - who I don't think believes in money, and just looking at the mountains in the moonlight. 

We woke up the last morning and could see a wall of clouds coming at us from across the desert. It was a cold front that was going to drop the temperature 30 degrees or so. We packed up and decided to head underground and out of the weather. Carlsbad Caverns is just about an hour north of Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We spent a couple of hours there walking through the massive cave and checking out all the intricate rock formations before driving back to Austin. Enter the cavern through the natural entrance as opposed to the elevator. It gives you a much better sense of where you are, and the relatively short hike is full of more unique and massive rock formations. I definitely recommend the visit, especially if you are so near. I mean you might as well, can't dance. 

To Taco or Blog?

It's that time of year again. I got a email from Squarespace saying that my website is set to renew in a couple of weeks unless I cancel it. So I sat back and asked myself this question, "Can you really not paint a burning house?" 

That's what I am asking myself here, too

I have updated this blog on an irregular basis for the last three years. Why should I stop after persevering with this sort of consistency which my readers demand? My readers - who have numbered from the multiple dozens to my mom. 

Texas has some nice skies

I really did think about writing one last blog and riding off into the sunset with the ten thousand other blogs that have dozens of readers. I could have taken that $103.92, bought two pitchers of beer and 25 tacos (I did the math) at Radio, and called it one good night.  

A classic Austin early summer day

But even though I haven't achieved my dream of traveling around the world, seeing new things, eating weird things, getting lost, walking a lot, and getting paid to write about all of it at my convenience, this blog has had its perks (that free case of beet juice). Besides that, I enjoy writing. It's like talking, but you can erase what you said and say it over again in a more clever way before anybody else actually sees it. I rewrote that last sentence three times. I mean thrice. No, three times was better.

Also, it's pretty cool when random people get in contact with me when they somehow come across this blog. Most recently Jenn from JenReviews.com who contacted me just a week ago over our mutual love for homemade windscreens. Ah, windscreens.

Plus, I have a lot of things going for me right now at the happy age of 30. I am engaged to a beautiful woman whom I love. I have a fun job that sometimes pays me to go camping. I am a professional photographer having sold $5.86 worth of photo downloads on my Shutterstock profile. I am planning a short 300-ish mile bicycle tour through the Texas hill country this spring. So there might be some fun things to write about. 

So in summary: No, you still can't paint a burning house, and I intend to prove that over the next year on a consistently irregular basis.

Also, you can taco and blog. In moderation of course. 

Life in Austin, Texas, USA

It's been about nine months since I crossed the Atlantic, landed in Boston, was told by the US immigration officer that it was time to find a job, and had my first meal back on American soil at a Wendy's near Fenway Park.

I had been gone for four months. From east to west, from the equator to the North Sea. I was with many people, I was by myself. I walked, I biked, I swam, I kayaked. I slept on beaches, mountains, buses, and concrete floors. I received kindness from strangers, I was scammed. It was more difficult that I thought it would be. My time spent traveling was one of the greatest adventures of my life, but I was ready to get back home and start a new adventure. Adventure never ends, it just changes form. I think Einstein said that. Or maybe he was talking about matter. Or maybe that was someone else. 

Lou Neff Point at dawn

Since returning stateside, I have moved to sunny Austin, Texas, with my beautiful, supportive and always loving girlfriend, without whom I would never have made it as far as I have. We have spent the last nine months going on Westmas road trips, skiing the Minturn Mile, forming a team of AlpacaPackaBeers for a 24 hour adventure race, hiking, biking, kayaking, two stepping, chicken shit winning, Garth Brooks singing, and much more. I am loving Austin and all its weirdness. Can't beat the winter weather. Could beat the summer weather. But definitely can not beat the tacos. Tacos always win.

The Little Longhorn Saloon

Chicken Shit Bingo

I am going to continue to post about various trips and experienes that I have, but some of my time is being taken up with a new project, and I now have a job. That immigration officer would be wicked proud. My new project is a podcast with my brother called "Histories to Toiletries". I guess people don't like to read blogs while driving so maybe this form of media will fare better for them. You can find us on iTunes. So check it out on your next drive. 

The one and only Julia

My other love. Miss Molly

If you are in Austin shoot me an email. Or you can just look for me at a local taco truck. Even if you don't find me, you will have a taco. Tacos always win. 

The Isle of Skye

In far northern Scotland, beyond the cities, traffic, and intelligible English, sits an island that seems as if it has been unchanged by time. The water still runs crystal clear, the peat covered landscape is as thick and peaty as ever, the sheep are roaming around as they have been for centuries, the rocky mountain summits are tall and barren, and it always feels as if Mel Gibson is going to peak over the next hill with an army of face painted Scots. The Isle of Skye is as magical a place as the name suggests. 

The Old Man of Storr

About 10,000 people live on this 639 square mile island. I'll do the math for you. That's about 15 people per square mile. There are a couple main towns, but the majority of the island is beautiful open landscape made up of hills, mountains, pools, and rocks. With its many peninsulas and lack of trees, the views are vast and breathtaking no matter the direction you look on this island. Either you are peering across a deceptively innocent looking bay at another part of the island in the distance, you are looking across the rolling hills with nothing to block your view of peat stretching across the island all the way to the Cuillin Mountains at the southern end, or you are staring out over the coast at the unending northern ocean which does not look innocent by any means. 

Views around The Fairy Pools

Selfy and I began our Scottish road trip after a hearty English breakfast and some fresh apple juice. We signed the guest registry and made our way north. We were on the motorway all the way to Glasgow, then things got more interesting. North of Glasgow you hit The Highlands. The motorway peters out to a good old fashion country road. The Burger Kings and petrol stations are fewer and farther between. The trees get smaller. The hills and castles get bigger. Big enough to require a few unscheduled stops on the side of the road just to admire the scene. And maybe to pee too. We made it all the way to Fort Williams before we stopped for our first Scottish fish and chips. That requires some self discipline let me assure you. 

The Old Man of Storr from above

Finally we made our way over a long beautiful, bridge between the mainland and the Isle of Skye. We drove around the north side of the Cuillin Range and up to Portree, the largest town on the island. There were several pubs, a grocery store, and one semi-cheap hostel. This is the most any traveler can ask for. As we tried to figure out our hiking plans for the next couple days the hostel keeper explained the bus routes, recommended value accommodation around the island, and pointed us in the direction of the best haggis in town. We were not disappointed in any of those things, including the minced meat of sheep's heart, liver, and lungs that is haggis. Served with some boiled "neeps and tatties" and a tall Scottish ale, it wasn't half bad. Especially with the fire keeping the place warm while it got colder and wetter outside. 

Scottish Sheep

Trotternish Ridge

When the plan included hiking Scotland in October, I knew battling the weather would be a worthy challenge. Cold, wind, rain. I was ready for it all. Understanding that you can not control the weather and accepting it for what it is makes your time outdoors so much more enjoyable. Complaining about weather is even less useful than a penny. Seriously why don't we get rid of those things already. It is quite a nice surprise when all your preparation turns out to be unnecessary though. For 80% of our time in Scotland, the weather was perfect. Sunny, clear, cool, with a good breeze. By any standard Scottish measure, 80% good weather in October is near miracle status. As Selfy put it, "If someone told me I needed to pack sunglasses for this trip to Scotland, I would have told them they were mental." Or something like that. 

Our first full day on Skye we did a little warm up hiking. We drove around to some of the best spots on the island checking out the waterfalls falling directly into the ocean, the massive rocks pointing straight up to the sky, the old rock walls scattered around, and the trails leading in all directions. We planned for our grand hike the next day by scouting out a good start and end point and looking at the bus routes to see if our plans were even possible. Turns out they were - if we were willing to sleep in the car at one of the bus stops in order to catch the bus to take us to the northern point of the island to start our hike before dawn. And as it turns out we were. 

Trotternish Ridge

So our plan was to hike about twenty miles of the Trotternish Ridge from the Quiraing to the Old Man of Storr. As you know, plans always work out. We woke up in the dark, foggy, cold inside of the Volkswagen Up. To my semi-surprise, I saw the headlights of the bus winding up the sea side road towards us right on time. We were the only ones on the bus when we boarded. The nice bus driver lady asked us where we needed to go and took us right to the spot. We had a couple miles of road walking up to the ridge ahead of us as the sun rose over various parts of Scotland behind us. We reached the ridge in time to have a seat, eat some breakfast, and watch the sun peak over the horizon and light up the sky with colors to signal the start of a really good day. 

Sunrise at The Quiraing

The Fairy Pools

The previous day we ran into a couple of guys all suited up for a long hike. They had just set off to thru hike the Skye Trail which runs the length of the island and is relatively unmarked. We thought we would catch them for sure on our hike. We even packed donuts and sodas to spread some trail magic. Unfortunately for them, we never saw each other. Maybe we passed them as they were taking a break somewhere, and then maybe they passed us while we were taking a break to eat the donuts and soda we brought for them. 

The ridge we hiked was beautiful. We were up high on the peat covered cliffs with a steep drop to our left that leveled out then fell below the sea. There were more sheep than hikers to be seen, and the trail was not worn. This did cause a bit of confusion sometimes, but it was well worth it, like when we were having such a good time that we overshot our destination by at least a mile. Eventually, we realized we had gone too far. We also realized that even though the peat looks firm, sometimes you might try to step on it and fall straight through to a puddle of water. And then we realized that our only way back to the car was up and down the tallest mountain of the day. Realizations everywhere. 

The Fairy Pools

After a solid twenty mile day we treated ourselves to a nice stay at the Cowshed, a really great hostel on the other side of the island in the town of Uig. There were beds and showers and tables and couches. Just glamorous. The next day we kept the glamour coming with a brunch of Scottish oysters fresh out of the bay. We washed down our oysters with some sampling at Talisker Distillery where they make Scotch. Real Scotch. Then we were off for another snack at The Wee Tea Room - the most remote tea room imaginable. But the baked goods, coffee, hot chocolate, original photography, and hospitality of the couple who ran the little place were all fantastic. The last stop on our touristy tour of treating ourselves was the Fairy Pools. This was a beautiful spot at the base of the Cuillin Range where clear water trickled down the mountains above and made its way across a vast meadow forming pristine pools in the streams which ultimately led to the nearby sea. Unlike the Trotternish Ridge hike, this spot merely required a vehicle and a walk of a few hundred yards, so needless to say there were more "hikers" than sheep this time.  

Talkisker, Scotland

Barrels and barrels of Scotch

While at the Fairy Pools, the peaks of the Cuillin Range were staring down at Selfy and I, challenging us. So obviously we had to show them who the sheriff was. On our last morning on the Isle of Skye we set off on our final adventure. We saw a mountain, and we climbed it. There was no trail. There was no map. There was only a peak that we looked up at from below that seemed like it could be conquered. After several false summits and some fun rock climbing, we stood at the top of that mountain. At the top of the Isle of Skye. We looked around, had a snack, and headed back down. 

Climbing in the Cuillin Range

Snacking at the top

This Hiker Life - UK Edition: Hikers on Wheels

Once you live that hiker life, that unapologetic life, that unashamed life, that life where your only goal is to see the beauty in the people and places around you, it is easy and wonderful to fall back into. It's even better when you are in good company. Selfy and I left London in a Volkswagen Up (yup, that's a real car) with nothing ahead of us but ten days of heading north into unknown weather with mostly incomplete plans of where we would sleep, eat, hike, or shower. A situation we had found ourselves in before, but this time we had wheels. Easy trails. 

The Welsh Landscape

We left the Groom residence in Richmond, England, one morning just a little later than we had planned due to the last full paragraph of the last blog post. The good thing about living the hiker life is that if you leave a little late, you aren't too worried about it. The bad thing about living the hiker life is that if you aren't too worried about it, you will end up hiking a really dangerous trail as night falls. The good thing about living the hiker life is that if you end up hiking a really dangerous trail as night falls, you enjoy the beautiful sunset and look forward to the challenge of getting down. That's two good things and one bad thing. Totally worth it. 

Climbing up Snowdon

Selfy warned me that as we went farther north, I would have a more difficult time understanding what people were saying. It didn't take long before I found this to be true. We stopped at a travel plaza with a petrol station along the motorway, and I went to the Burger King inside. I did not understand a thing that the guy at the counter was asking me as I tried to order, and of course my order was wrong in the end, but I honestly think there was a fire in the kitchen while I was standing at the counter waiting for my food. It was a little frantic for a minute as the three employees who were working started talking loudly to each other while running around. I think I heard something about a fire, but I can't be sure. So when I got my food and it was not exactly what I ordered, I let it slide. They were either distracted by the fire, or they could understand me about as well as I could understand them. 

View climbing up Helvellyn in Northern England

We had a plan that was actually just more of an idea than a plan to climb the three tallest peaks in the United Kingdom. Snowdon Peak in Wales, Scafell Pike in England, and Ben Nevis in Scotland. This is why we drove to Wales on that first day. Here I really couldn't understand the locals. They have a totally different language with more y's and w's than all other letters combined. We made it to the foot of Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa in Welsh) about an hour before sunset. Since we drove all the way out there and didn't have much else to do we decided to take a quick sunset hike up to the peak, then figure out our sleeping arrangements when we got back. It was probably a seven mile or so round-trip hike. Of course I didn't really know that when we started. 

Hikers gonna hike

We had some great views of the sun setting over the grassy, rocky mountains of the Welsh landscape that stretched farther than you could see. Then we hit the really difficult part of the hike. Crib Goch is a very rocky, narrow ridge that leads to Snowdon Peak. Of course there are other trails you could take up to the peak, but why would we? It is similar to the Knife Edge of Katahdin, but a shorter traverse and lower elevation. Just as sharp of a drop off on each side though. Although to be fair, it was tough to compare the two trails because I did half of Crib Goch in the dark. I couldn't see exactly how far I would fall to my death if I took a bad step because my headlamp wasn't that strong. 

Trying to convey the experience of hiking Crib Goch in the dark is difficult. This photo is the best I could do, but I suggest you go there and experience it yourself. 

We eventually made it all the way across - which is your only option once you start a traverse like that. Going back is usually much more difficult than pushing through. We got to the base of the final climb to the summit of Snowdon two hours after we started our hike. We were only about 100 yards from the peak, but we decided to have a snack. We hadn't eaten dinner yet, and hiker hunger is always an issue. We made an executive decision during our snack break, which is usually the only time we make executive decisions. We would take the easy trail back down and hike back to the summit for sunrise the next morning. We waved goodbye to the summit, which we probably could have seen if it wasn't completely dark, and headed toward the VW Up.

Looking up Helvellyn

That was the closest we got to Snowdon Peak. The next morning when our alarm went off and it was time for us to pack up and hike back up the mountain, all I could hear was rain on my tent. I lied there listening to the tent next to me to hear if Selfy was up and moving around, and I'm sure he was doing the same. When neither of us made a move, without making a sound, we went back to sleep. 0 for 1 on our peaks of the UK challenge. 

Northern England

Somehow we had an extra day to kill between hiking mountains, so we hiked more mountains. We packed up our camp near Snowdon and drove to the nearby town of Betws-y-Coed for breakfast. We decided to head over to the Lake District in northern England. There was a mountain there called Helvellyn. The name seemed scary enough so we figured we would climb it. It was really a lovely hike at first. Beautiful scenery, friendly sheep, nice trails. Once we reached the top though, that English weather brought hell. A storm came screaming through all of a sudden. As we saw the storm chasing us down quickly, we had to make another executive decision and this time we didn't even have snacks. Go down the mountain, into the valley, and around the other side to try to avoid the worst of the storm? Or charge the damn thing and run back over the peak the way we came to minimize our time inside the storm? We chose the latter. As we were running back across the peak the storm hit us in the face with a thousand tiny ice balls that stung our skin like needles. Selfy ran, I walked. Don't think either strategy worked very well. We found a little shelter behind a rock wall and waited the storm out. It didn't take long. The sky cleared, and we were free to take our leisurely stroll back down the mountain like nothing ever happened. If it wasn't for the soaking wet clothes, you would have never known we had just battled Mother Nature. 

The summit of Helvellyn before the storm hit. Winds were fierce.

By the time we reached our car our clothes were pretty dry again thanks to the several miles long walk and constant chilly wind. Our continuously developing plan now called for a hike of Scafell Pike the next morning. One of our top three. We needed to get as close as possible to the mountain that night. The closest we could get was a parking lot of a little inn and pub. We set up in one corner of the lot with our camp chairs and mountain house meals hoping no one would notice us. Surprisingly no one did and we were able to sleep soundly through the night - as soundly as two guys can sleep in the front seats of a VW Up in a parking lot in the middle of nowhere England while it rains all night with the windows cracked so it doesn't get steaming hot inside and a little water keeps splashing on your face. The rain was still going when light came the next morning, so again without really saying anything, we called it a day. 0 for 2 on our peaks of the UK challenge.

Helvellyn

With more time on our hands we found breakfast at a little coffee shop in Windermere. Selfy had made plans for us to stay the night with his aunt and uncle in law in Crook, England, to get the true English experience. And I have never felt more English in my entire life. A good thing in this case. We got to the village of Crook and toured the lovely cottage home and the surrounding land. There were apple trees - where we were put to work picking apples. There was a firewood shed - where we were put to work hauling wood with wheel barrels. There was a garage - where we were put to work splitting the wood we had just hauled. There was a nice living room - where we had a lager after our hard work. There was a proper cast-iron English range for cooking - where our delicious meat pie and veg dinner was cooked. The mushy peas were really delicious. 

The village of Kendal in the northern English countryside. 

It's funny. Everywhere I travel around the world, people are always concerned about the food being too spicy for me. Usually they have a reason for concern. The food IS spicy. But I enjoy spicy, so I believe much to the dismay of my company, I've yet to run from the table crying. I was not expecting any spice worries in northern England. When I asked about the sauces on the table for dinner, it was explained to me that we had a horseradish sauce and a mustard sauce - "So, spicy", I was told in a very serious manner. I know that my hosts were just being polite and very wonderful hosts they were, but I had to make an effort to not laugh out loud at the table. The horseradish and mustard sauce were perfect with the meat pie. And even more perfect was the homemade pie and ice cream for dinner. 

Looking back down Ben Nevis

This particular night of the week was game night in Crook. Game of choice was cribbage. Location of choice was the local pub. So after dinner we got a quick lesson on how to play before the real game started down at The Sun Inn. It was quite the scene down at the pub that night. An American, a lad from London, and four old chaps from the northern English countryside having a few pints. Unfortunately and fortunately there weren't many people there to see it. I had the most amazing time at this cozy pub in this cozy village. I enjoyed my time in Crook very much. I don't think I could have had a truer English experience. It even rained a little bit.  

Watch out for cliffs and ice

On this road-trip we had one last opportunity to conquer one of the three peaks. This was the big one. Ben Nevis. Highest point in all the British Isles. 4,413 measly feet above sea level. Elevation is not the most important factor to consider when hiking mountains though. Prominence has a greater impact on a hike. It doesn't really matter how high you are, it matters how high you are relative to everything else around you. Ben Nevis has a prominence of 4,413 feet. This means we started the morning at sea level and climbed every single foot to the top of Ben Nevis. And this time we did make it to the top. 1 for 3 on our peaks of the UK challenge. 

Summit of Ben Nevis

Selfy and I started hiking just before the sun came up on the final day of our road-trip around Britain. We had just returned from a few days on the Isle of Skye, a few days worth an entire separate blog post because it was so awesome. We spent the night in the VW Up one last time and had a really good night's sleep. We were getting better at sleeping in parking lots by this time. We were the second group to start up the mountain that morning, but after only briefly getting lost, we quickly passed the first group and had Ben Nevis to ourselves on a beautiful day. Beautiful for the first 3,000 feet at least. As we continued going up, the weather continued to remind us we were in Scotland. At the peak it was rocky, cloudy, snowy, icy, and cold. There were ruins of an old stone observatory and a small hut where we hid from the elements and ate cookies for breakfast. Although the view of the surrounding landscape was nonexistent, the view of the summit of the mountain and the highest point in all the British Isles was worth the trip. I'm happy that this is the one that we stood on top of, even if we were in a freezing cloud. 

View from our cookie hut of the highest point on the British Isles

On the way back down, we passed hundreds of people making their way up. Some were wearing only shorts and T-shirts, and Selfy and I talked about how much they would regret that decision. Some looked excited and some looked exhausted. One lady asked us how much farther it was to the summit. In true Selfy fashion he quickly said, "Depends how fast you walk." I suppose that's true. 

The Tom Groom Tour Through London

I got a couple second looks coming through immigration into Europe from Asia. Fair enough. I was slightly, shall we say, well-traveled, with a beard, no job, no real plans, and no transportation booked except for a flight out of Europe in six weeks or so. The lady working immigration at the Stockholm airport looked at my passport photo from eight years ago, looked at me, looked back at my passport, looked at me, and said, "Smile." After lecturing me for not having confirmation of my upcoming flights readily available, she reluctantly let me into Europe. I guess I had a nice smile. 

The classic red telephone booth found all over the city. Do they actually have working phones inside? I don't know.

Getting into the UK was much easier. The bloke, as they say, was wildly interested in my plans to hike around the country with my old pal Mr. Tom Groom, aka Selfy, who I met on my Appalachian Trail thru hike the previous year. I suppose it helped that I had a name, a local address, and confirmation of my flight out of London on hand. I was learning. But I did look even more well-traveled. It didn't seem to bother him though, and eventually I was able to get him to stop asking me questions. I was off to find Selfy.

Mr Tom "Selfy" Groom - Guru, Leader of Men, Hiker

Last time I saw Selfy was somewhere in Pennsylvania, so we had plenty to catch up on. Between the two of us in the last year we had managed to avoid joining the British army again, hiked the worst part of the PCT, led the Marathon de Sables for several miles in Morocco, and held like zero real jobs. Not bad. We hopped in our ride, and many times our home in the upcoming two weeks, and went to find some trail magic in the form of Mrs. Julia Groom and family. I was treated to a comfy bed, a hot shower, proper English tea, great conversation on Brexit and Trump in which we all realized we are all screwed, and I went to my first real pub. I got the fish and chips and a lager - a common theme in the next couple weeks. 

Thanks for the trail magic Mrs. Groom!!

Kensington Gardens

The One and Only Tom Groom Tour Through London began my first full day in the United Kingdom. The tour was complete with facts that might be true, facts that definitely weren't true, walking, biking, boating, biking while boating, pubs when we were thirsty, markets when we were hungry, and countless witty, classic Selfy anecdotes. Although it is possible the British accent just tricked me into thinking they were witty. We will never know. 

More Kensington Gardens

The first day was our walking day. You know what they say about walking, it's like riding a bike. Selfy and I have done plenty of walking together so what better way to kick things off. We walked to the bus stop and rode into town from Richmond. We walked through Kensington Gardens and saw Kensington Palace, which is known to some Americans as Selfy's house. We walked past The Albert and into the Science Museum, where they showcased a lot of American innovations and discoveries. It was as if England was a proud mum and putting all of America's A+ test scores on the fridge. Thanks mum. Love you too. 

Big Ben - No Italian leather here

We walked through the city and past a Wetherspoons. Saw Big Ben, the River Thames, the London Eye, and walked by another Wetherspoons. Selfy told me some history about some of the famous landmarks. For example, he explained that Big Ben was built due to a lack of Italian leather that limited people from acquiring wrist watches. Therefore a clock was constructed in the middle of London for people to see from all around. I like the story too much to look into the history myself. 

Is that London Bridge?

We also saw the London Bridge... I think. Apparently the bridge that everyone thinks is London Bridge is actually Tower Bridge, and London Bridge is one of the many smaller, not so extravagant looking bridges crossing the river throughout the city. We couldn't exactly figure out which one, so I'm sure we saw it at some point. Probably as we were passing another Wetherspoons. 

Tower Bridge

After all that walking our hiker hunger started acting up so we went to Borough Market. It was a nice outdoor market near Shakespeare's Globe with lots of delicious food. We had lunch and bought a nice cheese for Mrs. Groom as a gift for her generosity. Unfortunately we accidentally never gave it to her, took it with us on our road trip across the United Kingdom, and ate it all. It's the thought, though, right? 

The London Eye

We made it back home after some ice cream to relax, have a nice meal with the family, get to bed early, and prepare for the next day of The One and Only Two Day Personalized Tom Groom Tour Through London. 

A building that had to do with Churchill?

The second day of The One and Only Two Day Personalized Tom Groom Tour Through London Extravaganza was designed to see the city from a different perspective. We headed out on bicycle. You know what they say about cycling, it's like walking but a little harder. We got to the city by a short train ride and headed off to see the changing of the guard. 

Driving on the left

We arrived just as it was happening. It was kind of like a very short parade. They closed down the street and horses came walking down carrying men in red coats with swords and funny hats. They rode into the gates of Buckingham Palace and performed all kinds of drills and marches. It seemed like way too much celebration for basically just a new shift of security guards coming in to watch over the residence of a mostly ceremonial political position. But I come from a country of a maximum 300 years of tradition, so don't listen to me. 

Riding in for the changing of the guard

We rode down to the Thames. The Wetherspoons were passing us faster on our bikes than they were the day before. Selfy only took us down the wrong path a time or two, which was way less often than  I took him down the wrong path while hiking the Appalachian Trail. 

Riding our bikes through Greenwich Park

We took our bikes onto a river boat and saw the city from the water. London did not look bad I must admit. The river tour was one of my favorite activities in London. Nice views and a cool breeze on a chilly day. We landed again in Greenwich - as in the Mean Time. I was really excited about this, maybe a little too much. I had spent the last four months in so many different time zones, and now I was at the place of the time zone on which all other time zones are compared. GMT +0. 

A regular ol' English pub

We saw a big, old ship on land, biked through Greenwich Park, had a lager at a pub (not a Wetherspoons), crossed under the Thames through a tunnel, crossed over the Thames on Tower Bridge, and headed back home. But not before stopping at Burough Market again for a heavy snack. And not before getting more history lessons from Selfy. Such as, you used to be able to go up the towers of Tower Bridge, but prostitutes kept hanging out up there and ruined it for everyone. 

Colorful London

There was only one last stop on the The One and Only Two Day Personalized Tom Groom Tour Through London Extravaganza and Fiesta. Wetherspoons. There are around 150 of these pubs in London and just under 1,000 in the U.K. and Ireland. That is like taking all the Outback Steakhouses in America and moving them to an area the size of New Mexico, but with worse weather. A trip just wouldn't be complete without a visit. 

Another Big Ben

It was our last night in London, and we went to a Wetherspoons to celebrate the birthday of one of Selfy's mates. I had a great time at the pub. There were beers and games and British humor. All of which I thoroughly enjoy even if I don't always understand. And the later the night went, the more difficult it was to understand the fast speaking British slang that was being shouted over the noise of a crowded pub on a Friday night in central London. It was awesome. 

On the River Thames

P.S. If you happen to be a fan of both Blink 182 and Arsenal F.C. please contact Tom Groom. He is always looking for new members to the official club. Thank you.

Selfy on the AT

Just Selling Out Everyday Now

Question. What is Questival? It's quirky, quizzical, and quintessentially adventurous. Teams complete challenges to earn points. Top team wins a trip to compete in the Questival World Championship in South America. One challenge, for example, is to post a photo from Questival on a blog. Team Alpaca PackaBeer just got three points closer to South America. Òrale!

 If you look closely you will see a crowd surfing llama  

If you look closely you will see a crowd surfing llama  

Attention all prospective Sponsors: Red Ace Organic Beet Shots are the Best in the World

Typing this up on my phone my autocorrect changed "beets" to "beers" every single time. But no, we are actually talking about beets! Which I reluctantly must say are better for you no matter how many studies pop up on your Facebook feed telling you that men who drink three beers everyday are 15% less likely to have heart disease. The people doing those studies were obviously drunk and facebooking. Never a good combination.

So I'm really moving up in this blogging world. I've gone from losing $96 per year on this website to losing $96 per year on this website but getting a case of Red Ace Organic Beet Shots. I call that a step in the right direction. 

Red Ace contacted me, more specifically Jennifer - Head of Awesomeness (which is a title I aspire to have one day) at Red Ace contacted me. Somehow they found this blog and thought I would be a good candidate to try out and review some of their beet shots. And they were right because I'm never going to not accept a free case of... well pretty much anything. So I happily agreed.

My only previous experience with beets was in Australia where it is a standard topping on all sandwiches and burgers. I was surprised when I bit into my first sandwich down there. Still surprised when I had my second. If I was surprised by the third one I wouldn't tell you because that would be embarrassing. When I got my case of Red Ace Organic Beet Shots it wasn't hidden in between slices of bread, meat, and cheese so no surprises this time. That was a plus. It was also a minus since there was no meat, bread, or cheese. 

The land of beets. Sydney Harbor - December 2010

Here's what I thought of the beet shots:

There are three varieties available - a performance shot, a turmeric shot, and a greens shot. I had one each day around mid-morning or before a physical activity as suggested. 

Beets have a pretty strong flavor, and it took a few days before getting used it. Once I acquired the taste, I kind of started to enjoy it. 

I found the greens to be the best tasting, then the turmeric, then the performance. I also found that I enjoyed them much better at room temperature, not chilled. They get really viscous if you keep them in the fridge - like leaving Fireball in the freezer. Also not a fan. 

Turmeric is an amazing herb that has been used for centuries if not longer in Southern Asia for its numerous health benefits. It tastes delicious in curries and not too bad in beet juice either. 

I'm generally pretty active (that's what not having a car will do to you), and I eat pretty healthy (produce is cheap). So these beet shots fit into my lifestyle perfectly. They are small, convenient to carry, give you sustained energy throughout the day, and promote an overall healthy feeling about yourself. All really good things. 

At Whole Foods

The only negative is that they are super expensive. Selling around $6 a bottle at my local Whole Foods. I personally wouldn't buy them at this price. I would buy like six apples and eat them all for much cheaper. But if you are spending $6 a day on an afternoon latte, I would recommend Red Ace organic beet shots as a substitute. It will make you feel much better, and you can pretend like you're taking a shot of vodka in the middle of your work day like you used to do when you were working on a project in college. 

The good news is if you want to try out these beet shots you can get 15% off by using the code cantpaintaburninghouse at Red Ace Organics

Lastly, I have to admit I was a little disappointed when my urine did not turn pink.

Eating My Way Through The Mediterranean

Food. Fresh, delicious, simple food. Meals that I wanted never to end, but that I knew must, because that was the only way to get to a new meal. Little restaurants that I knew must have a little grandma hidden in the kitchen cooking the only way grandmas know how - slow, with experience and love. I loved so many meals during my time in the Mediterranean countries of Italy, France, and Spain. This eight day long road trip from Switzerland through Milan down to Florence and then along the northern coast of the sea through southern France and all the way to Barcelona will always be remembered by the amazing cuisine along the way. There was art and architecture and history and scenic views and nice walks and stuff too. 

The Mediterranean Sea

My journey down from the mountains and to the sea began with a train ride through mountain tunnels and around lake shores from the Swiss Alps to the Italian foothills. The first stop and my first taste of Italy was in Domodossola, a small town on the Italian side of the Alps. I had a couple of hours between trains to see what there was to see. When I walked out of the train station I could immediately tell I was in a very different place, and I loved it. The architecture was not so big and so straight, the roofs were tiled, there were clothes hanging on lines, windows were all open, people were sitting in cafes out on the street. The language was a little smoother, people weren't in any rush, and everyone seemed happy. But how could you not with pizza and gelato on every corner. It took me about ten minutes from the time I arrived in Italy to the time I was sitting at a table in the sun eating a fresh margarita pizza and enjoying a cold birra. Apparently I should have been drinking prosecco and eating potato chips though, as all the locals around me were. You live and you learn I guess. A couple hours and a couple scoops of gelato later I hopped on a train to Milan. 

The Doumo of Milan

I got to my hostel in Milan, dropped my stuff, and went walking - the best way to explore. Milan is a very modern looking city, especially compared to other Italian and Euro cities, and is a fashion center of the world. Unfortunately this was somewhat disappointing and uninteresting to me since I'm not Derek Zoolander. Which is another unfortunate fact.

Arco della Pace

I did visit some cool sites in the city though. The Duomo di Milano is an incredible gothic cathedral. Tall and pointy. There is a 15th century castle/fort equipped with a moat, although presently it is more of a ditch, just outside the city center. It now is used as a museum and houses amazing da Vinci and Michelangelo exhibits. The Arco della Pace is a great spot to enjoy lunch on a beautiful day. I sat outside a cafe under the shade of the arch and watched people take selfies for hours. 

A monument in the Milan cemetary

My favorite place in Milan was the Monumental Cemetery. This cemetery was full of amazing sculptures. Incredible pieces of art in an emotional place. It was serene to walk around in this place without many people around and take my time to appreciate some of these pieces that must have taken a lifetime to complete.

Overall, Milan was my least favorite of all the cities I visited on this road trip. It had less character than the rest. Or maybe it's character is sleek, fashionable, and modern, and it just went over my head. I still enjoyed my time there, and it was a good appetizer for the rest of the trip. Speaking of appetizers, I did manage to find some good pesto, chips, and wine!

The bell tower of the Duomo of Florence

The bus from Milan to Florence went through the rolling hills of Tuscany passing fields of grapes and olives along the way. This is the Italy you want to see. And arriving in Florence was not a let down either. The city is as beautiful as the scenery surrounding it. Narrow streets divide rows of buildings in classic Tuscan architecture - tan buildings and orange brown tiled roofs. The cathedrals here had the most beautiful style. Domes and towers, intricate paintings and patterns, white and green with orange brown roofs. I loved the buildings and the look of the city. 

Tuscany colors

There is a river splitting the city into north and south. The north side has the museums, large cathedrals, big markets, street artists, and pricey food. The south side has the parks, cemeteries, local neighborhoods, casual restaurants, and people enjoying life just hanging out in the squares at all times of the day and night. Everything is walkable in Florence. Although people tend to not trust me when I tell them places are walkable.    

Sunset over Florence

I stayed on the south side in a big open hostel. When I finally found the hostel on the fourth floor of a building that looked like every other building I could hear opera music bellowing from inside one of the bunk rooms. After a minute I could tell it was actually someone singing and not a recording. I finished checking in and headed for the mystery door. I don't know what I was expecting. A fat Italian with an impressive mustache maybe. But I was surprised to meet a thin, short, Argentine guy with wavy brown hair and the lungs of an opera singing whale. I was surprised again when his speaking voice sounded like that of a thin, short, Argentine guy with wavy brown hair and the lungs of a normal person. The hostel was open, crowded, and diverse as Florence is a popular attraction for people all over the world. I met many other interesting people over the free pasta they provided every night at 8pm. BYOW and share with everyone. 

Art everywhere in Florence

I packed a lot into my one and a half days in Florence. The usual delicious food, gelato, and wine filled my days, but in between I saw some incredible art and history. It's almost impossible to go to Florence and not leave feeling cultured. Florence is the birthplace of the renaissance and home of Dante, da Vinci, and Michelangelo. There are many centuries old sculptures in the street plazas depicting ancient Greek and Roman gods and tales. There are churches with beautiful paintings and bell towers ringing. Go to the Uffizi Gallery and see original works of art from the greatest artists of the renaissance 500 years ago, still perfectly preserved and incredibly beautiful. I don't seek out or know much about art, but in Florence the stunning pieces and the history behind it all kind of overpowers you. You gain a sense of appreciation that you didn't know you could have. Amazing city. 

One of my favorite sculptures in Florence - Hercules and the Centaur Nessus (1599). Check out that detail. 

My next destination was France, but I couldn't leave Italy without one more meal. I took a bus from Florence to Nice with a couple hour stop in Genoa, Italy. I had never heard of Genoa, but now I remember it as the place of the best meal I had in Italy, and that's something to be proud of. Genoa is a city on the Mediterranean coast in northwestern Italy. I found a little restaurant in a little alley near the water. The meal included bread, mussels in a white wine sauce, and the most unbelievably superb pesto gnocchi I have ever tasted. I'm never going to have gnocchi again unless it's in Italy and hopefully at that restaurant. I promise. 

Moules frites

I followed the same pattern throughout this road trip of traveling one day, exploring the next, then traveling again, explore, travel, explore, travel, every other day. So I arrived in Nice late one evening and only had one full day to eat all of the cheese and mussels in France. I failed. They still have cheese in France. 

The beach at sunrise in Nice

I woke up early to see the sunrise over the Mediterranean from the pebble beach of Nice. They call this area the bright blue coast but in French so it sounds fancy. I hiked to the top of the hill right on the coast where there used to be a fort that protected this old port city. Now it has great views and no fort. I strolled through Old Town and the Cours Saleya Flower Market where they had much more than flowers. I relaxed with coffee and bread at the cafes. I tried cheese and olives and socca on the street. I savored the mussels and fries. I walked along the Promenade des Anglais and saw the location of the terrorist attack just a few months earlier covered in flowers and other offerings from all around the world. You see a lot of wonderful things while traveling. You see some shitty things too. But out of the bad stuff always comes good stuff again.

Walking through the streets of Old Town in Nice

I hit the road one more time down the coast to Barcelona to see the last country on this Mediterranean trip. For the first time in months I was in a place where I could speak the local language, although I refused to do the weird lispy Spanish accent. For the first time in months I was with someone I knew from my non-world-traveling life, and it was great to get the local tour. Usually I have to walk blindly through the city searching for less crowded, cool looking spots. That doesn't always work out. Thanks for the hospitality, Emily.

Barcelona is probably the coolest city I visited on this road trip. The city is different and proud of the fact that is different. Different than the rest of Europe, and different than the rest of Spain. There are Catalonia independence flags hung from balconies all over the city. The architecture is different. La Sagrada Familia is a cathedral in the heart of the city and looks like no other cathedral on earth. Originally designed by Antoni Gaudí, it is still under construction. Like Gaudí's other building around this city, it is interestingly beautiful. The people are different. Barcelona is home to some of the best skaters, bikers, and bladers in the world. And those who are not the best are trying to be. There are skate parks all around the city, but many prefer to use the streets anyway. As opposed to Florence, most of the art is on the street and people love it. 

Barcelona

As different as Barcelona is, it does have one thing in common with my previous Mediterranean destinations: amazing food.  But they retain their uniqueness by how people eat. Tapas everywhere. It's such a great way to eat. You get to try so many things! My favorite was the patatas bravas. I had them at maybe three different places, and each was different and delicious. Potatoes are good and all, but Barcelona is on the sea. The best thing I ate in Spain was the octopus. I'm not sure that I have had octopus before, but if I have, it was nothing like this because this was a dish you couldn't forget. 

La Sagrada Familia

Thank you to the Mediterranean Sea, but now I must get back to the mountains.

Nice, France

Between Lakes, Switzerland

I read an article about "the best hike in the world". It was titled "The Best Hike in the World". Actually there was a question mark on the end, it wasn't that presumptuous. But any place that is worthy of even being suggested as the best in the world by a seemingly half legit author with a decent looking website to back him up is enough for me to take a trip. I mean you should definitely trust a guy in that situation. Just saying. So I went there to hike it myself. Here's the article.

 Alpine Ibex

Alpine Ibex

The place is Interlaken, Switzerland. It sits on a small strip of land between two glacier melt turquoise lakes. When the wind is calm and the water is smooth, the color makes you wonder if you can walk right out on the lake. It seems so solid. The lakes are on the east and west side of the town. Interlaken is sandwiched on the north and south by mountains. The mountains to the south are big, glacier covered, snow capped, tourist crawling, self proclaimed "Top of Europe" peaks. To the north there are slightly smaller mountains with less snow and continue to foothills further north. There is one mountain ridge that starts straight up from the middle of Interlaken and runs the entire length of the eastern lake. This ridge is the reason I was going to Interlaken.

 Ridge walking

Ridge walking

I set off for Interlaken early in the morning from Ingolstadt, Germany. It was a full day of travel via train, bus, train, then train again. I would have bet going in that there was no way I was going to make all those connections. Fortunately, or unfortunately if I had had someone to bet, I somehow made it to all my connections. It did however require me to very literally run as fast as I could while carrying everything I owned through the streets of Zurich. But I made it. Very sweaty.

 On top of Schynige Platte

On top of Schynige Platte

The town itself is really cool. There's a big park in the center of town. There are cows hanging out there with their bells. Cow bells are a very common sound everywhere I went throughout Central Europe. They are so common that I doubt anyone could actually find their cows because there are cows EVERYWHERE, and every single damn cow has a bell. Insert Will Ferrell joke. I found the sound soothing though. Other cool things in town besides cows include chalet style hotels, Swiss Alp views, a canal that is that same gem colored blue, a real Swiss Army knife shop, a casino, and a Hooters. The Hooters is more surprising than cool, especially since they had no American football on the TV.

 Old school mountain train

Old school mountain train

Interlaken is a very touristy town. There are people from all over the world. It's no surprise given the beauty and the neutrality of Switzerland. Everyone I met was super nice. As usual. Once I was walking down the street and a car honked and threw candy at me. That was the most aggressive things got. 

 The streets of Interlaken

The streets of Interlaken

I arrived hungry and eager to try some Swiss food. Fondues, cheese, chocolate, other things I hadn't heard of before. But walking around the town I quickly realized I couldn't afford any of this. Switzerland is the most expensive place I have ever been. The cheapest kebab you could buy at a take-away stand was at least $10 and if you wanted to sit down anywhere to eat you would spend at least $25 for the smallest of meals. I didn't even look at the beer prices. There was a good food co-op in town with much better prices though. Each day I bought bread, cheese, lunchmeat, and cookies to carry around with me while exploring. Each night I created my own fancy Swiss Alp view across a canal from a campground hostel under moonlight dinner. Meals included canned ravioli, frozen pizza, salad, soup, bread, cheese, and wine. Very lovely. Tip: make sure your hostel has an oven before buying a frozen pizza. Tip 2: you can cook a frozen pizza on a stove top if you try hard enough.

 Classic Switzerland

Classic Switzerland

My first day of exploring Interlaken was full of sunshine, rain, hail, and snow in no particular order. I set out on a beautiful walk along the lake on a bright and crisp fall morning. I had no real destination in mind, just looking for some views and a coffee shop. The views were easy to find, but the coffee was trickier. It wasn't until I was in an old castle turned into a church taking cover from a sudden heavy rainfall that I realized it was Sunday. That's why lots of older Swiss people were starting to come in and give me surprised looks. I finally found one place that was open in Ringgenberg. A local spot filled with old Swiss men sitting around a table drinking prosecco as I assume they do every Sunday morning. I sat at one end of the bar with some coffee and enjoyed listening to the happily rambunctious old men telling stories and toasting. I couldn't understand anything they said obviously.

 Sun starting to peak over the Alps

Sun starting to peak over the Alps

I headed back to Interlaken and made my way up to Schynige Platte via the old mountain railway. Schynige Platte is a mountain ridge just south of Interlaken and right next to the big glacial Alp peaks. O a clear day it has amazing views. I'm guessing. The old train ride up to the top is really cool. I felt a little ashamed to be riding a train to the top of a mountain. I mean I've mooned people riding trains to tops of mountains just a year earlier. But I'm glad I did it. The train ride this time and the mooning last time. When I stepped of the train I was treated to the most Swiss thing ever - two men playing the Alpenhorn on the mountaintop like a Ricola commercial. It was amazing. The weather turned cloudy, windy, and cold quickly. There were a few times the clouds would part around me, and I could see Interlaken and its lakes way below. I did a big loop on the mountain ridge and just as I was getting back to the train station ice started falling on me. I ran the last 100 meters. I sat on the train platform under cover as I watched the hail turn into big snowflakes. The train arrived and I got into a car with a woman who had just rode to the top, saw what was happening up there, and decided she didn't want to get out. Couldn't blame her.

 Peak of Augstmattorn

Peak of Augstmattorn

The weather looked good in the dark at 6am the next morning. Might as well hike the best hike in the world. Packed my lunch, put on my headlamp, and started hiking. The first part is straight up the mountain from Harder Kulm train station. First train doesn't leave until 8am so I had the mountain to myself for a couple hours to get to the top. There is a lodge at the top of the railway with a great platform overlooking Interlaken and the Alps behind it. I'm sure it gets crowded, but I was there by myself just at sunrise. Another reason it's my favorite time of the day. I heard the first train below beginning to make its way up the mountain so I started out across the ridge before I ran into someone other than a cow.

 Seriously, cows everywhere.  

Seriously, cows everywhere.  

The ridge is long with many peaks along the way. It is sometimes narrow and sometimes steep. It is always beautiful. To the left I had a clear view of mountains and valleys and farms. I could hear cows ringing bells all day. To the right was Lake Brienz and snow capped peaks, although I could only see them through breaks in clouds at different times. The clouds themselves came up from the lake or at least the lake side. Looking down in that direction I saw clouds rushing up at me like they were trying to push me off the mountain. And looking forward along the ridge I saw clouds like slow moving waves crashing over the mountains from right to left. Maybe they blocked a good view but these clouds were okay.

 Peaks peaking

Peaks peaking

IMG_4134.JPG

I never realized I was scared of goats until this day. I wasn't chicken, I was just scared. The first time I came across a couple mountain goats, they were the small ones and I had just passed a family. It was so amazing to walk up on them and I was totally surprised. So I stopped and took pictures and waited for the family to catch up so that we would have numbers if they tried to attack. I had a metal water bottle in my hand for a weapon. Their horns would win the fight if it came down to it no doubt. I had no idea what wild mountain goats are like. Turns out they just stare at you with a grumpy goat face as you walk by.

 Interlaken from above

Interlaken from above

The second time I came across mountain goats, they were the ones with giant horns - Alpine Ibex I later learned. They looked so cool and even a little more scary. There was a large herd of them, and this one particular guy was laying down on the only path staring at me with a head that must have been tired from carrying those horns around all the time. Again I took pictures and waited for a couple that I had recently passed. They were an older couple who spoke zero English and were zero afraid of goats. They took some pictures then walked full steam into the middle of the herd of horns. The goats just slowly moved out of the way with an annoyed look. From then on I was all about goats! I got close and hung out with them for a while. I finally saw what they use their huge horns for - scratching their butt. It's pretty convenient actually.

 A little goat

A little goat

 Does not want to move

Does not want to move

The rest of the hike was peaceful. Few people hike this entire ridge. It is challenging, and there is no turning back once you commit because it is just steep mountain on each side. You must trek on. There were more grassy peaks, narrow trails, and views that make you just stop. There are the ever present glacier covered peaks poking through the clouds to the south with the lake created from those same glaciers below. The final destination, the town of Brienz, could be seen hours and hours before I reached it. I took the long, slow way down the mountain and hiked into Brienz just in time to catch a train back to Interlaken. It was a really good day. Maybe the best day. Maybe the best hike. In the world. 

IMG_4095.JPG

The Real Bavaria

There's a weird phenomenon that you know if you've ever wandered around for any amount of time. When you come across a fellow wanderer, you connect. You form a bond so quick and so strong. There is just a simple understanding that you can't get anywhere else. You feel lucky to know them, responsible for them, and proud of them instantly. And the feeling is mutual. Whether you hang out with them for a five month 2,000 mile hike, a two day boat trip through Laos, a cramped six hour van ride, or an afternoon city tour, this connection will last a lifetime. Unless they just kind of suck, but that rarely happens.

 Biergartens everywhere

Biergartens everywhere

So this was the case when I met up with Arrow. Arrow and I met a couple of times while thru hiking the Appalachian Trail last summer, but never more than casual hellos as we passed each other. This did not worry me though as I took the train from Munich an hour north to Ingolstadt with no particular plans. I knew I would be in good company. And I was immediately proven right when we got to his house and started preparing dinner around the fire pit outside. A huge boar's leg on the grill and sautéed veggies and potatoes on the coals from the fire. We ate around the fire as it got dark talking about the trail and life and how great it all is while drinking some Bavarian beer. It's hard not to talk about how great life is when your drinking Bavarian beer around a fire on a cool German night. Seriously you should try.

 Just a little castle

Just a little castle

In classic wanderer style, we made a very loose plan to set out hiking the next morning for somewhere between one to more than one days. We drove to our starting point after missing our bus because we were too busy making German pancakes. Worth it. We parked the car at our trailhead which happened to be a castle on a hill and took off through the German countryside. Hiking here was unlike any other hiking I have done. The trail went from little, quaint village to quaint, little village. Up the mountain, down to the river valley, up again, down again. Lots of road walking and nicely groomed trail highways where we could walk side by side and not worry about tripping over any rocks or roots. Radically different from the AT, although Arrow did use this trail to train for his thru hike. We made it two solid hours before stopping at our first biergarten of the day. With training like this, no wonder Arrow was one of the best beer drinkers on the trail. 

 Central Germany hiking

Central Germany hiking

The timescale in Europe was so hard for me to wrap my head around as an American. Everything is so old that it's not even considered old unless it is from before America was discovered. On our hike we passed medieval castles, Roman towers, ancient grave sites, lost settlements, and caves where tools were found of hunters camping here some 6,000 years ago. If it was good enough for them, it's good enough for us. We camped in this cave too, but not before a trip to the next village to find a biergarten.

 Arrow the caveman

Arrow the caveman

 Future ancient cave paintings

Future ancient cave paintings

When we returned to the cave to set up for the night, we were surprised by a mom and son hanging out with their two giant pups. We built a fire as the sun went down and the air got chillier. The cave kept the heat in surprisingly well. We made some classic cave drawings of mammoths and hunters in hopes of somebody discovering it in another 6,000 years. The mother told stories to the son, in German of course. I have no idea what the stories were about but they sounded cool. And a little scary. But that's every story in German I think. Eventually they went home, and we turned the cave into our home. We finished the beers we brought with us and found a good spot to sleep for the night near the fire. That was my first night spent in a cave. It was cosy. Note to self: sleep in caves more.

 A beautiful trail through the Alps

A beautiful trail through the Alps

We continued on the next day through the same beautiful scenery. It was a nice stroll. We were hiking with no particular destination, just waiting on a sign. Then it came. It was late afternoon and we hadn't even stopped at one biergarten yet that day. We were excited and hungry when we saw a village up ahead. The excitement didn't last long though; the hunger did. Turns out all the biergartens in this village are closed on Monday afternoons. I don't know where these Germans drink their beer on Mondays. I was tempted to check the fire station. There was no beer, there was no food, but there was a bus stop. There is no clearer sign. We made our way back to the car by the castle on the hill and then back home. We made homemade pizzas in a homemade brick oven and had a few local brews while we celebrated our successful walk through the country.

 Cows are good hikers too

Cows are good hikers too

After that nice warm up hike we decided to step it up a notch. Like world class mountains step it up a notch. We drove about two hours south to the Alps. We arrived with enough light left to set up our stealth camp on the pebble beach of a river running through a valley surrounded by mountains standing guard on all sides. The river was as clear and cold as the night. With no cave to keep us warm, I put on every article of clothing I had and cocooned myself in my bivy. Once again, I survived.

 Camping by the river

Camping by the river

The next day we hiked to Austria. This was actually a surprise. I didn't know we would be in Austria until we reached a mountaintop with a border marker at the summit. Austria to the south, Germany to the north, me sitting on a concrete border marker on top of a mountain in the middle. The hiking in the Alps was magnificent, beautiful, challenging, scenic, wild, steep, cleansing. All those words and other ones too. It was a really awesome two full days of hiking on some real mountains. Views everywhere. We only got lost a couple of times. That's expected. When you hike enough, you learn not to worry about getting lost. It's going to happen. As long as you have a general idea of where you are and where you are going, the path you take isn't so important. Sometimes you just have to make your own. And if you have tortillas and peanut butter, well shoot, you can last for days out there in the worst case. So now I always keep tortillas and peanut butter near me. Crunchy, never creamy. 

 Morning fog on a lake

Morning fog on a lake

All over the Alps there are hut paradises. Little oases hidden in mountain notches full of hot food, warm beds, cold beer, and friendly people. These places are awesome. They are small and self sufficient. They are run on solar power. The food is all homemade. It's a pack it in, pack it out kind of place. Some huts have a dirt road running to them or a cable car linking them to the valley below, but the one we stayed in (Tölzer Hütte, just across the Austrian border) was as secluded as it could be. Just a narrow hiking trail down the mountain to the nearest road. I guess all their supplies are brought in the old fashion way, which is amazing because they had beer on tap. I've been known to pack out a few beers, but a keg!? Bravo, Austria.

 Hikers gonna hike

Hikers gonna hike

 Summit views are always worth it

Summit views are always worth it

It's always a good night when you have a toilet and a bed, but this was a great night. Toilet, bed, Bavarian beer, cheese, spinach, and bacon dumplings, beautiful Alp views, wild mountain sheep roaming around, and the most colorful sunset I have ever seen. One last classy night in the Alps.

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 Incredible sunset

Incredible sunset

Thanks for all the trail magic and showing me some real Bavaria, Arrow!

 Prost! 

Prost! 

America!

Landed in Boston last night and on my way to Dallas today! Feels great to be back in my home country. Everything is so much more simple. Navigating is easy, ordering food is easy, paying for things is easy, reading signs is easy. And so many more things that you always take for granted. I will not complain about how difficult the system is here ever again. It's nice to hear people speaking American, even if it is in a Boston accent.  

 

I have a lot of catching up to do. So much about Europe that I haven't written about. I will continue writing but for now I am just happy to be home. I am going to order some coffee (an Americano although you don't have to call it that here) and enjoy being able to understand what the hell is going on around me. 

 The Appalachian Trail in New York

The Appalachian Trail in New York

Berlin and Munich: Intro to art and beer

Arriving in Europe was quite the shock. My entire visual landscape was altered. And not only did everything look different, but everything moved different. It's a strange feeling.

 The Brandenburg Gate

The Brandenburg Gate

One amazing difference was the weather. I went from hot, humid, and rainy to cool, clear, and breezy overnight. Fall came suddenly for me this year. This made for the perfect day to wander around Berlin.

 Oberbraumbrucke Bridge

Oberbraumbrucke Bridge

All the structures are so impressive. Massive, solid, square, smooth. The city is so huge. The streets are wide and open. Beautiful bridges and museums lined with columns. Old churches and tables in the sunshine of biergartens. People laying in parks and drinking beer on the trains.

 Berlin Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral

There is so much history in this city. I spent much of the day learning about the east/west divide in society post WWII and how it physically separated this city. I started my day at the Brandenburg Gate. The gate between east and west at one time. A place where JFK and Obama spoke, and where Hitler and Napoleon celebrated victories. A ground that was heavily bombed during WWII. After the war a wall went up. There are pieces of the Berlin Wall still standing throughout the city, and there are reminders of it everywhere. There are plenty of memorials and museums around the city. I really liked the post-WWII and Cold War era museums and stayed away from the holocaust ones. I think I had seen enough genocide history recently. I couldn't handle any more.

 Street art in Berlin

Street art in Berlin

Just walking around the city was great. The city is full of art. A lot of it in the form of graffiti, but it's different from graffiti in America. It's much more about art and expression. Maybe it stems back from when people wrote and painted on the Berlin Wall to express their views. But the tradition continues in the city. There are walls dedicated to public graffiti in small alleys. The East Side Gallery, a section of the wall painted and transformed into a public art display, stretches for over a mile. There is some really awesome art all over the city, free to the public if you just look around. 

 The East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall

The East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall

After a day in Berlin I headed down to Munich. As soon as I arrived, I was greeted with thousands of drunk and merry people wandering through the streets in lederhosen after a day at Oktoberfest. It was a fun sight although a little overwhelming when I was trying to figure out where I was. I finally made it to Avinash's apartment where I stayed for a few days and was treated to good conversations and delicious Indian food.

 A lion drinking a beer

A lion drinking a beer

I never planned on being in Munich for Oktoberfest. Sometimes life just works out. I was told by everyone, "Get there early. It's fills up fast." So I was there at 10:30am. Found a seat at an empty table at the Augustiner tent and ordered breakfast: a mass beer and a cheese pretzel. Maybe getting there this early wasn't so imperative. It wasn't until about 1 :00 or 2:00 that the place really started to fill up. But once you are there you don't want to give up your seat and there isn't anything to do in the beer tents except drink large beers and eat German food. So that was the pickle I was in. It was a lot of fun. I met people from all over. Everyone there enjoying beers and singing songs. There is a house band playing traditional music. Several times an hour they play the little Oktoberfest jingle where you raise your glasses and toast your neighbors. By later in the day I was singing this in perfect German. At least that's what it seemed like in my head.

 A delicious if not well balanced breakfast

A delicious if not well balanced breakfast

 Lunch in the English Garden

Lunch in the English Garden

That day ended pretty early for me. Eventually I left my table, said goodbye to all my new friends, and wandered around the festival to check out the scene. The whole area is a big carnival complete with rides and food stands. The tents are HUGE and colorful. Inside they don't feel like tents at all. There are wooden beams and columns, windows for natural light, and row upon row of sturdy picnic style tables. The bands were really starting to get down when I headed out, playing some popular music and putting on a show. Eventually I made it back to Avinash's place after a few snacks around the festival, don't know what time but not late, and fell asleep before dinner. Don't expect to do much on an Oktoberfest day. Lifting all those heavy beers will wear you out.

 Prost!  (German for cheers)

Prost!  (German for cheers)

The next morning I woke up ready to do some walking. Waking up groggy or tired, feeling bored or lonely, catching a cold... Walking cures me of everything. I'm no doctor but I would prescribe it to everyone. So I walked around Munich. Very different than Berlin. The city seemed more humble. Happy to be not so grandiose. It's a smaller city than Berlin, and it's the capital of Bavaria. You get the same sense of north vs south in Germany that you get in America. The south seemed a little happier and friendlier. Maybe that's because everyone was drinking beer 24/7 during Oktoberfest, but I also get the impression that everyone is drinking beer all the time all year long in Bavaria. Put that in the pro column. I can't blame them either. The beer was really good. Simple and good.

 The beer tent scene

The beer tent scene

Walking around Munich you see all sorts of interesting things. 16 year olds drinking in the streets, 60 year olds sunbathing nude in the park. There's the turning of the glockenspiel in one of the squares in the center of town and the Nuremberg palace and gardens a little further out.

 Turning of the glockenspiel  

Turning of the glockenspiel  

The big cities of Germany were a great shock into Europe. Like jumping into a really cold river in Maine. Takes a bit to get used to, but you quickly warm up. Especially with a little help from the beer.

 Nuremberg Palace

Nuremberg Palace

If This is Koh Rong, I Don't Want to be Right

I took the ferry to Koh Rong. It was still raining. It was a rough ride and a girl sitting near me got sea sick. Maybe she expected this, she had a bag ready. Koh Rong is a big island with just a few people on it. There is one main village at the southern end - Koh Touch. This is where every ferry will take you. It's a crowded little spot. There are plenty of hostels, bungalows, bars, and beachside restaurants to keep you entertained for a day, but exploring the rest of the island is where the fun is.

 Beautiful Koh Rong - somewhere along Sok San Beach

Beautiful Koh Rong - somewhere along Sok San Beach

There are a few boat taxis you could hire to take you around Koh Rong. Of course for the right price you could take a boat taxi anywhere around the island, but not every cool little beach is on the main taxi tours. Because of this and because of the sheer fun of it, I rented a kayak for a couple of days to do my own island tour. The island is sneaky big. I planned to go about half way around to the aptly named Lonely Beach on the northern side of the island. It might have been possible to make it there in one day but there were too many small, beautiful beaches to explore along the way.

 I hope this girl is not a subscriber to this blog

I hope this girl is not a subscriber to this blog

It was so nice to get away from the backpacker crowd and see the peaceful, beautiful beaches that are all around Koh Rong. I set out on my kayak from Koh Touch Beach, and stopped at Long Set Beach, Vietnamese Beach, and Nature Beach, before finally reaching Coconut Beach. Riding the waves in to a deserted beach on my kayak made me feel pretty cool. As long as I didn't get turned a little bit sideways and then very nearly flip over. Not that that happened...

 Another rainy night in Cambodia

Another rainy night in Cambodia

Long Set Beach was about three kilometers of white sand and blue water with enough people to populate about 1% of that. There are two resorts with bungalows on the beach where you can get coffee or beer depending on the time. Actually the time doesn't matter at all. Vietnamese Beach was my favorite. A small beach only accessible by foot or private boat. There is one place to stay here - Sons of Beaches. The vibe here is really laid back. This place opened about two months ago. They have a few bungalows and a few tents. It's far enough away from the mainstream and small enough to not attract the party crowd. Those who want to relax in a hammock, read a book, go for a swim, and have a beer will find this place perfect. So don't tell anyone else about this place. Nature Beach was super touristy. Crowds coming from boats on the mainland, fingers ready, no photo left behind. I stayed for about three minutes 

 Out on the water

Out on the water

 Pulling up to Long Set Beach

Pulling up to Long Set Beach

Coconut beach is where I spent the night. It had a nice place renting out bungalows, named Coconut Beach Bungalows, with a good restaurant and friendly staff. They told me I could set up my hammock for the night free if I had dinner there. I was already eating lunch there and there weren't a lot of other eating options on the beach anyway so I was happy with the deal. There was a nice crowd that night at the restaurant and the owner let everyone have a couple tries at shooting a ping pong ball into a glass for a couple free beers. All my previous training just wasn't enough. No free beer for me. Just the normal really cheap Cambodian kind.

 A little hike near Coconut Beach

A little hike near Coconut Beach

Koh Rong is known for its bioluminescent plankton. I've witnessed this in Australia once, and it was the most incredible thing I've ever seen. I was warned by the owner of the resort that there wouldn't be any plankton visible tonight. Obviously I couldn't just take his word for it so I paddled out around 10pm to try to find these glowing creatures. The tricky part is that you don't know they are there until they are disturbed. So I was splashing as much as I could. But it seemed like the local was right. The moon was too bright to see any bioluminescence that night. The water was calm and the ride was nice so I wasn't too upset.

 View from Sons of Beaches

View from Sons of Beaches

I got lucky there was no rain on Coconut Beach that night. I slept great in my hammock listening to the waves.

 Morning from my hammock

Morning from my hammock

I woke up to see the sunrise over the ocean and take my early morning swim/bath. I stepped on a sharp shell and cut my foot a little. I wasn't too worried about this until I was having lunch after I kayaked back to Koh Toch that morning and sat next to a girl who had just come back from the mainland. She went to have foot surgery because she had gotten a small cut on her foot and it got infected. Koh Rong is not a very sanitary place. There is very little if any infrastructure for waste water treatment. People tend to let nature do the work. Nature isn't really the most efficient at dealing with all of our shit. Literally. So the point is wear shoes, clean and cover any cuts, don't litter, and conserve water.

 Directions on Koh Rong

Directions on Koh Rong

After lunch I hiked a trail to the west side of the island. This is the second island I've been on where I could watch the sun rise on the east coast and set on the west coast. Those are always great days. The beach on the west coast is named Sok San Beach. It is my favorite part of the island. The beach is at least 7 kilometers long. The southern end is being developed. Sadly I think there's a casino and condos going in. But after that construction area there is several kilometers of beach with nothing but farmland as a backdrop. There is nothing here. It is an amazing spot. Palm trees, undisturbed sand, cashew farms, driftwood. There's a fair amount of rubbish washed up too because there are no resorts around to clean up the beach. So it's not perfect, but still pretty close. The ocean here is rougher. The waves are bigger with wind coming in from the Gulf of Thailand to the west. On this beach they filmed a season of Survivor. Just a fun fact for you.

 If you recognize this as the place they filmed a season of Survivor, you should watch less tv

If you recognize this as the place they filmed a season of Survivor, you should watch less tv

I had a perfect camp here for my last day on the island. No one around for miles it seemed. Just me and my hammock. A nice skinny dip in the full moon felt great after a long day of kayaking and hiking. So add the Gulf of Thailand to my list of skinny dipping waters. It's a confidential list of course.

 My campsite on Sok San Beach

My campsite on Sok San Beach

 The full moon

The full moon

Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville

Phnom Penh is a large city in the middle of Cambodia. It's not the most scenic place and it doesn't have the best food. To make matters worse, this is where the rainy season officially hit me. The rain started in Phnom Penh and didn't stop for many days.

 Phnom Pehn night

Phnom Pehn night

There are a couple things to do in this city though. First is the Tuol Sleng Prison Museum. This place will not bring you sunshine on a rainy day, but it will leave an impression. This is a museum set in what used to be a school then turned into a prison and torturing facility by the Khmer Rouge - a group that seized power and took control of Cambodia in the 1970's. I personally didn't know much about the history here, the mass genocide and inhuman treatment of the people of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge not that long ago. The first hand accounts and the pictures and the buildings you see here will make you feel sick and leave you wondering the same thing we are left wondering all too often, "Why do people do this?" Even though it leaves you with a somber feeling, it is still worth a visit. On most days there is a survivor from the prison at the museum. There were only a handful of survivors from this prison at all. Honestly as I walked over and shook his hand it was hard to look at him in the eye. What can you possibly say?

 Thousands of these  

Thousands of these  

Well after a emotionally rough couple of hours on a rainy day, what else is there to do? Mexican food and a movie of course. The Mexican food in Phnom Penh is average; the movies in Phnom Penh are awesome. There are movie houses in this city that are small theater rooms in hotels or hostels. They hold between 15 and 45 people. They are a mix of cushioned chairs, sofas, mattresses, and pillows. It's the most comfortable way to watch a movie and how I imagine a private theater in really rich dude's mansion would be. There is an entrance fee of $3 to $4.50 and you can stay the entire day. They will usually show three movies in a day starting around 2pm with a little break between each. Could be any mix of new releases, classics, or foreign films. And they have popcorn and beer! There was only one other person and a cat in the theater with me while I lounged in the movie house for five hours. It was great.

 Movie House in Phnom Penh. The cat loved it. 

Movie House in Phnom Penh. The cat loved it. 

While it was still raining I headed down to the coast of Cambodia. My first stop was Sihanoukville - a beach town full of expats. I stayed on Serendipity Beach, but could never actually check out the beach due to the rain.

 An old classroom turned prison

An old classroom turned prison

The food in this area, however, was diverse and delicious. I had Mexican again at a place called Maybe Later. This time it was exactly what I had been missing. It was just like home except you could tell the salsa was made from Asian chilis. It was a nice little fusion though. There were also burger joints, Italian places, Mediterranean cafes, and coffee shops among other restaurants mostly run by foreigners dedicated to their craft. All the restaurants looked great and had good prices. I ate breakfast at Enocafe. They had something like 100 different kinds of tea and coffee. I had the Vietnamese. I wish I had time to try more coffee and more restaurants, but I quickly set sail for the island.

 My dinner date in Phnom Penh  

My dinner date in Phnom Penh  

The road to Phnom Penh

We pulled up to the Cambodian border, got out of the van, walked up to the border, filled out paperwork, and paid a few dollars in "fees" that were obviously going straight into the pockets of the workers there. Then before entering Cambodia you get a "health inspection" that probably wouldn't even catch somebody with full blown rabies trying to get into the country. They just point a little laser thermometer gun at you that I'm sure is far from accurate. It beeps, and they give you a little yellow paper. And now you're in The Kingdom of Cambodia.

 Welcome to Cambodia! - Bayon Temple

Welcome to Cambodia! - Bayon Temple

After crossing the border from Laos into Cambodia, I continued on my journey to Phnom Penh, but soon realized I was definitely going the wrong direction. A Cambodian guy jumped in our van from a random spot on the road, as tends to happen, and I asked where he was headed. Siem Reap. A very different city not in any way along the route to Phnom Penh. The driver assures the four of us who are supposed to be going to Phnom Penh that we can transfer buses when we get to Siem Reap and arrive in Phnom Penh as soon as 3am. That is very much different than the 6pm arrival time for which I bought my ticket. So when we arrived in Siem Reap, we all refused to transfer to another bus and decided to stay here instead. In Southeast Asia you can't always trust what people advertise. It can be frustrating, but you get used to it. To be honest I was not the least bit surprised that I bought a bus ticket and ended up in the wrong city. What really surprised me was that they actually let me take a bus to Phnom Penh three days later at no charge. THAT was shocking.

 Srah Srang - a nice lake in the temples

Srah Srang - a nice lake in the temples

I spent my time in Siem Reap riding around on a bicycle looking at large and small, intricate and simple, overgrown and prominent, tall and collapsing temples. Each temple was very different from the others with its own interesting features.

 A classic scene at Ta Prohm

A classic scene at Ta Prohm

Angkor Wat is the biggest and most famous. It is the closest to Siem Reap. And it is very impressive with its moat and towers. The sunrise at Angkor Wat has become iconic. The temple faces west so the sun rises up from behind. When the sky is right, the sun will create a nice show. Everybody knows this and has seen the pictures, therefore there are hundreds of people all packed together to watch. For anyone planning on going to Angkor Wat at sunrise, I recommend to get there early and go to the reflecting pond on the right. It's not quite as perfect of a line with the sun and the temple, but the crowd is so much thinner and you can get a front row seat if you get there a little early. The view is incredible.

 Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat at sunrise

There are so many more temples than just Angkor Wat. Baton is maybe my favorite with all the giant faces carved into the stone. Ta Phrom is being slowly consumed by giant trees, and it looks awesome! Ta Nei is a small unaltered collapsed temple full of giant fallen square building stones with just a couple corridors to sneak through and no other tourists around. Preah Kahn has a cool torch monument with light coming into the dark chamber from a window in the stones. Prae Roup is a tall temple that offers a great view for your hard work in climbing the non-uniform steep steps. I really didn't get tired of looking at any temples; I did get tired of riding around a bike in the 100 degree weather with no shade. Exhausted in fact.

 Temple wall in Angkor Wat

Temple wall in Angkor Wat

You can always hire a tuk tuk for the day. It is not difficult to find one, I promise. You can't walk ten steps in Siem Reap without someone asking you if you need a tuk tuk. And if you are walking around at night there will be people asking you if you need all kinds of things.

 A bunch of headless guys playing tug of war

A bunch of headless guys playing tug of war

The town of Siem Reap is nice enough. It was bigger than I expected. There are plenty of places to eat and drink. There is even a Pub Street. The food ranges from local street food to a Hard Rock Cafe. You can be as fancy or relaxed as you like. My personal favorite was Tevy's Place. A one woman operation with a simple menu and plastic chairs and table on the street. To be honest there are tons of places like this, Tevy was just super nice so I kept going back. And it didn't hurt that her fruit shakes were great.

 Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

There is a great museum that explains the history and meaning behind the temples and the ancient Khmer kingdom from religion to infrastructure. It's a good thing to do on a rainy afternoon, and I think it was beneficial to go to the museum before hitting the temples. It was nice to know a little of the history, although you can definitely appreciate the 900 year old temples in their own right. I did.

 Exploring inside the temples

Exploring inside the temples

 Elephant Terrace

Elephant Terrace

 Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple

Changing Scenes

There are so many white people! And I seem to have shrunk a couple of inches. I no longer get stared at everywhere I go. I don't run into that amazing spicy smell walking down every street. I've seen more 4-wheeled vehicles in the last two and a half days than in the last two in a half months. There are traffic signals. People obey the traffic signals. Sidewalks are used for walking. There is a breeze. Everything is so square shaped. There are police doing police things. Money is disappearing much more quickly. Life seems to be a little more organized.

 Hello Europe

Hello Europe

I'm not sure how to feel about all of these new realities. I really loved my time in Asia. It was always interesting to say the least. Asia keeps you on your toes. When you arrive, everything is so different. Everything is so different. Everything. But you quickly adapt and learn to embrace the frantic streets and laid back chaos. Pretty soon you are walking through traffic with no gaps, haggling like a pro with tuk tuk drivers, putting the correct amount of chilis in your noodles, and understanding how to use the toilets.

 Adios Asia

Adios Asia

If you remember, my original plan was to travel overland all the way across Asia and Europe. Well it turns out traveling solo for months and months is really difficult. More difficult than I thought it would be logistically, emotionally, physically. So I took a shortcut for my overall health. A change in scenery, and pretty much everything else, will hopefully keep me going for the next part of this adventure.

 The gate to the West

The gate to the West

More to come. Including my last post from Cambodia. For now I will sit in this European cafe watching people walking around Munich wearing lederhosen and drinking beer at 10am. Europe has some advantages too.

 The temples of the East

The temples of the East

Waterfalls and coffee: That's what Laos Does

I had to be physically shaken to be woken up when the bus arrived in Pakse, Laos. It was an overnight sleeper bus. We left Vientiane around 8:30pm and arrived in Pakse at 6:00am. I had heard some not so great things about sleeper buses in Southeast Asia - crowded, hot, bumpy, dangerous. Mine was lovely.

 Crossing a bridge on a foggy day on the Bolaven Plateau

Crossing a bridge on a foggy day on the Bolaven Plateau

First I got really lucky not to have a bedmate. Each bunk is about the size of a twin bed and your one ticket entitles you to half of it. There's no barrier or anything; you're just snuggling up with your new found spooning partner for the trip. We started pulling out of the station and the bus was barely half full. I didn't get too excited because buses here always stop randomly along the road and pick up passengers. And we did, but the bus was still not full and no one was next to me. Eventually we were on a dark two lane highway type of road heading south and I figured it was ok to get excited about my full bunk. Pants came off, blanket tucked in, and I was out until Pakse. One of the better night's sleep I had in quite a while.

 A mini waterfall

A mini waterfall

Pakse is a flat, dusty town. Not a lot to it. One main tourist road with decent restaurants. The tallest building in town is a six or seven story hotel with a nice restaurant and bar on the roof that hosts the best view in the city. Like several cities in Laos, Pakse lies at the intersection of the Mekong and another river - the Xe Don in this case. The rivers make for good sunsets. Which is good because there's not much else to do but watch the sun go down over the river.

 View from on top of Hotel Pakse

View from on top of Hotel Pakse

I did stumble across a barbershop and decided I needed a haircut. It was funny getting a haircut from someone who doesn't speak your language at all. I'm not too particular about my hair; it always grows back. She trims up sharp though using a single razor blade. I did notice a sizable square nick in the hairline on the back of my neck later. I assume it's a mark she gives to all her foreign clients as a cruel joke. At least I hope so. That would be hilarious.

 Waterfalls starting to get bigger

Waterfalls starting to get bigger

The reason I stopped in Pakse was to explore the Bolaven Plateau. And the best way to do that was by motorbike - especially if you are an experienced motorbiker like me. I mean all my scrapes from my last bike trip were pretty much healed by now. So might as well get some new ones, can't dance.

 Nothing to do with a motorbike

Nothing to do with a motorbike

The Bolaven Plateau sits just east of Pakse. You gain some 3,800 feet of elevation heading out of the city. As I set out it started raining on and off. I kept stopping at different places to get out of the rain. The only "problem" was that this area is known for its coffee production so every place I stopped was a coffee shop. I had so much coffee this morning. All of it so delicious. I didn't mind. I was shaking a little bit by that fourth cup or so but not enough to affect my motorbiking skills apparently.

 And bigger

And bigger

Besides delicious, freshly roasted, amazing smelling coffee, the plateau is known for waterfalls. That first day the fog crept in as I climbed up out of the dusty plain and onto the lush green plateau. The ride was nice. The trees, hills, fields, and rivers looked cool in the fog. The waterfalls however where out of sight with the dense fog. I stopped at two waterfalls that SOUNDED really awesome, but that's all I got. The loud, powerful sound of water falling off a cliff and endlessly hitting rock below.

 Looking over the edge of the Bolaven Plateau  

Looking over the edge of the Bolaven Plateau  

So I just continued on to Attapeu. This little town is a world apart from the Laos I had been before. It's the biggest town toward the Vietnam border. Every single person that I spoke to here was originally from Vietnam. All the signs above businesses were in Vietnamese. People here spoke about as much Lao as I did - which is my favorite language I've encountered on this trip so far. It was very much a mini Vietnam. I tried to order Pho for dinner, but they only have it for breakfast. That's how you know it's a real Vietnamese place.

 An evening in Attapeu  

An evening in Attapeu  

The second day I took the northern half of the loop back to Pakse stopping multiple times along the way for more coffee. You really have no other options when you keep passing coffee plantation after coffee plantation and then you pass a huge factory which gives of the smell of roasting coffee beans that follows you long after you pass it.

 Top of Tad Suong  

Top of Tad Suong  

I finally got to see some waterfalls today. I think six in total. Some wide and massive, others with several short falls strung together, all near coffee shops. The best however was Tad Suong. It was a smaller river that fell off of the plateau itself. A single stream jumps off of the highland above and down onto the flat plains below. It's about a 150 foot drop maybe. It's really a cool sight from the top where you can see for miles and miles at the flat lands below you and from the bottom where you watch the water splash down among huge boulders that must have taken that same tumble long ago.

 On my way down to the bottom of Tad Suong

On my way down to the bottom of Tad Suong

 Boulders at the bottom of Tad Suong

Boulders at the bottom of Tad Suong

It rained off and on again today. Sometimes hard enough to not be able to see all that well. I didn't realize how much rain stings. It really hurts when your moving through it at speed. The bad part about a motorbike is that you get wet really quickly when it rains. The good part is that you dry off really quickly with any break in the rain. And if the sun comes out, you go from drenched to desert really fast. Even with all the rain, I had no accidents on the motorbike this time. I did get a little nervous once when going through mud with a group of locals sitting there watching me, but I made it through unscathed.

 I somehow managed to make it through

I somehow managed to make it through

Back in Pakse I had a productive evening eating ice cream and getting ready for my bus trip the next morning to Phnom Penh, Cambodia! At least I thought that's where I was going....

Baguettes and Sunsets - Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a beautiful little town in mountainous northern Laos. The center of the city is a small peninsula, three blocks by ten blocks or so, surrounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. It has a distinct French influence and cafes line the streets giving off smells of coffee and bread. The European architecture is noticeable walking down the street. It just looks different even to the untrained eye. Shops along the street with rooms above. Small alley ways between white buildings with orange shingles. It is a relatively clean place and pleasant to walk through and explore.

 A little alley in Luang Prabang

A little alley in Luang Prabang

I forgot how good bread was! I had a baguette with jam and coffee every morning in Luang Prabang. And it was so good. Laos has plenty of western food - particularly sandwiches. But it also has its own local Asian food too. Delicious noodle soups, classic fried noodles, lots of meats on sticks, and their own version of khao soi, which was definitely a totally different dish than northern Thailand, but still good and nice and spicy. To my relief fruit shakes were readily available and especially good in the very hot midday sun.

 Night market  

Night market  

Northern Laos is also known for its rice whiskey. I was getting an early lunch at a small sidewalk restaurant when a local dude came up and felt like chatting. His English was good enough for a conversation - not that it takes much. I've been getting pretty good at having entire conversations with maybe ten English words. One of these conversations may be completely different for the two parties involved but that's beside the point. Anyway he had some family in Seattle and was happy to talk and share his rice whiskey. It was only 10:30am but it would have been impolite not to accept. It was actually pretty smooth. I don't know if whiskey is the right term. It was a clear liquor made from rice, but they called it whiskey. There are probably some people from Tennessee who would disagree. The nice, polite guy that I am, I accepted three shots before he finally had to go. Thank goodness.

 First night's sunset in Luang Prabang

First night's sunset in Luang Prabang

During my three and a half days in Luang Prabang I rented a mountain bike. It was nice to be on a bicycle again although it made me miss my old ride back in Alabama. There was some good mountain biking to be had around the area though.

 Luang Prabang from Mt Phousi

Luang Prabang from Mt Phousi

One day I went across the river to the rural Chomphet area. As soon as you cross the river on the ferry you notice how different this area is. Much more rural and poor and spread out. No tuk-tuks, no cars, no paved roads, hardly any concrete building. Here it's all farmland and dirt roads which makes for some fun biking, especially in the rainy season. I did a big loop around the country side. I had to ford two rushing streams and cross a couple flooded roads. I didn't even lose my shoes. Guess I have learned since Maine. It rained really good a few times. The roads were nice and muddy. And by the end I was nice and muddy too. On the ferry back I tried not to touch anything or anyone since I would have left my hand prints in mud everywhere.

 Country roads take me home

Country roads take me home

 Some things are more fun in the rainy season

Some things are more fun in the rainy season

Another day I rode out to Kuang Si waterfall, a popular spot about 35 kilometers out from Luang Prabang. The trip was nice. Paved roads winding around the Laos countryside. I only had to go up and over one mountain, but it came with a nice view so I didn't mind. The traffic was pretty minimal, and they drive on the right side of the road in Laos. It's amazing how quickly you become used to something different, like driving on the left. I had spent the last month in left hand side driving countries so I had to remind myself to stay on the right side sometimes. Not that any of the other drivers stayed on their side of the road anyway though. But I was only run off the road once by a truck making an unnecessarily wide turn into my lane. At least I had a helmet.

 Vat Visounnarath

Vat Visounnarath

Kuang Si waterfall kept surprising me. It's a long waterfall. Keeps continuing in stages as you walk up river until you finally reach the big one at the top. By that point I had already stopped several times to relax and cool off in the chilly pools of lots of smaller waterfalls. I wasn't expecting a huge fall at the top, but it was a good surprise. And impressive. The rainy season rendered the water more of a tan color than the impossibly crystal clue that you see if you google image "Kuang Si waterfall". It was also flowing very high. Water was flooding picnic areas, which I only know because I could see picnic table islands in the river.

 Part of the long Kuang Si Waterfalls

Part of the long Kuang Si Waterfalls

 More Kuang Si Waterfall

More Kuang Si Waterfall

There was a bear sanctuary right next to the waterfall too. It's a place where bears are taken when they are rescued from the hands of poachers. Some are missing paws or whole limbs from traps; others are rescued from small bear-sized cages where they lay everyday with tubes injected into them to extract bile. All of these bears would be killed as soon as they were no longer useful to the poachers. They are all too traumatized or ill equipped to return to the wild so they come here. They all seem as happy as they can be, climbing around on three legs or laying in bear hammocks. There are even rescued cubs there. They were super playful. I got a "Free the Bears" shirt. It's pretty sweet.

 Just a couple bears hanging out

Just a couple bears hanging out

The best sunset spot in Luang Prabang is on top of Mt Phousi, and it's pretty damn good. Mt Phousi is a medium sized hill with a temple up top really, but it's right in the middle of a very flat Luang Prabang so you get an awesome 360 degree view of the city and surrounding landscape. The sun sets behind mountains with the Mekong picturesquely running down below. When the clouds are right, it's brilliant.

 The clouds were just right for sunset atop Mt Phousi

The clouds were just right for sunset atop Mt Phousi

Luang Prabang is famous for the procession of hundreds of Monks the leave their respective temples at dawn to take alms from respectful and caring locals. Maybe this is a bad thing - the famous part. I went out one morning at dawn and the whole scene was a little sad. There were tourist unapologetically getting right in the face of the monks walking down the street to take pictures. There were local vendors set up on the street selling rice and other foodstuffs so that tourists could take part in the ceremony even though they most likely have no idea what it means or how to correctly and respectfully take part. Monks took all the offerings from everyone, but then I would see them throwing away some of it as they turned the corner. It was much cooler seeing this ritual in small towns or rural areas in Thailand where it wasn't a tourist attraction; it was a way of life. Where it wasn't a monk parade; it was a few monks walking along small roads to eagerly awaiting families. 

 Monks walking down the road  

Monks walking down the road  

 Look how young some of them are! 

Look how young some of them are! 

Luang Prabang is a nice place to spend more than a few days. Have some coffee and ice cream. Do some biking and swimming. See friendly bears and monks. Enjoy baguettes and sunsets.

 Rep that flag

Rep that flag

Slow Boatin' Down the River

My introduction to Laos couldn't have been nicer. Maybe we should always be introduced while slowly floating down a river in a long wooden boat with a cool river breeze coming in. I think we would all have more friends.

 Looking out of the boat

Looking out of the boat

Update to my "Favorite Modes of Travel" list if you're keeping track at home.... A large motorized longboat down a major river has moved up to number four.

 The scene inside

The scene inside

The boat was long and narrow. Roughly the size of the interior of an airplane, maybe a little wider. It was all wooden and colorful. There was a canopy overhead to provide shade from the intense river sun, but the sides were open with long curtains as protection from the rain. The seats were old car seats that now had a new home on the water. They are not bolted down so you have to be careful when getting up and down not to flip them over. There's a captain with an old school pirate ship steering wheel up front and a little shop selling noodles and beer in the back. There's also a restroom and a smoking area in the far back. It was quite the ship for the two day journey. And after we waited an extra half hour for the captain to wake up from his nap, we were off on the Mekong River.

 Heading out in muddy water

Heading out in muddy water

We set out from Huay Xai, Laos, right on the Thai border, and ended in Luang Prabang, the fourth biggest city in Laos. For those two days on the river there is not much to do. There's no in flight movie, wifi, or lunch breaks. The boat moved slow and steady down the river, only stopping to pick up or drop off locals at seemingly random spots along the river bank or when the captain had to use the restroom - apparently no one else is capable of steering the boat down the wide river. It was really very peaceful though. I read, wrote, chatted with other travelers, and snacked. I would look up every once in a while after forgetting I was floating down the Mekong through the rural mountains and farmlands of Laos. I was happily surprised at the amazing scenery around me every time. There were large water buffalo hanging out on the river banks or a small village with houses perched on the mountainside or steep mountains coming right up from the river covered from head to toe in lush, green vegetation. It rained a couple of times but the only time I ever got wet was when a rogue wave came out of nowhere and gave me and a couple others a wake up splash. It was a great way to take your time getting somewhere.

 Sometimes it rained

Sometimes it rained

The two day river trip took a break for the night in Pak Beng. It is a small town that seems like it's only there to function as the halfway break point between Thailand and Luang Prabang. Maybe it used to have a different purpose, but now the only two streets of the town are lined with guesthouses and restaurants for tourists. As the boat pulls in you can see the locals lining up at the pier ready to sell you a room or snacks. I grabbed my bag and dashed through them, looking straight ahead the whole time. Don't make eye contact and definitely don't speak to any of them. At that point they will all just converge on you until you can't breath. Much better to get away and walk around town on your own time looking for a place. There are always plenty of beds available. Worst case, I have a hammock.

 Cliffs on the river

Cliffs on the river

 Parking was always difficult

Parking was always difficult

I had dinner with a couple of friends from the boat at a really good Indian restaurant and then we ventured to Happy Bar. If you are looking for Happy Bar while in Pak Beng, just follow the reggae music and green, yellow, and red color scheme. You will be welcomed with a free shot of Laos whiskey and a smile. We played Jenga and opted for a hookah - although we chose apple flavored tobacco and decided against the "happy" flavored. They had an entire happy smoking section. This might explain why their service was pretty slow, but damn it they were cheerful. I enjoyed a couple Beerlao and went to bed early. It was going to be a long, hard day on the river tomorrow after all.

 The Happy Bar is hidden in there if you look hard enough

The Happy Bar is hidden in there if you look hard enough

 Arriving in Luang Prabang

Arriving in Luang Prabang