Day 264: Driving a Motorbike Through the Vietnamese Mountains

I woke up in my hotel, packed my bags, and asked the front desk where the nearest ATM was located. The man didn’t speak much English, but gave a few instructions. After walking for seven minutes and not finding the ATM, I asked store owners if they could help. I kept getting led astray and could not find the ATM anywhere. Opi, the tour guide for the motorbike tour called me and asked where I was. I explained that I couldn’t find the ATM (I needed to pay him the final amount of the tour in cash).

Opi explained where the ATM was located, but it was pretty far away. I walked as fast as I could and finally made it. The money in Vietnam is called dong and a bottle of water usually costs $10,000 dong. Most ATMs in Vietnam would let me take out $3,000,000 dong ($130 USD). For some reason, this ATM was only letting me take out $200,000 dong ($8.60 USD). I still had some cash on me, so it would give me enough to pay Opie. However, the ATM gave me small $10,000 bills, which was really annoying.

As I walked back to my hotel, Opi drove up on his motorbike and told me to get on the back. I hopped on and he took me to the hotel, called a taxi for me because of my bags, and drove off. I took the taxi to Opi’s hostel. Opi lived there and no longer rented out the hostel to guests. He allowed me to put my bigger bags in his room and I brought my medium-sized backpack for the things I needed during the four-day motorbike tour.

It seems that I’m always rushed and flustered. I tried to calm myself down, but the morning had already made me anxious. Opi introduced me to the others on the tour: Erik and Melana, and Ben and Berry. We said our hellos and Opi quickly took me outside. He showed me the motorbike that I would be driving and said he needed to make sure I was capable of driving it before we started our path up and down the steep mountains. He handed me elbow and knee pads, and a helmet.

The group, including Opi’s friends, were all watching as I sat on the motorbike and Opi showed me how to change gears. I had driven an automatic bike a few times, most recently on an island in Thailand. This bike, however, was semi-automatic and to shift I had to use a foot pedal. While one foot had to shift, the other foot had to use the back brake. One of the handle bars also had a brake for the front tire. To accelerate, I had to turn the throttle with my hand.

As Opi instructed me, I failed at looking like I knew what I was doing. I saw the look of worry on his face. Then I looked at his friend’s faces, who appeared to think I was crazy. I was late arriving there and didn’t want to hold anybody up, so I tried to convince myself to hurry and just do it. Opi told me to drive down the street, turn down another street, turn around and come back.

I kept hesitating because the motorbikes and cars seem to rush past me on the street. Opi told me to scoot back and he jumped on the bike in front of me. He drove down the street and turned onto another street that wasn’t as crowded. Opi got off the bike and I drove away. I was pleasantly surprised that I could drive it. Shifting with my foot was a challenge because I had to move it to get to the pedal. I succeeded in merging in traffic and making a turn and I made it back to the shop.

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Once we were back, the others put their pads on and strapped their backpacks to the bikes. Opi gave all of us a large bottle of water and secured it to the bike as well. Then I noticed that the others were all riding on the back of a motorbike. I was the only one driving my own bike. I didn’t even realize it was an option to ride on the back of a bike, but I felt proud that I was driving my own.

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Just like that, we were off! We left Ha Giang and headed towards the mountains. Opi led the way with Ben on the back of his bike. He instructed me to follow directly behind him in case there was a problem. It also allowed him to gauge if I was able to keep up. We drove single file and at first the road was flat, which I was grateful for. I was feeling confident and was loving the scenery!

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We drove on the windy road at a good pace, occasionally stopping for pictures. The green fields surrounded the road. The mountains were quickly in front of us as we drove through small towns. Motorbikes with items like over-sized bundles of bamboo and supplies were strapped to them as they zipped by us. Villagers, often women, were carrying the bundles that weren’t being hauled on motorbikes.

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All of a sudden, we started to climb up a steep mountain. The signs read “10% grade,” which is pretty steep. The fog was coming in very thick, making it difficult to see all of the scenery. It was cold outside, but was bearable with a wind jacket. The roads had many large potholes, so I was always very alert and doing my best to avoid them.

The road wound its way up the mountain and I noticed that Opi would honk his high-pitched horn several times as we turned into the curve to warn others that we were coming. The road was narrow, so this was necessary. I was close enough to Opi that I usually didn’t need to honk, but as time went on, I confidently honked my horn too.

Occasionally busses would pass us, which made me a little scared. They were smaller and more narrow than most busses that I had seen, but on the narrow, steep roads, there wasn’t much room to pass. The bus would honk its horn (which sounded like a funny cartoon horn) and we’d all drive as far to the right as possible. It was difficult at times because if I went too far to the right, I’d hit the gravel and get nearer to the edge of the mountain.

We stopped on the side of the mountain to take pictures and to enjoy the view. Opi told me that I was doing a great job at keeping up and driving safely. He and the others told me that I was a “badass” for driving myself. Opi and I decided to take a photo showing our bad-ass selves.

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Opi pointed out the village below and the surrounding mountains. Two of the peaks were nicknamed “breast mountains” because they look like two even breasts. The fog was thick, but we got views of the breast mountains from above and down below.

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We stopped a few times to take pictures. We frequently passed two groups: the British girls I met on the bus getting to Ha Giang and a group of four masculine women who appeared to be in their late 40s to early 50s. They were all riding on the back of the motorbike of guides and we were the only ones wearing protective pads, giving me more confidence in Opi.

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At one point we stopped at a coffee shop that was in a hut on the side of the mountain in the middle of nowhere. It was great to stretch and get a warm drink. I ordered the “Coffee + lots of milk” and sat on the bar that overlooked the scenery. I sat next to the girls from the U.K. and we chatted. They were all traveling solo, but met in a hostel. They hired three guys to drive them on the Ha Giang Loop. They appeared to be in their 20s. One girl, Cherrelle, told me that I was brave to drive on those roads by myself.

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Another girl, Harmeet, told me that she was traveling for a couple of months, but had to get back to London by summertime because she had five weddings to attend. Between bachelorette parties, bridal showers, and weddings, her whole summer was packed.

Once we finished our drinks, we continued to drive up the mountain. The road was very windy as we kept climbing. As we neared the top of the mountain, there were ferns and pine trees. It reminded me of the Pacific Northwest in the U.S.

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Shortly after, we stopped for lunch. We sat outside at a table with umbrellas. As our lunch of shared dishes was being prepared, the guides took breaks. I sat at the table with the others in the group and got to know them:

Melana and Erik – She was 33, had medium-length brown hair, was about 5’7”, and was a physical therapist. Erik was 32, had short brown hair, was about 6’4”, and was a manufacturing engineer. She and Erik were dating and lived in Ohio. Melana has lived in many places, even in Kuwait, and didn’t care for Ohio. She loved to take pictures at various sites of her doing the splits because it had become a tradition. They were on a two-week vacation and were only doing the three day tour, so they’d be with us for two days and then would head back to Ha Giang with their guides.

Ben and Berry – Ben was 33, had short black hair, was about 5’8”, and used to work in IT. Berry was 31, had straight black hair just above her shoulder, was about 5’2”, and used to work in IT on the front end. She was originally from China, moved to Sudan for a couple of years in middle school, and moved to the U.S for college. Ben was originally from Taiwan and moved to the U.S. in high school. In college, Ben and Berry met in their first class on their first day of school. They started dating and have been together ever since (now they’re married)! After college, they moved to New York. They thought it was fun in their 20s, but it became the “same old.” It’s also too expensive to live there. Berry quit her job and Ben went on an eight month sabbatical so they can travel. They rented out their apartment and started traveling the month prior. They spent a week in Taiwan, then went to Hawaii, Thailand, Burma, and now Vietnam.

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Opi and the guides joined us and introduced us to “happy water,” which we’d later realize was homemade rice wine. They poured the clear happy water in small-sized shot glasses and it tasted strong. We took the opportunity to get to know the guides.

Opi was in his early 20s, was around 5’9”, had bleach blonde hair on top, earrings, and an athletic vibe. He was from the area and grew up in a small village. He taught himself English in three months from watching YouTube videos. A couple of years ago, he opened a hostel in Ha Giang, but then the city started putting in bogus rules. He lives there with some friends, but no longer runs it as a hostel. Instead, he started his own company, Ha Giang Roadtrip, to offer motorbike tours. What made his company different than others was that the tour guides were all from local tribes. There is a large company that offers tours, but Opi focuses on homestays and getting off the beaten track. His tours drive the Ha Giang Loop, but also go into side areas that most people don’t know about. Opi was a smart, funny, light-hearted guy who was a blast to be around.

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Opi’s friend Zing was a character! He also recently learned English from YouTube videos and was still practicing. He’d often ask us what a certain word meant and to correct him when his English was incorrect. He was Opi’s “right hand man” and Opi was teaching him how to respond to customers who emailed or texted. He was also being taught how to lead tours on his own as Opi’s business was expanding. Zing was always hilarious, singing Celine Dion’s, “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic. Melana was on the back of his motorbike and he’d sing it for her while driving.

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The other two guides didn’t speak English, so we didn’t get a chance to know them much. Opi told us one of them was his father and we all thought he was joking until days later when we realized he actually was Opi’s father. The final tour guide, Eddie, was Opi’s friend who appeared to be in his early 20s as well.

After lunch, we continued driving and stopped in a small village where Zing was from. They took us into a small bamboo building where women and girls were weaving rugs and all sorts of fabrics. One woman gave us a demonstration of how she uses a wooden machine to help her weave the rug.

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Next, she showed us how she gets a shine to the rug by standing on a flat piece of stone with a circular stone piece beneath. She rocks side to side, allowing the fabric to be smashed between the two with the rocking motions. It takes a lot of hip movements and Zing demonstrated it for us. Melana and Erik gave it a try and said it was difficult.

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After the demonstration and browsing the shop, we continued our journey through the mountains. We saw farmers on the side of the mountains, picking from their fields. I couldn’t believe how they created ledges that were just a few feet long on the side of the mountain to farm. Then they’d create several more, making the side of the mountain look like it has long horizontal steps going down it. They handpicked and planted, carried the crop up to their motorbike, and strapped very large bundles to the back and drove off. Others would strap the bundles to their backs and walk to their home. It made me reflect on what we call “hard work” in the U.S.

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As we reached the top of a mountain, the sun started to peek through the fog and clouds, giving off rays of light as it began to set. We stopped to take pictures and it felt angelic up there. The views were constantly breathtaking with lush greenery on the steep mountain peaks.

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Halfway down the mountain, there was road construction. The entire road turned to loose, medium-sized gravel for about two miles. Opi told me to be careful and not to hit my back brakes too hard because I’d skid. I gripped my handles hard and tried my best to keep control of the bike, but it was difficult. I had to go with the flow without sliding off the side of the mountain. My arms were so tight that they started to ache. It was an intense section, but I made it out successfully without losing control or crashing.

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 Once we were at the bottom, we drove through a small village and arrived at our first home stay. When we got off of our bikes, the others told me that I looked like a professional driving down the gravel road. I felt relieved that maybe I did know what I was doing. Zing told me that I was a “super driver.”

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The homestay was operated by a local family – a young couple with a baby. Right next to the house was a rice field. Opi showed us around and where to sleep. The others had private rooms, which consisted of four walls and a double mattress that was about two inches thick. My mat was in the main room where the guides would sleep. There were several mats and I took one in the corner in hopes of avoiding any snorers. The guides ended up taking mats on the other side of the room, so nobody was directly next to me. We had mosquito nets above our mats and I had a curtain at the end of mine, which was nice.

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While the family cooked us dinner, we got settled and drank some beer. Some of the guides had “happy flower,” which is marajuana from a bong. The downstairs had open walls to the outside, a pool table, and two wooden tables. Our bedrooms were upstairs, which had thin wooden walls. The two bathrooms were also upstairs, but off to the side. We had to walk across a bamboo balcony to get to the bathrooms.

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When dinner was ready, we all ate in the middle of the room upstairs where most of the mats were. They placed a large rug on the floor and we sat in a big circle. Small plates of food were prepared and we ate in a communal style. The food was delicious! The host kept serving happy water and I was feeling slightly drunk. We did the vietnamese “cheers” which consists of shouting several verses:
Một hai ba zô
Hai ba zô
Hai ba uống

In English, it means:
One, two, three, cheers!
Two, three, cheers!
Two, three, drink!

It was a very fun dinner, even if we couldn’t communicate very well with the homeowners. There were universal hand signals, smiles, and thank-yous. The husband kept filling our shot glasses as soon as they were empty. Melana said she struggles using chopsticks when she’s been drinking, so she put her hand over her shot glass. It seemed to be the best way to communicate “no more please.” For dessert, the wife cut a pineapple in a way that impressed us all. The baby was a favorite and we all played with her. I switched my body positions often because my legs kept falling asleep.

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Once dinner was complete, I talked with Ben and Berry about travel planning and how time consuming it is. It felt good to have someone understand what it involves. When I first arrive in a new city, I have to spend time finding things to do and don’t want to miss things that I would love. Then I spend time doing the things, which leaves no time for actually writing. Ben and Berry were vlogging about their travels, but were also very behind. Ben will edit their videos while Berry researches the next city. As we stood in the main room upstairs talking and laughing, the lights were turned off. We assumed this was our cue that we should go to bed.

I grabbed my shower items and went to the bathroom to take a shower. The room had two large windows that were mostly open to the outside. The floor was bamboo, which made me fear that I’d fall through the uneven floor. There was a slab of rock underneath the showerhead, which was helpful because it gave a more sturdy base.

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After my shower, I went to my mat to sleep. I was used to homestays like this because of the adventure tour I did in Thailand. The mat was thin, so my hips hurt a little bit. I turned and woke up a lot to switch sides since I’m a side-sleeper. Overall, I was very happy to be on the tour. I really enjoy seeing areas outside of major cities. I was getting to see small villages and had the opportunity to see how they live. So far, the locals were all very hospitable and friendly.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 230: Villages in Thailand

On the third day of the REI Adventures tour, we were able to enjoy the delicious breakfast buffet at the hotel. Right after I sat down to eat, I received a notification from Airbnb that my studio apartment I had booked once the tour ended was cancelled. Confused, I logged on to see what the problem was.

I messaged the owner and let her know that my reservation was cancelled by mistake through Airbnb. The home owner and I agreed that I would just pay her cash when I arrived and she’d keep the apartment available for me. I was happy because the price for my stay in this apartment was only $23 a night.

Dealing with Airbnb and the homeowner meant I had to frantically scarf my food down and ignore my roommate, Nicole. We had to be at the vans ready to go, so I didn’t have much time. Thankfully, I was able to get it resolved and get to the vans.

We left the hotel and drove towards the mountains to visit hill tribe villages. The roads in Thailand are often bumpy and windy. I get carsick if I try to read in the car. Sometimes if my head is turned sideways looking at someone talking, I will start to get nauseous. The best place to sit for motion sickness is the first row because you get less bumps there. Unfortunately, there were several people in our group who also get motion sickness, so I sat in the back.

My roommate Nicole also gets carsick. We were in the van for a couple of hours and Nicole and I were talking to each other in the backseat. She told me about her travels and hiking various famous mountains. Her accomplishments were impressive, but she was humble. We talked for awhile, until we both needed to look out the window to attempt to alleviate the nausea. I took a dramamine in hopes that the motion sickness would subside.

When we arrived to the villages, our guide, Tri, talked to us about the general life in a village. The area we were visiting was a combination of many different tribes. They built this area to showcase a mini-village of each tribe, their customs, and their people.

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Tri stood in front of a large painting of the king of Thailand. He told us there are six main tribes in Thailand and they are mostly in the mountainous northern and western parts of the country. Generally speaking, the women work harder than men. When a family gives birth to a girl, they are very happy because she’ll bring in money from the husband. She’ll also work harder both in the fields and in the home, while the men will take opium and sleep in the fields.

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We wandered through the streets and saw several different tribes selling hand-made items. The tribespeople weren’t pushy though. They just casually stood near their booth and would tell us the price of an item if we pointed at it.

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We saw some women weaving fabrics, while others proudly displayed their products. One tribe is known for their long necks. They put rings around their neck and keep adding to it in hopes that their necks will stretch. I bought a couple of items, mostly to support their efforts.

Once we finished exploring the villages, we stopped at an outdoor market on our way to lunch and were given ten minutes to browse. There were fresh vegetables and even fried insects – beetles, crickets, you name it! I declined trying one and kept walking.

I was walking alone and a vendor asked me, “Where are you from?” I replied, “America.” He got very excited, “Oooooh! USA! Super Power!” I smiled and slowly kept walking. He continued and mentioned how tall I am and then asked, “You married?” “No”, I replied. “Ooooh, are you alone?” As I walked away, I told him I was with a group.

For lunch, we went to a restaurant that sat right off of a river where people on rafts raced through the rapids. We ate family-style, but this time the vegetarians asked Tri not to be separated because it didn’t allow them time to talk with the non-vegetarians. We each had our own plate of pad Thai, which was delicious!

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I sat next to Scott and Andrea, who are from Minnesota. Scott works as an industrial engineer and Andrea works as a physical therapist. They told us how cold Minnesota was when they left and how a huge snow storm was sweeping the area. They were happy to have escaped it.

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Once lunch was finished, we began a hike to the village where we’d stay the night. It was hot and humid. This hike would take more than three hours and involved a lot of climbing.

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The thick forest was unforgiving. The dense vegetation often brushed up against my legs. I was sweating profusely in the extraordinary humidity. When I sweat too much, I need to take salt pills so I don’t lose too much salt. About 30% of people are salty sweaters. The group was moving so fast, I was struggling to keep up. I didn’t have time to take my pills. In addition, the Dramamine made me feel tired.

I was in the back with Christian and Kristen. I felt bad and hoped I wasn’t keeping them from the rest of the group. Kristen assured me that she also likes little breaks – we were soul sisters. We would often stop for 60 seconds just to take a breather. There was another guide, Sak, in the back with us. The four of us had a fun time looking around at the Jurassic-sized leaves and learning from Sak. He told us that when bamboo dies, it sprouts a flower. Just one flower it’s entire life and only when it is about to die.

The rest of the group would stop every 20 minutes or so to let us all catch up. Those of us in the middle and the back would arrive, and within one minute, we were off again.

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I felt my heart pounding and realized I should have taken my salt pills. Once my electrolytes are out of balance, I can feel it in places like my heart.

While the hike was challenging, it was also beautiful! We were the only ones on the  trail. Finally, we arrived towards the top and were rewarded with incredible views. The sun was just starting to set and was giving off splendid rays of light.

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This fueled me to get to the homestay. As we approached the small village, I couldn’t believe people lived there. It was extremely remote, steep, and the dirt road was in terrible condition.

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Our homestay was with a local family who had a large main room filled with 15 pads to sleep on. Each thin pad had a mosquito net above it. The floor was made of thin pieces of bamboo and I was afraid I would fall through, so I stuck to walking near the main wooden beam down the middle.

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I’m sensitive to people snoring so I asked that I be on the end and not near any snorers. I brought earplugs, but the sound of snoring is usually so loud they only slightly work. I had my iPod shuttle just in case.

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It was evening and there was only one shower available. It was outside in a small concrete building that was not completely enclosed, letting the cold air inside. They don’t have electricity so we were warned the water would be cold. People made a verbal list of who would take a shower next. I was number four on the list until some of the women decided to make another list and I was bumped towards the bottom.

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The sun was quickly setting and we were desperate to get a shower in before it was dark since there wasn’t a light in there. When it was my turn, it was almost dark, so I brought my headlamp inside to see my shampoo and soap. I knew the water would be cold, but I didn’t expect it to be freezing. A thin stream of water forcefully came shooting out! I gasped for air and almost started to hyperventilate from the harsh cold. I showered as quickly as I could.

To use the toilet, there were two small rooms in the same concrete building. Because they don’t have plumbing, there is a pot full of water next to the toilet. Once you’re done using the toilet, you have to scoop the water with a bowl and dump it inside the toilet, which slowly drains it. You have to put a few bowls of water in order to get it to fully go away. Behind the toilets were pigs, which you could hear while you took care of business.

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As we all showered and drank some beers, the guides and homeowners cooked our dinner. On the rough dirt street, young children drove by on motorbikes, often 2-3 per bike. Stray dogs also roamed around and we were instructed not to touch them as many of them carry disease.

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There were a few people who didn’t get showers because they didn’t want to shower in the dark. Dinner was ready and there were a couple of dim lights hanging above the table. As we sat down to eat, Clark gave a nice speech. After a tiring day of hiking, it was nice to have some time to unwind.

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After dinner, we enjoyed the stars above with the complete absence of light pollution. The village was celebrating the Chinese New Year, so the occasional firework went off. Tri told us that families will kill one of their pigs and eat it over the next three days and basically have a party the whole three days.

Once the sun fell, it got much colder. After star gazing, we all headed to bed. I put my earplugs in, but I kept waking up because I needed to use the toilet. Of course. This never happens when I’m inside of a house. But if I go camping or have the toilet outside, I suddenly have to go. I tried to ignore it because it sounded like rain was pouring down outside. I wondered if it was flooding. I didn’t want to put my glasses and shoes on and slip through the mud.

Then suddenly I realized maybe it was wind and not rain. I listened intently and realized I didn’t hear anything hitting the roof, so it must be wind rushing through the trees. I reluctantly put my glasses on, walked down the entire room following the beam with the light from my cell phone. I put my shoes on that were sitting outside by the front door steps and made my way to the toilet. Sure enough, it was extremely high winds, not rain.

I returned to my bed and went back to sleep. At 4:40 am, roosters started to crow. The sound was deafening so I tried to smash my head into my pillow. It didn’t work. I put my headphones on and played music on my iPod shuffle. We were warned about those roosters and they weren’t kidding. The roosters crowed for the next several hours. The thin bamboo walls did nothing for soundproofing.

Steve had noise cancelling headphones, but he still heard the roosters. He joked the next morning that if a company can create the ultimate soundproof headphones, their slogan should be “Strong enough to combat roosters.” I also found out the next morning that Mimi fell into Steve and Andrea when she went outside to use the toilet. Having 15 people sleep in the same room only inches apart makes for an interesting night.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 228-229: Overcoming Fears? Maybe Not…

I arrived at the hotel and met the 15 people who I would be spending the next nine days with through REI Adventures. My taxi was late getting to my previous hotel to pick me up, so I arrived about ten minutes late. Everyone was fit and standing in the lobby of the outdoor/indoor hotel. The guide, Tri, was giving the group an overview of what the week would look like. I met everyone so quickly, I couldn’t remember who came with who or anybody’s name.

The two vans would be leaving soon to take us to our first destination for the afternoon. While we briefly waited, a girl walked up to me and said, “Hi, you must be my roommate. I’m Nicole.”

We were both solo travelers and neither of us paid the $600 single supplement fee, so we were roomed together. Nicole was 44, but looked like she was in her early 30s. She had brown hair, a sweet smile, and was very athletic. She lived in Denver, Colorado and worked from home as a project manager.

It would take me two days to learn everyone’s names and remember where they were all from, but here they are!

Nancy and Steve: Married couple in their 50s who live in North Carolina

Andrea and Scott: Married couple in their 40s who live in Minnesota

Christian and Kristen: Married couple in their early 30s who live in Washington

Terri and Cathy: Two women friends in their 50s who live in California

Mimi and Lisa: Two women friends in their 50s who also live in California

Tien and Clark: Friends Tien (in his 40s) and Clark (in his early 60s) who live in New Mexico

Neil: Man in his 60s who also lives in Washington

Nicole: Woman in her 40s who lives in Colorado

We boarded the two ten-passenger vans and drove to Wat Suan Dok Temple. I sat in the front row of one of the vans, next to Cathy and Clark. We talked and got to know each other. It was clear that there were different personalities on this trip.

We arrived at the temple and had to climb up 300 steps. I was wearing mid-length jeans that made it an uncomfortable journey to the top. To get into the temple, women need to have their shoulders and knees covered. I was wearing a tank top, so I was provided a short-sleeve shirt to wear while I was inside.

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Our guide, Tri, had been leading tours for several years. He was short, had black hair, and had a huge, welcoming smile. His English was pretty good, but sometimes we struggled to understand each other.

The temple was outdoors and I was sweating in the sun. We had to take off our shoes and leave them outside. The stone floor was warm on my feet and I didn’t like walking around barefoot. We huddled around statues as Tri told us about the stories behind them. Thailand is predominantly Buddhist. I was starting to get overwhelmed after 30 minutes. It was a lot of information to take in and the heat wasn’t helping.

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The temple was full of tourists. With a group of 15, it was difficult to navigate through the crowd. At one point, I accidentally lost the group and the people behind me were now lost with me. Clark teased me because he had been following me. Oops. We eventually found the rest of the group and then headed back down the 300 steps.

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We ate lunch at an outdoor restaurant. All of our meals would be shared family-style. There were five vegetarians, so Tri asked that they sit together to make sharing easier. During lunch, I was able to talk to a few people and tell them about my travels. They were surprised to hear that I had been traveling for seven months and they enthusiastically asked me questions.

Nancy works at an REI store, which is a separate division of REI Adventures. Her khaki clothes gave her an outdoorsy look. It seemed to make sense that she’d work there. She knows a lot about the outdoors, so I’m sure she is super helpful to customers. Her husband, Steve, works as an engineer and is also into the outdoors. He struck me as responsible and smart.

After lunch, we went back to the hotel to check-in and clean up a bit. The hotel was a beautiful resort that had a lot of green trees and impeccable landscaping. It had soft, comfortable beds.

For dinner, we boarded the vans again and went to a restaurant. Because it was Chinese New Year, Tri gave us the option of going to an outdoor market to check out some festivities. Some people in the group had just flown in that morning, so they were exhausted and opted to go back to the hotel. A few of us went to the market.

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It turned out to be the market I had visited the day prior. Now that it was nighttime, it was packed! It was difficult not to get separated from the others. We watched some festivities on a stage and walked around the booths.

After walking around a little bit, we decided to go back to the hotel and get some rest. The next day would be our first hike and ziplining. I was excited for hiking, but less excited about ziplining.

We ate breakfast at the hotel, which had an incredible buffet spread, and left for our hike. We drove to a small village of wooden houses precariously built on a steep hillside on the side of a mountain and started our hike.

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Once we passed the houses, we started to climb on a trail through the forest. It was warm outside, but there was a cool breeze. I quickly fell to the back of the group. Ascending is harder for me because it’s hard to catch my breath. My slow heartbeat starts beating too fast and I need small, 30-second breaks.

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I was in the back with Christian and Kristen. They’re the young married couple from Washington (Seattle). Christian works for REI Adventures and does the planning part before people leave for the trip so they’re all prepared. He had been working there for less than a year and really liked it. He wanted to make it clear he was just on vacation and wasn’t working.

Kristen worked in admissions at a university in Seattle. She was so sweet and friendly and also wanted little breaks, so we stuck together. They are one of those couples that is really cute together because they are both kind and thoughtful.

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The trail was narrow and not very well maintained. Trees and bushes often overtook the trail. The dense forest was beautiful and I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t more humid. It was “cool season” for them and being in the mountains made it much cooler than the rest of Thailand. Thailand has three seasons: Cool, Hot, and Rainy.

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We arrived at a beautiful waterfall where we took pictures and ate snacks. I took a picture with Nicole, my roommate. She was hiking at the front of the group because she’s very athletic.

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After our snack, we continued climbing. There were a few bridges, which were ladders laid down with some fences, that we had a cross. One bridge was more a swing-type bridge.

At times, the trail was steep and narrow on the side of the mountain. Tri said once during the rainy season, a guest slipped and slid down the side. She ended up being ok, but was cut up. I was grateful it wasn’t raining.

After several miles of hiking, we went to a beautiful outdoor restaurant for lunch. Most places in Thailand are outdoors, which makes for a very relaxing atmosphere.

During lunch, I talked with Tien. He’s a psychiatrist, but was going to start a new job soon working in more of the administration side of a healthcare company. He was married with two young kids. Tien had a subtle sense of humor. We talked about my travels and his job throughout lunch.

I also talked with Clark. I told him about my solo travels and some of the things I need to be aware of as a solo female. He said, “You’d be hard to kidnap.” I asked why and he replied “Because of your attitude. You don’t seem like a victim.”

After lunch, it was time for ziplining. We drove five minutes to Flight of the Gibbon. We were fitted with gear and weighed because they have weight limits. Because our group was so large, we split into two. My group had the following: Clark, Tien, Scott, Andrea, Mimi and Lisa.

Clark and I were both nervous. He’s tall and extremely fit. He does a lot of trail running behind his house in New Mexico and can be pretty hardcore with his workouts, but ziplining didn’t appeal to him very much.

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We jumped off the platform one by one. To stop, this zipline company doesn’t use brakes. The zipline in Canada that I had gone on a few months prior had a brake system. Instead, you have to raise your legs when you’re coming into the treetop platform and the guide will help stop you before you smash into the tree. I was nervous about this because on the zipline in Canada, I kept inadvertently turning around, so I always went backwards. This time I needed to make sure I didn’t turn or I wouldn’t know when to raise my feet.

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The zipline has 14 lines, which is a lot. The two other places I’ve ziplined only had six to seven lines. I zipped across, tightly holding my harness. I could not relax because I kept thinking I’d be too heavy and I’d fall. What if the safety standards haven’t been met? I tried to convince myself thousands of people do this and I’d be fine.

Once I landed on a tree platform, the guide would hook my harness onto a cable wrapped around the tree. This was necessary because the platforms were very high into the tree with very limited space for standing. The seven of us would pile on, hugging the tree as we waited for everyone to finish. A couple of times, there were still people on the tiny platform from a group in front of us. I worried there were too many people on the platforms, but at least we were clipped to the tree.

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We continued zipping through the forest, and each time I was scared. I just wanted to get done with it. The trees were beautiful, but I just couldn’t shake the fear. The local guides sometimes did crazy things like pulling on the line when someone was on it, making the person bounce. On one line, they recommended we go “Superman” style where our face would go first, facing the ground. Then we’d have to climb up a rope net. I just did the regular line instead of that contraption.

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Most people were really enjoying the adventure, even if they questioned some of the safety standards. Clark, on the other hand, was like me. I couldn’t tell if he was joking at first because he’s a big jokester, but he was just as frightened as me. Fourteen lines is a lot and it was starting to weigh on him. He knew there was no way out – we had to complete the lines. At one point, he turned to me, “I’m emotionally exhausted. I’m serious. I have nothing left to give.” I knew exactly how he felt.

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Halfway through, we came to a section where we had to rappel down from high above on the tree platform. I’ve never repelled before and having to rely on the guides lowering me down was not comforting. I knew I had no other option to get down. I sat down and tried to get myself to go through the small square hole in the platform. I told the guy to go slow and said I just want to get home alive.

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We continued on several more lines until we were finally done. The final line was to rappel down again. This time I enjoyed it. The guide lowered me slower than others, which made me feel better. Once we were done, I was relieved.

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A few months later, Scott came across an article about that zipline, Flight of the Gibbon. A 25-year-old Canadian tourist was on those same lines two months later and fell to his death. He was halfway through one of the lines when “the lock on his body harness and the main line broke.” His girlfriend watched as he fell and I can only imagine the horror they both felt. My heart breaks for them.

Reading about that accident and the history of accidents at that zipline made me incredibly grateful we were all safe. I recognize that many thousands of people have been on those lines and have not gotten injured. However, the company has had other accidents and even deaths over the years. From my own experience, I can say the safety standards were poor. Pulling on lines to make people bounce around was not safe. The company is currently shut down for an investigation. REI Adventures has discontinued using that operator and instead of zip lining, people will now meet elephants. I think that’s a great alternative and I’m happy they are always looking out for the safety of their members. I can confidently say that was my last zipline adventure!

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Days 57-58: Denali National Park

It was time for me to check out of my Airbnb and head towards Denali National Park. Living as a nomad has its challenges. I needed some refills on medications and though my doctor overnighted them to my Airbnb, they still hadn’t arrived. The owner said that overnight to Fairbanks takes about three days and she offered to ship them to me in Anchorage once they arrived.

My next motel was in Healy, Alaska. It’s only an hour and a half drive south of Fairbanks and it’s the closest city to Denali National Park. The drive was fairly flat and I missed  driving through British Columbia and the Yukon. But as I got closer to Healy, mountains appeared in the distance.

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I pulled into the deserted gravel parking lot of the Denali Park Hotel (which was actually a motel) around 4:00 pm. The lobby was in an old train car. I asked the girl at the desk what there was to do there and she gave me a map that included some hikes. She told me the motel used to be inside the park until a law was passed prohibiting accommodations inside the park. They relocated, but were able to keep the original name.

I pulled my car in front of my room and unloaded my bags in the cold wind. The motel seemed to be on a raised foundation and it sounded hollow below my feet.

It was an ok motel, but the view from my window was fantastic! A massive, beautifully majestic mountain loomed just outside.

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Despite the view, I was angry that I paid $375 for two nights there. This was the most expensive place I had stayed so far and it felt unfair that they could charge so much just because it was close to Denali. There are a few hotels right outside the entrance to Denali National Park, but they were $300-$700 per night!

There were just a few businesses (grocery store, gas station, restaurant) along the two-lane highway that ran through the tiny town. I went to the small, expensive grocery store and picked up some food. After returning to the motel to eat dinner, I turned on the TV. I watched a classic, Groundhog Day, and relaxed.

The next morning, I prepared for a hike in Denali National Park. Denali mountain is the tallest peak in North America and only 33% of visitors actually see the top of the peak because clouds often roll in. Visitors can only drive 15 miles into the park. To see more, you have to take a guided tour bus. I considered taking one, but they ranged from six-ten hours and I didn’t want to spend my time inside of a bus. I preferred being closer to nature and hiking.

One of the bartenders in Fairbanks told me about an 8-mile hike (roundtrip) that starts at mile 13 of the drive inside. I found the trail entrance pretty easily and there was plenty of parking. The hike started out flat and easy, but within half of a mile, it started to climb.

I was nervous about wildlife, bears in particular, so I kept my eyes peeled. Once I started to climb, the trees became less dense and I had outstanding views! I was really happy that I chose to hike instead of take a bus.

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After about a mile in, I passed two rangers who were taking a break from repairing a section of the trail. After two miles, the elevation gain was noticeable and the cold wind kicked in harder. Without tree cover, my shorts and a t-shirt weren’t going to cut it. I saw a few other people who were wearing pants and coats and probably thought I was crazy.

I took my pants and jacket out of my backpack and put them on. I’d start with my wind/rain jacket first and see how warm it kept me. I also put my gloves on because my hands were starting to hurt from the cold.

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I arrived at the top and the wind was dramatically worse, making it hard to keep from being blown over. The gorgeous rocky mountains full of green trees reminded me of Norway.

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I continued on the trail that went down the other side of the mountain to the parking lot at mile 15 of the road. The hike wasn’t as pretty as the other side and I needed to hike back the way I came to make it to my car, so after a mile I turned around. The total would be six miles with 1,800 ft elevation gain and I was pleased.

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When I came to the peak again, the wind seemed to be even stronger. A woman and her mother asked me if I’d take a picture of them together. I took theirs and they took mine. As they started to hike away, she yelled something to me. She was about 10 feet away from me and I couldn’t hear her. After having her repeat what she said a few times, I realized she was just telling me to have a good hike. The wind was that loud!

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I thought about putting my coat on, but my jacket was better at resisting the wind. It felt like it must be about 35° F. I can only imagine how cold it is when it’s not summertime.

I was happy to get back to my warm motel and to rest. Attempting to be productive, I downloaded pictures from my phone to my PC and got some writing done.

The next morning, I needed to drive to Homer, Alaska. It was 500 miles away (about eight and a half hours of drive time). I knew it was an ambitious day, but I wanted to check out Homer after the bartender told me about it.

The first two hours of the drive was beautiful as it winded alongside Denali National Park. It was raining and the clouds were hovering above. I was told the best place to see the elusive mountain peak is south of the park. I kept my eye out, but I’m not sure if it saw it. It didn’t bother me. The hike inside the park was beautiful enough for me.

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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Day 49: Mama Bear

I wrapped up my writing at the B & B and drove into the town of Whitehorse (the capital of the Yukon) to get something to eat at McDonald’s. The town seemed confused. Looking around, there were parts that were artsy, parts that had a small-town feel, and other parts that felt like a city with a new rec center, golf course, and cabaret show.

When I walked inside McDonald’s, I noticed they had delicious-looking pastries and a chicken parmesan sandwich. It seemed much fancier than the McDonald’s I’m used to in the US. Before leaving Whitehorse, I stopped at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, a small natural history museum.

I walked up to the front desk and the middle-aged man told me they just started a movie and I should go watch it and come back to pay later. I thought that was really nice and trusting. I headed to the small theater and watched a short movie about the Yukon and its history.

Once the movie finished, one of the workers named Tracey told the five of us she was about to start a demonstration on hunting and she recommended we attend. We all walked outside to the back where wooden silhouettes of animals stood about 30 feet away.

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Tracey looked to be in her 40s, was strong and stocky, and had a short gray mohawk. She passionately explained what the Yukon was like during the last several thousands of years. She held a spear thrower and said we’d learn how it was done, but first she gave us some history.

Tracey explained that humans are not part of the food chain, we’re above it. This is because we’ve adapted and learned. There is no longer a danger for humans to eat prey. Every animal puts themselves in danger when they attack their prey. There is only one other species other than humans that does not risk their life. It’s the spider. They build a web, sit back, and wait for the prey – no risk involved.

Tracey asked how much we knew about cultural appropriation and we all shrugged our shoulders, saying not much. She said, “You didn’t jump at the word because you’re all Americans and you’re less politically correct than Canadians.” Tracey seemed annoyed with cultural appropriation and said, “There’s no such thing. Every culture throughout time has adapted and learned from each other.” She went on to explain that natives in the Yukon went south for a bit and learned about the bow and arrow. But the ice in Alaska and the Yukon melted so fast 40,000 years ago (so fast there’s nothing to compare it to today) that it made Australia an island. Natives there did not get other influences so they never got the arrow. Tracey said, “We all learn from each other’s culture and always have.”

Tracey showed us how to throw the spear with the use of a hand tool that the natives used. We each got to try to hit the wooden cut-out animals and it was actually pretty hard. Tracey told us that people who lived there thousands of years ago moved an average of nine times a year, always setting up a new camp and following herds.

After the demonstration, I went inside to learn more about the Yukon. There was a section about climate change and a sign that explained there are eight factors as to why the climate is constantly changing. One is the Earth’s orbit. The sign read, “Three main characteristics of the Earth’s orbit affect climate: Obliquity (the tilt of the Earth’s axis), Eccentricity (the shape of the Earth’s orbit around the sun), and Precession (the time of year the Earth is closest to the sun).” These cycles happen over 22,000 to 400,000-year cycles.

The sign listed the other factors to the climate changing: Continental movement, Glacier Lake Drainage & Melting Ice, Volcanic Eruptions, Sunspots & Solar Weather Activity, and Human Activity. It was refreshing to read about climate change in a scientific way, not in a hysteria way. The sign explained that since the industrial age, human activity contributed to the changing climate because “increasing amounts of greenhouse released since the beginning of the Industrial Age is trapping more of the sun’s heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

It was interesting to see the other seven factors affecting climate change, and it’s been happening for hundreds of thousands of years. Human interference is speeding things up a bit, but it doesn’t look like there is any way to stop it – these are changes that the earth has been experiencing long before human interaction. I’m not saying we can’t do our part to help the Earth, but scientifically speaking, the Earth has been changing since the beginning and is going to change until the end.

I continued to look around the museum, seeing bones from wooly mammoths and the various animals that live in the tundra. It was fascinating to think about what life was like in the area thousands of years ago and how much it has changed. Our lives are so much easier than what most of humanity has experienced.

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I paid for my admission to the museum and continued my drive north, feeling really happy. As I listened to music, I was excited that I was on this adventure, learning new things and meeting new people.

I arrived at Pine Lake, near Haines Junction, where I had booked an Airbnb. I rented a room in a beautiful wooden house overlooking the lake. There were only nine houses there, so it felt pretty remote. I followed the instructions to get inside and there was a note from the owners saying they were on a hike and they’d see me later that night. When they rent out rooms, they stay in a tent on the property somewhere, but use the bathroom in the basement.

The other rooms weren’t rented out and my room was on the top floor in a loft style room. The shared living room and kitchen had magnificent views! I couldn’t believe the place was basically mine since the other rooms weren’t rented out.

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On my dresser was a pamphlet about bears in the area – black bear and grizzly bears. The pamphlet went on to describe what to do in scenarios of each bear and determining if the bear is in a defensive mode or an attack mode. I changed into hiking gear and drove down the road about five minutes to the start of a trail.

As I was stretching, a girl came out from her gravel driveway. She was in her late 20s and said her parents have a house there and she was visiting. I told her I was nervous about bears and asked if she thought I’d see one while on my hike. She replied, “You’ll most likely see a bear.” Terrified, we continued talking about the area while another girl in her 30s came from the other driveway and said, “Hey, I just saw a black bear behind you guys in the forest, heading that way (pointing towards the trail).” She also explained that there was a grizzly bear with three cubs in Haines Junction the other day.

I reluctantly started my hike with my bear spray on the side pouch of my backpack and my headphones turned off. I walked through the dense forest and heard the chainsaw from the house of the first girl I talked with (she said the chainsaw should scare the bear away). The trail was pretty steep, but I kept climbing.

About 20 minutes into my hike, I was close to a large boulder when I saw a large black bear about 25 feet away me, to the left of the boulder. Panicked, I gasped, turned around, and started heading back down. Then I realized I’m not supposed to do that and I’m supposed to scare him. I turned around, hoping he wasn’t charging me. He saw me and jumped up on the boulder like it was nothing and headed in the direction of the trail.

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My heart was racing. I hadn’t actually seen a bear in the wild while hiking and being in the Yukon made me feel slightly more terrified. I waited a few minutes and then continued to climb the large boulder.

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Once on top, I had a great view and continued climbing more rocks and boulders.

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After about ten more minutes, I realized the trail was too steep and I was too afraid of seeing that bear again (or another one). I paused and thought about my options. One of the girls I had just met said the trail gets so steep at one point, there is a chain you have to use to pull yourself up. I’ve never given up on a hike that I had planned; however, they always say not to hike alone and I was hiking alone…with a bear nearby. I decided to trust my intuition and I turned around and headed back. I was able to see some amazing views, but the wind was pretty strong and it was making it a little cold.

When I got back to the Airbnb, I ate dinner and brought my laptop to the table on the back deck. The view was like a postcard and I felt so fortunate I was able to stay there. A cat that the owners told me not to let inside the house kept rubbing against me and getting in front of my laptop.

As the sun started to set, I went inside to get warmer. The views were still incredible through the giant windows. I searched for ferry options to go from Alaska to Canada and sent an email inquiring about my options since I had a car.

At 11:00 pm, it finally got dark outside and fireworks started going off across the lake. I’m not sure what the fireworks were for, but I was enjoying them. Once the fireworks stopped, I started hearing creepy noises throughout the house. It was dark outside with no curtains and the owners weren’t back yet. I tried to talk myself through the noises – it’s nothing, just the house settling. But the later it got, the more I worried about the owners. Could they still be out hiking? It was cold and dark, so I was nervous for them. I texted them asking if they were ok. No reply.

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After taking my shower, it was midnight and the owners still weren’t home. I couldn’t sleep. What if they were attacked by a bear and I’m the only one who knows they were out there hiking? I thought about calling the police or search and rescue, but I didn’t know where they were hiking. They hadn’t replied to my message but in their note, they said they would likely lose cell service. I reread the note and they definitely said they’d be back that night.

I started to pace. I didn’t know what to do. Maybe Airbnb had an emergency number for them and I could ask a family member if they knew where the owners were hiking. Maybe they had watched the fireworks and it was nothing. But the fireworks had ended at 11:30 pm. I was so nervous and didn’t know what to do.

Finally, at 12:30 am, I saw a car pull into the gravel driveway. Noelle came inside and I told her I was worried. She said they got caught up in the nature and beauty of it all so they stayed out longer than they anticipated. Then they decided to grab a bite to eat in town before heading back. Noelle looked to be in her 30s, and had long, thick, blonde dreadlocks. She was petite and fit, and didn’t seem concerned about showing up at 12:30 am.

I stood there in my pajamas talking with her in the dark foyer about hiking, bears, and how I turned around. She said, “People get so afraid of bears, they’re afraid to leave the house. But it’s fine out there.” Her husband was moving stuff from the car to the basement and after talking with Noelle, I didn’t see them again.

I felt relieved that they were ok and that I wouldn’t be spending my night talking with search and rescue, only to find out they died on a hike. I felt like an overprotective mother, but come on, who does that?

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider

 

Day 39: Feeling Vulnerable on a Hike

During the bike tour, the guide recommended a few hikes in the area that I wanted to try. I was already staying on the side of a mountain in West Vancouver, so the drive would be an easy 15 minutes to the trail head.

That morning, I finished up a blog post about how I had felt on day 5: depressed. I was nervous about posting it because it was so raw. The beginning of my trip was not easy. I experienced a tremendous amount of change in a very short period of time and had a hard time figuring out my new normal.

I uploaded the blog post and left for the hike around 4:00 pm. When I arrived at Eagle Bluff Trail, the Olympic rings were still on display from 2010. There was a vacant ski lift, swaying in the cool summer breeze. The clearing of trees showed the runs that skiers traversed the hills during the winter months.

The total trail was just under six miles and 1,500 ft elevation gain. Large rocks quickly appeared on the dirt trail, making the incline a little more difficult. I passed several ponds and lakes.

The green trees against the bright blue sky reminded me of why I wanted to go to the Pacific Northwest so badly. After being in the California drought for more than a decade, it was what I needed. I could feel life growing in the forest.

Continuing to climb, the trail turned into roots from the towering trees above. They provided great shade, but were definitely trip hazards. A fellow hiker tripped on a root when she looked up to see me and fell. The guy with her and I made sure she was ok and they continued on.

Starting the trail, I didn’t have cell service. As I continued to climb, cell service would sporadically appear and a text message would come through – messages of concern from friends and family. Then the Facebook notifications appeared. Words of encouragement after reading my blog post on depression.

I started to panic and thought, “Why did I post that? I shouldn’t have written about it.” I felt embarrassed and exposed as I thought about all of the people who I’m connected with on Facebook – old coworkers, family, friends, and neighbors. I desperately wanted to take down the post but didn’t have much cell service. The entire climb up, I worried about that post and how it would make me look: weak.

When I arrived at the top of the mountain, there were a few people taking pictures and enjoying the view. I found a large rock to sit on, eat a powerbar, and admire the view. It was incredible!

Looking to the west, I could see mountains surrounded by the ocean. To the south was the ocean with some smoke in the background from a fire burning in the bog. To the southeast was the city of Vancouver. With 180 degree, the views didn’t stop.

I sat in awe and reminded myself that the reason I’m blogging about my trip is because I want people to experience what I’m experiencing. Sometimes it’s lonely, scary, and confusing. I was determined not to be afraid of revealing who I really am. I’ve spent so much of my life trying to please others and to be “good enough.”

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I believe God created each of us to be unique and I think he delights in who we are. I try my best to follow the path God has set for me. But society, parents, the workplace, friends, the church, and strangers all have expectations of who we should be. After trying to get the approval of all of these people, I finally broke. It was exhausting and left me feeling alone. Over the last few months, I decided to be me. I have to keep reminding myself of this as it doesn’t come naturally. I’m a people pleaser and I hate disappointing people. I decided I would leave the post up.

The climb was worth the view. A chipmunk attempted to get into my backpack several times and I had to keep scaring him away. I headed back down the mountain so I would finish before dark. On my way back down, I took a wrong turn and ended up at the top of the ski lift. I saw two very fit and attractive guys who looked to be in their late 20s taking photos. One guy had his shirt off, while the other took pictures. They also had a small dog with them. I couldn’t help but laugh in my head. Hopefully the pictures were for something legitimate, but I wondered if they were for his Tinder profile.

When I walked around the ski lift area, the bugs started to attack and they seemed to love my ears. The buzzing sound would make me scream every time. The guys I had seen a few minutes earlier showed up and asked if I knew where the trail was to get back down. I told them I think we made a wrong turn and it was back up the other way. Of course, a bug flew near my ear and I screamed, looking like a maniac.

The guys started heading down the rocky path. I went back to the trail and headed towards where I thought it diverged. I ran into a group of four young, attractive people in their 20s. One of the girls asked me for directions and I showed her on my map where they needed to go. I asked if they were heading to the top because it was getting pretty late. They said they were heading to the top to watch the fireworks.

My bike tour guide told me about the fireworks. It was their annual firework competition. Sweden was going to display their best fireworks by setting them off from a barge in the water. The previous Saturday, South Africa showcased their fireworks and the final show would be the following Saturday with South Korea.

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I didn’t want to hike down in the dark after the fireworks. Plus, I had a great view of the harbor from my Airbnb. I continued to the bottom and made it my car around 9:00 pm. When I got back to the Airbnb, I realized I didn’t have any food. I used Yelp to find a place, but most places didn’t deliver to West Vancouver.

I called a pizza place in West Vancouver and asked if they’d deliver. The man who answered was annoyed and said he would not deliver because they closed at 10:00 pm and he’s really busy. I said it was only 9:20 pm but I could come pick it up. After arguing with him, and having to call him back, he took my order and said, “If you’re not here to pick it up in 15 minutes, I’m closing up and you won’t be able to pick it up”. Dang.

I hurried there and picked up my pizza. They were not busy and I’m guessing he just wanted to close early to see the fireworks. I took my pizza back to the Airbnb and ate in the large dining room that overlooked the harbor. I sat in the dark so I could see the fireworks better. For 30 minutes, Sweden showed off their best fireworks in a stunning show.

I read through the messages, comments, texts, and emails that people had sent me about my blog post. Even though I still felt embarrassed, it felt good to know so many people could relate to my struggle and were there to encourage me when I needed it. I’m not alone. To date, that’s one of my most read posts.

Post Edited by: Mandy Strider

 

Day 34: Hiking and Discovering Tinder

The fan attempted to cool me off as I relaxed in my Airbnb, and I researched places to stay in Vancouver, British Columbia – my next destination. Sadly, I was finding some bad places online. For example, I found two listings by the same guy for $27 a night. In one listing, you could stay in the old, crappy motorhome sitting in his driveway. You are allowed to use the indoor bathroom and kitchen, however. The other listing was a couch in his living room. It was looking like Vancouver was going to be an expensive city to stay in.

To pass the time that evening, I decided to bite the bullet and sign up for Tinder. I had heard that Tinder has changed and now people find actual relationships on there, not just hook-ups. Very quickly, I started to get matches and messages, which felt a little overwhelming. It was also addicting. I had a hard time stopping myself from swiping – the guys on there didn’t end. I wanted to see who else was out there.

The next day, I went for a hike in the mountains about 45 minutes east of Seattle, called Granite Lakes Trail. I found the trail on an app I use frequently called, All Trails. It was about eight miles long, and involved just under 2,400 ft elevation gain. I enjoy a hard hike because it feels like a successful workout.

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I didn’t start the hike until around 3:00pm (I was up too late diving into the world of Tinder). The stifling heat made sweat start to pour right away. The trail winded through the trees, had some amazing views, and at times had a river nearby.

 

About a mile into the trail, I passed three older women, each about 50 feet away from each other. Shortly after that, I passed a man and his mother. After that, I didn’t see another person the entire hike. This can be a little scary at times but I’m pretty used to it.

After 3.5 miles, I had to stop and put on bug spray as bugs were eating me alive. There was no breeze and the spray sat on top of my sweat. Shortly after I stopped to put on bug spray, I heard something in the bushes that lined the narrow trail. I stopped, turned off my headphones, and looked around.

Researching trails in the area, I saw reviews that said people had seen a mountain lion. People gave advice about never turning your back on a mountain lion, always look them in the eye, and back up slowly.

This terrified me because I was used to preparing for black bears. With black bears, you should make yourself look large, talk, make noise, and scare them off. Reading those reviews about mountain lions, and how they can easily tear you apart, made me paranoid.

Hearing something in the bushes made my heart race. I was certain it was a mountain lion and he would kill me. I slowly pulled out a small pocket knife from my side pouch on the waist belt of my backpack. I opened it and held it on top of my trekking pole. I slowly walked in silence with my heart racing, looking in all directions. I know that knife likely wouldn’t save me, but it made me feel like it was better than nothing. These are the times it’s scary hiking alone.

Terrified, I ventured on and made it to the top, which had a beautiful lake. There were some giant rocks just off the lake to the side so I hopped over smaller rocks to a large one that I could sit on and eat a snack. The mosquitos were insane at the lake so I put more bug spray on and watched them coast on the water.

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After eating my power bar, I headed back down the trail. The sun was behind the mountain as dusk set in. By the time I got to my car, I was starving. It took about 15 minutes to get to the highway and I searched for somewhere to eat.

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I spotted a Costco off the highway, and a slice of cheap pizza sounded delicious. As I walked towards the window, the employee announced, “Last call for food”. I picked up my pace since I was in the parking lot and he said “Ok, just for you, I’ll stay open.” I ordered a slice of pizza and a frozen yogurt. Sitting outside to eat, the sun had now set and it was dark outside.

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By the time I got back to the Airbnb, it was around 9:30 pm, and I was exhausted. A match from Tinder asked if I wanted to go over to his house but I declined. I showered and went to bed. As I laid in bed, I was “super-liked” by a guy who was 36 years old.

His first message to me was, “You know those word association tests? The first thought that came to my mind when I saw your photo yesterday was that you were my kindred spirit.”

I asked him what made those words to mind. He responded, “You look REALLY familiar. When I look inward to understand where this feeling comes from, I stumble across a divergence between who I am, and who I imagine I am. Your image represents who I think I am, so it makes me really happy. It’s like you are a ‘warm and fuzzy’ machine on full blast! But that is just physicality; important, yet ultimately fixed. What about the things that we can change?”

“Whoa,” I thought. “Maybe I got myself into more than I expected”.

Post Edited by: Misty Kosek

 

Days 22-24: Summary of Portland, Oregon

I spent that Sunday writing for my blog and hanging out at the hostel. The day after that I went to The Grotto. It’s a Catholic place for peace, prayer, and reflection. Being a Monday, the place was mostly empty. There is an elevator on the side of the steep mountain that takes you to the top. I wandered the property, admired the grounds, and sat in silence and said some prayers to God.

After the Grotto, I met my friend Justin again at the hostel. We walked down to a restaurant and sat on the rooftop patio. The entire week that I was in Portland it was blazing hot. It reached 100 degrees one day. The patio was nice, but there wasn’t a breeze so I started to sweat. We had a couple of beers and some pizza. We had a great time talking about politics and life. Justin’s girlfriend got off work and joined us later but we had already finished eating. We stuck around a little while longer so she could also eat some food. They told me about their recent camping experience and showed me the battle wounds from the mosquitos that attacked them.

After dinner, Justin walked back with me to the hostel so he could get his bike that he left there. We talked about the new movie that was in theaters, Leave No Trace. The movie is based in Forest Park (where I hiked a few days before) and it was filmed there. I decided to go see the movie at a local artsy theatre near the hostel.

I bought my ticket at the window outside and the guy selling the ticket was really friendly and we chatted briefly. I went to the concession stand and ordered some milk duds and a cider.

The guy behind the counter said, “You want to pull out your cavities huh?”

I laughed, “They force me to eat slowly.”

He said, “I like your necklace. It goes really well with your shirt.”

I responded, “Why, thank you. This is the shirt I always wear it with.”

Every single time I wear that shirt and necklace together, I get a compliment about the necklace, mostly from men. Those small interactions made me feel so good. I sat in the theater waiting for the movie to start and thought to myself, “I’m back. This is the Christy that I know – the Christy that has friendly conversation with strangers.” It had been a rocky few weeks as I tried to find my place in my new world of traveling. Something kept being off. I didn’t feel like myself most of the time. This made me feel like me. I felt happy to hang out with a friend, happy to see a movie, and my energy was positive – inviting others to talk to me.

Around noon the next day, I headed to my car, which was parked across the street from the hostel, in hopes of doing more sightseeing. When I closed my door, I felt a draft. I turned around and discovered that my rear passenger window was smashed! I got out and looked around and the glass was shattered inside the car and on the pavement. I’d never had my car broken into before and it felt horrible. I was worried about what was taken because I still had some bags, including my checkbook, in the trunk that was only covered with the trunk cover.

Thankfully, it appeared everything was still there. I was so furious because the hostel warned me about car break-ins in the area. It’s a nice area, but the homeless problem is bad in Portland and so are car break-ins. The hostel employees recommended that I empty my car so I had taken out almost everything. I figured the stuff in my trunk was covered. In the back seat, I only had a case of water bottles, and a bag full of books. I put a black picnic blanket over the books that sat on the floor behind the driver’s seat because the blanket blended in with my upholstery.

Unfortunately, that made it look like I was hiding something. It appears the criminal lifted up the blanket, saw it was books, and took off (likely disappointed). I’m assuming my alarm scared them off as well.

I had no idea how long the window had been broken and it felt like such a violation. I’m super diligent about locking my doors and not leaving valuables in my car or in plain sight. I go out of my way to try to make sure this doesn’t happen.

I called the police but was on hold for over 15 minutes. While I waited, I saw there was a form you can fill out online so I started to complete it. When a guy finally answered, he said he could send an officer out but it would take about an hour. I asked if there was a difference in filling out the report online and the guy said no but if there is video footage, the officer would review the footage with me to see if I could identify the person. Considering I don’t live in Portland, I knew I wouldn’t be able to identify anyone, and there likely wasn’t any footage.

I filled out the report online even though I know the police were not actually going to look for the criminal. It’s not a top priority for them. I still filed a report because I wanted their crime stats to reflect the terrible amount of break-ins.

I called my car insurance company and they put me on a three-way call with a local glass repair shop. The cost to replace the window was $255 and my deductible was $500 so I decided not to go through insurance. Thankfully, the local repair shop ordered my window in the last-minute for a same-day repair. I ate lunch and an hour later, took my car to the shop.

There was a middle-aged guy getting his window repaired from an attempted break-in. He travels between Portland and Seattle a lot for work and said this is the second time this has happened to him in three years in Portland. This time his car was parked in a parking garage. I figured the window repair shops must make a killing there because of all of the break-ins. However, the woman at the shop said business hadn’t been as good this year. I wondered, “What if window repair shops are the ones breaking windows, or hiring people to break windows? That’s how they get all their customers.” I know, I’m a conspiracy theorist. But it is unfortunate that when crime is high, their business is doing well.

While we waited for our cars to be repaired, the guy told me about Portland and Seattle. He said in Seattle, the homelessness problem has gotten so bad that the city spends 50 million dollars a year to combat the problem. Recently, the city asked for another 50 million from taxpayers. The citizens pushed back and asked how the city was spending the money. They finally put together some data and said they helped 5,000 people. But the guy in the shop told me that’s too much money to help only 5,000 people. Plus, the city didn’t say how many of those 5,000 people relapsed back into homelessness. The problem is that their programs require that people stay off drugs and alcohol. If people don’t abide by that, they go back on the streets.

It was frustrating to hear that car break-ins are the norm in Portland. It felt like the police don’t care and just accept that it’s going to happen. I got my window repaired but the fear that my car would get broken into has made me paranoid since. I also started to notice shattered glass on the side of the street and on sidewalks. That’s how often it happens.

Since my day was ruined for sightseeing, I decided to take care of errands. I went to the post office to mail a book back to a friend, and went to Chase to see what sort of options they have available for investing. I met a banker named Michelle. She is in her late 20s to early 30s. She was beautiful with long black hair that had big curls, her nails were done, and she was nicely dressed. After quickly discussing my options (which were really to find somewhere else to invest) we talked about life. I told her about my travels and selling my house. She told me that she was divorced and has a little girl around five years old. Her daughter told her recently that she was boring. We laughed at the bluntness of children. After that comment, Michelle started doing little trips with her daughter and going on adventures.

Michelle and I also talked about dating. She had been dating a guy and she was afraid he’ll want to move in. She said, “I’m perfectly happy living apart. I realized it’s so much easier to clean up after just me and my daughter. Not having a messy husband to clean up after is nice.” We talked about how we’d both prefer not to be married again. She very much enjoys having a partner, but also having her own space. It was nice talking to her and having some “girl talk”.

That evening I decided to try ice cream from Salt and Straw. I tried to go a few days prior but the line was too long. I got lucky and the line was only about 15 people long this time. On the walk there, I passed a homeless man. He was thin with a white beard, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk. He had lots of change sitting in front of him, sorted in stacks (pennies together, nickels together, etc). He asked for change and I said I didn’t have any.

I kept thinking about that man as I waited in the ice cream line. How he valued every penny he had, all sorted and stacked in front of him. I couldn’t get him out of my head. I’m always torn when it comes to giving to homeless people but if I’m feeling like I should give, then I do. I think it’s God’s nudge to help the person. I decided that since I broke a $10 bill for the ice cream, I’d give him $3. I saw a video recently about homeless people and most of them said they just want to be seen – to be noticed as a human being. Someone looking them in the eye was a big deal. I walked back by the man, looked him in the eye, and gave him the $3. He looked up at me with sweet, kind, and surprised eyes. He said “Thank you” and I kept on walking.

The following day I had to check out of the hostel but I drove to the arboretum before leaving town. I had wanted to see all the trees there but the day before was ruined. Since I had checked out of the hostel, my car was full of all of my stuff, including my expensive electronics. When I parked my car, there was a sign warning me about leaving valuables in the car. I only walked around the arboretum for about 20 minutes and I couldn’t enjoy it. All I could think about was what if someone broke into my car, my brand new, very expensive laptop and all my electronics (like my camcorder) were on the backseat because my trunk was full. If someone broke the window again, they could easily get those items. I went back to the car and decided the arboretum would have wait until another day.

I made one final stop on the way out of Portland, the Pittock Mansion. Again, there was a sign about taking valuable out of your car.

Thankfully, I found a parking spot near the front entrance and felt that if I hurried through, I could see the outside of the mansion quickly and get back to my car. I was lucky and the guy working there let me see the inside of the ground keeper’s quarters, even though I didn’t have a ticket. I saw an amazing view of the city and then headed back to my car.

All was safe and sound and I decided to hit the road and head to Whidbey Island, WA. I really enjoyed my time in Portland but it was time to keep heading north.

Post Edited by: Misty Kosek

Days 19-21: Learning About Portland, Oregon

I often go on bike tours when I’m checking out a new city because bike tours are the perfect way to see the sights and learn about the city’s history. You go faster than walking but slower than a car. It’s the perfect speed. Plus, you get some exercise and can feel the breeze.

I started a bike tour in Portland at 9:00 am. There was a family of four (the kids were around 8-12), and a single female in her late 20s or early 30s. The kids immediately went up front near the tour guide. I stayed in the back and chatted a bit with the single female. She was from the San Francisco area and traveling alone. She figured Portland was an easy flight and she’d never been before.

We rode our bikes through the city, the old China town, under bridges, and even got to stop for 15 minutes to shop around a little. The tour guide recommended we check out Blue Star donuts during the stop so the family of four and myself headed there. While I liked Voodoo donuts, Blue Star donuts tasted higher end. They had artisan flavors that were really unique using quality ingredients. The price is high though – around $3.50 each.

On the bike tour, I learned things about the city – like why it’s called Stump Town. The city started as a port town and was growing so quickly that they had to cut down trees to make room. But they did a pretty crappy job and left the stumps of the trees around.

You might think the city is named Portland because of the port activity, but it’s actually because the two founders had an intense coin toss to determine who could name the city. One guy was from Boston, Massachusetts and the other was from Portland, Maine. They both wanted to name this new city after their hometowns. The guy that won the battle was from Portland, Maine so he named this city Portland as well. If that coin toss had gone the other direction, it would’ve been named Boston.

You can see the growth in Portland’s recent history by all of the high-rise condos that have gone up and are continuing to be built. They’re all close together, look modern, and have a clean look to them.

Homelessness is a big problem for the city and the homeless population is not all centralized like in L.A. Homeless people are scattered throughout the city and you can see them all the time.

Portland’s water supply was so bad way back in the day because the water from the local river was extremely polluted. Because the water made them sick, people mostly drank beer. People were always drunk, all day! Then in 1912, a businessman named Simon Benson came along and said that it was crazy and dangerous that everyone was drunk all the time. He particularly didn’t like that his workers were drunk at time lunch. To fix the problem, he gave the city $10,000 to install 20 bronze drinking fountains which gave the city fresh drinking water. You can still see them around the city today.

These are the reasons I love doing bike tours. I always learn so much history about a city in an entertaining way, that I feel connected to the place. Once the bike tour was finished, I checked out Powell Book Store. This famous bookstore is gigantic! It has multiple floors, old and new books, accessories, and has a really cool vibe. I spent a couple of hours there and bought a few books, including maps of Alaska and Canada in case I lost cell service and got lost on the next leg of my journey.

After the book store, I headed to the art museum because they had an exhibit called The Shape of Speed. The tour guide also told us that on Thursdays admission was only $5. When I went to the counter to buy my $5 ticket, I was informed the price of $5 only applied to the first Thursday of the month. Dang it. I ended up paying $20 to get in. But the series of cars on display was worth it. There was a car that looked like a version of the mini-van we know today.

The cars on display were so unique and unlike any cars I’ve seen. For example, there was an orange car that only had one wheel in the back instead of two. The back of it was narrow to accommodate only having one wheel. The plaque next to it read, “Only one prototype Airomobile was ever built. It was projected to sell for $550, when a new 1937 Ford Tudor sedan was $579. Lewis drove his three-wheeled car all over the United States to demonstrate it, completing 45,000 miles in less than a year, and averaging 43.6 mpg. But he failed to attract financial backing to put his curious car into production.”

Think about how crazy that is. If this car had gotten financial backing, this could be the style we drive around today. It made me realize that the only difference in a design being successful or not is what ends up being financially backed. All these unique artists competed and the designs that didn’t get financing disappeared. Just like that. These cars were works of art and it was an awesome experience to see them.

The next day, I went for a 6-mile hike in Forest Park. The park is only a ten-minute drive from downtown but it felt like I was deep in the forest. I only ran into a few people. This is one of the reasons I ended up really liking Portland – nature is right there and it feels secluded. The trees and greenery looked a lot like Olympic National Forest that I had hiked the week before.

The following day was a Saturday and I checked out the Saturday market – which is actually on Saturday and Sunday. It was neat to see all the little shops and booths but I’m trying really hard not to buy stuff. Souvenirs and trinkets just end up in a drawer somewhere and I’d rather have memories and picture to remember trips, not more stuff. I walked around but didn’t buy anything.

I looked on Facebook events a few days prior to see what was going on in the city for the weekend. I saw that Bill Burr was doing standup at the Keller Auditorium. His name sounded familiar so I googled him and watched a few videos. He seemed funny so I bought tickets.

I took an Uber pool to get to the theater. My driver’s name was Atnafu and he is from Ethiopia. He’s been in Portland for the last six years. He enjoys it there but said it can be hard with such rainy winters. We picked up another rider since it was an Uber pool. He is a drummer in his late 20s, from Austin, TX who plays at a piano bar. He wanted to check out Portland and asked several friends but they all backed out at the last-minute so he said, “Well, I’m going on my own then.” He had spent the last week exploring the city and was going to check out the local piano bar. Next, he said he’ll check out all the surrounding nature.

I liked that this was the second person I had met in a couple of days who was traveling alone. I wasn’t happy that they were alone, but I was happy that they didn’t let their friends stop them. Sometimes that happens. Friends bail or you don’t know anyone who can travel with you. Don’t let it stop you. Go anyway. You’ll likely be pleasantly surprised by the experience and the people you’ll meet.

I arrived at the theater, grabbed a glass of wine, and got to my seat. Bill Burr put on a great show! The guy who did the intro for Bill was also really funny. I was getting used to going to events alone and this time it didn’t bother me. I like seeing comedy shows so that was my focus, not on being alone.

After the show, I took an Uber pool back to the hostel. I got into the front seat because there was a guy and girl in the backseat. The guy sounded like a surfer dude and had longish blonde/light brown hair. Here’s some of the conversation between these 20 somethings:

Guy: “Oh dang, I didn’t know we were picking someone up. I only did Uber pool once. I made a comment to the girl in the car about Africa being a country and she was like, ‘it’s a continent’ and I was like ‘damn, don’t be like that. I got sisters from Ethiopia.’ So I was ruined on Uber pool.”

Guy: “Whoa! What’s going on tonight? Where are all these people coming from? Dang, I have major FOMO (fear of missing out).”

Me: “Bill Burr was performing at the theater.”

Guy: “Oh, is that where you were?”

Me: “Yes, it was good.”

Guy to girl: “Dang, you should have gotten pizza. If I was high, I would’ve already had Dominos ordered.”

Guy realizes he’s more drunk than the girl.

Girl: “You had a lot more to drink than me.”

Guy to girl: “Yeah, I was keeping tabs. What? I was paying for the drinks. I had four and you only had one. Then I was like ‘Dang, am I too drunk?’”

Guy to girl: “Do you have at least 20 more minutes left in you before you fall asleep?”

Girl: “Yes”

Guy: “Can I stay the night?”

Girl: “Yes”

Guy: “I figured I could but thought it would be gentleman of me to ask. I talk a lot more than you when I’m drunk.”

We arrived at the girl’s place and the guy was on crutches, so he was struggling to get out of the car.

The driver and I laughed.

Driver: “Lol, they didn’t know I was picking someone else up. I usually drive before midnight. It’s a different crowd after midnight.”

Indeed it is.

Post Edited by: Misty Kosek

Days 12-15: Backpacking in a Rainforest (Olympic National Park)

My friend Mandy had planned a four-day backpacking trip in Olympic National Park, Washington. The plan was to hike about 14 miles to the Enchanted Valley and hike back out. Mandy’s friend, Lori, was flying to Bend, Oregon and then on July 5th, they would drive to the forest and start hiking.

Mandy told me she’d pick me up in Hood River, which is about three hours north of Bend. This worked out perfectly because I could leave my car and valuables at my friend Tracey’s house while I was backpacking.

During the last five minutes of the thirty-minute drive to Tracey’s house that morning, a warning light flashed on my dashboard warning me about low tire pressure. “You’ve got to be kidding me”, I thought. Tracey’s husband, Farron, checked all four of my tires while I unloaded my backpacking gear from my car. He found out my front drivers-side tire was low. Farron said he had an inflator and he’d check it periodically while I was away to see if it was a bigger problem.

Just after he checked the tire, Mandy and Lori pulled in the driveway in Mandy’s new Subaru Crosstrek. They made quick bathroom breaks, Tracey headed to the airport to pick up her sister and nephews, and I grabbed my gear and squeezed it into Mandy’s car. I sat in the backseat next to my backpack and it was surprisingly very comfortable and roomy.

We left around 9:30am. The drive was about five to six hours from Hood River but the time flew by.

We all talked and got to know each other better. Mandy is in her mid-30s, has short blonde hair (with part of it shaved), and is thin. She always has a huge, energetic smile on her face that shows her love of life. For work, she’s an X-Ray Technician at a hospital in Bend.

In her 20s, Mandy was a professional skater. She told us about life on the road while competing. You want to talk about pay inequality? Look at female sports. At one point, Mandy was the number-one-ranked woman’s skateboarder in the US. The top prize she ever received was $3,000. Meanwhile, the top prize for the exact same event for the male was $25,000. I couldn’t believe it when she told us. I know people’s argument for women’s sports is “but people don’t watch them.” But that is not true. Men’s sports do get more viewership, but that is because of marketing. I remember when Apolo Ohno was in the winter Olympics. There was a huge story and background. The program talked about his training and whole life story. I felt like I knew the guy and was so excited to root for him during the Olympics. If these organizations did the same story backgrounds and marketing for women as they do for men, the viewership would be there.

Mandy’s life as a professional skater seemed hard. They often had to stay at people’s houses or in vans. But sometimes kids would come up to her after recognizing her on the street and be so excited to meet her. As she told us stories of her former life, I thought, “How cool is she? How cool is it that I know her?”

Lori is in her 50s, fit, has a daughter who is in college, and has the kindest heart you’ll ever know. After I told them about my divorce and marriage of 10 years, Lori told us about her divorce several years ago. I know there are always two sides to a story, but it seems Lori got the short end of that stick. Lori is very smart and used to be an architect. During the recession, she transitioned to work for the Girl Scouts. I was a brownie for one year growing up, but never got to be a girl scout.

Mandy and Lori met a decade ago when Mandy was teaching Lori’s daughter how to skateboard as part of the Girl Scout’s program. I think it’s awesome they became friends and have been friends for a decade. Mandy only got into backpacking about two years ago – once she could afford the equipment. Lori has gone on a few backpacking trips with Mandy and different friends. They were also preparing a trip later in the summer in the Sierra mountains so this trip would be good training for them.

We pulled up to the ranger station in Olympic National Park around 2:30pm. We got in line behind a couple who was also getting a permit. While one of us waited in line, the others took turns using the restroom and buying a little coin in the little gift shop we were standing in (great for opening our bear cans). We had been in line for about 10 minutes while the couple in front of us had no cares in the world asking the ranger every possible question known to man. The ranger was also in no hurry as he volunteered unnecessary details.

While Mandy was in line, I walked over to the information board and read an entire flyer about berries. I walked back over to Mandy and said, “Dude, I read an entire flyer about berries and you haven’t even moved an inch.” We laughed at the absurdity of the couple in front of us.

Finally, after about 20 minutes, it was our turn to talk to the ranger. It cost $8 per person per night to backpack overnight. We each paid for three nights, answered a few of the ranger’s questions, and headed out.

The drive on the gravel road up to the trailhead took about 30 minutes and was already so beautiful, I knew this was going to be a great trail.

Once Mandy parked the car on the side of the road near the trailhead (there were a lot of cars there) we sorted through our stuff to make sure we had everything. Mandy recorded asking us where we were going and both Lori and I said “I don’t know. Wherever you’re going.” We laughed because Mandy had done all of the research and we couldn’t remember the name of the trail we were about to hike.

We started the hike at 4:00pm and figured we’d hike as far as we could before dark so we’d have less to hike the following day. It would also give us more time to spend in the Enchanted Valley. I’m usually the only person starting a hike this late in the day and the fact that they had no problem starting a hike this late me feel right at home.

The trail started off sort of wide. Two people could fit across and it was mostly uphill. It was so green, lush, and dense, that we kept stopping for pictures. The first campsite was three miles in so we knew we’d have to go at least that far. By “campsite”, I mean a very small flat area that has already been used for setting up a tent.

At mile three, we arrived at the campsite, which overlooked a raging blue-green river. The campsite was at least 20-30 feet above the river on a ledge. There was a fire pit that had been made and a nice log to sit on. We stopped here for a snack break. It was a beautiful campsite but there wasn’t a way down to get water at the river and we wanted to hike more than three miles, so we kept going.

The trail became narrow and only one person could fit across. There were ferns everywhere, it was very humid, and pretty hot. I almost stepped on a giant banana slug and called the girls over to look. We were all amazed at this fat, slimy slug slowly making its way down the trail.

We continued to climb and about an hour after leaving the campsite, Lori and Mandy stopped to look at something in the ferns. Right after, Lori noticed she had lost her glasses. She had them on a strap that goes around the head, but they had been hanging from her shirt instead because the humidity kept making them slide off her face. She can’t see very well without them and they were new. Because of insurance, she wouldn’t be able to get new glasses until October. She figured they fell off somewhere on the trail so she and Mandy started backtracking. I searched the area around where we had stopped but didn’t see anything. I walked back down the trail and asked two women who were setting up their tent if they had seen any glasses. They hadn’t.

Mandy and Lori backtracked a lot and after about 20 minutes, didn’t find the glasses. We decided to continue forward and we’d look again in the spot they had stopped earlier. I said a prayer in my head, “God, please let us find her glasses in the next three minutes. She needs these glasses.” We got back towards the place they had stopped and I looked down in the ferns and moved some branches with my trekking pole and found the glasses! Within two minutes. We all rejoiced that Lori could see again! It’s funny because I had looked all over there before and didn’t see anything.

Around 9:00pm and after hiking six miles, we found a campsite that would do just fine. According to the map, we should have arrived at a campsite that had a porta potty but as most maps go, the mileage was incorrect. It was starting to get dark and we were exhausted so we started to set up camp.

There wasn’t enough space for both of our tents where the fire pit was so I set my tent up about 15 feet away. It was a little scary being further away from them because there are bears in the area. Mandy gave me her whistle and said to blow it if I heard any bears and she’s come save me with the gun she brought.

Mandy started a fire, which was nice. We all cooked dinner on our stoves in the dark using headlamps. It was a fun time and we shared this amazing berry crumble dehydrated dessert that Mandy brought. I had never really brought desserts on backpacking trips before and man, it’s totally worth it! That tasted so good after a day of hiking.

When you’re in bear country, you are required to carry a bear canister. A bear canister is a locked container that a bear cannot open. You have to put all food items and items that have a scent locked inside and put it about 50 feet away from your tent. Lori grabbed her bear can so we could all walk up the hill towards the trail to place the canisters. But when she grabbed it, there was a giant banana slug making its way from the side to the top of her can! She screamed because those things are nasty. She got it off her canister with a stick but it left a slimy residue. From this point on, we were always paranoid when grabbing our bear canisters. And poor Lori. She kept dreaming that night that a banana slug would crawl into her backpack or shoe.

It was hot that night so I slept in my shorts and shirt instead of my thermals. The next morning, we made our breakfast (oatmeal and coffee), filled up water, and packed up our stuff. It took awhile so we didn’t leave camp until around 11:00am. After about a mile, we found the trail that led to the campsite with a porta potty. We hiked down a pretty steep trail for about 15 minutes and got to the porta potty, which was wooden and hidden by ferns and trees. It was so small, that I couldn’t sit down because my legs are too long and my knees hit the door. It was also full of flies and mosquitos. We just wanted a place to take a number two but that thing was incredibly disgusting.

We hiked back up the trail and continued on. It started to rain so we put our rain covers on our backpacks. It was still pretty warm so Lori and I didn’t put our jackets on. It only rained briefly and then would sprinkle here and there.

As we hiked along, we described the forest as “Jurassic” because everything was gigantic! The ferns were as tall as Mandy and Lori, the trees towered above us, and the insects were huge! It seriously looked like we were in the movie Jurassic Park. It also looked like the movie Fern Gully and since there were so many ferns, we kept referring to it as Jurassic Park and Fern Gully (complete with theme music).

The trail was mostly uphill and we were getting tired. We knew we were close to the Enchanted Valley but the map was incorrect on the mileage. It would be a nine-mile day for sure. About 30 minutes before we got to the valley, it started raining pretty hard. We continued to hike along and then came across a log bridge that only had a railing on the north side of it, was slanted to the south and was suspended very high over a raging river. I am very afraid of heights when I don’t feel stable. When I worked at Target, I wouldn’t go up more than two steps on a ladder because I’d start to shake, sweat, and freak out. I’m 6’1” so thankfully, I can usually reach most things. I did not want to cross this bridge but it was raining, I was tired and cold, and the campsite was only about half a mile away. Mandy crossed first and I followed behind her. I grabbed the side railing tightly and my glove soaked up all the rain on the ledge. I made it because I knew I had no choice but to cross.

We arrived in the valley around 4:00pm and the rain turned into a sprinkle. Clouds hovered over the mountains, it was cold, and the view made it all worth it.

After looking around for a good campsite, we chose one near the river that also had a few trees covering it. Thankfully, Mandy and Lori brought two tarps and set them up to give us a break from the rain. Shortly after we got to camp and set up the tarps, it stopped raining. There was a log to sit on and a fire pit. We put on our pants and jackets, and sat on the log to rest and eat some quick snacks.

We sat on the wet log and admired the view of the steep mountain in front of us with clouds covering the top and swirling around. There were also pockets of snow in the crevasses across the river on the mountain. Shortly after eating our snacks, it started raining again so we got under the tarps. There was nowhere to sit over there so we sat on our bear canisters.

Mandy and Lori set up their tent (mine was already set up) and then we all made dinner. It was fun to sit under the tarp with rain coming down, in the cold. It felt like a true adventure. For dessert, we shared a crème Brule dehydrated meal that I brought. It was also delicious and I cannot recommend bringing desserts on backpacking trip enough.

We headed to bed once it started getting dark around 10:00 pm. I ventured to the porta potty about a quarter-mile away, which proved to be a mistake. The tall grass on the sides of the trail got my pants all wet and the porta potty was super small and just terrible.

Mandy and Lori’s tent was under the tarp but my tent was getting directly rained on. My tent is a very small two-person tent. I can only sit up if I’m directly in the center of it. I figured as long as I didn’t touch the sides, it should keep the rain out. It did very well in the rain, but in the morning, it was still raining and every once in a while, a drop of water would fall directly on my face and wake me up. Other times, mist sprayed my face. I was very confused as to where this water was coming from. It was also cold that night, probably in the 40s, so I used my thermals.

Finally, around 9:00 am, it stopped raining and we got out of our tents. I realized the water hitting my face was from the condensation that had built up in my tent. When rain on the outside would get too heavy, or a big drop would fall, it would knock the condensation on the inside of my tent to drop a droplet of water on me or spray a mist.

Mandy really wanted to fish so she grabbed her pole and attempted to get some fish in the river while Lori and I ate breakfast. Mandy caught a very tiny fish so she put it back. We’re not sure there were actually any fish in there that were any bigger.

The sun came out and we took advantage of being able to lay our tents and clothes out so they could dry off. It only took about an hour to dry things off so we could pack it all up. We packed up and headed out just before noon. The day was clearer, giving us even better views of the valley.

We came to that high bridge again and I started to freak out. I didn’t think I could cross now that I knew it was coming. Mandy crossed and waited for me on the other side but I struggled to get myself to do it. Lori and Mandy told me not to look at the fast-flowing river below and instead just look straight across to the other side. I tried that but twice I looked down to make sure my feet were actually on the log and I wouldn’t slip off. Those brief glances down made me dizzy because I couldn’t not see the river. The movement of it made my head spin and I started sweating. I was in the middle and realized I had to finish so I took a deep breath and keep walking, trying my best not to look down. I made it and then Lori crossed it too. That is one of the scariest bridges I’ve ever crossed.

We continued to hike back to the trailhead, in the direction we came. The day was beautiful. It was warm with a cool breeze. We had funny conversations, crossed other small streams, passed huge fallen trees, ate all sorts of berries growing along the trail, and even saw bears! We had heard what we thought was a bear making a grunting noise above the trail and stood around to see if we could see the bear but we couldn’t see it. However, about 20 minutes later when we were in a valley area, we saw a small black bear foraging in the forest about 200 feet from us. Shortly after, we saw another one. He looked up at us, and then went back to foraging. See, black bears are scavengers. They’ll go for easy food, but generally are afraid of humans.

A couple of hours later, we saw a strange-looking bird that looked like he had a huge hole in his neck. He was making that extremely loud grunting sound, which made us realize it was not a bear that first time, it was this bird. It was a Blue Grouse and that was his mating call. We ended up seeing and hearing a few more. I mimicked their call and got pretty good at it and they seemed to think I was also a Blue Grouse. Later, we saw a female and she did not have the huge hole in her neck and I think I serenaded her pretty well with my call.

We set up camp very close to where we camped the first night, but this time we were close to each other, and had more seclusion from the trail. Mandy and Lori fished for a bit but didn’t catch anything.

I went to scope up water in the river into my water filter bag and the rocks were so slippery, that my foot slide into the river and I dropped to my knee. It hurt so bad because the bone on my left knee hit directly onto a rock. I put a band-aid on it because it was slightly bleeding. It was mostly just swelling up and was really painful. The next day hiking out, I could feel that knee hurting with each step.

I gathered some firewood but it was too wet and Lori and I couldn’t get a fire started. Mandy saved the day and got it to light and it burned for a little while (although she had to keep grabbing more small twigs).

We ate dinner, shared another dessert – seriously best thing during backpacking. We checked our bear canisters for slugs and got eaten by mosquitoes. Especially Lori. In the morning, she found bites all over her. It looked painful.

We headed back to the trailhead, which was six miles away. As we got closer, we saw more people hiking in for a small day hike. It was warm and humid again.

We arrived back at the trailhead around 1:00pm after hiking a total of 30 miles in four days. There was a large group of people in the parking lot preparing for their hike. Over ten rented beer canisters were spread out on a tarp with little piles of food. They had huge bags of pasta and I couldn’t imagine lugging that around.

We stopped at the ranger station to use the restrooms on our way out and then we hit the road. It would be a long drive back (about five to six hours to Hood River and nine hours to Bend). I didn’t realize how tired I was – I fell asleep in the backseat almost immediately. After about an hour, Lori was trying to find a place to eat on Yelp, but there was nothing around. Just farms. Mandy was really craving sushi because Bend doesn’t have any good sushi there. We decided we’d stop in Portland and get sushi there. We didn’t arrive until around 5:30pm but it was delicious sushi. Yes, we went to a nice sit-down restaurant after not showering for four days and being full of dirt and sweat. Don’t judge.

We arrived back to Hood River around 8:30pm so I could get my car. Mandy and Lori headed off to Bend and I talked with Tracey for a bit about the trip. She also let me know that she and her husband put air in my tire twice but it kept deflating so I’d need to get it checked it out (but it would get me to Portland, an hour away). She also said they couldn’t get my passenger side window to roll up. Great. I was having problems with that window before I left Los Angeles but the dealership supposedly fixed it. After juggling with the buttons several times, I got it to roll up but I’d have to get it checked out.

I headed to a suburb of Portland because I couldn’t check into the hostel until the following day. I drove through the gorge as the sun was setting and it was picture perfect and my heart felt full.

I had wanted to go backpacking in Washington but didn’t feel comfortable going alone. I was so glad I went with Mandy and Lori. We had great conversations, laughed a ton, and the scenery was unreal. I am grateful that God put them in my life and everything worked out perfectly. They were able to pick me up and drop me off on their way from Bend. I was able to leave my car at Tracey’s house so my valuables were protected. Tracey and her husband were able to help with my tire situation. Mandy planned the whole trip so all I had to do was go along. This was exactly what I needed. I had been mostly alone during my travels and spending four days with these wonderful women made me feel whole.

Click here to watch a 5 minute video of the trip!

Post Edited by: Misty Kosek

 

Days 9-11: Hood River, Oregon

After breakfast in Bend, I headed to Hood River, Oregon. I kept seeing these adorable little huts with drive-through lanes, called Dutch Bros Coffee. One of the huts was across the street from my motel and I stopped in the day before. During that trip, I ordered a delicious blended coffee drink and the guy gave me a stamp card and stamped all the little coffees so my next coffee would be free. On my way to Hood River, I saw another hut and stopped for my free coffee. They have genius marketing because the cute little design made me want coffee every time I saw one.

Full of green trees, mountains, and blue sky, the three-hour drive was beautiful…until I climbed to the top of the mountain. Suddenly, the sky turned cloudy and ominous. I stopped at this look-out point to take a picture and it was so cold and windy that I hurried and took my picture and ran back to the car!

Once I got to Hood River, it was warmer again – probably in the low 80s. It was quite nice outside. Hood River is a mountain town through a gorge, about an hour outside of Portland. It has about 7,700 people and about 30 minutes east of there is The Dalles, with a population of 15,500. I booked a motel in The Dalles since they had cheaper options, but my friend Tracey had just moved to Hood River so I headed there first.

I arrived in Hood River around 3:00 pm and went straight to Tracey’s house. Tracey used to be a Vice President at the company I worked for, had recently retired, and moved to Hood River. We had the same last day at the company and I had made a video for her retirement to celebrate all of her contributions. She and her husband were settling into their new home and I was their first visitor!

Tracey showed me around her new house and the charming backyard that was surrounded by trees. We had a snack and caught up on both of our recent adventures. Then we went for a walk around her neighborhood. The neighborhood is on top of a hill with great views down to the gorge. We walked down a gravel walking path near her house and passed farms with cows and farms with berries. It was peaceful, quiet, and it felt good to get some fresh air.

I look up to Tracey. She’s a great role model because she’s intelligent, hardworking, and curious. She had only been in Hood River for a couple of weeks and had already volunteered for a local organization and found all sorts of local hikes. Her capacity for work is truly astonishing.

For dinner, Tracey and her husband (Farron) took me to a nice restaurant by the river. It was the first time I had quality food at a nice restaurant for quite some time. We had a really fun time with great discussions. After dinner, I headed to The Dalles to check into my motel.

It was dark when I arrived to Motel 6 and the lobby was small. I asked if there was a room on the first floor and was told no, there was nothing available so I’d have to be on the second floor. The woman instructed me to park on the other side of the building, towards the back because there was a door and steps there, which were closer to my room. I followed her instructions but my keycard wouldn’t open the door. Frustrated, I dragged my suitcase and bags all the way to the door in the middle of the motel. That door wasn’t even locked so I went inside and first went to the lobby. The woman who helped me was on the phone so another woman assisted me.

Me: “My keycard wouldn’t open the back door so before I go all the way upstairs to my room, can you make sure I have a key that works?”

The woman: “Oh, that back door is persnickety. Guests tell us that sometimes it works, but only after they try it over and over. And other times it just doesn’t work at all.”

Me: “Persnickety. Really? Well you should tell that to her (glare at the other woman) because she specifically told me to park by that door so now I have to lug all my luggage around.”

Woman: “Sorry about that.”

Huffing and puffing, I reluctantly made multiple trips to carry my luggage to my room. A sign by the broken door read “Do not prop door open.” Really? Well if your door worked, people wouldn’t have to prop it open. And why does it matter? Considering your middle door doesn’t even lock. Things like this really irritate me.

When I got to my room, I realized it was decent and would do just fine for a few nights. There was a mini-fridge, which is always nice to have.

The next morning, I researched some hikes nearby and found one called Eightmile Loop Trail, which was actually 7 miles long. It also had over 1,200 feet elevation gain and was listed as only lightly trafficked.

I headed out and drove to the east and then south for about 45 minutes. The east side of the mountains were dry with yellow fields of dead grass. Occasionally, I spotted farms, with their giant rolling sprinklers painting the fields bright green. It looked like puzzle pieces because if it wasn’t being watered, it was dry and dead.

I arrived at the trailhead and there was a man about to start mountain biking and shortly after, a woman also showed up to mountain bike. The trail was a loop and started off covered in trees so there was a lot of shade. It was very green and lush, which I was happy about since the drive had been dry. There were wild flowers along the trail and it mostly climbed for the first five miles. The trail was well maintained but narrow and had a couple small bridges to cross over streams.

After about five miles, the trees cleared to this breathtaking view that extended for miles. It was incredible to see the thousands of pine trees that rolled over the mountains. To the east in the far distance, I could see where the land turned to more of a desert. This happens because the mountains are so high up, they gather all the moisture (which creates all the greenery) but then after the weather passes the mountains, there’s no precipitation left (so you end up with more of a desert environment).

After taking in the amazing view, I headed down the tree-covered trail towards the finish. All of a sudden, I saw a deer about 30 feet in front of me, on the trail. He just sort of looked at me for a minute and then slowly walked to the side and started eating some flowers.

I got back to my car and headed back to the motel, but I decided to take the route that heads west so I could go through Hood River on my way back. Unfortunately, I didn’t have cell service. I knew I needed to turn right from the trail head and thought it would be straight forward on how to get there. I was wrong. The road suddenly turned into gravel, was surrounded by trees, and nobody was around. After 30 minutes of this, the road split into 3 options. I couldn’t tell which way I should take and started to feel a little panicked as it was around 6:30pm and the sun was getting close to setting behind the mountain.

After sitting there for a minute, I decided turning left would be my best bet. I continued down the gravel road and started thinking what I would do if it got dark and I was still driving around on these roads. Would I turn around and try to backtrack? Wait, didn’t I make other turns? Would I remember where I turned?

After about another 10 minutes I saw a pickup truck coming from the opposite direction. I contemplated flagging him down and asking where I should go but I was too embarrassed. I continued on and the road turned back into pavement so I felt like I must be closer to a sign. To this point, there were no street signs or signs giving any directions. I pulled over when I saw an amazing view of Mount Hood to take a picture.

After another 10 minutes or so, I came to a road with a sign directing me to Hood River and I eventually regained cell service.

When I got back to the motel, I decided I would go on the 4-day backpacking trip with Mandy and her friend. I called the hostel in Portland to move my reservation and the guy said he would have to move people around and he’d email me in the morning to confirm if he was able to move it.

When I woke up, I had an email from the hostel saying they were able to move my reservation. I let Mandy know I would be joining her and then I spent the next several hours getting my supplies ready. I hadn’t done an overnight with just my backpack in about two years. I went to K-mart nearby and got some snacks and sorted through all my stuff.

It was the 4th of July and Tracey had invited me over for dinner with her and her husband. We hung out for a bit before enjoying some grilled burgers, potato salad, and vegetable salad. The food was so delicious and I was really enjoying having a home-cooked meal. And as always, great conversation.

Around 9:50pm, Tracey and I decided to drive around to see if we could find a spot on top of the mountain so we could see the fireworks. As we drove around the small-town streets, we could see people lined up everywhere – in parks, the sides of streets, the side of the road. We weren’t going to attempt to go to the bottom of the gorge where the majority of people were so we drove up a curvy road that went up the side of the mountain. Tracey found a place that she could park her car (on the side of the road) by slightly off-roading. There were lots of people who did the same thing along the road.

We got out of the car, crossed the street and had a beautiful view of the gorge. The fireworks started right away and we stood next to a couple of people, where the trees had a bit of a break so we could see the fireworks. It was so much fun! Occasionally a car drove by and we’d scoot closer to the grass; otherwise, we stood on the road. The show was great, there was a cool breeze, and it was just a fun outdoorsy environment.

After the firework show, I headed back to my motel to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the backpacking trip the next day.

Post Edited by: Misty Kosek