Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Smokey's!

My friend Jimmy, aka Flip, showed up to hike the Great Smokey National Park with me. We hiked the length of the park, some 72 miles, in 4 and 1/2 days, beginning well after noon on Monday and hiking out to a shuttle to get him to his car on Friday.
The first day was chilly, very windy, but at least it was sunny. On the second day the wind didn't quite, nor the elevation gain. Soon enough we hiked through swirling snow! But we still had good views - as well as making miles to Big K less than 2000!!
We stumbled into a shelter after 18 hard miles through snow and wind, over mountain tops - to find the shelter crowded with over 20 people. I set up the tent and we slept well. The group at the shelter was slow moving, doubtful we would see them again. The next day I crawled out of the tent to see a bear run past. Later we talked with a turkey and scared a wild boar away. The day turned clear as we acheived the highest mountain on the AT. We had a nice lunch and 11 more miles to go! After yogi-ing some water from a very nice couple we crossed Newfoundland Gap, as we did the sky clouded over suddenly and rain let loose! Torrentially. We put our rain gear on and climbed the 1000+ feet up to the shelter, the rain petering off as we arrived. Again the shelter was packed! We setup the tent just as night fell on a 21 mile day.
The next morning we wanted an early start, as I completed putting the tent away and Flip got water, the sky opened up again, this time with hail, gale force winds and lightening. We ran with our gear in disarray to the shelter and waited an hour for it to abate. This day rained multiple times, as well as hailed golfball- sized hail at one point. The Smokey's were testing us! The trail is just a stream, and poorly designed that. We arrived earlier this time and had room at the shelter. I made sure everyone that arrived had room in that shelter, we easily fit everyone from the last shelter plus a few more, 20+ people. But on a foggy wet night that loomed I couldn't be ok with turning people away!
The next, and last day, began with fog and dripping trees. Maybe another all day sogger? We left very early, wanting to make it out of the Smokey's! We made great time, by the third small climb the sun broike through. As we began plunging from 6000 feet to under 2000 the day warmed the sun broke free and it became a great day! We made 18 miles by 3:30pm! I'd called earlier from the top of a mountain and got a shuttle lined up for us at the I-40 highway.
We got shuttled to Hot Springs, a town I will be hiking thru in a few days. From there we drove to Asheveille. There are buffets, cheap hotels, and an REI I can return my ineffectual gaitors to!

All in all the past week has been a great adventure. My body is changing, I can see I have lost weight. My legs are much stronger. I have had some knee pain and shin pain - but nothing to slow me down much. The countdown to Virginia is on! Soon I'll be close enough for Cara and other's to come see me with some regularity!

Until next time!

-Johnny Walker

(that's right, I have a Trail name)

Saturday, April 21, 2012


I've been on the Trail for 10 days - taking a zero today. This is my first time in town since the start. Having a great time and not really missing the internet that much!!

I have plenty of hand-written notes from my adventures so far. Needless to say I've been exposed to amazing people, great views, Trail Magic, and awesome times. I will be posting some of these highlights as days go by, but probably not regularly until I hit Hot Springs on the other side of the Smokies - I've been putting down the miles and staying out of towns!

Pura Vida!

Cara and I flew out of Reagan airport from DC after staying at my friend Jon's house. We had a a connecting flight in Miami that my parents joined us on out of Nashville. Together we all flew into San Jose Costa Rica and waited for a bit for Cara's parents to join us. We headed over to the rental car place and learned that the quoted price was off by half. There was mandatory insurance that more than doubled the expense of the cars. We decided to reduce the cost a bit by getting 2 economy cars rather than the SUV we were originally going to use. The car with my name on it was a POS! Things literally hanging off the car.
All hungry, and a bit mad at the rental process, we stopped at a place right down the road for a bite to eat. It was typical Costa Rician food, though not a very good rendition of it. After getting confused with Colones we figured out the bill and headed out of the Central Valley.
Costa Rican drivers are, to an American, completely insane. The pass without qualm. They merge with no blinker. They beep to thank you. And they don't get mad. There's no anger or short temperedness. People aren't yelling out windows or flippin the bird. They just GO! I felt harried and frazzled not being used to it. My dad was getting angry and driving a bit aggressively in response to their style of driving. After a few turns we got on a toll road and made good time out of the mountains. We stopped at a Fruiteria and got some awesome mangos, a red fruit with a spiky exterior, and some pina. On the journey to the house we missed the turn to get the key, turned around and found the place, we eventually made it successfully to the house, tired worn and ready to be out of the car!
The house is fantastic. There is an infinity pool in the back, a very large open living space, small - but well stocked - kitchen, 3 master suites, and a (unused by us) computer room. Cara and I got the up-stairs suite, as we didn't mind running up and down the stairs.
Jim, dad, and I went across the street to get some bottled water and beer in Esterillos Oeste. We found the grocery store after being unsure if the dirt road in lead to anything.
We woke to no water in the house. This became an on going issue, though it really hardly bothered me at all. An afternoon dip in the pool and pool water to flush was all we needed. I won't continue with daily updates on this. Apparently one family living here blamed the cows escaping from the next property over on stomping the water line. The property operators said it was more likely a recent earth quake. Either way they had to dig up the street, find the leak, refill our cistern. We had water back on on Thursday, our Costa Rician 'camping' expirience.
We didn't have a plan for the day to begin with, so we decided to go to the closest big town araound - Jaco. Also billed as one of the premier tourist towns in the country. We parked on a dirty busy road, and walked around town. There is a Red Lobster as well as some other American chain restaurants. After we all exchanged money into Colones we walked down to a dirty beach and ended up at a highly recommended Soda - Soda Flor. I enjoyed my plain meal, but the others were not terribly impressed. It didn't help that the loud music blaring was throwing a discordant vibe into the meal.
We went next door and picked up some grocery supplies. All of us hated Jaco and were quite ready to get out. We traveled back south towards Esterillo and stopped at an ocien view over-looking Jaco. The distance made the town prettier. We also checked out some macaws hanging out in the trees above us. We pulled into the beach of Esterillo and walked the beach. My dad knew there was a Geocache up the beach and we went beyond the giant mermaid statue in the surf to find my dads first international cache! He was very excited to leave some travel bugs and take some too. After the cache we stopped and had a beer at Lowtide Bar, run by some Americans.
We heard there was a man named Rafa: Father of the Monkeys that was supposed to take people on a boat ride to Damas Island, a mangrove studded peninsula. Cara called Rafa and he is a VERY odd guy on the phone, messing with Cara and giving her the run around, but in a friendly, though obstinent way. We reserved 6 spots for 8:30am the next morning.
My parents went to Sunday Mass in Esterillos Oeste as Janet, Jim, Cara, and I went in search of the Father of the Monkeys. We were to meet him at a gas station almost an hour south, just north of Quepos. Rafa was waiting. He sent us across the street to get some coffee from a place called Rancho Leon, we were so impressed with the people and the nice setup we decided we would come back for lunch.
All others of the group had since arrived, so we followed Rafa to the boat launch, just down a gravel road just up from the gas station. We all climbed into a flat bottomed boat and set off up the estuary. We saw many birds around, on the shores and flying about. Once we got close to one particular shoreline Rafa started yelling 'Come on babies!!' As well as some stuff in Spanish. Not seeing the monkeys he turned into a narrow track up into the mangroves. On our way I saw several 'Jesus lizards', known for their ability to run across water. Towards the end of the waterway the troop made itself apparent in the tree tops. We were excited to catch a glimpse of the monkeys. Little did we know that they would soon get woed to clamber onto and into the boat. One licked banana from Janet's hand.
The monkeys were fantastically cute and well mannered. They came and said HI and grabbed a few bananas. One monkey urinated on his tail and twirled his tail, getting pee on me - symian pee is a first! After awhile we motored around the mangroves some more, spying a baby crocidile on a mangrove root. After an enjoyable few hours, Rafa brought us back to the cars.
We went to Rancho Leon and had a great lunch before heading back to the house and arriving at the same time they did after church concluded.
After a few hours we went and had dinner by the ocean at Esterillos Este in a resort called Del Mar.
We woke with the plan to first go to Rainmaker, a hiking trail with swinging bridges, and then going to Manuel Antonio afterwards. Rainmaker was a very nice walk, about 2.5 miles, much of the time up in the tree tops walking on cable bridges suspended between trunks. the place didn't have too many people there and we enjoyed an unhurried pace through the Preserve. The cable walkways were sometimes 100's of feet in the air, swinging gently as you crossed. They did a good job though, enclosing the bridges so those with a fear of heights weren't put off by the extreme height. We saw a couple poison dart frogs, beautifully colored green and black, we saw leaf cutter ants carrying their treasures along little ant highways, and lots of lizards. I jumped in a swimming hole below a waterfalls at the end of the hike, refreshing!
Manuel Antonio is closed on Mondays, which we hadn't put into our planning, so instead we walked the town and shopped around, though we bought nothing but a coconut for it's milk.
Since we'd eaten out twice the day before, we decided to get some more groceries at the Maxi Pali, owned by Walmart.
We got a late start, not really knowing what to do next, and not knowing what everyone else might want to do. I decided that we could go north to Carara National Park and check that out. This was our only other excursion, besides the first day to Jaco, that we went north from the house - everything is south and everything keeps getting better the more south you go.
We first stopped right before the Rio Terrcoles bridge, since we heard crocidiles liked to gather there. We parked across from a policia checkpoint and walked along a narrow concrete strip onto the bridge. Traffic zoomed by a few feet away. Occasionally sections of the bridge had bent or broken railings. Half way across I could see a log that may have been a croc. As we got closer I saw it was indeed a croc. Surrounded by 1 or 2 buddies. During a lull in traffic we crossed to the otherside and were amazed by the crocidiles sun drying on the sand bar on that side. The size of these dudes was amazing. I have never seen them this big. A few probably reaching beyond 15 feet in length. There are pictures, but I doubt they will do justice to these massive beasts!
After crossing the bridge completely we found several little shops selling the same trinkets as was in Man.Ant. the day before; it's like they all use the same supplier to get their wares! Same carved frogs, same wood place mats, same art work. All of it is not even made in CR. I kept looking for something unique, but hadn't stuck upon it yet.
We walked back across the bridge and got back in the cars and headed south a couple kms to the Carara park visitor center. The park isn't too impressive, though they told us about a boat tour to feed the crocs - I was the only one that thought that could be fun! - and about a few km long hike through the forest. Being really hot out we all consensused to not go for a hike, but keep that in mind for future activity. We never came back, and I reckon we didn't miss too much.
We drove south a ways from Carara to Playa Herradura and Los Suenos resort. From what I had read the resort changed the coast line in the area and was the premier resort in the country, costing $40 million to make. It was exactly as I expected, almost like a little pool of the US abroad. Golf course, sweeping palm lined cobble streets, fake waterfalls rushing down faux-cliffs, every blade of grass manicured. We wound our way through this opulence to the marina with public parking and shopping. The shopping area was an open air mall with a few restaurants and not really all that much to see. We strolled along, taking our time to kill some time and finally after quickly exhausting the area decided on a late lunch at the Italian food restaurant. I got more Costa Rician 'typical' food.
After eating we drove around to Playa Herradura proper outside of the resort. Many locals gathered here, and it felt much more real the the contrived falsness of the resort. Jim, Janet, Cara, and I decided to walk down the beach to see if we could get on to an island. My parents decided to drive on and see some other stuff on their own. We walked along way down this gray-sanded beach (much cleaner than Jaco) but didn't make it to the island before reaching some to slippery to cross rocks so we headed back. From here we drove south some more to Playa Hermosa, and its black sand beach. We parked at a hotel and walked through pool side to the beach, much more relaxed here, no guards no gates. We watched some kids surfing as the sunset behind a bank of clouds throwing out one last brilliant shard of light.
We got up very early to hit Manuel Antonio before the day got too hot or the park too crowded. We parked at the cul-de-sac at the end and a guide we spoke to on Monday became our guide for the park. At first we were leery of whether or not we would need a guide. Cara and I were leaning towards not needing one. It turned out to be good to have one, as Henry carried a high-powered telescope on a tri-pod, and he had the eyes of long practice to see many sloths of 2 varieties, frogs, beehives, crabs, 3 kinds of monkeys, coati, toucan,and even a black squirrel. We would have walked right by a lot of these critters or, had we seen them, it would have been a distant and unclear view. This park is dripping with animals! And the beaches are over the top amazing! Most places had very rough surf and gray or black sand. This beach had white sand backed by turquois water and very gentle wave action. At the end of the tour the girls decided to sit on the beach, Jim decided to head back to the car, and my dad and I do an extra hike around Cathedral Point. My dads motivation a cache, mine the joy of walking! There were good views, and not too many people, after almost an hour of walking through Primary forest we made it to the end of a loop with one lone monkey taking a nap right over our heads.
We headed back down one last long beach to a shallow driver crossing of no more than 6 inches, there were several boats ferrying people across for a few Colones, but we just waded. If there is a way to make money here, even the smallest unexploited nitch, people step up to do it! Industrious people.
On our way out towards Quepos we stopped at a restaurant that had a large airplane as its center piece with a bar inside of it. Cara Janet and I walked up to a small art store and browsed while the others looked at the great view and sipped on some Cokes. we ordered appitizers once back, the calimari was so good, best I've ever had!
We got back in the cars with the destination of Dominical, somewhere south of us. We'd heard it was a nice little town but we didn't take that to heart as much as we should've. Of all the places around I liked Dominical the best. The town parallels the main road on a dusty gravel lane. To the right the ocean waves pond the shore. The scene of the town was great. Everyone was friendly, the town quaint but with enough to make it interesting. The art was good, Cara bought a mask. We spoke to several Americans that had setup shop in town, this is where the hippies come to play. The coffee shop and yoga place were run by roommates, the information desk was operated by an American girl that spoke fluent Spanish. Down on the beach a hippy grass market, selling all the typical tourist trinkets, was setup. Hostels abounded in the town. If I were to come back to CR to do some hosteling, this is the destination!
Before leaving, the chick at the info center called Rafa for my parents and he gave her the same run around as he had to Cara this time to someone speaking his language! Too funny.
My parents went down to see Rafa. We set out shortly after to see some things before meeting them for lunch at Rancho Leon. First we drove to Playa Payo Seco just south of Parrita and found it to be a highly of the beaten path stretch of beach mostly known of by the locals. We saw nothing worth stopping for so drove as far as we could and headed back to the main drag. Being Holy Week and a national holiday most businesses were closed up tight, but there were a couple places opened in Quepos, one being an art gallery with lots of original local paintings. I found 3 to bring home! One, mostly green, jungle and mountain scene that I just loved, and 2 small very colorful ones that I think work well as a set that Cara also enjoyed. Jim and Janet purchased a nice oil painting as well. We setup a zip line for Saturday as well.
After meeting my parents for lunch we cam back to Si Como No (sure, why not) a hotel, resort, restaurant, and tour booking agency. There was one little blurb in Lonely Planet about an eco-tour in a mountain range close by. It sounded interesting to me as it was off the coast, and so probably much differnt than other things we had been doing. Everyone else seemed open to it, so we wanted to check out pricing and package deals. Si Como No is the most beautiful hotel I've seen here. Perched high on a ridge over looking Man.Ant. and the Pacific it is placed steeply on a hill so all the accomodations are up and down winding stairs. The architecture is fantastic as was the breeze. In addition to the place itself being fantastic, the package deals were good too. If we went and did the Santa Juana villiage to do hiking, horse back riding, waterfall swimming, fishing, and eating local food we could package it with a zip line course on our way for deep discounts. We decided to do this and paid up right then. My parents decided to opt out of the zip line course, but do the rest.
I should say, Rafa worked some magic on my parents. They were giddy with the joy of playing with monkeys. One perched on my moms head for a photo. But I bet she wasn't lucky enough to get peed on!
After booking at Si Como No we stopped at a place called La Hacienda, a restaurant we heard was good, and there was another art gallery there. We didn't go in the reataurant but when we got there we saw a couple squirrel monkeys crossing a rope above the road. I heard tittering coming from the back of the place and peeked through to see many moneys climbing in the trees. We all went back there and a guy handed out a few bananas and the monkeys with babies on their backs came down and mobbed us and robbed us of our fruit!
We headed back to the house for an early evening since we had to set alarms for 5am the next day to make the tour at Si Como No.
We arrived with plenty of time before our guide, Amelio, showed up to take us on the tour. We climbed into a 4x4 and headed into the palm oil plantation. The dirt road was good condition and fairly smooth, crossing over several very sketchy bridges until we came to some river fords that the bridges had washed out. The road became rougher as we got past the palms and into the foot hills. Soon enough we came to the zip line tour. There was also a butterfly garden there to occupy my parents as we zipped through the forest. We did one very short zip across a stream and then we did a walk uphill to where the course actually began. The guides pointed out cinnamion and other spices, as well as different types of trees, such as the walking palm - a descendent of the Ents.
The zip line course was a lot of fun and I always felt safe. The guides always made sure we were clipped in at least one place before pushing us down the line. The tarzan swing and the rappels were the most adreniline pumping to me, the zips were great but I just enjoyed them, didn't get my heart pumping quite as hard. We were many stories up, traipsing among the tree tops. The good natured guides showed us a great time.
Once back to the beginning we climbed back into the back of a pickup truck and started going up into the mountains, there were no longer foothills! At one point we were stopped by a Catholic procession doing the stations of the cross. Soon enough we reached the sugar cane mill and we stopped to watch how the locals used oxen to mill the cane. We also got to chew on cane and drink the freshly milled product. Next we went for a 45 min hike down through the forest seeing bats and lizards and learning about many of the folk remedies of the local flora. At the end of the hike we came to a waterfall and swimming hole. Cara, Jim, and I jumped of the 21 foot high ledge into the pool. Bad-ass Janet had to show us up by jumping off the 45 ft ledge! This was something on her bucket list she got to check off though! She's braver than I!
After we swam around for a bit the 6 of us plus the 2 guides walked over to a tilapia fishing pond and tried our hand at hooking one. Jim got one quickly. And I kept feeding the fish with my bait, but not snagging one!
Next we got on horses. Storm clouds seemed to be gathering just over the mountains and the guide was pushing us to get done, I think. We got done and saw no rain though. The horses carried us up a very long and steep hill to the actual villiage of Santa Juana near the peak of a mountain with a panoramic view of the ocean the mountains and Manuel Antonio. We had the best typical Costa Rician food yet. And drank (and bought) coffee that was grown in the garden around us. A spectacular finish to an awesome tour. This was THE highlight of the trip. A completely wonderful time in the mountains of C.R. We made it back to the house a few hours later weary and sore, but no worse the wear; everyone was happy with the day.
My parents left, as their flight was leaving at 1pm. Traffic was supposed to be bad between the coast and San Jose, even worse for us the next day. We planned on leaving even earlier.