M.A. Van Wey Travel & Photo

I left my heart in the jungle

Jennifer and I have recently rediscovered our love of camping and hiking.

Our second camping trip this month took us to another national park in our province, one much closer to home.  The last camping adventure was numbing affair for my saddle (4 hours by motorbike), however this most recent trip was only an hour and a half.  A few small highways due north of town took us to Chaolaem Rattanakasin National Park.  On the way, only 10km out of town, we (I) hit a massive rock with the motorbike and promptly flattened the back tire.  Amazingly only 2 minutes passed before 3 cars in a row stopped to help us, a true testament to the kindness and generosity of Thai people.  We loaded the crippled bike and cargo onto the back of a pick-up, Jennifer climbed into the front and I, brave soul that I am, saddled the bike to hold it steady as we drove to the nearest mechanic.  The total time lost from our trip was only 30 minutes, from flat to fixed.

The highways wound through open plains and flat bottomed valleys, papaya plantations and rows of sugar cane and baby corn.  The last stretch of road took a sharp turn west into the now looming hills and rounded mountains of the park.  The climate changed immediately as we entered the claustrophobic spaces of tropical jungle.  Clouds rolled over our little highway and a misting rain announced our arrival.  We rolled into the park in the afternoon and found a large grove of banyan trees, under which we pitched our tent.  The humidity was maxed out under the lush canopy of the park and mosquitos the size of small birds were hovering menacingly as we raced to set up camp.  After a while we found that a healthy combination of citronella, Deet, and burning incense seemed to keep them quiet.  The humidity, however, was not as easy to get used to.

Our tent is that tiny little blue speck in the bottom left corner.

In total we spent 3 days and 2 nights in the park.  We had planned for another night; however the torrential downpours from the monsoon that occurred twice a day and twice a night soaked most of our clothes by the third day.  In addition, one of the aluminum tent poles broke and the splint I put on it failed after only a day.  Unlike the previous national park we visited, this one had decent trail access to the plethora of waterfalls and caves within its boundaries.  My favorite hike was on a trail that led for nearly 2 kilometers along a stream within a huge cave.  The trail emerged from the other end of the cave into a completely different world.  Enormous prehistoric palms with serrated edges and jagged thorns; vast canopy trees with buttresses splaying grandly across the forest floor; all of them towering over us and instilling a distinct awareness of our feeble stature.   Even the insects seemed to taunt our preconceptions of appropriate size.

The trail continued along the stream and quickly began to climb the valley, passing gushing cascades, waterfalls, and pools in which we bathed.  A wooden staircase formed the trail here, decrepit, slimy, and treacherous in places.  As my legs started to pump battery acid from the ascent, the trail entered a landscape too complex and erratic to describe properly in words.  At first we were squeezed tightly between massive boulders draped in a complicated latticework of roots, after which we emerged underneath a great waterfall, and then followed the trail up and along the back of it before opening the world into some kind of fantastical scene dreamed by Tolkien.  Here at the top of the stream, our dark little canyon continued forward yet the sheer cliffs and crags of the mountain still towered over us.  Then I could see…that the trail and stream actually go right through the mountain under a colossal arch a hundred meters above us.  Bats swooped around in their restless dance below the dripping stalactites and limestone ripples of the impossible architecture.  A small shrine had been erected under the arch next to a small strip of dirt for walking meditation.  Strangely, one of the statues on the shrine was of the Hindu god Ganesh.  On the far side of the arch, through another winding trail of jungle and stream, was a small temple where we stopped and had lunch.

That night, with sore muscles and a thirst unquenchable, we found a small shelter near our campsite with a bamboo platform.  Here we took shelter as another monsoon downpour soaked our peaceful glade.  Fortunately we planned ahead and carried with us a bag of freshly purchased beer and our travel game of Yahtzee.  A group of Thai travelers with a similar idea for shelter and fun joined us and the night transformed into a loud and hysterical session of Thai/English butchery and drinking games.  They drank us under the table with modesty.  When we were forced to drink by some roll of the dice, we’d take a swig; however, when it was their turn, down went cups of whiskey soda and whole liters of cheap beer.  A few of them succumbed to a kind of liquid self-destruction, and then the night was over.

Our last day was spent hiking trails in search of waterfalls and a fabled 20 meter waterslide called the Slider Waterfall.  We followed a few trails and blundered through signs written in Thai script, crossing our fingers that we took the right turn in the fork.  After 3 or 4 kilometers and peaking anxieties, the falls were before us.   A series of cascades tumbled down into pools at various levels of smoothly rolling granite, forming a continuous slide to a final drop and plunge at the bottom.  I could hardly contain the childlike giddiness that bubbled over as I stared out at the waterslide.  After scouting the route from top to bottom, then methodically testing each section like the adept scientist that I am, I calculated the risk of fatal concussion or mangled body to be slightly less than the perceived reward.  For some reason Jennifer refused to act as guinea pig for the full test run, so I volunteered.  Doing as I heard the locals do, I wedged myself into the slide at the top, damming the water and filling the pool behind me.  Then, just as the water was about to top over my body, I sat up and let the pool drain in a big rush.  I pushed off and rode the great flood, careening down the slick granite and through the turns.  I flew through the air off a lip in the rock, landing on my back with legs splayed in all directions like some kind of apprehensive break-dancer.  No time for dancing though, as my body was hurled again off the last ledge and into the deep pool below.  The process was repeated a dozen times with subtle variations, some of the more daring ones leading to painful scrapes and bruises.  Mostly though, the water and rock took us where it wanted and laughed at our petty attempts at acrobatics.

As the sky darkened and threatened more storms, we put our clothes on and turned back the way we came.  Our time was up:  the tent was in a sad shape, our clothes stinky and molding, and we were tired.  Completely satiated with our long weekend, we packed and left.  The winds whipped up as we broke camp and agreed with us that it was time to go.

***Reminder: Click on any of the images in these blog posts to view a larger and higher resolution version.  Highly recommended 😉


More photos from Tom Pha Phum National Park

Camping near Burma

This is the time of year where the normal plethora of Thai holidays seems to thin out and the weeks seem to drag on.  You can feel it at school, the tension between admin and teachers building with little annoyances like when to turn on the AC in the teacher’s lounge.  Everyone seems noticeably more tired and irritable.  I guess you get used to a holiday every week in Thailand, but unfortunately most of the first academic semester is void of them.  So thank Buddha for this past long weekend, Asalha Bucha day, which marks Buddha’s first sermon in Deer Park and the beginning of Buddhist “lent”.

Jennifer and I have been antsy to do some camping in Thailand, and after doing some research on nearby National Parks in our province, we picked one and committed.  The only caveat: it’s 200km away, we don’t have a car, and it’s the monsoon season.  I’m not one to worry over petty minutiae, the solution was simple: Strap as much gear as possible to Jennifer’s back and call it a motorbike road trip!  The destination: Thom Pha Phum National park, in the misty and mountainous rainforest along the Burmese border.

We started a day later than we had hoped due to a birthday party and a long night of drinking and dancing, so on Sunday we made our getaway.  The ride was long, at least 4 hours on a little 125cc motorbike/scooter with far too much gear hanging off it.  The last 50km were stunningly beautiful; a slow, steep, and winding paved road that delved deep into the thick of it, sporadically gaining a vantage of the dark green expanses.  The weather changed dramatically as we climbed the foothills, the temperature dropping from 35C to 20C and the weather from partly cloudy to misting rain as we entered the clouds.  At least a couple times the rain came down too hard to ride and we pulled into coffee houses or shelters along the way.  We were prepared for the rain, but not for the cold.  One measly little blanket and a sarong was our bedding for the duration.

Leaving the park fully loaded

The National Park is huge but access is very limited due to the rugged nature of the terrain and flora.  There is the one paved road that runs through only a small part of it, and many more miles of 4×4 and high clearance roads, but even those are nearly inaccessible due to the rain and mud of the season.  We camped in a small wooded area on a ridge that had been cleared and some areas leveled for tents.  The view on this knoll was spectacular, sweeping north into the lush mountains of Burma and East to the massive Khao Lem reservoir.  After we arrived, I explored the campground the get the lay of the land…this is my camping tradition.  1) Do a preliminary scan and select the best spot for the tent taking into consideration view, shelter from weather, and access to water or wood, in that order.  2) Set up the tent but hold off unpacking  the rest of my stuff until I 3) Do a thorough survey of the entire campground and surrounding area.  During step 3 of my OCD camping routine, I was dive-bombed by a huge bird, the Thai name sounding something like “nooh nguuak”, or a Giant Hornbill.  This bird was in fact very large, and the sound of the wind rushing through its feathers as it dives inches above your head resembles jet fighter.  I wasn’t expecting it, so yes I screamed like a girl and jumped.

The massive Hornbill that haunted our campsite

The next few days we explored by motorbike as much as we could of the surrounding area, and when we found roads impassable by mud or rocks we just got off and hiked.  One highlight was a beautiful waterfall at the end of a long and windy dirt road turned mud luge.  We had to walk this.  By the end our boots were soiled and our legs were sore, but the waterfall was stunning and worth it, even for the leeches.  After a short swim and photo shoot in front of the falls, the ensuing foul weather chased us back up the ridge to our motorbike.  Later we ventured into the tiny village of Pilok, basically the end of the road.  On the other side of Pilok and a mountain ridge was Burma.  After exploring the sleepy little village and having a hot meal at a streetside restaurant, we scooted closer to the border.  Our curiosity was piqued about where exactly Burma was, if there was a fence or wall or whatever, and how difficult would it be to cross the border.  After getting lost on some tiny winding roads, we eventually steered our motorbike to an overlook where two flags, Thai and Burmese, stood side by side.  The clouds had closed in at this point, and the view from the overlook was into a wall of mist.  The clouds parted for only quick a moment, revealing an immense expanse of mountainous rainforest and nothing else.  Just visible below the overlook was a large natural gas pipeline from Burma going right through the mountains into Thailand.  We walked a little further and found the border gate into Burma, a crappy gravel road in Thailand fading to a worn dirt footpath in Burma.  A Thai border guard gestured us to follow him across the border, and dammit I couldn’t say no!  So we ducked under a fence and around some razor wire into Burma, legality unknown, and walked down a path to another vantage point.  A hundred meters was enough for me without a Visa, so after a few photos the guard escorted us back to Thailand.

But a glimpse of Burma and the gas pipelines.

The nights were all very rainy, as were parts of the day, but we didn’t let it rain on our parade.  The tent and rainfly did their job, as did our ponchos and boots, so we stayed dry.  It was a beautiful few days camping in the cool misty jungle near Burma, and as we returned to lower elevations the weather dried off and warmed up.  I’ll never forget the sounds at night as we were camping.  You could stand out on an observation platform near our tent at night and look out over the jungle and mountains and valleys, and just listen to the wild and bizarre symphony of sounds echoing forth.  I could only imagine the sources of the noises, the myriad of creatures playing, hunting, and communicating in their way.  If you looked long enough and adjusted your eyes, sometimes you could see short pulses of blue-green light as bioluminescent insects danced in the night sky.

Another adventure to the South
July 2, 2010, 3:44 am
Filed under: Travel Abroad | Tags: , , , , , ,

Updates have been sparse recently, and I think this is largely due to my reluctance to write long travel accounts.  I enjoy writing but perhaps I get more pleasure from taking and sharing my photos.  The prospect of trying to write a concise and complete account of my trips as a sort of online journal is daunting for me.  I guess this is why I don’t keep a real journal of anything in my life.  So from now on I think I’ll try a slightly different approach to this blog.  I’ll be more vague and try to let the pictures do most of the talking.  Inevitably I’ll leave something out, some amazing moment that my photos didn’t capture.  I’ll try to give some context and miscellaneous detail, but not a thorough account.  Hopefully the combination of writing and photos will give you a sense of being there, or at least a sense of something.


Over the 2 week break between summer school and the next school year, Jennifer and I went back down south to the Andaman sea for some beach time.  This time we ventured to Ranong Province, one of my favorite provinces in Thailand.   I’ll leave out specific names of places to avoid the extra attention, but of course if I know you personally and you ask, I’ll tell.  We visited several small and relatively unpopulated islands along the coast, either camping or staying in bungalows that didn’t cost more than $6 a night.

One island we stayed on was covered in cashew trees.  The stinky fruit and nuts were everywhere, you could smell the fermenting fruit every time you walked through the forests.  A network of trails crisscrossed the island (no cars!), so to get between bungalows, campsites, and the “town”, you got to walk through beautiful jungle, cashew and rubber plantations.  There was even a German/Thai bakery tucked away in the jungle about 3o minutes walk from our bungalow.  We made a point to go every morning.  The island was home to all sorts of wildlife, including families of monkeys and a large population of hornbills, a bizarre looking bird with a gigantic beak.  We had many of these hornbills living in the jungle next to our bungalow.  Supplies are brought onto the island by small ferry boat, basically just a large long-tail boat.  Ice, beer, fresh produce, meat, etc.  Most bungalows cooked food as well, incredibly delicious and fresh food, and baked their own bread.  Fish came from the beaches and bays around the island; one night we had barracuda, it’s flesh half-way between chicken and tuna (firm yet moist and crumbly).

The hornbill in all its majesty

On another chain of islands, part of a national park, we camped for a while.  We would wake up, snorkel, cook a lunch of ramen noodles on my diesel stove, snorkel some more, read, sleep in the hammock, and perhaps drink warm beer.  A park-run restaurant was a last-resort when we ran out of food, it was overpriced and just plain nasty.  Here we saw large packs of native red-faced macaques swinging through the canopy over our head, and much more wildlife.  I narrowly avoided a moray eel while snorkeling in some shallow sandy water, the same bit of water where we saw at least a dozen baby leopard sharks.  Here we crossed paths with a tour guide who, although we weren’t one of his clients, took us out on his boat for snorkel trips and stayed up late with us drinking cheap beer.  He had connections with the kitchen staff at the restaurant, hauling out cases of beer and huge blocks of ice (worth their weight in gold on the island) after the restaurant shut.  Inevitably he would also bring these pitchers and icebergs with him on the daytime snorkeling trips, passing around the cold and flat beer until we all had our fill.

One moment that I’ll never forget this trip was our discovery of the glowing phosphorescence in the bay around us.  Nobody told us about this.  Jennifer and I were sitting out on the pier looking at the stars on a moonless night after dinner.  Soon the generators from our bungalow turned off (there is no power on the island, only a few generators that run for about 2 hours each night). As it got darker my eyes adjusted, and like a desert sky the stars exploded into our view.  I chucked a small rock into the water and suddenly I’m looking at another field of stars dancing below me.  I walked down the steps and put my hands in the water, startled by the swirling galaxy I created.  I’ve seen phosphorescence only once before in the Puget Sound on a camping trip, however it was faint and nothing like this.  Quickly I ran up the cliffs to our bungalow and grabbed my snorkel and mask.  After a little hesitation imagining stinging jellyfish and sharks just under the black water, I jumped in.  My world exploded in dazzling blue-green light, and as I kicked and paddled the swirling galaxy enveloped me.  For at least an hour we played around like children in the midst of discovery.  Finally after my skin pruned up and sleepiness started overcoming me, I crawled out like a primordial beast, phosphorescence still clinging to my dripping skin like iridescent freckles.

It was hard to adjust back to the pace of our working life after this trip.  Thankfully our students keep us smiling and remind me again of a child’s wonder and excitement, just as we felt swimming in our swirling galaxy.

Climbing Ruins in Ayutthaya
November 30, 2009, 3:41 pm
Filed under: Travel Abroad | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Just 2 hours north of Bangkok by train, the ancient capital city of Ayutthaya sits in a hot, dusty valley with two major rivers flowing through it.  In fact the city proper is actually an island between these two rivers with only a handful of bridges and ferries crossing over them.  There’s almost 700 years of history in this city, Thailand’s old capital fortress, and the ruins and restored temples share this story with anyone curious enough to venture inside.  It was sacked and looted so many times by Burma and Laos that by the 18th century the king was fed up and moved shop down to Bangkok.   Thankfully there is still plenty left to look at and photograph, including some absolutely stunning wats and chedi’s (stupas).

We stayed here only 2 nights and 3 days, although as a tourist it isn’t really practical to spend much longer.  Temples and ruins, like I mentioned, are the prime attractions here and after looking at 20 or 30 it’s time to move on.  The city itself, however, is vibrant and bustling and has much to offer the traveler who’s interested in more than the history of the area.  Our first day we explored most of the city proper on foot, covering a dozen kilometers and a dozen temples in an afternoon.  Most of the temples here were built of brick and a mortar covering.  As we explored their ruins, the structures ranged from massive piles of brick to perfectly preserved steeples and arches and domes.  We wandered in and out of different crumbling landscapes, stumbling upon herds of grazing cattle, couples sleeping in the shade of the chedis, street dogs patrolling their territories, and other hidden treasures of the unknown.  Towards the end of the day we found ourselves walking into an elephant camp, where around two dozen elephants and their riders hung out, waiting to give rides to tourists through the city ruins.  Instead of riding them, we contented ourselves to loitering with them and taking photos.

The following day we rented bikes to take us to the outer reaches of the city and its most impressive temples.  Navigating the chaos of Thailand’s streets is daunting on a bicycle.  There is a distinct hierarchy in place on the road, with the most fragile and destructible at the bottom of the totem pole.  Essentially, the more vulnerable you are, the more attentive you must be (if you value your life).  Bikes are just pedestrians moving precariously closer to traffic in a seated position.  Nevertheless, we survived and had a blast.  One temple we visited on the outskirts of town was pretty in its own right, but what fascinated me the most by it was a tree out back.  It was a Bodhi tree, with a massive, twisting, tentacle-like trunk completely encompassing a small chedi and a statue on it.  All you can see of the statue is its face barely emerging from the roots.  Another temple even further from town was equally rewarding to visit.  The temple was a massive stone chedi about 60 meters tall with a small complex of ruins surrounding it.  Cows and horses were tied strategically to trees around the temple such that they could graze sections of the lawn, creating a living lawn mowing and fertilizing system.  Because of the strict value of all life in the Buddhist tradition, temples are often safe havens and refuges for all kinds of neglected animals, from horses to dogs to chickens and everything in between.  Whenever we visit a temple, there is inevitably some adorable puppy or kitten that claws at my heart strings when I see them.  This time there were 3 puppies, barely 6 weeks old, that decided my arm was interesting and all started licking it in unison.

One of the last temples we saw in Ayutthaya was unique in that it belonged to a sect of Buddhist nuns.  The order of monks in the Theravada Buddhist tradition is male oriented, and while women were explicitly included in the teachings of Buddha, they face many challenges as nuns such as funding for their temples.  This temple is specifically renowned for its hundreds of Buddha statues that are wrapped in saffron scarves, creating a mystical and colorful atmosphere throughout the complex.  We ditched our bike at the gate and spent the last slivers of daylight exploring the crumbling relics before making the trip back home to our guest house.  It was around this time that Jennifer got hit with her first dose of Delhi Belly, aka Montezuma’s Revenge, aka food poisoning, so we peddled home fast.  At one point we managed to get ourselves onto an expressway with barely any shoulder to bike on, then again we found ourselves on another major thoroughfare on the wrong side of the road.  It was a miracle we made it back alive through the dark, but all I had to do was keep up with Jennifer as she tore through the city like a bat out of hell.  Later that night her stomach was feeling better…

The last day in Ayutthaya was pleasantly lazy and spent mostly in the shade for a change.  We arranged an overnight sleeper train to the north of Thailand that night and loitered in one of the few backpacker cafes along a quiet side street in town.  Tony’s Place as it was called, was run by a flamboyantly gay Thai who was everywhere when you didn’t need anything and nowhere in sight when you did.  The slow service allowed us to take in some good people watching however.  Later in the afternoon, as our departure to Chiang Mai in the North was approaching, we moved all our gear to the train station and had some dinner.  After sitting down and ordering some food, we noticed a gentleman sitting next to us munching contentedly on a bag of indiscernible contents.  He noticed us watching him with inquisitive eyes, so he turned around and pulled out a monstrous barbequed grasshopper and offered one to each of us.  The taste was mild, like a dusty stale cracker, and the crunchy texture was like biting into a huge sunflower seed with the shell and all.  I’m sure I made a horrible face as I choked it down, yet he still offered me more.  After Jennifer nearly gagged eating hers, he understood.  It was worth trying, but never to be repeated.

The train pulled in about 30 minutes late, which is a miracle by Thai train standards.  We purchased a couple liters of cheap beer and a bag full of snacks for the 13 hour trip, hopped on, found our beds, and began the next leg of our journey through Thailand.

The Colorado Trail, pt 3
October 23, 2009, 1:21 pm
Filed under: Hiking/Backpacking | Tags: , , , , , ,


The night after our resupply in Breck, below the Ten Mile range, we had our first campsite flood.  The site had been used quite a bit, and as a result the dirt was packed down hard as cement under our tarp.  When a midnight rainstorm ripped through the woods, the water simply ran over the surface instead of soaking into the ground.  We woke up with little rivers of rainwater washing under our ground cloth.  Down sleeping bags don’t like to get wet, in fact they’re pretty much useless if they do, so we scrambled around in the dark trying to dig a moat around our bags to keep the water off.  Eventually we secured the perimeter, but the paranoia of getting our bags wet kept us from sleeping well.

In the morning we packed up all our wet gear, with the weather already threatening more rain, and marched up to the top of the mountain range.  The trail insisted on taking us on the most direct route up the mountains, foregoing the usual switch back method.  This means we were practically crawling up the steep slopes at times, very very slowly.  Marmots and Pika’s were chirping at us all the way up, and by the time we crested the summit the wind was howling tremendously.  The views were spectacular 360 degrees clear around.  We hustled our way over the pass and down the other side, just as absurdly steep as the ascent.  Half way down our knees were in such bad shape we stopped and had a lunch of Advil.  The trail leveled out in another valley and then began the climb up Copper Mountain.  We literally walked right through the ski resort village of Copper, stopping to eat a disappointing burger at a pub along the way.  We failed to find our planned campsite along the ski runs, so we ended up hiking through the dark until we came across a completely unsuitable patch of ground and called it a day.

More climbing and beautiful mountain passes as we followed the trail further towards Twin Lakes, our next resupply.  We peaked Copper Mountain at Searle Pass and again at Kokomo Pass, where we met a bunch of mountain bikers on some of the gnarliest stretch of trail.  Walking this uneven, rocky slate is hard enough, but riding a bike up it seems ludicrous.  Apparently the trails along this stretch of Rockies are famous for downhill riding and I imagine you have to be in top condition to keep from killing yourself.  Here the trail finally eased up a bit, descending into a large valley and slightly less steep terrain.  An especially curious baby deer stopped at stared at us for the longest time after his parents darted off.  We stopped along the trail and stared back, wondering how long he would just stand there staring.  Alas he had more patience than us, so we kept walking down the trail.  Along the way we met a fellow and his black lab who were thru-hiking the trail.  We would come to learn quite a bit about the trail from him.

A cold night camping below some waterfalls and then we were passing through Camp Hale, an old military complex tucked away in the valley and mountain sides here.  The US Army’s 10th Mountain Division was trained here leading up to WWII and beyond, and it was even used by the CIA as a covert training ground for Tibetan rebels in the late 60’s.  Now it is decommissioned and all that is left is concrete foundations and a massive concrete bunker built into the valley floor.  Apparently the valley is still littered with unexploded ordnance, so there are restrictions about wandering off the trails.

As we followed the contours of the hills we crossed a major highway and stumbled upon a big gray rubbbermaid container sitting under a tree along the trial.  On the lid was written “For Long Distance Hikers of the Colorado Trail”.  Pulling the lid off, we found inside a veritable feast of everything a hungry/thirsty backpacker could want: Moonpies, Cheetos, Oreos, soda, Advil, Tums, first aid gear, fuel, and even more candy and snacks.  We had our fill of healthy whole-grain crap, what we were craving was exactly this kind of junk.  There was a logbook included, with entries that dated back for several hiking seasons.  Apparently this little bit of “trail magic” was put here by a long time thru-hiker and proprietor of the Leadville Hostel, Wild Bill.  This was a huge moral boosting event for us, on a day where we were both feeling the emotional and physical wear from the trail.  We came across a couple more of these “trail angels” along the way, each one always being a heaven-send for us.  In fact, and I’ll explain this in more detail later, one of the most profound experiences from this trek was the generosity and kindness bestowed upon us from complete strangers.  The reward from discovering these treats was far greater than you could imagine from a pack of moonpies.

As we bounded down the trail with our heads full of sugar, we came across the remnants of the charcoal kilns (called coking ovens) that were used in the late 19th century to supply the booming industry of Denver and surrounding areas.  In fact, the entire area had been clear-cut to create that charcoal, a pretty sad site back then I bet.  Now the mountains have grown back their forests and you would have a hard time seeing that anything had ever been developed there.  Further along we came across a very strange sight, a hand-made wooden bench swing right off the side of the trail, and a painted sign pointing to the “Continental Divide Cabin”.  Our curiosity was piqued, so we followed the trail up and over a hill to a series of newly erected cabins and other structures.  Apparently it was one of the many 10th Mountain Division huts that are built and maintained through that part of the Rockies for people to rent for days or weeks.  There were locks on the doors so we turned around, but not without taking a rinse in the outdoor shower.  We enjoyed a view from that swinging bench all the way out to Mt. Elbert and Mt. Massive, the second and third tallest mountains in the lower 48 states.  The mountains were far away by sight, but surprisingly by the end of the following day we were camping right below them.

The Colorado Trail, pt 2
October 5, 2009, 7:00 am
Filed under: Hiking/Backpacking | Tags: , , , , , ,

After being dropped off at the trail above Bailey, fully restocked and gung-ho ready to go, Jennifer and I made tracks.  Speaking of tracks, we both recently got sucked into an addictive Canadian reality show called Mantracker, essentially pitting 2 cowboy trackers against 2 hapless “prey” in a cat-and-mouse chase through the woods.  We soaked up a few episodes while on R&R, and now back on the trail we found ourselves analyzing every track and scuff we came across.  Was this a dog or a coyote? Notice the toe-kick of this print, he must have been moving fast!  We were shameless.


The thick pine forests eventually thinned out to open meadows and pasture as we climbed higher into the hills, where we frequently camped among cow pies and their makers.  On a couple occasions through this stretch we were forced to use water of questionable quality, although my nifty Steripen anhailated (hopefully) the undesirables in it.  Through this stretch we also learned a very important lesson about the fluid-dynamics of cold air.  Even at lower elevations, valleys tend to channel the coldest air from the mountains, the result is the coldest air sits in the bottom of the valley, and much warmer air sits just above it on the sides and ridges.  By far the coldest nights were spent camped along a stream or river in a valley, frequently awaking with ice covering our tarp and bags.

We continued working our way to the first major pass of the trip, Kenosha Pass.  In hindsight, this pass was incredibly easy and the view was pretty, but not that breathtaking.  However we had no idea what lay ahead nor how absurdly steep and exposed future passes would get, so as we topped out on this one we were quite proud of ourselves.  To add to the excitement, we were buzzed by a military plane running low-altitude exercises through the valley.  I’m not an expert on planes, but I think it was a C-130, which look pretty massive when they’re bearing down on you just 75 feet above your head at full speed.  Just close enough to give the pilot a salute with eye-contact.  The scenery kept getting better, from golden rolling hills of pasture to huge stands of aspens as we hit the pass.  The largest and prettiest aspen groves of the whole trip were on top of Kenosha.  Straight black & white trunks as far as you could see, shooting up into a canopy of flourescent green that cast a glowing, dappled shade on the ground.  The sound of aspen leaves rustling in the wind is incredibly soothing, like the sound of a fall wind blowing piles of leaves down your street, or like the sound of a distant stream full of little waterfalls and cascades.  These little oasis of warm, soft light and seductive whispers were always appreciated along our trip; we often stopped in these groves to watch and listen, and surely felt rejuvenated afterwards.

The trail carried us higher across more passes, each higher than the last.  Georgia Pass was our first taste of the alpine tundra, an ecosystem that exists above treeline and below massive amounts of snow most of the year.  Some of the oldest living organisms in the world live here, the bristle cone pines.  A stumpy, gnarly little tree that doesn’t reveal it’s secret longevity at first glance.  Wildflowers were always blooming when we climbed the passes, a gentle reward for the exertion.  Marmots were ubiquitous at these elevations as well, always signaling our arrival to their friends with a sharp chirp.  Another cute and fuzzy mammal that often joined the marmot’s chorus was the pika.  A member of the rabbit family, it resembles a guinea pig with big ears, or a big mouse.  They also announced our arrival with an even cuter whistle/chirp/sigh.  Their sounds became so familiar through the trip that it almost became background noise.  Although I still pointed and laughed every time I saw one of the marmots shuffling down the trail away from us, a big mass of fat and fur and tail flopping around until it was safely parked under a rock.

Now about 70 miles into the trail, we were approaching our first official resupply, Breckenridge.  Before we left for the trail, we strategically planned out our meals for the next 4 weeks.  We shopped around and loaded up with what we thought would be hearty, health, easy to cook food.  We ended up with a lot of granola, jerky, oatmeal, muesli, coffee, sugar, dried milk, lentils, brown rice, quinoa, Annie’s mac & cheese (mmmm), mashed potatoes, pepperoni, salami, dried veggies, bullion cubes, tang, and tuna.  We divvied this up into 4 boxes, one per resupply point along the trail.  Then we mailed these boxes to the post offices in the respective towns for “general delivery”, which essentially means you’re mailing it for pickup at the post office.  This way we saved a lot of time and hassle (and money) when we arrived in town, with all our food ready to go.  This worked rather well, although a few items we shipped didn’t make it across, namely the salami which arrived bearing new and foreboding colors.

We arrived in Breckendridge early, where we promptly set about rounding up food and supplies, then treated ourselves to an epic meal.  We heard rumors of an italian place with calzones that were as big as your thigh, each big enough for several people.  Considering our appetite and trail dreams of greasy cheesy pizza, this was a no brainer.  Our expectations were soundly met, the calzone was massive and delicious, and the two of us barely put one away.  I still managed to have room for a  caesar salad and a cannoli.  This was the beginning of a trend for me; after every resupply I would gorge myself silly on rich food, eating epic proportions and managing to make room for every course.  What followed was a form of food euphoria, a drunken stupor of bliss and giddiness with frequent attacks of the giggles.  Even 3 weeks after the trail I still get this euphoria after eating a big meal; it’s as though the trail opened up a level of food appreciation I’ve never known before.  Before setting back out on the trail, we resolved to get ourselves a pair of trekking poles.  We had debated the idea before we left Denver, but decided it was probably just an unneccessary accessory for gear-obsessed hikers.  By the time we got to Breck we were using whittled wooden poles, having realized the benefits on your feet, knees, and arms from using them.  Each pole relieves about 10 lbs of impact from your leg each step you take.  Compounded over hundreds of miles, this is a huge amount of impact.  We were sold on the idea, and wanted to upgrade from our sticks.  We browsed a couple shops in Breck and found that the cheapest poles were a hundred bucks (Breck is a cute, but touristy and ritzy mountain resort town), so we caught a bus up to a neighboring, more blue-collar town with a Walmart and found a pair of cheapo poles which would carry us all the way to Durango.

The bus took us back down to the trail, and after another few miles and several rolled ankles later (for some reason I forgot how to walk, maybe a result of the calzone) we set up camp at the base of what turned out to be the hardest mountain pass of the trip, the Ten Mile Range.