An Evening In The Westfjords

Sunday, August 13, 2017 – Melanes, Iceland

We eased into the cool morning with a camp breakfast of rye bread from the bakery in town, peanut butter, and coffee. After, we packed and were on our way, leaving the charming seaside town of Isafjordur (the capital of the Westfjords) behind and driving south, along the coast on dirt and gravel roads that likely voided the insurance contract on our rental.

Around each bend the views were beyond spectacular. Vistas of mountains and sea more breathtaking than I have ever seen. The Westfjords are unmatched in their ability to inspire awe. The roads at times were downright scary. Hairpin turns at 12 degree slopes on gravel roads makes for some white-knuckle moments. A 4×4 would have been more appropriate, but the van carried us through the day.

We stopped for a soak in one of the many thermal baths of this region, at a town called Talknafjordor. The bath was the least awe-inspiring thing about our day. Man-made, unkempt and lined with algae to the point that walking was a hazard. But the water was hot and felt great after a strenuous hike yesterday and the large lunch we’d just enjoyed at a bistro in town. We left feeling refreshed and recharged.

We drove another 26k to our campsite for the night at a tiny hamlet called Melanes. It was breath-taking – the most beautiful place I’ve ever had the privelege to pitch a tent. Backpacker Magazine-cover-photo-type beautiful.

There was a wide beach stretching out beyond our camp in a hayfield. Ringing the coast east and north of us were dramatic mountains sweeping up from the coast to rocky outcroppings high above. The sun cast an otherworldly light on the ridges, brilliant shades of purple deepening by degree as it began to set.

The hayfield was large – perhaps ten football fields across, and there was no one within 100 yards of us. There was a waterfall high up on the peak behind us. The sound of crashing waves on the distant beach was muted, far off, providing our soundtrack for the night. Cut hay lay in serpentine rows, golden ropes against the green grass of late summer. The evening skies were brilliant blue, with white puffs of cloud rising above the water and ridges.

We cooked a proper dinner of sausage and rice and vegetables over a camp stove and sipped good Scotch. We added a layer against the gathering cold and dimming light. We were in the Westfjords, far away from the busloads of tourists in the south and the relative bustle of Reykjavik. A week in Iceland lay before us like a blank page. It was perfection.

 

Midnight On The Mountain

I knew we were in trouble when they turned on the light bar. The pickup sat there across the small gravel parking lot from our campsite – it’s headlamps ominously aimed at our tents. And now the million-lumen light bar, which lit us up like stadium lights. It was a horrible thing, the truck. Idling like a ravenous beast. It was a full size American-made truck of an indeterminate make in the post mid-night darkness. If Stephen King were Southern, this truck would have been his Christine, except it would be named “Bocephus” or “Delmar”. It had massive, knobby tires and one of those after-market muffler set-ups that made the engine roar at an ear-piercing decibel. A tattered Confederate battle flag hung defiantly from an antenna on the right fender. It was a nightmare. A redneck’s wet dream.

We sat in our tents paralyzed. What the fuck were these guys up to? Melissa tried in vain to get a signal on her cell. Chase, our 13-year old nephew was in his own tent a dozen feet away. Ours were the only two tents around.

The truck had come down the mountain on a jeep road just a few minutes earlier and, seeing our tents, the derelicts decided to have a little fun at our expense. They spun out, doing figure eights and slinging gravel, the howling engine at full octave. We were initially annoyed. But then they backed into the corner of the lot and stopped, headlamps in our direction. When the light bar came on, annoyance evaporated into fear. I was on this mountain with my wife and my nephew. I was responsible for their safety. My mind raced with a hundred different scenarios, none of which were good. I didn’t have a gun. We didn’t have a signal. It was 1am. We were completely vulnerable.

The truck idled in a low growl, menacing and aggrieved. It occurred to me that it was a Friday night (now Saturday morning), and these idiots had been out partying. They were drunk at a minimum, but who knows what else they’d been up to. Meth is rampant in these Appalachian backwaters. They had guns, no doubt. No way they didn’t have guns. What were they doing? Planning? Were they still just fucking with us or had their whiskey-addled brains gone to a darker place? It seemed entirely possible that they could walk down into the campsite and… God knows what.

After a few minutes the truck pulled forward and stopped adjacent to us at the edge of the campsite, only thirty feet away now. One of the two rednecks got out of the passenger side and walked around the truck. He seemed agitated. I could make out enough of him in the waxing moonlight to determine that he looked exactly as I’d expected. Long, stringy hair, cutoff t-shirt – straight out of central casting. There were faint aromas of pine and burnt motor oil and cheep beer.

He reached for something in the bed of the truck and my heart pounded so hard I was afraid they’d hear it. I could hear muffled conversation but couldn’t make anything out. If they walked down into the campsite, I would have to get out of the tent – I would need to address them – try my diplomatic skills – attempt to diffuse the situation. But I knew that if they walked down there, things would turn very ugly very quickly.

I prayed they wouldn’t, and I cursed myself for choosing this campsite, only a few tenths of a mile from the highway and easily accessible. What had begun as such a good day – an excellent day on the trail and at camp had turned into a nightmare. I felt at that moment like we were on the verge of something violent and terrible. Perhaps death. Or worse. It didn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility. It felt real and close and almost scripted – as if there were no other way for it to end.

To my immense relief, the redneck got back in the truck after what seemed an eternity. They spun more donuts, the monstrous engine roaring, enraged. And then, just as quickly as they’d arrived they were gone. We heard them tear down the gravel access road and then turn onto the highway, the roar of the engine growing more distant as they lumbered into the dark night.

We’d been given a reprieve, but we knew there would be no return to sleep. What if they came back? What if they were going to get more buddies? We were completely vulnerable at our camp. There was only one thing to do. I called out to Chase to grab his shoes and headlamp. We were going back to the trail. We wouldn’t bother with packing – it was more urgent than that. We needed to find a safe place now.

We accessed the trail at the northwest corner of the Laurel Valley parking lot, climbing a couple dozen steps away from the lot and onto the trail proper. We sat there at the top of the steps for a few minutes, listening and trying to comprehend what had just happened. The surge in adrenaline left my legs rubbery. My lungs burned. I had to make a concerted effort to control my breathing.

We whispered to each other and this was reassuring. Just being back among the trees and away from view made us feel safe. After a few minutes it occurred to me that the trail paralleled the jeep road for quite a way – perhaps a mile back west, and if they did come back we would be vulnerable in our current position. Having accepted the reality that there would be no return to camp until daylight, we began walking back in the direction we had come that day – westward through the inky black of deep night.

The trail looked and felt different in the dark. Our headlamps, set to tactical red, cast shaky beams of muted light, illuminating our next few steps but not much beyond. There was an electric sense of urgency and as we walked through the corridor of hemlocks and pines, we listened in nervous anticipation of the truck’s return. Somehow we sensed that they were not quite done with us.

After about a mile, we came to a spot where the trail intersected with the jeep road again at a sharp curve. We descended steps down to the crossing, cautious, slow, headlamps off, listening for any movement. We quickly climbed back onto the trail on the opposite side of the intersection and ascended another hundred feet or so westward until we felt sufficiently safe.

We sat one in front of the other on some steps along the trail. Chase, in front and below, Melissa in the middle, then me. We could make out the jeep road below us, faint moonlight reflecting off the sandy surface through a thin veil of pine branches. We continued to try 911 intermittently with no success. We were stuck for the night and sat uncomfortably, knowing there would be no sleep. It was now around 2am.

Suddenly we saw headlamps below and to our right, and heard the crunch of tires on gravel. Before we could even comprehend what was happening an SUV was directly below us on the jeep road. We realized with alarm that we were much closer to the road than we’d realized. We sat frozen. The SUV stopped and someone inside began searching the hillside with a spotlight. I hissed to “get down!” We found ourselves in the surreal position of being on our stomachs, faces I the dirt in the middle of the trail, another set of hooligans below us.

These weren’t our rednecks from earlier but who were they? Did they know we were here? Had they seen us? The searchlight switched off and the SUV began to pull forward, away from us and down the road. We were up in a flash and walking again with renewed urgency.

We walked another half mile or so until we came to a spot with some steps that seemed sufficiently far back from the jeep road. I knew the road was still not far away, but we couldn’t see it any longer, which seemed marginally safer. We sat down in the same arrangement as before, front to back. We speculated about what might be happening back at our camp, and what it might look like when we returned at sun-up. We assumed it would be ransacked.

We settled in the best we could, alternately leaning on one another and shifting frequently. The temperature had dropped to the mid 60’s – uncomfortably cool with no jacket. Melissa had thought to bring water, but her bottle was less than a quarter full, so we rationed our sips carefully. We were all parched. We felt safer now, and talked in muted whispers about the events of the night. We tried the cell occasionally and still had no success despite being higher on the mountain.

We marked time and tried to nap. We did our best to get through the night, shivering and battling boredom. The boredom was ironic, given all of the excitement. I realized that I had left my hiking pole at the other set of steps when we had to scramble away. We sat in the dark in the middle of the Foothills Trail and we were completely unafraid of bears or snakes. Sitting exposed in the wee hours, wild animals were not our concern. Only people.

Gradually the hours slipped by and around 6am a faint, early  light began to filter through the trees. We cautiously made our way back toward camp. Despite lingering trepidation, it was invigorating and restorative to be up moving again. We made good time, gaining confidence in proportion to the strengthening light as we walked. We were eager to see what condition our camp might be in, and to pack and be on our way. We were tired but energized all the same.

At the steps leading down to the parking lot I motioned for Melissa and Chase to stop, and I made my way down slowly, the parking lot and campsite revealing themselves by degree with each step. It was perfectly still. The gravel under my feet and birds, full in their morning song, were the only sounds. I motioned for them to come on down.

Walking across the parking lot, the crazed tire tracks obvious in figure-eight gouges of the surface dirt. It was evidence that last night was real and not some shared horror dream. We got to camp and everything was intact. We were relieved and quickly set about breaking down tents and loading packs. Within twenty minutes we were loaded and walking.

We decided to walk down to the highway where we could pump water from Estatoe Creek under the Highway 178 overpass. We ate breakfast here too, just off the road at the edge of a private drive. It was an overcast morning and muggy. Cars flew by, drivers oblivious to us on the highway. Before long we were on the move, picking up the trail on the east side of the highway.

We finished the trail that day, despite plans for one more night of camping, reaching the car at Table Rock State Park after a long fourteen miles or so. We’d seen two black bears on our hike that day, which was thrilling, but also solidified our resolve to push on. After the drama of the night before, camping in an area where we’d seen multiple bears just wasn’t appealing. We had experienced our fill of drama. We were eager to get to the car, to a hotel in Greenville. To have a shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. We were emotionally and physically exhausted.

We arrived at Table Rock around 5pm and found our car where we had left it a week before. Melissa and I had completed all seventy-seven miles of the Foothills Trail – something that had long been on my bucket list. Moreover, we had survived the night before and learned some things along the way. Principally, that I will never again camp without a weapon. This saddens me, but camping unarmed – at least along the East Coast – no longer seems prudent. To be clear, I would not have handled the situation any differently if I had been armed. But it would have been a comfort to know a weapon was available had things deteriorated further. I also learned that in our part of the world, where there are no Grizzlies, bears are nothing to be overly concerned about. People are a different story.

More importantly though, I learned that we were pretty good in a crisis. All of us. We worked well together, we stayed calm and we thought through our best options. We took action when we needed to and we laid low when it made sense. We didn’t let fear paralyze us. I was proud of Chase for his bravery and cool calm. I was impressed, as always, with Melissa for her toughness and spirit of adventure. We were a good team.

We survived to hike another day.

 

Triathlete Chronicles is now South By Southeast

Dear friends and loyal readers (aka, Mom & Melissa)-

Beginning today, Triathlete Chronicles is now South By Southeast. We all change and grow as time moves on, and hopefully, mature along the way. The new title and format reflects a change in my focus. While triathlon was a fantastic part of mine and Melissa’s lives for years and the inspiration for a lot of blogs, Triathlete Chronicles was always about more than triathlon. It was about travel and food and all the good things of life. The new title better reflects that. Moreover, the format was due for a fresh coat of paint.

I am looking forward to re-engaging in the blog and hope to delve into a broader range of topics to boot. I hope you enjoy the new format.

Stay tuned and thanks as always for stopping by.

-Alan

Verona

Each day on our recent trip with good friends Martin and Misa through parts of Czech Republic, Austria, Italy and Croatia, I would sit in the RV while Martin drove and, with questionable penmanship exacerbated by a bumpy road, scrawl a barely-legible account of the previous days adventures. The following is an entry from one of our favorite days, and by far our favorite meal…

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A change of plans yesterday took us to Verona. It was a wonderful night in one of the loveliest cities I have ever seen.

Misa found a perfect campground atop an ancient castle – Castel San Pietro, which sits on a high bluff overlooking the city. The city center is compact and perfect for walking, which we did happily after a long day of driving.

VeronaIt was a gorgeous, mild evening, just an hour or so before dusk when we descended into the city from the campground. As we did the sun cast a beautiful light on the red clay rooftops and ancient buildings and cobbled alleyways.

We were eager for wine and stopped first in a charming corner establishment, the Cappa Café. There was a fine, large balcony overlooking the wide, swift-moving Adige River, which bisects the town. We sat initially there but moved inside to a cozy table due to the dropping temperature and chilly breeze off of the river.

We spent a couple of hours there, laughing and telling stories over two bottles of good red wine. Verona was working it’s charms.

After, we strolled some more, slightly buzzed and happy. We took in a two thousand year old Roman coliseum, the Verona Arena, which is still in use today and famous for it’s large-scale opera productions. It was spectacular and reminded me of the blinding pace of change in the US. For example, the wonderful Carolina Coliseum in Columbia was only built in 1968 and was state of the art at the time. It was replaced over ten years ago by another, more modern facility. Sad. But that rant is for another blog.

We ambled over to Casa Guilietta for a glimpse at Juliet’s balcony from Romeo and Juliet – by far the most frequented tourist destination in Verona and a little crowded even in the off season on a Wednesday night. We people-watched, inhaling the salt-tinged perfume of the early evening air while walking a little more. Between the wine and the walking, we were ready to eat.

As we made our way back across the river toward the campsite, we settled on an enchanting little restaurant within the shadow of Castel San Pietro – Alcova del Frote Osteria. The “osteria” caught my attention and I immediately craved oysters.

We were seated in a private room downstairs in the wine cellar. The room was small and cozy with just one table. Dried hams and sausages hung from rough-hewn ceiling beams and candles cast soft light on the shelves of local and regional wine lining every wall from floor to ceiling. It was a room built for luxuriant dining.

We started with what might have been the best red wine I have ever tasted – a locally produced, small batch wine – Valpolicello, 2011. Amazing, peppery and boldy flavorful. We ordered ham three ways – dark, Spanish and Italian with sweet marinated tomoatos. Of course, we ordered local oysters, and they were beautiful, meaty and fresh, tasting strongly of the Mediterranean – briny and delicious. Polenta cakes with scallops and potato puret – amazing.

I ordered horse, for the dark novelty of it more than anything. It was prepared both grilled (spectacular) and carpacio, which was good as well but not as flavorful. We had the best pasta aldente any of us had ever tasted. It was light, topped with local olive oil and fresh olives. Pasta is ruined for me now because I will always judge it based on that dish and it will always fall short – I know this even now. There were also wonderful pan-roasted potatoes and at some point, another bottle of wine, this time a Heletto – also local, but smoother and equally wonderful. We coined a new word – “Foogasm” – and we were fully in the throes of multiple foogasms at this point.

We finished with dessert, which was a mix of tiramisu, cheesecake and chocolate mousse, presented on twelve large spoons – samples of all three for each of us. It was outstanding, but at this point we were in danger of sudden-onset gout. Good Italian coffee helped to settle over-burdened stomachs, but what we really needed was a walk.

I must mention as well that our waiter was tremendous. He was patient, charming and knowledgeable, offering suggestions unobtrusively and picking our wine after thoughtful questions. He was professional in every way and made our evening immeasurably more enjoyable than it could have been otherwise.

After, we shuffled back to camp, zombie-like and deeply satisfied. It was the meal of the year.

Verona reminded me vaguely of Charleston with it’s well-worn charm and seaside aromas. It made me want to sell everything and move there. To learn just enough Italian to get by and to spend my days writing and eating and walking it’s cobbled streets. I think I could talk Melissa into that…

Big Sky love – Missoula

The plane made its approach, zeroing in on the lone strip of linear asphalt among the surrounding blonde foothills and the high mountains just beyond. Missoula is ringed by numerous mountain ranges – the Bitterroots, the Garnet range and the Rattlesnake Mountains, among yet others and the wildness of it filled our tiny airplane window. The mild jolt of landing and squealing of tires told us we were finally in Western Montana. Ten days of vacation lay out before us like some uncharted and meandering river full of possibility and maybe – just maybe – a little danger.

Welcome to Missoula

Welcome to Missoula

Exiting the plane, we felt the cool Montana air which was medicinal after the burdensome August humidity we left behind in Raleigh. It was in the mid-60’s at 1:15 pm Mountain Time and, overpowering the wafting fumes of jet fuel was the scent of pine-tinged alpine air – clean, dry and inviting.  Greeting us in the small terminal was a massive Grizzly, standing and glancing toward the baggage claim area intently, as if watching the conveyer belt for his luggage. His front paws were as large as dinner plates and he must have stood twelve feet high. It was a dramatic display of taxidermal artistry and it was as close to one of those big boys as I ever hoped to come.

 

A hike to the “M”

We quickly loaded our bags into the rental, which we were excited to find was a cavernous GMC Acadia SUV complete with sunroof. After a short drive into town, we checked into the Double Tree Hotel – a sprawling 60’s era hotel which the Hilton chain has renovated admirably. Truth be told, the property likely would have met the wrecking ball years before had it not been for its prime location, right on the banks of the lovely Clark Fork River and adjacent to the University of Montana campus. Melissa had been steadily researching things to do and places to eat, so after a quick change of clothes we set out on foot for the U of M campus and a hike up to the iconic “M” on Mount Sentinel.

The switchback trail up Mount Sentinel was first constructed by forestry students in 1908 and the large “M” was initially constructed of white washed rocks. In 1968 the rocks were replaced by a 125′ by 100′ concrete “M”, which is still in place today. It is visible throughout the city of Missoula and looms large over the U of M campus. As we headed up the trail – a mile from its base on the east end of campus to the top – the views of campus and town grew more sweeping and dramatic with each step. We paused several times to admire the impressive view and let our lungs adjust to the 5,000 foot elevation.

The U of M Grizzly statue, with University Hall and Mount Sentinel in the background - note the "M" high above

The U of M Grizzly statue, with University Hall and Mount Sentinel in the background – note the “M” high above

The view from the top was splendid and we took our time, enjoying the vantage point and still-novel cool air. The campus below, with it’s leafy canopy, distinguished red brick buildings and manicured lawns was charming and inviting as only college campuses can be. It was move-in week and students milled about, looking like so many busy ants from our high perch, carrying boxes and filling dorm rooms with personal effects in preparation for the start of fall semester. There was a palpable buzz of youthful energy in the air and the entire scene filled me with nostalgia and no small amount of envy for those students. I realized that in very short order I had fallen in love with Missoula and the University of Montana.

After a walk down the mountain and a brief tour through the rest of campus, we walked just over a mile, more or less along the Clark Fork River to Caras Park where each Thursday night during the summer the City of Missoula hosts a festival with live music, food and drinks. We were suddenly famished from our walking and became big fans of the Missoula food truck scene. I ordered chorizo tacos, Melissa had Thai and we sat on a park bench gazing out over the swift flowing Clark Fork, happily sipping offerings from local Big Sky Brewery. The people watching was impressive. One lady, who must have been eight months, 29 days and 23 hours pregnant posed for pictures nearby wearing only a sports bra and very short shorts. I was reminded of the local slogan, “keep Missoula weird”, and I believe this lady took that slogan to heart and was doing her part to make it happen.

After a while, with darkness gathering and temperatures falling squarely into the jacket range – a splendid novelty for a Carolinian in August – we walked back to the hotel as a light rain settled in. While Melissa showered I sat on the patio of our 2nd floor room, contentedly sipping a bourbon, listening to the rain and writing in my journal. Day one of our long anticipated vacation was in the books with nine days to go. I was as happy in that moment as it is possible to be.

Smokejumpers, hot springs and a glimpse of Idaho

We started the day with a solid breakfast at Catalyst Cafe on North Higgins Avenue downtown. A veggie scramble with a side of bacon for Melissa and wonderful huevos rancheros for me. Gratifyingly sated and ready for our first full day in Montana, we headed out for the Missoula Smokejumper Museum located at the Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumper Center, near the Missoula airport.

Smokejumpers are the elite airborne firefighters of the U.S. Forest Service and I have always been fascinated with them. Smokejumping, or at least the idea of it, has been around nearly as long as the airplane. According to the National Smokejumper Training Guide, as early as 1917, airplanes were used for aerial fire detection. By the 1920’s, the initial attempts at aerial fire suppression were underway, with containers of water and/or foam being dumped from buckets, tin cans and in at least one instance, an 8 gallon oak beer barrel attached to a parachute. By 1939, live jumps were being made with some regularity via the Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project in the vicinity of Winthrop, Washington. The following year, 1940, was the first operational year for airborne firefighting, and the Smokejumpers have been at it ever since.

Perhaps the most famous and tragic event in the history of the organization was immortalized in the excellent “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean (of “A River Runs Through It” fame). Maclean worked in Western Montana logging camps as a young man and became fascinated with the story of the Mann Gulch tragedy of 1949. During the tragedy, 12 Smokejumpers out of a crew of 15 were killed by a fast moving fire in Helena National Forest, Montana. The Forest Service took many lessons from the tragedy, incorporating advanced training techniques, equipment and strategies, as well as a focus on fire suppression and research into the science of fire behavior.The museum was outstanding and admirably relayed the history of the Smokejumpers, which in turn, provided texture to the evolution of flight and firefighting during the 20th Century.

By the time we exited the museum, around 11am, we were eager to make our way to LoLo Hot Springs, about 45 minutes west. Our plan here was to spend a lazy afternoon in the rejuvenating natural hot springs getting exceedingly pruned. Upon our arrival, we found what appeared to be a Branch Davidian-style compound of ramshackle buildings, one of which contained a casino (casinos are ubiquitous in Montana).

There were no natural hot springs anywhere that I could tell and we were beyond disappointed by this. After five minutes of walking around the property, I did find a building with a small sign which promisingly read “natural hot spring this way” and walked inside. This was a pay-to-soak operation in a rundown cinder block building – the likes of which made me wonder if I was due for a tetanus shot. Reluctant to part with the $7 apiece entrance fee based on what I had seen thus far, I asked the gum-smacking, mouth-breathing attendant if I could have a look around. She responded with a dull-eyed wave of her hand, which I took to mean “whatever”, but could also have meant “go fuck yourself”- her demeanor left room for interpretation.

I made my way through the noxious, moldy locker room, which was discernible from hell only by it’s lack of stalactites and cloven-hooved beelzebubs, to the promised hot springs in the back of the property. I was disappointed, though not entirely surprised, to find a grey concrete bunker of a pool – a fetid basin of dubious origin – in which two heavily tattooed and glassy-eyed teenage girls sat slack-jawed and glum – as if serving some strange penance.

I made a hasty retreat to the car and we were quickly on our way. Happily, a little farther up Highway 12 at the Montana-Idaho line, we discovered the LoLo National Forest Visitor’s Center. Here, we learned that that just 22 miles further west along Highway 12 sat Jerry Johnson natural hot springs in the Clearwater National Forest. No charge, no concrete, no fetid basins of dubious origin. This would be the real deal.

We parked on the side of the road, just past mile marker 22 in Idaho proper. I was thrilled that we were suddenly and quite unexpectedly spending part of our vacation in Idaho – a mild yet pleasing diversion from our carefully plotted itinerary. After a quick change into bathing suits, we walked a mile or so along the west bank of the Lochsa River which beckoned us with a wild and splendid beauty. We were carried along by the sound of running water and the smell of lodgepole pine and spruce – it smelled like a Christmas tree farm in heaven.

We found a private little pool and spent a half hour soaking in the just-right water as steam rose off of the river and the the spindly tops of conifers tickled a low-hanging gauze of pending storm clouds. We gazed out over the Lochsa, taking in the wildness of it all. It seemed like a grizzly or a moose might amble out of the tree line any minute for a drink, or a flash flood might come roaring down from the north with hardly a notice. It seemed an untamed, even vaguely dangerous place compared to the world we had left behind in Raleigh. But at that moment, it was perfection.

Chased off earlier than we would have liked by rumbling thunder, we hiked back to the car and drove east to Missoula, happy with our little adventure and thankful that we didn’t settle for the incalculably sucky LoLo Hot Springs.

A stroll through town

After showers back in Missoula, we walked from the hotel to Red Bird Cafe, downtown. Located in the historic Florence Hotel building, Red Bird was exactly what we were looking for – great food, a nice atmosphere, somewhat upscale, yet not pretentious – for our last night in town before encountering the relative deprivations of Glacier National Park. This place delivered. To start, we each had a glass of excellent Spanish Cava and split an appetizer of lamb sausage with peas and heirloom tomatoes, and ravioli stuffed with parmesan and mushrooms. We moved onto red wine and a beautifully done (medium rare) steak strip green salad. We finished with espresso, then strolled back to the hotel through the cool Montana evening air. It was misting softly now, though not enough to soak in, and the low 60’s temperature was invigorating.

As we walked along newly familiar streets back to the DoubleTree we talked about our trip so far and were amazed at all we had done in just over 24 hours. I waxed poetic about moving to Missoula and Melissa seemed to be as excited as I was. Tomorrow would bring a three and a half hour drive to the West Gate of Glacier National Park, followed by the legendary Going to the Sun Road, which traverses the park from southwest to northeast. But tomorrow would come soon enough and this night we were still enjoying Missoula and all of its charms.

 

Lake Logan magic

Lake LoganIt has become my favorite weekend of the year. Hands down. I love Lake Logan weekend.

When Melissa and I were getting into triathlon in 2009, we started looking for interesting races around North Carolina. Long enamored with the foothills of Asheville and points west, I stumbled upon Lake Logan International Triathlon, just outside of Canton, N.C. We first did the race in August of 2009, spending Friday night in nearby Waynesville, then Saturday night after the race in Asheville. I fell immediately and irretrievably in love with that weekend and in particular, Lake Logan.

We’ve done it five years running now and it has never failed to leave me deeply satisfied. Annually held on the first Saturday of August, Logan comes at a time of year that finds my soul in need of nourishment – deeply diminished by the grinding heat and humidity of a long summer and the bleak morass that is the sports world between the end of the Tour de France and the start of College Football season. Logan is a welcome retreat from steamy Raleigh into the high hills west of Asheville. As we make that annual drive up the mountain on I-40, my blood pressure drops in corresponding degrees with each west bound mile marker. Logan is medicinal – I daresay even spiritual. It is my late summer North Star and I am reminded each year of the simple, luxuriant pleasure of needing a long sleeve t-shirt against the cool morning air.

*****

According to the site digitalheritage.org, Lake Logan sprang up in 1932 when the powers that be at Champion Mill, located in nearby Canton, decided to dam the West Fork of the Pigeon River, resulting in an 87 acre lake that flooded the former logging community of Sunburst. Named for Logan Thompson, the son of Peter J. Thompson who founded Champion, Lake Logan soon became home to various meeting, sleeping and dining facilities constructed from logs of deconstructed cabins in nearby counties and served as a retreat for Champion Mill executives well into the 1990s. Many of the buildings survive today and were purchased by the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina in 2000 after Champion sold its holdings. The Diocese operates a retreat at Logan and in 2006 sponsored the first Lake Logan Multi-Sports Festival, which has grown to include international and sprint triathlons, an aqua-thon (swim/run) and aqua-bike (swim/bike).

*****

The swim portion of the triathlon is one of the very few wetsuit-legal swims (possibly the only one) in the summertime triathlon circuit throughout the Carolinas, which indicates that the water temperature is below the acceptable wetsuit cutoff temperature of 78 degrees. Usually it is considerably cooler and this year it was a bone-chilling 67 degrees. The last hundred yards or so of the swim goes under the Lake Logan Road bridge and directly into the chilly mountain stream which feeds the lake, resulting in a lung-seizing five to ten degree drop in temperature. In August though, you appreciate that kind of thing.

The swim itself is enchantingly beautiful, setting off just after dawn, the narrow lake bookended by hills covered in hemlock and fir and topped by a cloud cover almost low enough to touch, hanging grey and cottony like soiled gauze over the water. The .9 mile course runs in a long rectangle and as you advance in that strange watery silence unique to lake swims, the hills to your right and left rise up in your periphery. I feel totally at ease, peaceful and warm in the thought that there is no place on Earth I would rather be on the first Saturday in August than in this very place.

The bike course is 24 miles of mostly rolling hills through Southern Haywood County, bookended by steep climbs out of T1 and coming back, just before T2. It is Southern Appalachian farm country, generously dotted with picturesque and diminutive farms, ancient barns and the occasional work mule, brooding and contemplative in its pen. Mostly flat to downhill on the first nine miles, you don’t so much ride the bike course as float through it, enjoying the novelty of the cool air and the rustic countryside. You can almost hear banjo music in the air. Not in the moronic, clichéd sense of snickering Deliverance references, but deep in your soul, as if the hills are calling to you in bent, five string notes. And to me, it sounds a lot like home.

The last 15 miles of the bike are mostly up hill. The heady reverie a little less pronounced, the determined exertion a little more. Your average speed steadily declines as the hills exert dominion over any unspoken plans you may have harbored for a 22 mph average. The last climb is truly taxing. But Lake Logan is visible to the right, through the chlorophyll-choked cover of summer trees. You know you are closing in on the run and this carries you upward.

The run is a 10k. Three miles mostly uphill from the base of T2 along Lake Logan Road to Sunburst campsite just within the borders of Pisgah National Forest (the campsite takes its name from that long-forgotten logging community). This is followed at the turn by the much-anticipated pleasure of three miles mostly down hill back to the finish. The run is always an especially happy time as you pass friends either going or coming and contemplate the completed swim and bike in between high fives and shouts of encouragement.

The finish is always sun-splashed. The low cloud cover of early morning has burned away as friends gather to cheer each other and chat about the race. What went right, what went wrong, how cold the water was, etc. The temperature is late summer perfection – warm but not hot. We make our way to the food tent and eat sandwiches, chatting some more. We are pleasantly tired after 31 miles of swimming, biking and running and as we sit there amongst friends in the perfect post-race warmth, it is, how can I put this… exceedingly nice.

Later, Melissa and I always check in at the Hotel Indigo in downtown Asheville – an easy walk to all that downtown has to offer, which is much. After lunch and a nap, we’ll meet friends again for well-earned margaritas and dinner at our favorite Asheville establishment, Salsa’s. We’ll dine in the narrow alleyway outside and soak in the perfect mountain air. Saturday night after dinner can go late and on occasion ends early, but is always fun.

Sunday, we’ll sleep in and have breakfast at Early Girl Eatery or Over Easy. Afterwards we’ll walk over to Mast General Store and my favorite bookstore, Malaprops. Here I take almost as much pleasure eavesdropping on the aging hippies gathered earnestly to discuss new age mumbo jumbo as I do the truly wonderful selection of books.

We linger, not wanting to leave. We order coffee, we stroll. We take in Asheville and all of its charms. And then, reluctantly, we get in the car and head down 40 East. And on the drive home, we talk about our weekend and Logan weekends of years past. The four-hour drive breezes by.

It is Monday after Logan as I write this and we have already planned next year’s trip.

I told Melissa that when I move onto that great transition area in the sky, I want my ashes spread over Lake Logan. I can’t think of a better place to be – forever. I’m hoping though that we’ll have a lot more Logan weekends between now and then.

Portland, land of donuts and coffee and beer, I love you

We arrived in Portland around 6pm on April 29th, after another long day of northbound driving, punctuated by the jaw dropping scenery of the rugged Oregon coastline. After 800 miles in two days, we happily parked our rental at the Marriott Waterfront and struck out on foot, eager to stretch our legs and explore a new city.

Dusk was settling in as we exited the hotel and the air was warm and light with the perfect fragrance of late spring. A fading sun cast golden hues on the industrial buildings of east Portland as a rowing club wrapped up practice on the lovely and impressive Willamette River.

We walked west a half-mile or so in the fading light, admiring Portland’s handsome buildings and clean streets and there were bicycles everywhere – the one word that kept popping into my mind was “green”. We were instantly comfortable in Portland. It exuded that funky vibe and laid-back charm of a mid-sized town, not a city large enough to boast an NBA franchise.

After a wonderful meal at one of the city’s great seafood restaurants, Southpark Seafood Grill, (I did not carry my notebook with me that night, so the details of that meal are lost), we were anxious to get out for more walking and fresh air. We strolled through the darkened streets, feeling tired but wonderfully sated and excited about the prospect of very limited windshield time over the remainder of our trip.
After a nightcap overlooking the Willamette in the dimly lit 16th floor bar back at the hotel, we turned in, exhausted yet again.

The first day of May found us well rested and ready for a long walk. Our plan was to fall back into our “Paris routine”, which would involve lots of walking, interspersed by frequent breaks for eating and drinking coffee or beer. The weather was spectacular – cool in the morning with highs in the mid-70’s and not a cloud in the sky. Perfect for leisurely ambling.

We walked all over Portland, stopping first at the gorgeous International Rose Test Garden, then over to iconic Powell’s Books, where we had coffee and pastries before wandering around it’s shelves for an hour or so in that heady reverie familiar to all bibliophiles in such settings. For lunch, we stopped at one of Portland’s famous food trucks – one in particular, which we had seen reviewed, that specialized in Czech food. Melissa ordered goulash and dumplings while I ordered the “Schnitzelwitch”, a fried pork sandwich as big as my head. We walked several blocks to the riverfront and stood eating our lunch while gazing over the Willamette. Ravenous after miles of hilly trekking, we polished off that considerable lunch and basked in the warming sunlight while taking in the awesome people watching (of which Portland abounds).

After a while we strolled slowly, with leaden bellies, north along the river to Hawthorne Bridge and crossed over to east Portland and the city’s recently thriving warehouse district. We walked six blocks to Hair of the Dog Brewery where we sat outside in warm sunlight sipping on a pint of golden ale, which was refreshing beyond description. It was one of those perfect days, mid-vacation with still much to do and see, a marathon under our belts, a brilliant cloudless sky overhead and nothing to do but amble about at our leisure in an interesting and lovely town. We were in our element.

We continued in that walk/stop/walk pattern for the rest of the day until we had covered a good ten miles or so. For dinner we found Higgins at SW Broadway. We shared a wonderful charcuterie plate with local sausages, a salad and Oregon wine, then espresso after.

Thursday dawned and we were excited to be heading to Seattle later in the day, but there was still more to see in Portland. After breakfast at the hotel, we walked to the Oregon Historical Society Museum, then over to Barista Coffee – the top rated coffee shop in Portland, which is saying something as Portland has recently overtaken Seattle as the nation’s craft coffee hotspot.

We shared an excellent latte as we walked the half-mile or so to Voodoo donuts – a pastry shop with the punk attitude and quirky vibe of a tattoo parlor on the shady fringes of a middling seaport town. We had heard of this place from friends and seen it on the Food Network and were drawn by the novelty of eating donuts (and nothing but donuts) for lunch. After a 15 minute wait in line, we ordered two apiece – me the famous maple bacon and raspberry jelly (both awesome), and her the chocolate cake and their signature creation, the Voodoo Doll – a doll shaped donut with a stake through it’s heart from which raspberry jelly flowed, blood-like. We sat on a picnic bench outside of the shop and wordlessly polished off 1,000 calories each worth of Voodoo donut goodness.

From here we walked slowly, in a mild diabetic haze back to the hotel, glazed residue on our lips, veins coursing with sugar and finely crafted caffeine. Though we hated to say goodbye to Portland, we were ready for the short drive north to our final destination, Seattle.