Indonesia Travel: Motorbikes, Monsoons, Monuments, and Monkeys – Part 3

There are three must-see sights in Yogyakarta on the island of Java. You don’t endure 20+ hours of travel and miss out on two monuments on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the mighty volcano Mount Merapi.

I highly recommend that you get a driver to take you to these main sights. They are all near Yogyakarta. We found our driver and host through one of my companions’ tennis pro in Jakarta, who knew a guy…. This “guy,” our host, also plays tennis and his son is a ranked junior in Indonesia. It gave us something to talk about. We had a full day and were lucky with the weather — mostly cloudy, humid, no rain.

Our first stop was Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Religion has factored large in Indonesia’s long history. One dynasty or another has held sway through the centuries, and their favored religion — Buddhist, Hindu, or Islam — would be dominant. The Sailendra dynasty, of which there is little information, ruled Java for five centuries. They presided over Borobudur’s construction in the late 8th century. After about 70 years and the input of successive generations of Sailendras, Borobudur was finally completed. There is no written record of how the temple was used, but it is attributed to Buddhism. By the early 11th century, the Sailendras went *poof!* and abandoned the temple. Indonesian dynasties came and went over many centuries. Could Mount Merapi’s massive eruption in 1006 A.D. have caused the Sailendra exodus, or were they displaced by another dynasty?

Borobudur was re-discovered in the 19th century amid shrubbery and underbrush. Nature had reclaimed its space over the centuries. Indonesia restored the temple in the 1970s and it was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Walking through park grounds toward Borobudur, we encountered a gigantic spider exhibit. They were hanging in trees, in webs, and presented in assorted creepy ways.

20190112_0935225604668260760955923.jpg

You’ve got to get past the spiders to reach Borobudur.

20190112_093645-01_edited1838731803157431644.jpeg

Borobudur’s construction consists of nine stacked platforms and a central dome. There are 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues, including some without heads. We climbed a lot of stairs and walked around several levels before reaching the top. See this website for an art historian perspective.

20190112_0949403882989263802053620.jpg

_DSC2103

20190112_0946269055646271086976117.jpg

20190112_1000171280332068737362320.jpg

_DSC2123 copy

IMG_4680 copy - BOROBUDUR KAH

We interacted with groups of charming Indonesian students. Their teachers told them to find foreigners, practice English with them and take a group photo. First of all, in a total eight days on Java, I never saw another Black person, not even from Africa. Second, we are American, which might have been another prize (?) among the foreigner contingent. (We had encountered few Americans ourselves, which was fine with me because I was on vacation from other Americans. But, I digress.) Being Black and American might explain why these school kids stared at me. If I looked halfway friendly, they came over. It was cute to see each group push in front the kid who spoke the best English. And they were so polite!

The star English speaker is right in front of me in this photo.

20190112_095349-21159721716545382254.jpeg

We rejoined our host, who took us to his restaurant, Pondok Merapi. This is an off-the-beaten path restaurant, and our host was nothing if not enterprising. By hosting a day tour with a driver, the itinerary included lunch at his restaurant.

Pondok Merapi restaurant.jpg

He walked us around his property to show the fruit trees and vegetables they harvest for the meals. A rooster and hens roamed the property. The chicks were cared for in a separate area. Our host explained the system he installed to route fresh, unadulterated water to his property.

Pontok Merapi chickens

As for lunch, there was no menu. The meal was comprised of whatever was grown or raised on the property. We had delicious soup and vegetables. Best of all, we had the “real chicken” our host promised. Even if we had first encountered our chicken in the restaurant’s front yard, it was a novelty to eat food so fresh, organic, and delicious!

Merapi lunch.jpg

Merapi lunch group photo.jpg

After lunch, we loaded up in a jeep to see Mount Merapi, one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It has had more than 70 eruptions since 1548. The most recent was the catastrophic eruption in October 25, 2010. Between October 23-24, 2010, more than 500 volcanic earthquakes were recorded until Mount Merapi finally blew and lost about 38 meters of its height. It was true to its name “Merapi,” which means “Mountain of Fire” in Javanese.

Merapi Jeep.jpg

Our first stop was House of Memory in Cangkringan Village. This house is now part of a museum showing how Mount Merapi destroyed a nearby home.  The scene was how I imagined nuclear aftermath complete with dust and ash.  In one room, a computer keyboard and television were melted in place.  (I could only take a couple of photos before museum personnel shut me down.)

Nearly 1 million people live near the volcano. After the devastating 2010 eruption, approximately 400,000 people evacuated and 2,200 families lost their homes. Displaced households were permanently relocated to safer areas.

Merapi - House of Memory.jpg

We got back in the Jeep for a jarring drive to a spot where we could view Mount Merapi.

20190112_152507-012440400874566572170.jpeg

When we arrived, we went to Bunker Kaliaden. It was built to provide temporary shelter from hot gases caused by Mount Merapi’s eruptions. In 2006, two men, who were helping evacuate people from the area, sought shelter in the bunker, and became trapped. To reach them, rescuers had to dig through six feet of hot ash and debris, and then remove a red-hot boulder at the bunker entrance. The trapped men died from the intense heat. You can read more here and here.

20190112_1518036953652097626510529.jpg

Our host walked us to this location to see the great Mountain of Fire. As we wondered what was the point of walking to this particular location, our host pointed in the direction of the volcano. It’s “over there.”

20190112_1520203920630309241979018.jpg

Taking his word that it was “over there” somewhere, the volcano was completely obscured by fog. Then he told us that sunrise is the best time to see it. (I could actually see Mount Merapi from my hotel balcony so I had to be satisfied with that.) In one way nature didn’t cooperate with us on this excursion, but in another way it did. At least Mount Merapi didn’t act up and make us run for our lives.

Back in the Jeep, we bumped along the gravelly road back to our host’s restaurant, arriving with bruised hind parts. (Maybe I’ll speak for myself on that one.) We transferred to our suddenly super-luxurious SUV.

In late afternoon, we arrived at another outstanding monument, Prambanan — a large Hindu temple complex.

20190112_163728-011124720331132623720.jpeg

20190112_163913-016771400545068775283.jpeg

Like Borobudur, Prambanan was constructed while the Sailendras were still in power sometime in the 9th century. It’s the largest Hindu temple in Southeast Asia. I wonder if the monument-building was a little competitive:  Buddhist vs. Hindu, or Buddha vs. Shiva. Regardless, at that time, there was peaceful religious co-existence.

By now, you should know that Indonesia is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre:

The temples collapsed due to earthquake, volcanic eruption and a shift of political power in the early 11th century, and they were rediscovered in the 17th century. These compounds have never been displaced or changed. Restoration works have been conducted since 1918, both in original traditional method of interlocking stone and modern methods using concrete to strengthen the temple structure.

You can see piles of stones around all the temples, probably from previous disasters. Prambanan was damaged again in 2006 by another earthquake. In Indonesia, it never ends ….

prambanan-single-temple-with-girl.jpg

Prambanan Temple from staircase

Prambanan MandK.jpg

Prambanan was dedicated to three Hindu deities — the Creator (Brahma), the Preserver (Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Shiva). Three temples were also erected to the animals that serve them — (Nandi (a bull calf), Garuda (a bird-like creature with bird and human features) and Hamsa (an aquatic bird).

prambanan bas relief 3

Prambanan is a large compound and it had the feel of sacred space. In all our movement around in that area, I discovered I lost my little purple camp towel. I considered it a stroke of inspiration that I had packed this towel. I needed that towel because, being monsoon season, it was humid. It was not possible to re-trace my steps as I had gone up and down temples, in one entrance and out another. I scanned the grounds from a perch to see if a little purple towel had sullied the grounds. Then, I went to one security guard after another and used this photo to ask about my towel.

20190112_163759-016383197232559652113.jpeg

I took a seat on the wall for a bit. I showed a guard I hadn’t seen earlier this photo of my towel. He went somewhere, and came back with it. I was so happy ….

We shattered the 10,000 steps per day activity goal exploring monuments that day. And we still had a cultural performance at Prambanan as the day’s last event. We skipped it, though, because dinner was more compelling. Thus ended a long and very satisfying day.


Indonesia Travel: Motorbikes, Monsoons, Monuments, and Monkeys – Part 2

In January, Indonesia is in its monsoon season. When I realized monsoon season would be in full swing, I wondered how much of a damper — pun intended – this would put on our trip.

Indonesia has tropical weather and the humidity that comes with it. I was prepared with a light rain jacket, a rain poncho, umbrella, and waterproof hiking shoes. Major thunderstorms moved rain onto and off the islands and then the sky cleared up. It rained all day, but lightly, only two of the 14 days we were traveling.

I recommend traveling to Indonesia during monsoon season. The sky reveals its moods throughout the day, and you might even get lucky with some sunshine. Monsoon season is manageable. Plus, there are fewer tourists and it’s cheaper to travel.

Still fully jet lagged from 20 hours travel to Jakarta, we were back at the airport early the next day. This time we flew to Jogyakarta (also spelled Yogyakarta, and called Jogja for short).

This much smaller city, also on the island of Java, is about an 1 hour 15 minute flight from Jakarta.  Jogja is the art and cultural center of Indonesia. The region is unique in that it’s headed by a Sultan — a hereditary monarch — who has the power of a regional governor. Historically, the sultans have been political survivalists with a knack for picking the winning side during conflicts. I’m reminded of House Lannister from “Game of Thrones.”

We stayed downtown at The Phoenix Hotel.  Before it became a hotel in the 1940s, this elegant building was a wealthy Chinese merchant’s home.  For $70/night (split between two people), we had a very nice room, excellent hospitality, and the best breakfast buffet I have ever had. From our balcony, I watched the sun rise each morning. The volcanoes were a secondary backdrop to an untended cemetery.

20190113_1800457311910930427979641.jpg

The Hotel provided earplugs because we were a few blocks away from a mosque and its loudspeakers. Annoyingly, calls to prayer started at 4:15 a.m., and went on and on and on as other mosque loudspeakers added their calls to the din. (No complaints from me while I was there because I could have been charged with blasphemy!)

One of the historical areas of Jogja is Taman Sari (Water Castle), former palace of the first Sultan of Jogyakarta. Between earthquakes, wars, and invasions, most of the 59 building complex was destroyed, or left in a state of ruin. The bathing portion of the complex was restored in the 1970s.

_DSC2171

_DSC2174

_DSC2181

20190111_155218-01

20190111_154907-01.jpeg

20190111_152114-01-01

Nearby Taman Sari were walkable streets with art galleries, street art, crafts, batik, and restaurants.

 

20190113_140040-012213343850668918645.jpeg

My favorite find was the puppets at a small artisan shop. Indonesian puppetry (Wayang) is a traditional art form dating from the 10th century. During the rise of Hinduism on Java and Bali, the puppet performances were used to further the philosophy of the religion. The puppets served a similar purpose during the later rise of Islam. In addition to being used to proselytize religion, folklore was told through puppetry. The puppets in this shop were the flat two-dimensional variety (wayang kulit) used for “shadow puppet” shows, and three-dimensional puppets made of wood (wayang bambu).

I was not leaving Indonesia without a puppet (or two)! To me, these were art pieces. I secured my travel companions’ promise that we were going back to the puppet shop before leaving Jogykarta. I know my companions were tired of hearing me talk about these puppets. Mission accomplished — I bought three wood puppets, including one for my mama!

Stay tuned for more on Jogyakarta in Part 3, and Bali, and Kalimantan (Borneo) in Parts 4 and 5!!


Indonesia Travel: Motorbikes, Monsoons, Monuments, and Monkeys – Part 1

Indonesia is my most unique travel experience so far. Credit goes to my travel companions for planning this trip. For the first time in years, I was along for the ride and had no expectations. In fact, I knew next to nothing about Indonesia and its geography. This travel adventure included cities, countryside, a four-passenger river cruise, and a rain forest.

After the December 2018 tsunami, someone asked me if I was still going to Indonesia in January. Of course! I didn’t think I’d be anywhere near where the tsunami hit on Java. And, unlike a certain world leader, I fact-checked my assumption and tried to at least have a clue about this Asian nation.

10 Facts About Indonesia

  • Indonesia has two seasons — wet (monsoon) and dry. I was there in January during monsoon season, which lasts from about November to March.
  • Two of my city destinations — Jakarta and Jogyakarta — are indeed on the island of Java. The tsunami originated in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra. Jakarta was on the end of the island near tsunami impact.
  • Indonesia is in a region known as the Ring of Fire due to its frequent volcano eruptions and earthquakes. In fact, it had three disaster events in 2018: flooding and mudslides, earthquake, and tsunami.
  • Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands. It is Southeast Asia’s largest nation.
  • Java is the most populous island in Indonesia.
  • The island of Borneo (the Malaysian name) is shared by Indonesia (whose territory is called Kalimantan), Brunei, and Malaysia. Borneo is the third largest island in the world.
  • Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world after the United States.
  • Bahasa Indonesian is the official language; and there are over 300 native languages.
  • Indonesia is a Muslim-majority nation. Religious tolerance is part of the Constitution; however, blasphemy is against the law and the penalty is prison.
  • By law, since 2006, Indonesians must carry an ID card that declares affiliation with one of six officially recognized religions: Islam, Hindu, Catholic Christianity, Confucianism, and Buddhism.

JAKARTA

Jakarta was my home base for travel in the archipelago. It is not a tourist destination, but it is the nation’s center of commerce. Considering we flew in and out of the city three times in two weeks, my observations are superficial.

Modernity and luxury co-exist with pockets of squalor. Go down any tiny alley and be amazed at how densely populated it is. Street food abounds. There are also many good restaurants, including international ones. We enjoyed a very good meal at a Japanese restaurant called Sakana.

You need to be aware of clean water issues for drinking water, fresh fruit and vegetables. (Sometimes I forgot about that and ate raw fruits and vegetables. Luckily, I didn’t suffer any GI issues.) Security checkpoints and scanners are everywhere: mall entrances, gated communities, and office buildings. And, rush hour traffic….!

Traffic was epic. It moved under a code only Indonesians understand. Road rules seem to be very loose, and signage and road markings are treated more like a suggestion for order. Three clearly marked lanes become five when about a hundred motorbikes join the fray with cars, trucks, and buses. There is neither time nor space for distracted driving. All motorists are squeezed and traffic becomes a game of inches.

20190111_072847-01-015699997818408257563.jpeg
The dreaded Jakarta rush hour.

Motorbikes might travel both ways on a one-way street if it’s more convenient for the rider and the rider can get away with it. All motorists use horns frequently — a tap, not a blast — to warn other motorists that they’re being passed, or they’re really, really close. Of course, that’s the intended purpose of horns, as opposed to how they’re used here in the Washington, DC region to signal annoyance and rage. It was fascinating to watch traffic maneuverings at street level or from a high-rise. My conclusion: Indonesians are the best motorists (car or motorbike) in the world. You can’t teach those skills.

Motorbike riders wore helmets (by law) and flip-flops. If it rained or stormed, riders might huddle somewhere, but most just popped on their rain ponchos and kept it moving. Riders with helmets that say “Grab” or “GO-JEK” operate like Uber. I assume that those motorbike operators can only have one passenger at a time. Otherwise, there was apparently no limit to the number of passengers a rider can have. The record number of people I saw piled onto a motorbike was five. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that record-setter. The fifth passenger was a baby strapped to a passenger’s chest.

 

There is no such thing as motorists automatically yielding to pedestrians. In fact, the cities — Jakarta and Jogyakarta — were not especially walkable or pedestrian-friendly.  Where there was a sidewalk, it was little wider than a curb. Crosswalks near malls were, again, a suggestion to motorists to let pedestrians cross the street. In addition to all of this, motorists drive on the left, like Brits, which adds another layer of challenge for perambulating the city. Ninety-nine percent of the time we took a “Taksi” everywhere we wanted to go in the cities.

Jakarta is a city whose population has outgrown its road system.  The good news is completion of the rapid transit project scheduled to open March 2019.  (And I wonder what it will be like for people to walk to those stations.)


Stay tuned for upcoming posts featuring Jogykarta, Bali, and Kalimantan!


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

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

First (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 of 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 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

When the glaciers pushed through they left landscape elements like this.

boulder-perched-on-rock-yosemite

One huge rock surface was incredibly smooth like a granite kitchen counter. Izzy led us in yoga.

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

We also rested on that rock.

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).  As the saying goes: ‘There’s no time like the present.’

coming-down-the-trail-to-the-lake-yosemitecoming-down-to-ten-lakes-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.

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:  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?)

Fourth:  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 our last night, 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.

On our last day at Yosemite, 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!


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

See the last part of this series here:  hiking to Ten Lakes…and what it means to “leave no trace.”


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! )

 

 

 


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!)