Myakka River State Park

The next stop on our adventures in Florida was a trip to Myakka River State Park where I was assured I’d all the alligators I’d ever wanted to see… from a safe distance! Crow’s family also alluded to the famous “canopy walk”–somehow a walk among the trees, though how one did this, I couldn’t even venture to guess. It sounded very exciting so of course I was game to go.

So the four of us–me, Crow, Crow’s dad, and his dad’s girlfriend Doris–stuffed ourselves into the *Camaro* and took off on a beautiful sunny afternoon for Myakka. We decided to take the guided airboat tour on Upper Myakka Lake to see up close the wild life in its own environment. As if specifically for our benefit, an alligator sat sunning itself from the opposite bank as we loaded onto a boat. They had a name for him–I’ve forgotten what it was. He didn’t seem to be much perturbed by the presence of our boat.

The alligator who greeted us at the boat dock.

As the boat moved slowly onto the water, the tour guide indicated that there were a great number of alligators (again, I’m bad at remembering numbers, details), and asked us where we thought these alligators were, if we were only seeing a few along the shores? Ha! I could not help but imagine the alligators unseen sitting at the bottom of the riverbed at any given time. Kind of made me think/hope/pray the boat was pretty sturdy and no one was going to have to get out and push any time soon!

An airboat tour taking departing from the dock.

Due to the shallowness of the lake during the dry season (winter, spring), we couldn’t get too close to the opposite shore. However, you could see a bunch of alligators sunbathing themselves while many exotic birds just walked among them (according to our tour guide, alligators don’t find birds very tasty–not enough meat and all feathers–so they leave them alone). More exciting, though, was the two times an alligator surfaced right next to the boat. It was kind of eerie–just this snout and the hump of the back rising from the stillness of the water in silence. It didn’t seemed very phased. Just popped up as if to assure us of its presence, and then it was gone again.

An alligator surfaces to alert us of his/her presence.

Ominous creature greets us with a wry hello.

Alligator says, "Hello, tasty tourists! Throw me a leg!"

It wasn’t just alligators that prominently inhabited the lake, though. Birds and water fowl of various kinds could be found grazing the shores, swimming in the waters, or flying around. We saw bald eagles flying over head. Geese, egrets, blue herons. Most fascinating was a breed of bird called the anhinga, also called “snake bird” because, submerging itself under water to hunt for food, when it surfaces, only it’s long neck can be seen hovering above the water like a snake about to attack. I was really fascinated by this bird because it kind of reminded me, in smaller scale, of the drawings and blurred photographs of the alleged Loch Ness Monster. Watching that s-shaped head pop out of the water randomly here and there, I could see how one could build a mythology of a mysterious monster that lives under the sea. Although, I have to admit, I thought the bird was quite cute.

An anhinga (snake bird) comes up for air like a miniature version of a legendary sea creature.

Other water fowl of Upper Myakka Lake.

Wild pigs also live in Myakka, though we weren’t lucky enough to see these ourselves. The tour guide said a herd of pigs had been at the lake shore earlier that day and the prior tour had gotten to see them. That’s the thing with wild life–they come and go as they please without any regard for us humans who may want to observe them! Oh well. There certainly wasn’t a lack of other wild life to observe and appreciate.

If herons and alligators can co-exist, why can't elephants and donkeys?

After the boat tour, we ate lunch outside beneath the shelter of the little cafe/gift shop by the lake. It was one of those nice, breezy days in which you just feel happy to be alive. I was fascinated by the swampy marshland of palm trees, moss, and fern plants. I couldn’t help but make comparisons in my head to the state parks with which I’m familiar back home. How different and unique Florida seems to me. The tropics are always fascinating in their variety and the vivid colors of its flowers and animals.

Also, though we have blue herons back home, I’ve often spent long minutes trying to spot one. They just aren’t as visible as they were that day in Myakka. I was continuously surprised and thrilled by the amount of wildlife that was visible for us to see without effort (and none of it caged or corralled just for show!).

Our next stop after lunch was the bird walk. A long board walk takes you into the middle of the marshy shore to get a better view of the birds. I guess during wet season, more of the ground beneath the board walk is filled in with water and, according to the tour guide from the boat, you may see a lot of alligators sunning themselves. We didn’t see any alligators, but again, lots of birds.

The board walk bird walk. Disappointingly devoid of alligators.

One of the highlights of Myakka River State Park is the canopy walk. It turns out this is a suspension bridge 25 feet in the air through the forest canopy. After crossing the bridge, you climb the steps up to a tower that gives you a view of the entire forest from 74 feet! I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle this part. I’ve been on a few fire towers in the past and have not had the most comfortable experience because it would sway and bend in the breeze. I’m not too good with vertigo. (My entry about our Groundhog Day adventure will shed further light on this as we did try to climb a fire tower there. But those are details for another day.)

Mars Girl on canopy bridge at Myakka.

Crow, Crow Dad, and Doris on canopy bridge.

It turns out that while the tour at Myakka did sway a little in the breeze and from the movement of others climbing the ladder, it was nothing near what I remembered from my frightening experience at the Pennsylvania high point (Mt. Davis) from a decade before. So I felt safe enough up there to relax and enjoy the view.

Canopy from above.

Which… as you can see… was quite extraordinary….

Panoramic view above the canopy. (This is my first attempt at using panoramic mode on Crow's camera. You can see the imperfect line in the middle right of the picture. I got quite better at it n later adventures.)

A distant body of water… Some poofy Florida clouds…

View from the tower.

Trees, trees, and more trees!

Tree tops as seen from the canopy tower at Myakka.

Oh, hey, wait… that’s not a view!

Crow and Mars Girl atop the tower.

We actually stayed up there for quite a bit–several small groups of people cycled through in the time we stood observing the view. I like sweeping landscapes. Thus, the long neglected lust for mountain climbing.

We finally walked down the steps to solid ground.

“Heidi! Heidi!” I heard someone calling my given name as I exited the tower at the bottom. I instinctively looked up and noticed a three people on a bench playing with a little wiener dog that was scampering between them. Oh, no, not again.

“Um, is your dog named Heidi?” I asked tentatively, trying not to reveal how miffed I was. This, of course, coming from someone who named her cats Nicki, Tanya, and Cleo–all real people names.

“Why, yes,” replied the lady in the group.

I scoffed. “That’s my name.”

I had a dog treat (note: organic, all natural) in my pocket, given to me earlier in the day by Crow’s aunt. I asked if I could give the dog a treat. They consented and I so I tossed Heidi the biscuit. Were I a dog, I’d want some folk to do the same, I suppose. This wasn’t the first dog named Heidi I’d met; it would undoubtedly not be my last either. (Ha, ha, I get it. Dachshund. German. Heidi. But may I suggest that if you get a German breed of dog, you try something less youthful and pretty? Perhaps Helga? Birget? No offense to any Helgas and Birgets out there…)

Canopy tower from below.

On the way out of the park, we stopped at a bridge along the main route in and out of the park to watch (and photograph) more alligators and birds. I got pretty good at spotting those snake birds–each time I saw one pop its head out of the water, I was a bit thrilled. I guess this is how birders feel. The alligators, of course, were just as ominous as ever, which made them somewhat endearing to me. Hey, the tour guide on the boat said that they generally don’t find adult humans a meal unless people start feeding them. So maybe it’s time we stop the hate for these ferocious reptiles now. They just want to live like everyone else… is that so wrong?

View from the bridge exiting the park.

Anyway, I think we spent over four hours at the park. I probably could have spent a lot more. It was definitely a great way to spend a sunny afternoon. I’d love to go back again. Maybe try the tram tour. I have to admit I am somewhat curious about the wilderness portion of the park. But I’m probably not yet ready to wake up next to an alligator in my tent… Not so sure I want to test the truth of the tour guide’s claim that alligators have no interest in eating me.

See ya later, alligators!

Meet my new snowshoes

Atlas Elektra 1027s (120 lbs to 200 lbs). They are pretty… and even kind of girlie in the color unflatteringly labeled as “lichen.” Unfortunately, they–nor any snowshoes I saw–did not come in purple. Being good for up to 200 lbs means I have some wiggle room for not only weight gain, but for use with a day pack or, even, a backpack. When you hike around in places like Colorado, you tend to carry day packs; not so sure I’m that keen on the idea of winter camping unless it involves hiking out to a remote cabin somewhere. Winter camping was the one class I had no desire to take with the Colorado Mountain Club when I lived out there. While I enjoy playing outside in the winter, I prefer to not have to work to keep warm in the evenings. Feel free to revoke my “bad-ass” outdoorsmenship card. I’ve got senses. I hate being cold.

Snow-shoeing the ledges at CVNP

I went snow-shoeing a few times when I lived in Colorado. It turns out that winter is one of the best times to hike in a popular place like Colorado because all of the tourists are not generally outdoorsy enough to appreciate the wilderness in the cold and snow of winter. So it’s usually the best time to visit those normally crowded hiking trails in places like the Rocky Mountain National Park (where everyone and his uncle seems to go to hike in the summer). Just about anywhere you go in Colorado in the winter is a lot less trafficked than in the summer. Only the die-hard Coloradoan outdoorsy people venture out in the winter.

Likewise, I like to hike the Cuyahoga Valley National Park more in the winter for the same reason: a lot less people. Some of my favorite trails in the park are ones that less people know about which go further into the woods and these are the ones I use during the summer because generally when I hike, I go to get away from everything, to commune with nature in an almost meditative manner. For this reason, in the summer, I completely stay away from many of the really popular hiking areas, such as the Ledges trailhead and the Overlook. The Overlook is often overflowing with people. Admittedly, these are really nice places to be, which is what makes them so popular. But I prefer to have those places when no one else is around to ruin the experience.

This is the first year in Ohio since I’ve come back that we’ve had such a significant snow fall that hiking on foot without the aid of cross-country skis or snow shoes is difficult. It can be quite frustrating because walking on snow is like walking on a sandy beach–you work much harder to get anywhere and you don’t get as far. I’m not really interested in learning to cross-country ski; I think of all those times when I’ve had to involuntarily cross-country ski on my normal skis when some between-trails trail flattens out. That completely sucks. I realize that your heels is free on cross-country skis, but I’m pretty sure you still feel like you’re dragging two boards behind you and pushing a lot with the poles to propel yourself on a flat land, and I’m just not that interested in it.

I do like to hike, though. And hiking in the winter is made so much easier when you’ve got some snow-shoes to stabilize you. Michael and I rented some snow shoes yesterday at the Kendall Lake shelter and we then took them to do the Octagon Loop trail by the ledges. It was great! I felt mobile and able to hike again! Which I’d been missing all winter since the too-deep snow has made hiking in just your boots a real burden.

I wouldn’t say that yesterday was the most beautiful day to hike. The gray skies cast a depressing mood over the world, but I did get my blood pumping and it felt really good to get out of the house instead of working out another morning on my trainer. After the hike, Michael became interested in snow-shoes so we checked some out at Appalachian Outfitters. Neither of us has committed to buying anything at this moment–even though I’ve wanted snow-shoes since I first tried them in Colorado–but I think it’s a possibility in the near future that I am going to buy my own pair. Of course, once I do this, the snow will melt and next winter will be much less snowy, as that is just my luck with these sort of things. Though, my opinion on having toys for the outdoors is that they never go to waste–I will find a use for them sooner or later and be really glad that I have them.

While we were out, we saw a momma deer and two younger deer who seemed to be going in the same direction next to the trail as us. They were really cute, seemingly just as interested in us as we were in them. Well, sort of. Momma was probably just trying to make sure we didn’t have any guns!

We also walked over to Ice Box Cave where we discovered some rather phallic looking icicles on the rocks. Or perhaps these are stalactites? stalagmites? Any geologists out there? Buehler? *crickets* Well, they were funny-looking anyway.

Work day meditation

It’s a beautiful day outside. Feels like summer rather than fall, and since my workload at this moment is sparse (and also my coworker gives me subtle pressure against my usual habit of working through lunch), I decided to eat lunch outside. Unfortunately, this rather tree-filled and private business park contains no picnic tables. A month or so ago, while taking what I call a “non-cigarette smoker’s cigarette break,” I had scoped out a little nook set back from the parking lot that I could use for this very purpose. It was a nice spot next to a ditch that actually, in this setting, looks like a little creek if you don’t look to the one side where the pipe going under the parking lot is.

Today I finally decided to brave social stigma and embarrassment to actually try my lunch spot. At noon, I quietly gathered my lunch, keys (so that I could get back into the building), the new book I started, and my blanket, and I left the office to try out my little spot. I was slightly embarrassed because the CEO had walked out ahead of me with his lunch and I wondered if he too was going to take a spot somewhere on the campus to sit (and hopefully not my spot). But he ended up getting in his car and driving off somewhere (some people, I think, like to go to the Brecksville Reservation to have lunch on a picnic table there since it’s only five minutes down the road).

As soon as I had spread my picnic blanket on the ground and sat, slipping my sandals off, I knew I’d made the right choice. The little ditch-creek provided background music as I read my book in the light of the sun streaming through the tree limbs. The world of the little business park slipped away and it was almost as though I were in the Cuyahoga Valley meditating, as I did quite a bit after Mike’s death. I felt really content; it was as though I’d cheated the work day and snuck out somehow to play hooky. It wasn’t the same feeling I have when I leave the office to have lunch with coworkers or friends. In that case, you never really “leave” your environment, per se; you still feel trapped by the busy world and confined by time. In this little nook just feet from the parking lot, I’d felt as though I’d escaped. A few leaves fell onto my lap from the looming trees and little critters scurried through the carpet of dead leaves already on the ground. The warm but slightly crisp air smelled great and I felt my mind clear as I concentrated on my reading.

There’s something about the feeling of the sun’s warmth on my skin that revives me. It’s like love, really–like that all-encompassing feeling of being held in your lover’s arms. I could be aching of loneliness or writhing in emotional pain; when I sit in the sunlight, I feel as though everything broken within me is being mended. On a day when I’m already feeling pretty good, I only feel more alive in the caressing warmth. I find inspiration on a clear, sunny day. And on the precipice of fall, everything seems all the more inspirational in the anticipation of the beauty that awaits in the coming weeks as the leaves slowly begin to change in their eternal life cycle.

The moments outside made me realize how I really need to slow down more often and take to the woods to wander. In lieu of cycling on Sunday, Michael and I chose to go hiking along one of my favorite trails in the Cuyahoga Valley (and I won’t tell you which one lest it would become a more populated place for people to go, which would take something away from my personal enjoyment of it). The weather was great on Sunday and only when I saw cyclists on our way back did I feel slightly guilty about skipping a good day to cycle for hiking. But it was only a momentary guilt because the day was just so perfect for being outside in any way. I found the feelings of centering I only get from hiking when I have more time to notice my surroundings. Not that I don’t enjoy the sights on my bike. It’s just that you can experience different details about your surroundings from each of these modes for enjoying the day and I think I realized I was slightly imbalanced. I’d forgotten how much I like to hike.

I guess I choose cycling often in lieu of hiking because I’m a cardio junkie, meaning that I don’t feel as though I’ve gotten enough exercise unless I’ve been sweating hard and my heart has been pounding. Walking, to me, just does not provide the benefit of feeling as though you had a good workout and, therefore, I feel like I’ve enjoyed myself but gotten no healthy benefit. Then, I spend the rest of the day thinking I’m fat since I have a “no pain, no gain” philosophy to my health (and I’m constantly deriding myself for the fat roll on my abdomen). In my quest for bodily perfection, I have forgotten the spiritual benefits to hiking–the release I feel when I reconnect with nature and take the time to observe my surroundings. Feeling better mentally is just as important as feeling better physically. I know I’ve been out of balance with my emotional health quite a bit lately.

And, yes, I know that walking does provide a physical benefit. It’s just that I don’t see people lose enormous amounts of wait from simply walking. To lose weight and remain in good physical condition, unfortunately, does require some un-fun (to some people) and challenging pain. Plain and simple, you gotta do something you don’t enjoy to gain long term benefits and weight loss. That’s why it’s called a “work out.”

But not everything is about physically challenging myself. Sometimes it’s just nice to get out there on a beautiful day and forget that the rest of the world exists. In my little lunch hideaway spot, I felt I was able to get away from the office while remaining close and not having to lose some of my relaxation time to drive time. I came back into the office feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the tiny bit of work I have to do today. I can see how this little escape plan might work greatly in times when I’m really busy and stressed. Even when I have a lot of work to do, I shouldn’t feel guilty about leaving my desk for my lunch hour and reading a book. I’ve not done this in a long time because I always feel as though I’m not working hard enough. But the mind needs respite and re-centering. You only make more mistakes if you don’t take a breather every now and then.

Lost toenails, sore legs, and fast fathers: my climb up Mt. Elbert

Mt. Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak,
as viewed along Route 24 outside of Leadville.

It’s not that I expect to be good at everything. Hell, I’m not even sure I’m good at anything. Still, when your fifty-seven year-old father beats you to the summit of a 14,000 foot peak, you can’t help but feel a little miffed. Especially since the last time, along an easier trail, he couldn’t even complete the trip. (Well, as he always corrects me, he could have gotten to the summit that time if my mom hadn’t been afflicted with a serious case of altitude sickness and needed to be taken down the mountain immediately. Regardless, I was faster than him that time.)

Like a good sport, I should just take this moment of defeat as a life lesson. As my father always wittingly points out, no matter how good you are at something, there’s always someone better than you. I guess it wouldn’t be so disheartening if I didn’t remember all so clearly that I was always the slowest hiker in my hiking group with the Colorado Mountain Club (CMC). Even after living in Colorado for a year–fully acclimated and doing much more hiking than I do now–I was still the slowest. Walking, I guess, is just not my thing. It doesn’t mean I enjoy it any less. In fact, I think my slow mode allows me to observe more than those swift-footed fast movers.

That’s what I try to tell myself, anyway.

I should not let my disappointment overshadow the amazing achievement of my father’s strong comeback in his second attempt to climb Mt. Elbert. Not only did he beat me up the mountain, he beat me up by two hours, arriving at the summit in just over three hours. I maintained my normal 1mph average and arrived at the summit in five. I guess that’s what you get when you hike with a man who runs about five miles a day and purposely programs his treadmill for rough inclines.

In trying to keep up with him early on, I pushed myself a little harder than I normally do, resulting in a bit of altitude issues. When I realized at one point that my father was permanently out of sight, and as I was experiencing some lower abdominal cramping, I stopped to take a breather on a rock beside the trail. As I sat down, my vision went white, like what happens when you turn the brightness setting up too high on your tv. A feeling of nausea slammed my senses, dizzying me as the sound of the world around me grew muffled. I thought I would faint for just a moment because this is usually a prelude to fainting (I have been induced to fainting many times at the sight of blood so the process is pretty routine to me).

Life just above timberline along the north Elbert trail.

It was at about this time that I started to panic, noticing suddenly that the air seemed thin. I think the perceived lack of air had to do more with my panicked state than actually noticing the reduction of air in the atmosphere at 12K feet. I usually don’t notice the air quantity at 14K unless I’m trying to do something physical, such as run. For a few minutes time, a single thought raced through my brain, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

Then logical Mars Girl took over with a firm, “No, you can breathe. You’re just having altitude problems. Relax, drink something, chew on a Powerbar. Then decide whether or not you have to come down.”

Which is precisely what I did. The world slowly popped back into my eyes and ears. A few people passed me on the trail, asked if I was okay, and I tried to cover up my state because people get really serious about altitude out there… I didn’t want to have anyone insisting I needed to climb down unless I truly felt I needed to climb down.

The world drops below at about 12,000 feet. This is where I stopped
to take my breather during my plight with altitude.

Unfortunately, the cramping resulted in the sudden, unwanted urge to visit a few big boulders beyond the sight of those climbing up or going down the trail. It’s a good thing I always pack toilet paper in my day pack. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a run in with Montezuma’s Revenge on a high altitude trail above timberline. Good times. (For a more serious, in-depth discussion of this topic, read How to Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer–I bought a copy for my husband for Christmas or his birthday one year. Though I did not, as this book suggests, use the environmentally friendly way (packing it out) of handling the situation…)

After about forty-five minutes of rest and other distraction, I found I was feeling much better and decided I could continue on with my “summit bid.” I was frustrated with myself for feeling the affects of altitude. The only other time I had an encounter with altitude-related illness was while climbing Mt. Bierstadt–another Colorado 14er–with a group of fast hikers in the CMC. Again, I kept pace with them and didn’t take the stops to rest that I usually do on the way up, and I found myself feeling as though I had a hang-over from about 12K feet to 14K feet. I sat on the summit that time in a lot of pain and trying to hide it from my peers so they wouldn’t chastise me for attempting the hike as I was classified by the club as an “A” hiker (lowest, slowest level) and that hike had been “C” hike (faster, higher level). That time, too, I’d had a panicky feeling of suffocating slowly.

I felt much better the rest of the hike up Mt. Elbert. I was a little miffed at my father for taking off and deserting me, but I decided to just pretend I was hiking alone, which is more fun to me anyway because I don’t have to match anyone’s pace. This trail I’d chosen–the north approach from the trailhead at Half Moon camp–was a lot harder than I remembered. It doesn’t really have switchbacks–maybe one or two–above timberline and goes straight up the north side of the mountain. The last time I’d used this trail (for I’d been up Elbert three other times), I found it to be the prettiest of the three major trails. I suppose it was due to the sweeping views the trail offers once you get past timberline. The last time I’d hiked this trail, I was a seasoned Colorado hiker, having lived there for several months. It probably was a lot easier on me then.

Plus, any difficult hiking I’d endured that day was completely underscored by the experience of “walking above the clouds” I had. My hike had started out on a drizzling morning and, as I crossed the threshold of timberline through what my mind perceived as simply a thick fog, I found myself walking above the clouds. It had been absolutely breath-taking, indescribably beautiful. Especially since the other two hikes I’d made up that mountain had been tempered by feelings of stress that matched the thunderstorms storms that chased me down (especially the day I put my husband’s ashes up there). To me, that single, beautiful experience was almost like a sign welcoming me atop that mountain for the first time on my own terms. It was the one time I didn’t bring a camera so all I have is the memory of standing above the clouds with the peaks of many neighboring mountains, and Elbert’s false summit, jutting up majestically through a ruffled blanket of white.

On this climb up Elbert, though, the sky was spotted with higher altitude cloud puffs. Four years have passed since I was a resident of Colorado and my blood is once again that of a flatlander. That mystical moment I shared with only myself–stuck forever in my memory–was not to be repeated this time. Every hike, even when repeated, is it’s own experience. If I am to take any memory from this particular hike, I will remember the brisk wind that almost blew my cute little hiking hat from my head (forcing me to put it in my backpack).

As I made it past Elbert’s false summit, I was greeted by some hikers on their way down who informed me, as every hiker does, that the real summit wasn’t that far away. The same sort of hopeful information is passed from ride leaders to cyclists all the time–“There’s no more hills for the rest of the ride,” they will say. I knew to take this information lightly.

This, my friends, is what a false summit looks like…
can you see DISAPPOINTMENT etched in its stone?

A few people passed to tell me that they’d seen my father on the summit and that he was worried about me. About a half hour later, twenty or so minutes’ walk from the summit, I found my dad making his way down the mountain. I was kind of disappointed that he was already descending and it kind of deflated my drive to finish the summit push, but, to my great relief, my dad decided to turn around and go back to the top so that we could take pictures on the summit together. It’s good that he actually wanted, like me, to share the father-daughter bonding moment, even if his first crossing of the summit was not mine to witness.

The last few steps toward the summit are always the most difficult. You’ve been climbing for hours and spring is the last thing in your step, even when you sight the top and the crowd of people gathered there. I still had to pause for a few moments after several steps. I couldn’t believe I was this badly out of shape. Maybe I really am getting old.

The north trail intersects with the south trail right before the summit. We encountered a couple of very gleeful men about my dad’s age coming up the south trail who, I was to learn later, had carried a flask of Scotch whiskey to toast to at the top. The one guy explained to me that Elbert was his elusive summit, that he had had to turn back right below the summit some 29 years ago due to encroaching darkness (is that all? I would have gone to the top anyway!), and he’d never gotten the chance to attempt it again until now. I guess that certainly constitutes a moment to enjoy Scotch on the summit of a mountain!

A group of young hikers passed us. A religious group of some sort, as the blonde girl passed me, she exclaimed with an elated smile and a maniacal trill in her voice, “Jesus is alive! This is the proof!”

If not the parameters of their dogma, I could understand their fervor. It’s always been at moments like these–atop mountains, pumping my pedals hard on a beautiful summer’s day, swinging a raft along a river–where I’ve found felt my place in a part of something larger than myself. Whether you call it God or Jesus or Mother Nature or Planet Earth or the Great and Grand Mystical Universe, it is truly awesome. It’s moments like these where I feel the most alive and the most connected with not only myself but with the life of which I’m apart. It certainly is no mystery why I left my husband’s ashes atop a mountain. He shared my love of the outdoors and that pioneering spirit that always made us thirst for more adventures in exploration. I know he’s happy with the resting place I chose for him.

I almost shouted back cheerily at the group of young Jesus enthusiasts, “Praise be!” My fear of other hikers misinterpreting my response held my tongue back. (Not everyone wants to be identified as a religious enthusiast among seculars. And I do care about my image. Maybe too much.)

At the top, after exchanging cameras and picture-taking moments, I plunked down on a rock and soared on a long-missed climbers’ high as I looked down at the jaded peaks surrounding me. All of the trials of my hike, including the altitude sickness, just floated away from my thoughts, lost in the thin air that surrounded the peaks. Despite the strong winds pushing at me on the climb up, the summit was unusually quiet and still and I was filled with the peace found only at the summit of a high peak where a silence surrounds you as if you were inside a bubble. The guys with the Scotch offered me a sip and I took a little. Even the small bit that rolled on my tongue intoxicated me instantly. It felt good for a few moments.

I quickly inhaled a turkey wrap I’d lugged up (partly to reduce the weight in my day pack) and then pulled Tanya’s ashes from the canister in which they had come to me. I waited a few moments for the small crowd to finish taking pictures around the little wood post erected next to the USGS marker. I found a little niche beneath the mound of stones holding the post in place and emptied the bag of ashes into it. Tanya was released to Mike, her favorite human, at last, after three years of patient waiting.

Tanya’s resting place (circled lightly) at improvised summit marker.
Mike’s ashes were left nearby at the USGS marker seven years ago.

At that moment, a black bird of some sort swooped over my head and across the summit. For a few moments, the bird rode the wind current like a para-glider. I could see its feathers ruffling in the current as the bird floated surrealistically next to the edge of the summit.

My dad joked, “That bird is saying, ‘Why you stupid people walk up this thing? Just fly!'”

We chuckled and watched as the bird floated off. It was one of those moments where you wish you could have attempted to get a picture. Of course, by the time my fingers reached for the camera, the bird was gone. Maybe it was supposed to be that way–another Elbert memory committed only to memory. A memory made at a particular moment when I’d returned my cat’s ashes to the side of her master. It makes you wonder. I’ll leave you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions about this event, for I’m totally wiped out of spiritual philosophy this evening… But I will point out that Tanya was a black cat…

Anyway, we stayed up there about forty-five minutes, and then headed down. My dad was kinder on the descent; though he wanted to go faster and very well could have, he waited for me every time he got too far ahead (but not without commenting about how much faster he could have gone down if not for his slow daughter). I was having an unusual amount of trouble on the descent–more than usual. I think the boots I was wearing were not tight enough around my ankles, for I kept having problems with my ankle twisting on some of my downward steps, which caused me to fall twice. More of a hurt ego, though, than true injury. I kept telling my dad that with the way I was supporting myself so heavily on the hiking poles (definitely could not have made it down without them) that I looked like a polio child. Cruel joke, I know, but so true. I did look like a child with polio the way I was walking. Or MS or something. It was obnoxiously bad.

My boots had also failed me miserably in the comfort department. I managed to badly bruise the toenails on both of my big toes on the descent. Now, over a week later, the skin beneath the nails is a very deep shade of purple, so much so that it looks like they simply have nail polish on them. I’m definitely going to lose the nail on the left toe and the one on the right–the one that I recently lost as a result of skiing earlier this year–isn’t looking too great either. The joys of being an athletic woman: I will never have pretty feet. I’m thinking of masking the grossness for awhile by painting the rest of my toenails purple. I’m pretty sure I have a shade of polish that matches the hue of the bruising.

I also have a broken blister on the back of my heel that is struggling to mend itself (it keeps getting reopened by the backs of my shoes). I was pretty sore for four days after the climb, the first two days being the worst with walking up and down stairs being a struggle. Turning myself in bed was a painful experience. I don’t think I used to get that sore.

My dad was pretty proud of his success on the climb. In a moment of competitive jealousy, I told him that I could kick his ass on a bike any time. Of course, if I bettered my dad on the bike, it would only inspire him to work harder for a goal, and the next thing I would know it, he’d be riding with the hammerheads of the 6pm ABC ride on Thursdays, leaving his athletically-retarded daughter in his dust. He’s just more of a natural with athletics than me; I think I take after my mom, a little bit less sure on my feet. Unfortunately, I got my competitive nature from him and my unstoppable drive to push myself towards a challenging goal until I achieve it. I guess those are good qualities, even for a dunce like me. My mind is always willing when my body isn’t always ready to meet the task. But you bet I’m going to push myself onward anyway, no matter what the cost and no matter what negative comments the naysayers will shout. I think that’s why husband used to tell me that I’m a survivor. It’s the survivor in me that made me get up on those cold mornings after his death; the survivor eventually dragged me out of the valley of despair that threatened to consume me.

Well, I’m proud of my dad too. He may have kicked my ass. But maybe I need someone to sober the overbloated sense of entitlement I have in my athletic pursuits. I admit to an elitist competitive streak that I’m sure my friends and family find frustrating. I struggle to contain that. Having my dad kick my butt up the mountain was just the cure. I guess I’m willing to share a hobby with my father. Though, it really won’t stop me from wanting to try to better him next time.

Mars Girl and Mars Dad, together,
on the summit of Mt. Elbert (14,433 ft).

Rethinking this year’s cycling goal…

So, tonight, I was thinking. Perhaps I’m being a little over-ambitious with this 3,000 mile goal for this year. It’s August, I’ve had a week off from my bike, and my legs only recently stopped aching from my mountain climb in Colorado (the quest of which I will describe in a future blog entry, I promise). And, well, you know, I do have a life… There’s other things to do… Like, this week, a girl from my church–someone with whom I attended a small group ministry session last year–invited me to go see the movie Bottle Shock starring one of my favorite luscious old guys, Alan Rickman. It was a movie about one of my other passions–wine. Additionally, the theatre that was playing it, in the trendy part of town, had cheap alcohol night–yes, alcohol at a theatre, it’s so posh like Europe. So for $5 I got a ticket to see an indy film and for $2 I got a glass of wine. (And actually, I had two glasses.) It was Sutter Home, yes, but hey, cheap wine is still wine. Even I will drink Miller Lite beer if it’s what’s on sale at the bar.

So, anyway, I could have rode my little aching legs off on Monday–after all, I’d drank two glasses of wine on Sunday I could have used to work off–but instead, I decided to accept an invitation with a new group of friends for a fun evening of drooling over Alan Rickman as he spoke with his hot British voice, occasionally breaking out into French, and acting all wine-snobby at everyone in California while I enjoyed a cheap glass of Sutter Home with some new friends I discovered at my church. Who could ask for more than that?

Even better! The same group of church friends invited me to an afternoon outing next week at a local winery called Myrrdin that happens to be owned by one of our fellow parishioners. I haven’t been to this winery. Boy, was I rubbing my hands together at that invitation! More wine, more fun!

So, you see, maybe I should get out. It also occurred to me as I was climbing Mt. Elbert that perhaps I should spend some time hiking. Perhaps my legs would not have endured such shock had I practiced climbing up hills in the Valley on my legs instead of always my bike. Surely, Michael would have delighted in a break of routine to do something different for a change. I wouldn’t have had to venture alone.

I should practice variety. I seem to have a problem with obsessions where I totally go ape-shit over one activity like there’s nothing else in the world. For awhile, my imbalance was a sharp focus on astronomy. Okay, I love cycling like nothing else. But there’s more to life than cycling, right? Do I really need to kill myself for some 3,000 mile goal I threw out there to impress, who, myself? Do I really want to hate my bike by the end of the summer? If I space things out more, perhaps I would appreciate each and every one of my activities always in the moment I’m doing them.

White water rafting. I’ve always wanted to try that. The summer is almost over and, again, I’ve let things slip by without going down to Ohiopyle with some friends.

Water skiing. Well, I don’t have any friends who have a boat. But I’d sure love to try it. (Any boaters out there? Need a new friend?)

Motorcycle lessons. I don’t care how dangerous it is, I still want to learn! Maybe I won’t take it out on a highway, just ride it around on some scenic back streets. I’d be careful. Really, I would!

Camping. I haven’t done that in a long, long time. I can’t even remember the last time. Except for sleeping in a tent with access to running water and hot showers on a two-day bike ride.

Astronomy and star parties. Gack, my telescope has sat in a box in my garage, untouched now for over a year (Ted, please don’t kill me). This is sad and pathetic! Astronomy was my worship service. It was viewing galaxies, nebulae, and planets through my telescope on an astronomy field with hundreds of other amateur astronomers where the first words to an unfinished poem came to my mind: I see God through my eye piece.

I think that’s when I first became aware that I was changing from an atheist to a spiritual being with an open mind. The sights I viewed just inspired awe and a burning desire to learn more about the universe. I felt like I was a part of a vast, cold but ever beautiful universe and it brought tears to my eyes to behold. (Yeah, I’m really that easily swayed to emotional outbursts.)

Pelee Island. Michael and I went there last year and had a blast. Yeah, we brought our bikes, but they were really more for transportation than anything else. We spent the weekend sunbathing and swimming in Lake Erie (yes, it can be done without incurring illness). We’d eat at some restaurant for lunch and dinner, and then skip off to the island’s only winery. Ahhh, those were some good times. I remember thinking, “Who needs the Caribbean when you have this practically in your backyard?”

(Well, I guess you need the Caribbean in the winter when it sucks up this way north.)

Michael and I both regret not setting aside time to revisit Pelee. I guess I just got carried away with all the rides advertised in the Ohio Bicycling Event Calendar.

Highpointing. I’m still a member of the club, but when was the last time I did a new highpoint? I’ve been stuck at 18 for the last four years. I keep meaning to do Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia over a four day weekend. Tennessee and Kentucky are drive-ups with Virginia being the only one that would require hiking. I was going to chose the route that goes along the Appalachian Trail just so that I could say I experienced but a piece of it.

Yes, I will admit that sometimes I can become too passionate and obsessed about one single thing. Perhaps I just need to take it down a notch. 2,000 miles by bicycle a year is pretty respectable in most corners. Can I just shoot for that every year and anything additional is the “bonus round”? There are so many other things in life to experience, are there not?

I just don’t want to become one of those crazy people who has to be riding all the time. I don’t want it to become a chore. I don’t want to burn out on cycling and then never touch my beautiful bike again. (Though my bike is not so beautiful right now as she seems to need some gear adjustments or a new chain or something–gotta see the bike doctors at Century Cycles tomorrow… :( ).

Okay, all this talk does not mean I’m going to stop riding or anything. You’ll probably watch my miles counter continue to go up at a normal pace again now that I’m back from vacation. I’m just saying that I’m not pushing so hard for that 3,000 goal. What’s that number anyway? 2,000 miles would get me to Denver and almost back (about 700 miles short of the return). So that’s still good, right?

(Watch me as I talk myself out of my goal, convincing myself that I can still look at myself in the mirror at 2,000+ miles after I already set the goal and will probably internally feel like a loser for making a goal I decided not to keep.)

Well, anyway, I’m having a good run. People are telling me I look like I’ve lost weight so that must mean that I had a great load of winter fat at the start of the year. So, evidently, the fitness value of my riding is paying off even at 2,000 miles. (Although, would I get myself back down to 130lbs at 3,000 miles…? ;) Just kidding!!)

Life is for experiencing everything. I should try some new things to change up with the old every once in awhile. But I’m still going to go on one big bike trip next year… And it’s looking like STP is winning my affections… Or maybe it’s the people I’d visit there!