Thursday, February 21, 2013

Somewhere New: Old Rag Mountain - Shenandoah National Forest

For the month of November I decided to try Virginia's most popular but also most dangerous hike - Old Rag Mountain. Joined by Brittney and Rachel, I ascended over 3,000 feet on the last beautiful day of the fall. And so did everyone else.

It's absolutely no joke that this is a popular hike. When we got to the parking lot in the morning, still groggy and having just watched a magnificent sunrise over the rolling countryside, we were greeted by a packed lot and tour buses full of people.

Everyone and their grandmother want to hike this mountain it seems! We saw a particularly out of place man carrying a briefcase and wearing dress shoes...what? The truth is, this is a difficult hike and grandmas, small dogs, and business men shouldn't really be on this mountain... unless they are the super grandma we met wearing not much more than a sports bra, showing off her guns and racing her grandkids up the mountain. She was amazing.

Round trip this hike took us close to 7 hours - some of that being standing in line to get up the mountain. You heard right. There are these great cracks and fissures running through the "rock scramble" portion of the trail that many people had issues with. The cracks are also so small that you can't pass someone so anytime there was a person who was stuck, or a person who was being a rebel and hiking the trail the opposite way, the line backed up down the mountain and we inched along through the scramble.

So why do people endanger themselves and stand in line? The views are incredible! The sense of accomplishment we felt getting to the top and not having twisted an ankle, lost our temper at line holder-uppers, or giving up due to leg fatigue was worth it all.

Take my advice, set aside a full WEEK day to do this, you won't regret it. Even if you have to ice your quads the rest of the night like poor Brittney!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Stories from Puerto Rico: That Time We Almost Died

It was with sadness that we closed up the breezy beach house that had been our home for three days and packed our suitcases into the back of our ground-hugging rental car. We would miss the roaming beach dogs and the morning treasure hunts and even the underwater crunches we maladroitly performed for the saintly goal of "better fitting jeans."

But another adventure awaited us and we turned away from the coast and headed into the mountains towards Las Marias. From the coast you can see the rolling, gentle mountains of the interior of Puerto Rico, lush and green and almost doughy looking. Half an hour from the coast we started to climb. The road snaked and curled like smoke pouring off boiling coffee and we dutifully performed each switchback, Mom gradually falling into a pattern of pulling the wheel back and forth to accommodate the turns.

As we climbed higher the road rose up, leaving the earth ever further below us. Each side of the road dropped off into sliding green cliffs. We passed a vista and I pointed to what looked like giant green fingers. A curious tree had sprouted out branches in colossal clumps and it looked like many fingered hands dripping down over the jungle. "That's bamboo," Mom said, "looks like it's taken over a lot of the island."

No sooner had she spoken then she let out a gasp and slammed on the breaks as a lumbering dump truck came barreling around the corner we had just approached, sliding by us without so much as a wave or beep. "Oh my god," she said finally, eyes wide. We gingerly swung around the turn and were relieved to see an open stretch before the next turn.

But several turns later, with us still nervous and hanging more to the right than before, another dump truck popped out from the corner of the blind mountain road and scared us half to death. And so the journey continued, back and forth and back and forth and then a strained, white knuckled turn squeezing by another truck. But the mind and body are adaptable and even deathly fear can become predictable and rhythmic. As we climbed more and more we began to relax again, tensing with every precarious passing of a truck but then falling back into conversation.

And then my heart stopped.

There was nowhere to go, no shoulder to inch onto and it was barreling right for us. In my mind, in the flash of the moment, it felt like we had gotten to the end of the level. King Koopa, 5 times bigger than the minion trucks we had faced before, was staring us down and he was angry, and then the inevitable charge. But like I said, there was nowhere to go. Mom, already in the self-preserving habit of hugging the edge of the road, had done all she could do to protect us from the flattening and so we sat there. In the span of seconds since we had first spotted our fast rolling fate it was over. The monster, mere inches away, swept past us, rocking our tiny car and leaving us gasping.

"What happened?" Sydney asked, looking up from her book.

Somehow we had beaten the boss and as we regained composure and set off again we rolled into Las Marias. Like all the other tiny towns in Puerto Rico we drove through, Las Marias had a bar or two, a corner store and a school - which was always ringed with cars and women standing around in loose groups. Eventually we came to a driveway marked with a wooden sign on which was painted a bright infinity swirl. Relieved was an understatement for our emotions.

Mom stopped the car. "I can't see the driveway," she wined. It was true. The road below us dropped off so steeply that from the top where we sat there was no road to see. As she inched forward the car tilted down and to our relief the road was there to receive us. We shifted into a low gear and slowly rolled down the mountain towards a tiny concrete bridge. "I hope our little car can make it back up this driveway in a few days," I laughed nervously.

On the other side of the bridge we could see the road climb steeply again and disappear around a bend. Moving equally as slowly down that road was a large white pickup truck. Inching down the road that was little bigger than the car, when Mom spotted the truck headed to the same concrete bridge as us she let out an exasperated "Oh no...there is no way I'm backing up this driveway. They have to backup! This is crazy!"

Luckily the truck got to the bridge before us and pulled into a tucked away spot of land at the bottom and waited. As we approached Mark got out of the truck. "You made it!" he beamed at us, waving as we rolled down the window. Mom launched into her story about the evil truck drivers and the crazy curves of the mountain road and Mark smiled, nodding his head patiently. "Well you have another half mile of adventure ahead of you but you've almost made it."

From the passenger side of the truck a young man stepped out. With one hand he waved and with the other he clutched an ice pack to the soft fleshy skin under his eye. "This is Levi, we just have to run into town and get his eye looked at. Little scrape, just better to be safe than sorry." He waved us on and they got back into their truck, headed out towards town as we crossed the bridge and started climbing the last leg of our trip. We rounded the bend to see the great expanse of a banana farm down in the valley that belonged to a neighbor of Margo and Mark's.

We were so close that I was fidgeting with anticipation of being able to stretch out and walk around. But Puerto Rico has a thing for surprises around the bend. The car stopped again. This time Mom collapsed onto the wheel in pretended sobs and hysterics and wined "I don't wana! I don't wana!"

Ahead of us was a drainage ditch. The road plummeted down a foot or two into a crease that channeled rainwater off the roads and into the jungle and then rose back up to meet the road again. For a truck like Mark's it was little more than a pothole. For a tiny car sitting less than a foot off the ground it was a giant chasm to be perilously crossed. When Mom was finished with her theatrics I got out of the car and with much skepticism and secret cursing of Margo and Mark for not warning us, we managed to ease the car, one wheel at a time, through the ditch and onto the other side of the road with minimal scraping.

At this point in the story it should be obvious that the surprises come in multiples. No sooner had we bested the ditch and rolled off patting ourselves on the backs then we rolled up to the next one. And then another. And then another. Drainage on a mountain prone to mudslides is important you see.

Wearily we rolled up to the gatehouse and were greeted by an assortment of happy dogs and another workshare intern. We had finally reached The Farm as Margo called it and I for one was ready to embrace whatever situation was presented as long as it wasn't a car ride.

Our breezy beach house had been replaced with a breezy cabin and very quickly we were to learn what it meant to be "unplugged."

Friday, February 1, 2013

What to Do in Puerto Rico: Gozalandia Waterfall

This 50 foot beauty was worth the trek but not easy to find. Sometimes called the "secret waterfall" it's been featured in several films (like The Perfect Getaway) so it stands to reason that the secret is out and you should be able to find this natural pool with a little persistence and patience.

From Maravilla in Las Marias we wound our way down the mountain to San Sebastian. From Route 446 you turn right on a bridge in town until you get to a long locked gate on your left. Sound vague? Well it is. With only those directions we came into town only to find the bridge we were supposed to turn onto was blocked off for construction. But wait..was that even the bridge? Is there another bridge?

We stopped by a man sweeping his driveway and rolled down the window. I greeted the man and then asked if he spoke English. He said no and asked if I spoke Spanish. In my paltry, broken Spanish I told him "We look for Gozalandia Waterfall" and then smiled. A woman from the porch came closer and spoke with him, both of them glancing over at the defunct bridge.

"Ok follow him," she said to us, as our spontaneous guide hopped in his car and pulled out in front of us. We wound around past the bridge and up a hill into a neighborhood for some time until the car in front of us stopped and our guide got out of his car to talk to a man in his yard. We sat for several minutes, listening to the exchange with no comprehension, smiling wide tourist grins every time they looked over at us in between words. Finally the man whose grass we were half parked on motioned us to move our car into his yard and pointed down behind the house.

Our guide, ever accommodating, explained in Spanish that we would have to cross this man's property to get to the falls and he would show us. At least I think that's what he said. In any case we followed him down the fence to a broken section and crawled through to an overgrown path that lead down the hill. Our giude chattered on in Spanish, throwing a "No habla espanol? Nunca?" over his shoulder every so often to which I would reply "Nunca, lo siento."

After a turn in the wrong direction, to the sighs and agitated arm gestures of our guide, we finally got to a place where we could hear running water. A pavilion had been built at the bottom of the hill with a lagoon and just below that was a path that lead to steep wooden steps down to the pool of the waterfall. Our guide bid us well at this point, still shaking his head at our touristy gumption and trekked back up the mountain.

Relieved to have found it and ready to rest from the humid hike we gratefully sank into the cool waters of the pool. Within minutes the swelling in Mom's feet went down and we all felt lighter.

Several other families and couples were there sitting on the rocks or swimming in the pool and one daring dude was using a rope to climb up part of the falls to slide down what looked like a painful though smoother portion of rocks.

To the right of the falls is a section of rocks that are smooth and bulbous like hardened lava. If you're brave enough there is a little cave in the rocks. A 3 second breath hold is all you need to get into it and then you pop up into a cave big enough for 3 people to precariously chat and make echoes.

The moral of our Gozalandia Waterfall adventure, as with so much of Puerto Rico, is that the locals are the key to your success. Their generosity and good spirits were revealed to us again and again on this trip. Maybe it's just how Puerto Ricans are. Or maybe you can learn to be that way living on such a gorgeous island.