ten-lakes-trailhead-day-1-yosemite

A New Experience: Backpacking and Camping in Yosemite (Part 4)

I learned four things while on my adventure: 1) “leave no trace”; 2) hygiene is sort of overrated;  3) how to sleep in the wilderness; and 4) I loved it!

First:  Our backpacking guides taught us the wilderness ethic of “leave no trace.” There are no garbage barrels with bear locks in the wilderness. There are no flushing toilets. You set up camp at minimally-prepared designated sites. You don’t pee (No. 1)  or move bowels (No. 2)  just anywhere. “Leave no trace” requires thoughtfulness and technique. It’s how we help minimize human impact and keep parkland pristine, even as we enjoy it.

Because friends asked me about this quite a bit, this is how you do No. 2 in the wilderness:

  1. Find your “spot.” You will need some privacy cover. While boulders may work for No. 1, they don’t for No. 2 because you’ll probably hit rock when you try to dig a hole. A wide enough tree located away from the trail and a water source will provide the best cover.
  2. Use a trowel to dig a 6×6-inch hole and scoop the dirt out. (Our camp trowel was usually on a stump by the campfire, along with hand sanitizer.)
  3. Squat and aim for the hole.
  4. Wipe yourself. I had a roll of camper toilet paper. The used paper went into a sealable black plastic baggie. I used a wet wipe for extra hygiene. Into the baggie it also went, until I could dump it all in a garbage bin at the end of our adventure. Leave no trace!
  5. Take a stick — not the trowel! — and scoot the waste that missed the hole into the hole. Bury it with the scooped-out dirt.
  6. Plant the stick vertically in the hole to mark the spot so no one else thinks they’ve found their spot. Ew.

how-to-shit-in-the-woods

Honestly, this beat the hell out of a stinking port-a-potty. (After the adventure, I found this 3rd edition book on this subject. Didn’t I just sum it up in six easy steps? I mean, what else is there to say about it?)

Second:  Norovirus could be a problem for campers who don’t apply a basic level of hygiene when using the “facili-trees.” And norovirus spreads very easily. For me, hand sanitizer plus wet wipes provided that minimal level of hygiene. Hand sanitizer alone would just wet up and move dirt around on my hands. But, otherwise, I became indifferent about dirt.

“Washing dishes” after the meal was a minimally effective effort undertaken like an assembly line. We used a common scrubber to remove food remnants from dishes; then wiped off our dishes in cold water, in which bits of food had come off other plates; and then moved on to another vessel to dunk dishes in a sanitizing solution — bleach, maybe? — and, finally, hung them in a net bag to dry. The plates passed the wilderness standard of being clean enough. As long as I was eating from my own plate, I wasn’t going to worry about it. I was more focused on filling my plate with the good meals our guides prepared.

Third:  I finally mastered how to get a good night’s sleep by my last night at Yosemite. Each night, I zipped myself inside the tent and sleeping bag, with no intention of getting up and out before daybreak. But, one night I had a stomach ache. I really needed to get the trowel and find a tree, but it was dark, cold, and scary. I didn’t budge … to my great discomfort.

I suffered.

I started hearing sounds, like a nest of rodents were burrowing a trench all around my tent. I heard them first on one side of the tent and then the other. I was surrounded! I heard sounds like something — a bear! — rooting about in my backpack (which was outside my tent and propped against a boulder). Why, I wondered, would the bear bother since my food was in a bear can? The only things with a scent were the plastic baggies of used toilet paper. And so my mind worked overtime … all night long.

early-riser-at-the-base-camp-yosemite

Early riser at the base camp

At first light, I jumped up and ran for the trowel. As I walked back to my tent, I listened. The “bear” sound was the restless sleeping of another backpacker in a neighboring tent. The “rodent” sound was another restless backpacker, whose sleeping bag was on a sheet of plastic. Those were the movements I’d heard … all night long.

By my last night in the tent, I got it right. I knew how to stay warm while sleeping after the temperature dropped from 75 to 40 degrees. I ignored noises. And, finally, I slept like a baby … all night long.

Fourth (and most important):  This was a great experience! I want to do it again. I want to learn orienteering and how to cook in the wilderness. Yosemite park rangers say that only about 10% of the park’s visitors ever go up into the wilderness. Most visitors drive through, use the park shuttles, or take a  bus tour. I realized how lucky I was to see the back country, hard as it was to get there.

One day, we hiked to Ten Lakes (for which our trail was named). Fortunately, we used our daypacks instead of the backpacks. We only had to carry a portion of the camp lunch, our water, and personal snacks. Along the way, I’d forgotten that the last (and easiest) 20 minutes our first day’s hike was downhill into the base camp. To leave base camp, we had to hike uphill. Those first 20 minutes kicked my ass, even with the lighter daypack. But, this experience was worth it!

We emerged in this alpine meadow.

10-lakes-hike-meadow-yosemite

The alpine meadow (and me)

The trail is very narrow for the least human impact as possible. Staying on the trail was essential to avoid damaging very fragile wildflowers.

mountains-meadow-lukens-yosemitealpine-lily

From far above, you can see one of the Ten Lakes  — the bit of blue in the distance.  The Ten Lakes are named by number, and I don’t know which one this was. Our guide, Tyler, told us we were headed “down there.” That far down meant a steep climb back up.

lake-below-yosemite

On the way, we found moments to look over the treeline at the mountains on the other side in awe and meditation.

dont-jump-tyler-copy-yosemite

Our guide – Tyler

boulder-perched-on-rock-yosemite

When the glaciers pushed through they left landscape elements like this. One huge rock surface was incredibly smooth like a granite kitchen counter. Izzy led us in yoga, and we also rested on that rock.

rei-yoga-by-the-ten-lakes-yosemiteyoga-on-the-rock-yosemite

spreadeagled-on-the-rock-yosemite

We made our way down the mountain to the lakes. We passed Boy Scouts and families with very young children. Wow, they sure started young (not in their 50s, like me). But, as the saying goes: ‘There’s no time like the present.’

coming-down-to-ten-lakes-yosemite

coming-down-the-trail-to-the-lake-yosemite

Another well-earned rest stop and hydration break.

resting-hydrating-10-lakes-yosemite

We followed the trail across a little stream.

stream-crossing-yosemite

Our guides, Tyler and Izzy, gave us a wonderful lunch — a variety of meats, cheeses, gluten-free crackers, dried fruits, and guacamole made on-the-spot when we reached one of the lakes. We hung out there for awhile. I took in the peace of the scene. Others swam in the lake.

thoughtful-kimten-lakes-1-yosemite

And we took a group photo.

rei-group-photo

Climbing back to the top wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Tyler set a slower, meditative pace.

On our last day, the final hike down to our cars went faster. We were motivated. We were mostly going downhill. Our packs were lighter, thank God. (We had eaten most of the food we had carried up and brought back down a minimal amount of garbage. Leave no trace!)

When we reached the parking lot, Izzy and Tyler treated us to steaming hot washcloths to wipe our faces. I couldn’t believe the amount of dirt and grime that was on my face. While I was on the adventure, I also didn’t care. At the end, though, a hot shower urgently beckoned; my body had surpassed its tolerance for minimal hygiene.

20160724_121021-01

Thank you, Tyler and Izzy, for being great REI Adventure guides and giving us a gotta-do-it-again experience! Thanks to fellow backpackers, Santiago and Paul, whose wonderful photos contributed to this series!


20160722_104902

A New Experience: Backpacking and Camping in Yosemite (Part 3)

On Day 2, we were on the move for the most challenging hike of the whole trip.

We left the backpackers’ camp and drove about 40 minutes to Ten Lakes Trailhead. This trailhead was at a lower elevation — 7600 feet — than where we’d spent the night at Tuolomne Meadows. (I would have been grateful if I could have told the difference.) I dumped a few more things in the car that I wouldn’t need over the next couple of days, excluding my snacks, of course. Ounces add up.

Our guides gave a quick demonstration on how to use trekking poles. (I didn’t have any.) One of them, Tyler, adjusted my backpack since this would be my first foray with it fully loaded. They told us the trail would gradually climb, and the last two miles would be the most difficult. So with that bit of dread nestled at the forefront of my mind, I saddled up my 40 pounds and stepped out with the rest of the crew.

20160722_093627starting-off-on-ten-lakes-trail-kah

Photo credit: Paul Tetreault

It didn’t take me long to feel the burn. I was sucking water through the tube of my water bladder like crazy. We took our first break at a point where the climb seemed to have plateaued (if you could call it that). Since I was in the group bringing up the rear, the others were chilling on boulders waiting for us, backpacks off and snacking. We couldn’t rest as long as the pacesetters, but I was still happy to get that pack off my back.

taking-a-break-yosemite-on-way-to-base-camp

This was the most physically challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life! The trail was a little rocky and uneven so I was usually looking down so I wouldn’t stumble.  But, the beauty of the backcountry could not be denied and I fell further behind to take photos…and, of course, catch my breath. My thighs were burning, too.

20160722_104516

Photo credit: Paul Tetreault

Once, when I stopped to catch my breath, Tyler, the guide at the rear, blew his cheeks out and said “Whew!” like he was winded, too. He claimed he was out of shape because he’d been leading hikes in the Southwest and wasn’t used to Yosemite’s altitude. I told him I’d thought I was better conditioned than I turned out to be. Tyler said that if it took me only 40 seconds or less to catch my breath then the problem might be the altitude, not my conditioning. That made me feel a little better. Yes, let’s blame it on the altitude (or the bad night’s sleep).

20160722_103112

20160722_103107

We stopped for lunch in a pretty grove. By then, I was referring to the backpack as “The Hellbeast.” (My technique for ridding my back of it was to find a boulder of the right height, leverage it, and shrug it off.  Relief!) We ate the lunches we’d packed early that morning. That seemed ages ago. I wolfed down the sandwich and slugged more water.

20160722_125014

Photo credit: Paul Tetreault

I don’t think it was the altitude that caused my leg to cramp, though. Tyler gave me an electrolyte pill to put in my water bottle. A trail mate gave me his set of trekking poles. Thankfully, we earned another rest and snacks. After the next stage of the hike, we emerged in this meadow.  I was wowed at first sight.

20160722_132733

alpine-meadow-kah-yosemite

I’d heard about alpine meadows, but it was just a phrase I knew with no mental image to associate with it. This was Half Moon Meadow. There, I saw purple and yellow wildflowers in a field of grasses at over 8,000 feet elevation. The trail through the meadow was narrow. Our guides told us to stay on the trail so we wouldn’t trample the fragile wildflowers.

kim-in-the-alpine-meadow-yosemite

Tyler and the other guide, Izzy, switched places.  She came to the rear and he went to the front. Then I saw what kind of pace Tyler could really set. Ha! When I caught up with him later, I told him he’d been sandbagging me and that, evidently, I’d held him back. He said: “No, I was walking with you.” That was a brilliant response!

yosemite-10-lakes-trail-start-of-hard-part

If I’d thought the first part of the trip was tough, the part I’d dreaded had arrived. I knew it when the trail became rockier and steeper. My butt now joined my thighs in feeling the burn. I stopped about every 10 steps to catch my breath. I’d exhort myself with, “C’mon, Kim. C’mon girl.” I gamely moved on, only to have to stop a few steps later. Fluid was flying off my face and out my nose. I don’t know if this was normal for this level of exertion, but I let go of all grace and desperately swiped my face — nose and all — with my sleeve. Whatever…I was in the backcountry and I hadn’t packed Kleenex.

ten-lakes-trail-upwards-yosemite

As the switchbacks began, I asked Izzy, “Where is the top?” It probably came out as a whine. She said, “See that blue up there? That’s where we’re heading.” The blue was far distant and about the size of a pennant flag. The switchbacks were narrow, steep, and rocky. I was stopping to catch my breath, especially when I found shade. I hefted one leg up at a time onto the large rocks, and was thankful for having great balance. At least that physical attribute didn’t fail me.

I had started the hike with three liters of water. But, with fluid flying out and off my body, I sure didn’t need to pee. From time to time, I’d lift my head to check progress. The pennant flag became sky, and there was more and more of it. Thank God.

Lagging far behind…. Photo Credit: Santiago Tapia

We reached the top — more or less — and it was certainly the end of switchback hell. We had a respite of somewhat flat terrain. Our last leg was about 20 minutes downhill to our campsite.

For the rest of the weekend, I couldn’t believe what I’d done. This was the toughest day of the whole trip. Seven miles going uphill! And I made it! We all made it!

Base camp – “kitchen,” water filter station, and camp fire ring. Photo credit: Paul Tetreault

After we set up our base camp, our guides felt we had not had enough. They led us on a short hike to Lower Grant Lake — elevation about 9300 feet — for swimming and chilling. More wow….

20160722_170206

20160722_170155

Stay tuned for Part 4 and the hike to the Ten Lakes…and what it means to “leave no trace.”


Grant Lake - Yosemite

A New Experience: Backpacking and Camping in Yosemite (Part 2)

I’ve asked myself:  Would I have done this trip if I’d had all the facts beforehand?

Before leaving my cousins’ for Yosemite, I did a five mile practice hike on hilly terrain with 15 pounds in my backpack. A friend of theirs suggested I hike nearby Mount Tam to prepare for the altitude. He told me I’d be climbing for the first three miles from the start at Yosemite.  He considered altitude to be a significant factor. Crap…I hadn’t trained for it…and this was no time to start.

Everyone had advice. Cousin Doreen suggested I swap my brother’s sleeping bag for hers because of size and weight. So I did. Brother David suggested I leave the heavier legging and shirt base layers of clothing behind because of the weight, plus I wouldn’t need them. So I did. After those adjustments, my backpack weighed 22 pounds.

Sleeping bag comparison

Sleeping bag comparison

The first part of my adventure was getting to Yosemite. The drive wasn’t complicated, though I lost the highway around Oakdale, California. When I stopped at a store for course correction, the shopowner gave me a package of nuts. That was very nice of her, and I accepted. But, it would be more weight in my backpack, and I knew I couldn’t leave the nuts in the car.

I’m a snacker, and didn’t snack in the car for the entire road trip. Why? I’d read that no food, crumbs, packaged food, or coolers should be left in the car. Any food left in the car had to go in a bear can or a food locker. Otherwise, bears can sniff out the food. They’ve been known to bust in and rip out back seats for food stashed in the trunk. Now that’s a powerful sense of smell. This snacker was not going to put the rental car at risk.

wind farm - en route to Yosemite-01 copy

Wind farm

Foothills en route to Yosemite

Foothills en route to Yosemite

The drive to Yosemite was beautiful.  The topography changed from gentle hills with wind farms around Livermore, then orchards around Oakdale. I was in the agricultural Central Valley and passed produce stands.  I started seeing foothills, as the road gently started to climb. The Sierra Nevada mountain range began to reveal itself.

Mariposa lily?

Mariposa lily (?)

Beginning of alpine country - Yosemite

Beginning of alpine country

The first elevation sign I saw was at 2,000 ft. Groveland is the last major town before Yosemite. The elevation there is 3,136 ft. (I was getting a little oh-shit concerned because, even if I could have prepared, I live at 341 ft elevation. En route to Yosemite, I was still climbing upward.) At that point, the temperature was hot-as-hell 90+ degrees.

After Groveland, I reached the “Priest Grade” part of California State Route 120. It climbs. It has dropoffs with no guard rails. (My mother would have lost her mind if she’d been with me.) The road went up, up, up and the signage showed higher and higher elevations. As I began to get drowsy, I knew my problem was the altitude.

Priest Grade portion of CA Route 120 - Yosemite

I entered Yosemite National Park at Big Oak Flat Entrance. This did not mean the trip was over. I had 1-1/2 hours more to go inside the Park to reach Tuolumne Meadows and the backpackers’ camp.

A few facts about Yosemite National Park:

  • The Park is 1,169 square miles, 94% of which is wilderness
  • The Park’s 10 highest peaks are between 12,446 – 13,144 feet
  • There are 800 miles of trails
  • Yosemite has five of the world’s highest waterfalls
  • The Park is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list
  • It is the U.S.’s oldest wilderness park
  • The 9th Cavalry regiment of the Buffalo Soldiers became Park Rangers in 1905 for Yosemite and other state and federal lands. (I did quick research to see if my grandfather had a link to Yosemite. He was a Buffalo Soldier between 1905 – 1910, but he was in the 10th Cavalry.)

I parked at turnouts to photograph the scenery. One of my ‘wow’ moments was when I saw Tenaya Lake, adjacent to Route 120.  The lake is at 8,150 feet elevation. I was only going up in elevation and not down. It is what it is, I thought.

Tenaya Lake - Yosemite

Tenaya Lake – Yosemite National Park

Tenaya Lake 2 - Yosemite

Tenaya Lake – Yosemite National Park

I reached Tuolumne Meadows — elevation 8,600 feet.  The temperature was now mid-70 degrees outside. I unloaded my gear and looked for the REI group. On the way, I met a young woman who was backpacking alone. She was from Texas and at Yosemite to hike the John Muir trail. Now that’s intrepid. It was heartening to see. I hadn’t been exposed to this world at all and, even in its most basic form during scouting, I managed to avoid it.

Breathing hard and totally winded, I lugged my backpack up a little hill to find the group. My physical reaction to this little tiny trek of 300 yards did not bode well. I hoped my body would acclimate overnight to the rarefied air. I knew the next day would be the most challenging of the whole trip.

I met my fellow backpackers. Ages ranged from 18-57+. We came from Mexico City, California, Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, and Maryland. Some were novice backpackers (like me), and some were experienced. Four of us were lawyers, which is a weirdly high number among a group of 12 backpackers.

Our guides cooked dinner, which is a big bonus.  As we sat around the campfire in REI’s camp chairs, they told us what to expect the next morning. We were instructed on how to use the “facili-trees” when it was time. Doing “No. 2” required special instruction, having to do with the use of a shared trowel.

1st Night BP Camp - Tuolumne Meadows - YosemiteBackpackers camp - Tuolumne Meadows - Yosemite

The temperature started dropping in early evening. I was glad I’d brought layers of down outerwear.

KAH at Backpackers Camp 2 - Tuolumne Meadows - Yosemite

It was a long night. I was in a tent by myself, as I’d initially feared. I kept my pack outside the tent, my boots inside the tent, along with my head lamp. My next day’s hiking clothes were folded inside the sleeping bag with me so they’d stay warm.

I tried to get comfortable, but I’m a sprawler.  A sleeping bag is confining. I followed David’s advice to sleep in underwear because he said I wouldn’t need more. It got colder and colder…down to 42 degrees. I regretted letting Doreen talk me out of David’s “Mars grade” sleeping bag — suitable for extreme cold. (Doreen’s was suitable to 40 degrees.) And David had talked me out of bringing heavier base layer leggings and shirt.

I was cold. You can’t sleep when you’re cold. I don’t like to be cold. Somehow, my head finally found its way into the sleeping bag hood because it’s a mummy bag. That was my “Aha” moment. That’s what I needed so I could get warm. I went with it, zipped all the way up, stayed still, and warmed up. I may have even finally slept a little. Other than our guides, I was up at first light and dashing to the toilet (while I still could).

First morning 2 - backpackers camp - Yosemite

We stayed at Tuolumne Meadows backpackers’ camp only one night. We had the luxury of flushing toilets and cold running water (but no soap) in nearby bathrooms. We used REI’s cups, plates, and utensils. We had camp chairs. We had an actual water cooler and a bear locker. We had a picnic table and bench, and commercially-purchased wood for the campfire. We were spoiled and didn’t know it. We were “glamping” that first night, in comparison to what was coming.

First Morning - Backpackers Camp - Yosemite

When everyone was up, we ate breakfast and made our lunches. We had to re-pack our backpacks to include a bear can, a portion of camp equipment, and our tents. Each bear can had a share of the group’s food in it. We put our personal snacks and toiletries in the leftover space. Why put toiletries in a bear can? Because bears can still pick up a scent. It is part of bear-proofing the campsite. With the extra supplies, my backpack weighed closer to 40 pounds.

Re-packing the backpack - First morning - Yosemite

Re-packing the backpack – Bear can labeled “Tioga”

And so it went as we prepared to hike higher into Yosemite’s wilderness….

(Check out Part 3 of this series! )

 

 

 


Landing under the Bay Area fog

A New Experience: Backpacking and Camping in Yosemite (Part 1)

I was a failed Girl Scout. It never occurred to me that at my age I’d be going on my first backpacking and camping trip.

When my Girl Scout troop went camping, we were given the choice of being in the lodge or doing it primitive.  I firmly called out, “Lodge.”  I’ll see you around the campfire, but I want a bed and flushing toilet.  Among the other Girl Scouts, I wasn’t the least bit ashamed about it; nor was I alone.

I’ve ignored the possibilities of a trip like this all my life. When my brothers, Daryl and David, would backpack and camp, I never thought: Wow, I’d like to do that someday. It simply never occurred to me. I’m all about comfort. So, how did I end up here?

Believe me, it wasn’t my idea.

A soror, who’s also a work colleague, told me about REI Adventures‘  four-day backpacking and camping trip to Yosemite. I didn’t even know where Yosemite is and I used to live in California! But, I did know this is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

I usually travel solo, and so does my soror. After talking about our traveling style, we thought we might travel well together. What the hell, I thought… let me challenge myself with this backpacking trip. We talked about this trip for about a month before I booked it.  My “travel partner” said she couldn’t make it after all. I had 30 days to cancel the trip and get all my money back.

I gave it about a half-day’s thought and decided I’d go anyway. It’s a challenge. I’d already wrapped my head around the trip and made the commitment. I wasn’t going to let my plans be wrecked because a travel partner falls through.  I can be stubborn that way.

David offered up his son’s backpack, sleeping bag, and bedroll. He even included a water filter, mess kit, and rope. He sent me a text when he found out REI had a sale on hiking boots. He told me to buy the Vasque hiking boot because he had already researched it. This is why I often say, “My brother says….”, which is, of course, exactly how I started off with the sales associate in the shoe department. I’m sure she could give a damn, but I knew I was making the right choice because David said so. And no one could have sold me a different brand of boot if they wanted to.

I started breaking in the boots about six weeks before the trip. I wore them all day to work, not making a fashion statement. I even wore them with shorts and a tee shirt for 12 hours at a music festival on a hot summer day. The Vasque hiking boot is very comfortable and the only tightness was in my right instep. Breaking in the boots didn’t take long.

I bought clothes and gear for the trip based on REI’s packing list. My good friend, Phil — a former Army officer and Eagle Scout — showed me how to pack and put clothes on fast from inside my sleeping bag.

Backpacking and camping gearA Lesson in Packing the BackpackPre-packing for Yosemite

This trip is more expensive than I anticipated because of the gear I had to buy, the plane ticket, and rental car. (Thank goodness I have cousins in Oakland to stay with before and after the trip.)

I received an email from the trip coordinator that said I should be fit enough to hike 6-9 miles a day carrying 35-40 pounds on my back. Everyone will help carry tents, water filters, cooking gear, and the bear cans REI will provide. I did mean “bear cans” and not “beer cans.” In fact, every facet of this trip seems to strike a cautionary note about the damn bears. I became concerned.

About a month out, I came up with a training plan.This was crucial because I have a job where I sit all day long. I planned to finally put in a regular appearance at my gym and do treadmill work at an incline, wearing the boots and loaded backpack. I’d regularly walk up the escalator at Wheaton Station, which has the longest single span escalator in the Western Hemisphere. (I figured all the heavy crap I carry when I commute to work would help my training efforts.)  I’d go on practice hikes with the loaded backpack on terrain. I’d continue playing tennis 3-4 times a week. Since my lower back has become achy, I’d go to my barre class regularly to strengthen my core.

Lake Frank training hike

Practice hike on trail in Montgomery County, Maryland

Training hike - Lake FrankLake Frank

That was the plan. As it happened, other things intervened. Work can be so inconvenient. Hopefully, I’ve done enough. I don’t know what I’m going to do about the altitude, though. My particular backpacking trip is in the high country. I didn’t fully realize that when I booked the trip. I was only paying attention to prices and dates. There was no training for altitude where I live. All I can do now is hydrate, hydrate, and hydrate and be well-rested. Plus, I went to California a couple of days early so I could get past the jet lag and not add that to my pain.

Now about the bears. I’ve been to REI so many times  in the last six weeks. My last time there, I got some truth from a couple of sales associates. I had probing questions about hygiene. I was told no soap, no deodorant, no wipes (even the unscented ones), no lotion, and no toothpaste. The scent of any of those things and food would attract…what?…the bears. Why, of course. (But, can’t I bring a little plastic bottle of baking soda so I can brush my teeth and rub some under my armpits? Surely, baking soda won’t attract bears.)

Another seasoned backpacker said I should expect to be ripe by the end of the trip. He said I should want to smell like a human to keep bears at bay. I asked about the packages of unscented wipes I’d bought anyway. Nope, he said. Forget about it — just use water. I’m also not supposed to leave any mark on the land, if what I do is not biodegradable.  So… I need to consider that I will be carrying all my trash with me, including wrappers from protein bars and used toilet paper. That’s the nature of this trip, so to speak.

I’ve already been concerned about how I’m going to eliminate and whether my system will go on lock for four days, which really would not be good. I packed my probiotics. I cannot imagine how I will handle it, except I know I will.

As I took my last training hike with my cousin, Doreen, I became anxious again about the altitude and the weight of the pack. I checked the weather again and discussed it with David. He told me what I should still take and what should stay behind at Doreen’s.

Last training hike in Oakland CA

And then he helped lift my anxiety by focusing me on this:  I’m taking his trip, he said. Yosemite is where he has always wanted to go. Got it, David. I’m looking forward to my adventure in the famed Yosemite National Park.  Thanks for getting me ready.

(Check out Part 2 of this series!)


Wilmington Ohio - street art

A New Experience: Nowhere Else Art and Music Festival

This year my passport might stay in storage. When a couple of kitchen appliances died in December, I knew 2016 would mean swapping travel abroad for house projects: clear clutter, repair or replace things that are broken, and finish projects.  Truthfully, it’ll make me happy to check these things off the to-do list.

Even forbearance needs some balance. I might not travel across the ocean this year, but North America is vast with plenty of places to see. Locally, I’m getting to know the DMV (District of Columbia / Maryland / Virginia) better. This area is a world-class destination! And then, there are also road trips for long weekends.

Speaking of which … my brother, David, had the idea to bring the family together Memorial Day Weekend for a folk festival in Ohio. It’s only the third time in 10 years that my brothers, sister and I were home at the same time. My sister-in-law and niece joined us.

Family reunion at Nowhere ElseFarmhouse at Nowhere Else

Why a folk festival? In 2015, David took Mama for a Memorial Day picnic and outdoor concert to see the Ohio folk group, Over the Rhine. She absolutely loved it. The concert was a fund-raiser for the new barn construction. The barn is now complete and was inaugurated in 2016 with this full-blown art and folk music festival. Hence, David’s idea to bring the family together for what he calls a “signature event.” I was into being with my family and the picnicking. The folk music? Not so much.

My music of choice is classical, soul, Latin jazz, and hip-hop, and some rock. I thought I was well-rounded enough when it came to music… until this folk festival challenge. I wondered if I could stand two days of it.

Based on the vague response of the GPS, the site for the Nowhere Else Festival was nearly off-the-grid. It was on a farm in Martinsville, Ohio… near Wilmington… and not far from Cincinnati. It was also just 45 minutes south of my mother’s house.

Wilmington Ohio - street art

Downtown Wilmington, Ohio

Festival hosts, Karen Burgquist and Linford Detweiler of the folk band, Over the Rhine, live on another farm they call “Nowhere.” The band is named after a neighborhood in Cincinnati. Their “Nowhere Else” farm hosted the festival and housed the artists.

Nowhere Else 2016 Festival Poster

Nowhere Else Festival 2016 Poster

Karen and Linford infuse their lyrics with love for each other and Ohio. “Meet Me At the Edge of the World” is my favorite song of theirs. Song lyrics, like visual art, invite you to create your story of what they mean.

“That lone tupelo soon will be on fire

For all I know with God’s desires

As Autumn in Ohio spirals

Off of the edge of the world.”

(Excerpt from “Meet Me at the Edge of the World” – Over the Rhine)

Over the Rhine band

David’s brain is a database of lyrics from any music genre. Give him a couple of words and ask for a lyric to match, and he can pull it up and give you a story about it. I, on the other hand, am usually lyric-deaf. When I listen to songs, I hear rhythm and instrumentals.  But, when I really really listened to this music, I could hear the poetry — the art within the art.

The new barn’s ground floor was used for artist demonstrations and gallery space. I get all nostalgic about Ohio, and was lovin’ the painting of the state bird.

Cardinal - Gallery at Nowhere Else FestivalGallery space at Nowhere Else barnArtist demonstration at Nowhere Else Festival

The festival was two complete days of scheduled visual and performance artists. Two tents were set up:  one for picnicking and the other for the musical performances. Those who couldn’t fit inside the tent sat outside on their own chairs and blankets. So did we, at one point.

The Poet and her Mentor

My niece and her grandmother.

We packed enough food and drinks for lunch and dinner both days. Everybody in the family contributed to the picnic fare. Our menu was ridiculous:  smoked salmon; smoked chicken; two kinds of deviled eggs; fresh green salad; crab, avocado, and quinoa salad with technicolor tomatoes; Christians and Moors salad; potato salad with sausage; and cut-up fresh fruit for dessert. Although the festival had food available for sale, like pizza, the best part was bringing our own grub.

My brother is laser focused on his plate. Get it, David!

Picnic grub - Nowhere Else FestivalPicnic fare at Nowhere Else festival 2016

Other things that were cool about this festival were: 1) the size of the crowd,  2) the ease of parking, and 3) decent toilet facilities. About 1,000 people attended the festival,which meant there was plenty of space. It was easy to come and go from the site, and parking didn’t cost extra.

A few words about the toilet facilities. I’ve been turned off by many an outdoor event for fear of the toilet facilities. Some would test the stoutness of anyone’s bladder.  At Nowhere Else, the outdoor hygiene station was impressive and had foot pedals to turn on running water. There were also soap dispensers and paper towels. That was better than I’ve seen in county parks and recreation areas! The port-a-potties weren’t smelly, disgusting, or gag-inducing…most of the time…just avoid looking down the hole. A couple of port-a-potties were even spacious. But, when the high heat of the sun was done, I eased up on hydration.  By 7 pm, those port-a-potties had been through hard duty and gone beyond the limit of tolerability.

My favorite discovery at the festival was the band, Birds of Chicago. Catch a bit of their sound here. The female lead vocalist, Allison Russell, is from Montreal. She plays banjo, ukulele, and clarinet. Her husband, J.T. Nero, writes most of the songs and plays lead guitar. His raspy vocals perfectly complement hers. Twang meets soul.

Birds of Chicago - Nowhere Else Festival

At Nowhere Else Festival, the band mostly played songs from their album Real Midnight, produced by Joe Henry. Evidently, Joe Henry is a big deal and artists score a coup if he produces their album, which is yet another thing I learned about the folk music world. Joe Henry was there performing his own music and he held a songwriting workshop. (As a side note, Madonna is Joe Henry’s sister-in-law.)

See the video clip from the festival — Allison and J.T. join Joe Henry’s band for a song. (Joe’s the guitarist in the black hat.)

I struggled to describe Bird of Chicago’s sound until I read Jewly Hight’s NPR review of the album Real Midnight. The artists describe their music as secular gospel. I can hear that. Hight also said this about the band’s lyrics:  “They show us a way to fully live with the awareness that nothing’s forever and everything’s at stake.”

I was surprised by how much I really enjoyed the music at this FOLK festival. What??!! I also liked other artists, like Lucy Wainwright Roche — a solo artist and guitarist with a gift for humorous story-telling. Blind Boys of Alabama closed the festival and took us to church!

Blind Boys of Alabama

Blind Boys of Alabama

But, back to Birds of Chicago. Less than a month later, my sister, a friend, and I saw them at Gypsy Sally’s in Washington, DC. I’d never been to that venue before and it was great, too!

Gypsy Sally's - Washington DCBirds of Chicago at Gypsy Sally's

See what happens when you open yourself up to new experiences?  Have you opened yourself up to anything new this year?

 

 


Guildhouses - Grand Place

What is it about Belgium?

Belgians might sum up their country’s national identity by saying: “It’s complicated.”

This country appealed to me because of the cultural duality I saw in its tennis stars, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. They represented Belgium as Fed Cup teammates, but were not friends. These two tennis competitors mirrored their country’s competing regions. That bit of intrigue, and the fact that relatively few Americans travel there, is why I wanted to go.

I spent two weeks in Belgium in 2007; and three days there in 2015 with my local friend, Mollie. Even Belgians wanted to know “Why Belgium?” No one could understand how I could spend an entire two weeks in the country.  To put it in perspective, Belgium is about the size of Maryland. I can’t imagine traveling in Maryland for two weeks and being as enthralled. So, what is it about Belgium?

Belgium map from Insight Guides Belgium

Map from Insight Guides – Belgium

I’ve seen Brussels described in news articles as a second-tier European capitol, which means the rest of the country is probably held in the same regard.  Belgium’s cities, though, have been major financial centers throughout the centuries. For instance, in the 17th century, Ghent, in Flanders, was the second largest city in Europe after Paris.  Liège, in Wallonia, was a major producer of steel during the Industrial Revolution. Now, the European Union (EU) is headquartered in Brussels, which is known as the Capital of the EU.

Did you know…

  • Dutch-speaking Belgium is known as Flanders; and French-speaking Belgium is known as Wallonia. These two regions are culturally, economically, and politically different, and sometimes at odds with each other. Cultivating a single national identity is a challenge.
  • Ancient cities, Tongeren and Tournai (in Flanders and Wallonia, respectively) were part of Roman Belgium (or Gallia Belgica) in 27 B.C.  Earliest reference to Brussels is around 960 A.D., known then as “Bruocsella.”
  • The “Flemish Painters”  — Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony Van Dyck and others — flourished in the Baroque tradition in the 17th century. (Don’t confuse them, though, with the “Dutch Masters.” That group includes Vermeer and Rembrandt.) René Magritte was a famous Belgian surrealist of the 20th century.
  • There is a saying about “meeting one’s Waterloo.” Waterloo, just south of Brussels,  is where Napoleon finally got his little arse kicked by a combination of British, Dutch, and German forces back in 1815.
  • Portions of what is now Belgium were controlled at different times by the Romans, the Spanish, and the French. Belgium was part of The United Kingdom of the Netherlands until 1830 when it gained independence (and its own monarchy) under King Leopold I. Though younger than the U.S. as a nation, some of Belgium’s cities and villages date back a millennium.
  • Belgium is bordered by France, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany. Its official languages are French, Dutch, and German. Brussels is a mandated bilingual (French and Dutch) city and province.
  • Belgium was invaded twice by Germany in World Wars I and II. The Second Battle of Ypres inspired the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.”
German WW II bunker - Flanders, Belgium

Remnants of German Bunker – Flanders

Poppies in a field - Flanders

Poppies in a field – Flanders

  • Belgium’s regions are mostly politically autonomous and the government is de-centralized. Amazingly, Belgium went 541 days without an elected government from 2009-11.
  • Belgium currently has the third most robust economy in the EU.
  • Flanders has a fierce lion on its flag; Wallonia has a cock (male rooster!) on its flag; and the national flag of Belgium is identical to the German flag in colors — the only difference being vertical versus horizontal stripes.
Gravensteen Castle with the Flemish flag

Gravensteen Castle – Ghent – Flemish flag above

belgiumflag copyRooster - Ghent 2

What is it about the Belgian brand?  For food that has been exported world-wide, there’s Belgian endive, Belgian waffles, Brussels sprouts, Belgian chocolate, and Belgian beer and ale.  People have made a pilgrimage to Belgium for the beer and ale alone.

Belgian beer-tasting

Beer-tasting in Flanders

Even some dog breeds rate a Belgian brand, like the Belgian shepherd, Bouvier des Flandres, and the very interesting-looking Griffon Bruxellois. Maybe, just maybe, a Belgian brand means Belgium has a national identity after all.

Belgium is a diverse country. When I was there in 2007, I was struck by the number of Muslims and Africans living there. In the 1860s, Belgium became a colonial power when it stole the Congo (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo).  The exploitation continued until the mid-1950s.  Belgium also controlled a territory, formerly known as Ruanda-Urundi, and now known as the Independent Kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi. Hence, the African populations in Belgium from the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.

I wondered when and why Muslims migrated to Belgium. In the 1960s, the first wave of migrants came from Morocco and Turkey. They were in Belgium on guest worker passes. Later, these migrants were followed by those from Algeria and Tunisia. Muslim populations in Brussels and Antwerp are comparable in size to those in Marseilles and Paris.

From my observations, North African Muslims and Africans did not appear to be thriving or part of mainstream Belgian society. I thought the same thing about Paris back in 1998, and recently in 2015. But, I was just passing through, so what did I know? Since then, I’ve learned my observations were on point. As an African-American, I have radar for this sort of thing.

What is it about Belgium? Why do people from these groups still come? Linguistically, Belgium works for native French and Dutch-speakers from anywhere in the world. And Belgium’s “balance sheet” is very much in the black. Migration generally occurs in the direction of opportunity. The question is whether everyone can partake in opportunities.

After the Brussels terrorist attacks on March 22, 2016, media outlets seemed to focus on Belgian authorities as being a bunch of boobs. That the Belgian government is mired in incompetence. That Brussels is an incubator for jihadists. That the EU is a failure when it comes to communicating intelligence to its member states. That Belgian nationals were among the Paris terrorists, and it’s Belgium’s fault because they were radicalized there. Any iota of sympathy for loss of lives and property in the Brussels attacks was overwhelmed by the recriminations.

What is it about Belgium? The public response toward Brussels was not like it was toward Paris when it was attacked in January and November 2015. Did someone press the mute button on the sympathy response? Where was the Belgian flag overlay for the Facebook profile photos?  Some people think it’s because Belgium is not as well known as France.

Shortly after the Paris attacks, I wrote this piece. It applies to Belgium’s tragedy from jihadist attacks, too.  Mollie was on her way to work when she was turned away at the Métro station and sent home. The Métro had already been attacked. In Mollie’s words, “the fear is palpable.” Belgium’s predicament has been ours, too. Terrorism occurs all over the world.

What is it about Belgium? Tiny and complicated though it is, Belgium is an historical treasure, and a major player in contemporary European politics. Without a doubt, Belgium and the EU have particular challenges.  I’ll give Belgium a moment or two to regroup before I travel there again…and I certainly will.

Logo bigger final

 


Brookside Gardens - late winter

What Happened to Courtesy?

All kinds of bad behavior has been showcased on U.S. news lately. For some, it has been entertaining; and for others, hugely influential. I’ve been thinking about the subject of courtesy for months, and didn’t know where to start. Well, there’s nothing like taking a walk on an unexpectedly beautiful, warm and sunny afternoon in early March to reach clarity. Two things linked up for me:  1) words and actions are a powerful influence; and 2) the phrase “politically correct” or “PC” is BS.

The power of words and actions.

Think about what happened to the greeting, “Hello.” Somewhere along the line, we began to respond to strangers less and less with simple niceties, like a greeting and follow-up “How are you?” Mostly, we rush through life and past each other. We absorb ourselves in our devices and opt out of social interaction. We avoid eye contact.

At one time, it was common to greet strangers in passing when they made eye contact. There were also a few people who would look others straight in the eyes as they passed, and snub them when they said hello.  Add to those few an entire generation admonished as children to not speak to strangers, under any circumstances. Our cultural niceties eroded.

No one likes rejection, and many people actively avoid it. Now, the people who look you in the eye and greet you are in the minority. Remember the English idiom, “One bad apple spoils the barrel.” Next thing you know, you’ve got a culture change.

And that’s just one example.

Another occurred during rush hour on the subway platform. A young man raced for his train like he was running the gauntlet. In the process, he crushed an old man between the escalator rail and a pole. He only stopped when he saw me try to help the old man he had jammed up. He was mortified and profusely apologized.  People move through life completely unaware (and unconcerned) of others in the same space. It happens all the time.  Someday that guy will himself be an old man, similarly invisible, and maybe even afraid to navigate this society.

Political correctness.

When someone uses the term “politically correct,” it’s usually with resignation or resentment. You may even see eyeballs roll and a sneer as they say, “I have to be politically correct.” God forbid you curb behavior, language, or certain terms to avoid offending certain groups of people.  Doesn’t this really mean that a filter would be appropriate so you can treat people with courtesy and respect? The fact that people would resist this is sad.

Evidently, there are some people who fully admire those who say what they really think, especially when those verbalized thoughts are offensive on so many levels. This astounds me. It’s as though the admirers want to revert to their five year old selves and cut their own filters loose.

Bad behavior is powerful. When it comes from the top, it seems to almost have a viral effect. That it comes from the top, seems to make it okay — at least to people affected by the “virus.” Could good behavior have the same effect?

In this increasingly rude society, I decided to push myself to do what is —  sadly — uncomfortable. When I catch someone’s eye, I make a point to acknowledge them with a greeting or a smile. When I’m buying something, I look a cashier in the eyes, smile, and say “Thank you” when we complete the transaction. Simple things like that. Maybe we’ve gotten used to treating customer service people like the nameless and the faceless, despite their name tags. How could that make anyone feel valued?

The responses have been encouraging and positive overall. Some recipients of this courtesy look pleasantly surprised. Hell, I’m pleasantly surprised — and wondering why this actually takes effort and what was my role in the loss of basic civility.

Maybe with little steps we can start a cascade of kindness and civility, one greeting and smile at a time.