Mendoza to Santiago: 1-4 February 2015

1 February 2015

A grocery run, a stop to fill up the gas tank of the silver SUV Raffael bought in Chile, and we’re finally on the road around 11:30 heading for those tall, jagged mountains to the west of Mendoza. It was barely a week ago that I talked with my friend Jenny about how much I wished I had someone to travel with. I guess saying it out loud was all it took to meet someone; now here I am with Raffel, a traveler from Switzerland, crossing the Andes mountains, headed for Chile. image The pass over the Andes between Mendoza and Santiago turns out to be one of those places that everyone tells you to go, and you mentally note it, but maybe you don’t make serious plans to go because maybe it’s out of your way, and people say that about almost every beautiful place they’ve traveled, and you can’t go everywhere and sometimes people exaggerate, and you think, it can’t really be that beautiful can it? – and then sometimes you go there anyway and it’s more beautiful than anyone told you it would be and you think, dammit, why didn’t anyone tell me this place was so beautiful, and you’re glad you went. image First there’s a long straight stretch of highway with acres of vineyards spreading away towards Mendoza on our right, as the mountains jut up ahead of us like a steep, hard wall. Quickly we’re in among the foothills, passing dry, red, rocky peaks and mysterious narrow canyons that I just catch with the camera as we speed by. Raffael expertly glides the SUV around tight turns as we start to gain elevation, and I think it’s lucky I’m riding through the mountains with someone who grew up driving around the Alps. I’m given the important tasks of taking pictures out the window, serving mate, and choosing music for the drive. First a little musical education, as Raffael has not heard Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours; then I decide the landscape calls for Neil Young. I always like listening to Neil on trips with impressive natural scenery. His music seems made for lonely, wild landscapes, and it seems thoughtful to me, in the way that big open spaces make you thoughtful. image We glimpse a large, turquoise lake and turn off the highway to investigate. The reservoir is beautiful, strikingly turquoise against the dry hills, but low – many meters too low, it looks like. We walk to the edge of the water along white, chalky banks. Strict signs warn us not to swim but I dip my feet in anyway. We’ve already gained some altitude and the water is shockingly cold. image A little later we continue along the highway as it curves through a wide canyon, following the course of a swift, chocolate-brown river swollen by hidden rains. Hungry, we begin looking for a good picnic spot. The bare walls of the canyon don’t afford any vegetation nor shade, so we eventually settle in the meager shadow of a boxy metal container next to a slip where one of the tour companies from Mendoza begins their whitewater rafting tours. We watch the brown river tumble by on one side and cars rush by on the other as we eat tomatoes and fresh fruit and cheese and the least disgusting gluten-free crackers I was able to find at the supermarket. We pack up from the whitewater rafting slip and not five minutes later pass a beautifully shaded little park by the river that would have been perfect for lunch, and laugh at ourselves for stopping at the ugly little concrete platform. image The canyon we’ve been traveling through finally widens out into a broad valley. On all sides we’re surrounded by rocky, steep mountains. The broad plain is flat and yellow with a strip of green leafy trees bordering the course of the river. We’re settled into driving now as we cross the valley and begin climbing another narrow canyon, and I play some electronica to fit the mood. We stop now and again to take pictures as we climb deeper and higher into the sharp, endless mountains. Soon we begin to see glimpses of a high peak covered in snow away to our right. We come to a side road leading up to a little guard station and signs for views of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in all of the Americas and the highest peak outside of Asia. image The wind howls down a canyon covered with tough, short grasses. It’s an easy walk up to the viewpoint, but I can tell we’ve already gained some altitude when I get winded on the way. Up along the walls of the canyon we see condors circling and tiny glimpses of motion on the rocks as rabbits dive for cover when the birds’ shadows pass over them. At the end of the canyon looms Aconcagua, nearly 7,000 meters high – around 23,000 feet. We’re already so high in elevation that it actually doesn’t seem that tall by comparison, just big and imposing.image Aconcagua fades again behind closer mountains as we approach the Chilean frontier. The Argentine exit and Chilean entry offices are right next to each other. Leaving Argentina officially is a piece of cake, but as anyone who’s been to South America can tell you, Chile is notoriously strict about what crosses their border. I’m carefully double-checking my bag for any forgotten pieces of fruit or vegetables, and Raffael is sorting out the paperwork for his car, which has to be stamped through border crossings just like we do. From the way they write the fruit and vegetable warning signs at the border, and the stories other travelers have told us, I think we’d be in bigger trouble for trying to sneak an apple across the border than if we accidentally imported Raffael’s car illegally. Sure enough, while Raffael chats with a Chilean border official about a missing paper the Bolivian border officials misplaced a few weeks ago, a food-sniffer dog goes wild over a bag of trash in our front seat. The dog’s handler grabs the bag like it’s full of drugs and pulls out a discarded orange peel. He gives me a stern look, tosses the bag in the trash, and brings the dog around for a thorough investigation of the rest of the car. Meanwhile the official Raffael has been talking to laughs and stamps the car through. image We finally clear the border as the sun sets. Immediately past the border crossing the road descends sharply into a canyon, dropping what has to be 400 meters sharply and steeply. Long, tight curves zig zag down into the valley. They’re coated with something that makes the tires squeal as we round each bend – Raffael complains about this – and I count 30 tight turns from top to bottom. image Another forty minutes of driving and we’re close to Los Andes, a small town that seems like a decent enough place to spend the night. Our road maps show little water fountain symbols just outside of town – natural hot springs. We pull into a square in town to ask friendly locals about the springs (Raffael is much braver about talking to people than I am) and pick up snacks in the hopes of being able to picnic next to a hot spring under the stars. Termas del Corazón (hot springs of the heart) turns out to be an expensive resort. There are springs, but they’re part of a complex of constructed pools under a roof in the resort, and they’re closed for the night by the time we arrive. I’ve been completely spoiled by the natural hot springs I used to be able to visit from Reno, so I veto giving the resort a try tonight – plus the cost to stay overnight is an exorbitant 70,000 pesos per person (over $100). We return to Los Andes to look for a backpacker’s hostel, and eventually find a building marked HOSTAL that has rooms for a much more reasonable 15,000 pesos each. The very friendly night receptionist offers to let us park the car in their garage, and cheerfully opens the door to the dining room. Once we realize he’s not joking, I hop out and Raffael executes an impressively difficult parking job, squeezed between a wall of antique china and a pile of stacked-up tables and chairs. Our upstairs room is comfortable and empty of other backpackers, at least for this night. The hostal doesn’t seem to have a kitchen (at least not one for guests) and our room doesn’t seem to have a table, so we shrug, laugh, and spread out our snack-dinner on the floor – meat and cheeses and tomatoes and Raffael cuts apart a plastic water bottle to use as makeshift glasses for wine. image

2 February 2015

It’s 8:23 and I’ve felt this before – a little rattling, nothing out of the ordinary, maybe just a truck passing – but it doesn’t stop, it goes on way too long to be a truck and it keeps going and then there’s the real shaking, the whole building swaying back and forth and I hold my breath and close my eyes and after a few seconds which feel like a few hours, it stops and now I’m awake. It’s hard to go back to sleep after an earthquake. Welcome to Chile, I think.

No one in the hostal blinked an eye at the tremor, which I look up later online. The epicenter was deep underground near Mendoza, around 6.7 there but in the low 3’s here in Chile. At breakfast – bread for Raffael; deli meat, cheese, and fruit for me – we talk with the owners of the hostal, who bought the old building and added a huge event hall, where we’re now having breakfast. Right now we’re the only guests but they sometimes host large groups – I guess that the hall could seat 50 people easily. After we say goodbye to the hostal staff, Raffael maneuvers the car back out of the dining room – we are both still giggling about this – and we set off in the direction of Santiago. We make a detour to investigate another hot spring marked on the map, but our hot spring luck continues to be bad, and this one is closed today. Instead after some exploring we find a shady spot under some trees by a small stream and make our picnic lunch there.

We’re barely back on the highway when the suburbs and traffic of Santiago start to come into view. Or rather, the toll booths of Santiago start to come into view – I think we pass three within a few kilometers. We pass through tunnels cut into the mountains that border Santiago and Raffael gets excited about some interesting engineering-related features that I can’t remember now (sorry Raffael). And then Santiago looms below us, modern-looking high rise apartment buildings and shiny skyscrapers and it’s hard to remember we’re in South America until we come down into the suburbs and there are the crumbling concrete buildings with their hand-painted signs and broken sidewalks again. They fade into elegant antique colonial buildings as we approach Bella Vista, a lovely neighborhood deserving of its name, urban yet pretty, with rows of restaurants and bars crowded together along quiet streets. Raffael sweet-talks a meter maid into letting us park the car on the street long enough to unload ourselves – funny how quickly I adapted to spreading out into every inch of the car after having traveled with just a backpack for the past five months. We settle into a huge hostel that seems nearly deserted – one or two stray backpackers and the friendly receptionists.

We walk through bella vista, down the length of a green park glimmering with fountains, and into the downtown area. I’m surprised by how nice this part of the city is. People say Santiago isn’t worth visiting – just a big city, they say – but I see interesting murals and cute shops and boutiques and pretty little cafes (Raffael knows some good ones and I drink the best coffee I’ve had since buenos aires), and a bustling restaurant scene. We take a wrong turn and miss the Thai restaurant we were trying for, and end up instead at an Indian diner that serves passable curried fish with coconut milk. I think Santiago seems like a fine city. image 3 February 2015

We’re just a few minutes late to the free walking tour that meets downtown. Both Raffael and I have been in South America long enough now that we rarely show up to anything on time, and the tour operators are used to this as well, and everyone’s quite content to ease into the actual tour content around 10:20 or so. The buildings we pass downtown I find only a little bit interesting – I’m mainly amazed at the age of the buildings that are still standing after years and years of earthquakes. “If you pass an old building in Chile and you see it’s still standing, you know it’s safe” says our guide, and I guess he’s right. We cross the river into what our guide tells us is the poorer part of town, and in a few minutes we’ve come into the fish market. Raffael is delighted by the variety of very fresh seafood on display – there’s barely any fish smell – and begins planning a dinner that, if he includes all the ingredients he wants to, will feed about 20 people. We wander through the market stalls with the group. I’m staring at little piles of octopus next to gigantic glassy-eyed eels, while Raffael drools over piles of fresh mussels still moving and finds slices of what one vendor tells us is meat from a giant squid. In the center of the market the building opens up and I see that it’s very much like the market in Montevideo, which is reminiscent of a huge iron train station like the ones you see in Europe. The ceiling looms high and vaulted and beautiful and the open square underneath echoes with the bustle of commerce. I’m not the only one who’s reminded of Montevideo; they tell us there’s a rumor that when they shipped the pieces of this market building from Europe (I’m still not clear on why or how that happened, readers) the parts for this market were confused with the parts for the market in Montevideo. Given the general lackadaisical attitude toward formal organization in South America, I think the story seems believable. image Out the fish market (we have to drag Raffael), across the street, and into another more modern-looking market building selling some produce and meats. I’m getting hungry but don’t have time to stop for a snack before we’re out again and on to yet another market – this one rougher, dingier, and way more fun than the last two. There’s all manner of produce being sold here – mainly fruit and vegetables, but further in we find rows and rows of spices typical of Peruvian cuisine (a lot of people from Peru live in Santiago, our guide tells us), bags of grain sold in bulk, and even high quality Japanese soy sauce. I open my eyes and ears completely as I drift through the stalls and hear vendors swapping jokes, greeting customers, hawking wares. Young men in rough work clothes grin with mouths missing most of their teeth as they haul in huge crates of exotic fruits. Raffael buys cactus fruits (which, confusingly, are called tunas) and I try one – juicy and soft, a lot like a kiwi fruit. The seeds are annoying but apparently harmless so I swallow those as well. Raffael adds about 30 ingredients to our dinner shopping list and I wonder if he’s planning to cook for everyone in the hostel tonight. IMG_8414[1] After this last (and coolest) market, we hop onto Santiago’s clean, fast, and modern subway and hop out a few stops later near the cemetery. This is a new one for me – I’ve seen the mausoleums and huge tombstones in cemeteries in Europe, and sprawling manicured outdoor cemeteries like golf courses with tombstones in my own country, but this is the first cemetery I’ve been to that reminded me of a motel. Rather than being buried underground, the dead are tucked into niches that seem impossibly small and their remains are stacked in an orderly block arranged in a concrete honeycomb several stories high. There are rows and rows of these huge residential blocks of bones marching through the cemetery. image Further in, the rich lie in enormous mausoleums more like what I’m used to seeing in European cemeteries. Many of them are absurdly ornate, several stories high or carved to look like mosques or pyramids. Some lie in utter ruin, not having survived a recent earthquake, waiting for remaining family members to find some way to pay for the repair of their dead relative’s ridiculous final resting place. image Finally we come to the tomb of Salvador Allende. Here I hear for the first time the history of political events in Chile over the past 40 years. The history of Salvador Allende’s socialist government, the military coup in which the American CIA was directly involved, and Allende’s suicide are a sobering education, especially for me as an American. We’re told that Chileans tend to be strongly divided in their opinions about the Pinochet’s takeover and dictatorship. I don’t feel well informed enough to comment on the history here, but most Chileans I’ve talked with aren’t proud of the Pinochet dictatorship, despite the prosperity that Chile has enjoyed as a result.IMG_8473[1] The walking tour ends with a visit to a bar where we’re able to try a terremoto (“earthquake”, a cocktail made of sweet red wine, sprite, and pineapple ice cream). Now it’s 14:00 and we’re starving. We retrace our steps back to the market where Raffael buys a modest third of the planned ingredients for tonight’s feast – including mussels and a giant squid tentacle – and we make it back to the hostel for a very late siesta and lunch. By the time we finish dessert it’s late, maybe 19:30. We walk back downtown for another of Raffael’s favorite cafes where I find an exceptional chocolate ice cream. He takes me to the Presidential palace, where Salvador Allende was found dead (the exact manner of his death is disputed, but it happened in the midst of the military coup during which the palace was bombed). In the main square, the Plaza de Armas, two astronomers have set up telescopes. It’s a full moon tonight, and for a few hundred pesos they let us look through the lens. The moon shimmers there, swaying slightly as the day’s heat rises from the mountains, still baking from the strength of the sun which set a few hours ago. We talk a little more with the astronomer, who points out Jupiter. We slip him a few more pesos to point his telescope at the planet and we’re delighted that we can see three of Jupiter’s moons, just little points of light around a bigger redder point of light in the lens. It doesn’t look like the pictures you see of jupiter, but it’s still beautiful, and awe-inspiring, and makes us both contemplative as we walk back to the hostel. It’s nearly 23:30 now – it’s late, but we took naps earlier and the fresh seafood from the market is begging to be cooked. Raffael washes the mussels, showing me how they squeeze shut when the fresh tap water rinses over them – this is how you can tell they’re still alive, which apparently they need to be when you begin cooking them. We make a stir fry of vegetables and slices of the giant squid tentacles, which have an interesting texture – not as rubbery as calamari, not exactly chewy, almost like the flesh of a firm cantaloupe, but less granular… It’s hard to describe, but tasty. While we eat the stir fry we’re simmering tomatoes and spices and by the time we finish our first course we’re ready to dunk the mussels into the stew. I feel a little guilty dumping live animals into boiling tomato sauce, but that’s how it goes with mussels, and I think we’re as humane as we can be about it. Soon they ease open and we sit down to the stew. Everything is delicious – Raffael knows what he’s doing. By now it’s around 2 am and the hostel is deserted except for the night receptionist. We bring him some of the mussel stew and laugh at ourselves for eating dinner so late.

4 February 2015

It’s a sad day of checking out of the hostel, walking downtown again for one last look at Santiago, and saying goodbye before my bus to Valparaiso. We only traveled together for a few days, but the idea of going to a new city without Raffael makes me a little sad. Four days traveling together didn’t seem like enough. Now I’m heading to Valparaiso and then north along the coast of Chile, and he’s headed south to Concepcion. I walk myself down to the metro and into the bus terminal and find a bus leaving for Valparaiso. With ten minutes to spare I buy my usual bar of chocolate (I always eat chocolate on bus trips). The trip to Valparaiso is quick – just a couple of hours – and soon I’m off the bus again, finishing the last of my chocolate as I walk out of the bus station and through the streets of a new city.

Epic four-day bus ride through Argentina: Day 3

Sunday, December 28

17:01 – I’m sitting in soft sand, just finishing my dulce de leche ice cream and looking across the bay to the peninsula Valdez where I can just make out steep white cliffs plunging hundreds of meters down into the blue sea. The beach here is flatter, wide and muddy, and almost completely full of people sunbathing, playing soccer, and swimming. I walk along the sand until I get tired of the crowd, then make my way up to the sidewalk which is much quieter, even just a few meters from a packed beach. I listen to Neil Young as I stroll in and out of the shadows of low trees lining the street.

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I spend a quiet afternoon in Puerto Madryn. The town seems nice and quiet but unremarkable – what I saw of it – and I think the main attraction is the nature preserve on the nearby peninsula. I didn’t have time or energy to take an excursion there today, so I contented myself today with a walk along the shore to an ecological museum. Afterwards I meet Caroline, a friendly French girl from my hostel, to swim in the ocean. The water is chilly and a little murky, but nice enough. It’s good to swim in the ocean and taste a little saltwater.

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23:45 – I paint a little medallion given to me by the hostel owner. They’re making a mural here out of painted cards and using them to cover one of the walls in the stairwell. While I paint, an overly friendly Argentine guy tries every trick in the book to get me to kiss him, and I try every trick in my book to deflect his advances. Eventually he gets the message and goes off, sulking. I paint a little while longer before I crawl exhausted into bed to sleep off the rest of yesterday’s bus journey.

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Monday December 29
9:49 – just a few more minutes to let my tablet charge, then I’m headed for the bus terminal. This is the big one: Puerto Madryn to Rio Gallegos, a trip of 19 hours, followed almost immediately by another trip of 12 hours from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia. I get the feeling that long bus journeys are a kind of rite of passage for backpackers. If that’s true, I’ll be more than qualified to join the ranks of the initiated by the time I reach Ushuaia.

I shop and pack my food carefully. Traveling as a gluten-sensitive person isn’t such a challenge if you have access to a kitchen or a choice of restaurants, but bus journeys can be tricky. The food provided on buses is almost never gluten free (it’s usually sandwiches) and this isn’t the kind of place where you can make a fuss because some bus company didn’t take your obscure dietary restriction into account. I can pack my own food, but that comes with its own set of problems – there aren’t a lot of foods available here that are compact, filling, cheap, don’t need to be refrigerated or cooked, and are also gluten free. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on gluten free bread were my staple when I was road tripping around the west. Power bars are a good option too, but hard to find here in Argentina. So for this journey I settled on enormous quantity of oranges (they fill half my small bag); my favorite brand of gluten free rice crackers; boiled eggs; dulce de leche; and a stoic resolve to meditate and think about philosophy if I run out of food before we get to Ushuaia.

11:19 – I spot what looks like sagebrush in the scrubby vegetation covering the flat plain we’re traversing. My brain almost tricks me into thinking I can smell it. The scenery here reminds me so much of parts of Nevada, and it makes me remember trips with friends or alone, smells of sagebrush, dust covering my car… Good memories, but they also make me a little sad. Will I ever live there again?

I secretly hope the bus will have to stop soon so I can hop out and smell the sage.

11:40 – I get my wish. We make an unplanned stop at Trelew, apparently to change buses. I don’t smell any sage, but I do meet a girl from California and a pair of twins from Italy named Elisa and Elena who are dressed exactly alike – same leggings, shoes, shirts, scarves, fanny packs, same haircut, same ponytail… After careful study, I see that Elisa’s earrings are little orange dice while Elena’s are silver beads. I wonder if they coordinated earrings too for their trip and just forgot to match today.

12:33 – after about an hour, we all realize that this wasn’t a quick stop to change to a different bus – we’re going to be sitting here for a while. Rumors fly – some people say the next bus is coming in 10 minutes, others talk to ticket agents who say nonchalantly that they lost contact with the bus hours ago and have no idea where it is. I think about the 3 hours’ time I have to make a connection in Rio Gallegos and feel the buffer zone of transit time slowly slipping away. All the other passengers on our original bus are stuck at the terminal too. It’s interesting to observe that no one is queuing at the bus counters to complain, yell at the employees, or demand upgrades or refunds. I think that sort of behavior is more common in the US, perhaps even the norm, but from what I’ve seen here, this sort of inconvenience is borne more with resignation than outrage. Sometimes the bus is late. Sometimes it doesn’t come. Sometimes the driver just forgets to turn on the radio. In many aspects of life here, there is less of a sense of entitlement to special treatment as regards customer service than in the US, where the slightest delay or abnormality can be met with disproportionate indignation and outrage. I think I like it better here, even if it means no one is plying me with free bus passes or seat upgrades for my trouble.

14:36 – the transfer bus finally arrives. I see the driver buying DVDs for the long bus ride from a street vendor, which I think is a good sign that this bus is the real thing – no more random stops to switch vehicles. Within a couple of hours we’re rolling past more low scrubby plains stretching out as far as I can see.

16:30 – one of the bus drivers distributes sandwiches packaged the way you get them on airplanes. I peel the bread apart and take as much as I can off the ham and cheese and fold them onto the rice crackers I brought. It’s not as filling as bread, but it’s enough.

18:07 – we pass a little gorge and I see that we’ve been traveling over a large plateau that rises maybe 400 meters above the surrounding countryside. This explains why it’s been hard to see the horizon, and why I kept feeling that we were passing through hills though the landscape is flat. As we pass the gorge I can see far, far into the distance, out to where the landscape fades into a grey blue before it meets the sky.

19:30 – we descend from the plateau into a country of low sandy hills covered in the eternal dusky green scrubby vegetation. Trees are scarce except where there’s groundwater in a low ditch. Ranch fences border the road and there are a few sheep here and there.

19:53 – the ocean?! I thought we were headed due west out into the plains! After we pass a few signs I see that we’re picking up passengers in a coastal town called Comodoro Rivadavia, surrounded by sculpted sandy cliffs that come down to meet the sea.

21:43 – I change seats to join the American girl and group of Italian travelers headed for Calafate. We talk and look out the window as the bus heads down the coast. This seaside road is beautiful, still dry and dusty like the plains we crossed before, but here with patches of sand and bunches of ocean grasses meeting the sapphire sea. The wind blows so strongly we can see it push the waves back as they roll in and kick up clouds of spray into the evening air. The sun begins to set and the clouds start glowing fluorescent orange and red as we make another stop in a coastal oil town.

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The Packing List

I wasn’t planning to post a packing list, because I’m sure in a few months the contents of my backpack will have changed, and the packing list of someone who’s been on the road for a few months is a lot more helpful to a new traveler than that of a novice.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about packing as I prepare to leave on Tuesday, and I thought it would be interesting to post my list for posterity. It’s a benchmark of where I’m starting, a point from which I can measure the way my mobile life evolves in the coming months.

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I hope I’m not forgetting something

For a backpack, I’m taking the

Rei Gemini 50L Backpack

It’s different from many other trekking packs in that it’s composed of two bags that clip together – a main bag that’s essentially a giant flash bag (I estimate 30 or 35L) with a stiff internal frame and waist strap; and a smaller (probably 15 or 20L) day bag that’s more like a conventional hiking backpack. I love this system, because I can detach the daybag for use as a hiking backpack on day trips (or even to wear around town, if I’m not concerned about blending in) and not have to lug my entire massive backpack around with me.  At least, I love it now – maybe I’ll hate it in a few months.  I’ll keep you posted.

Day Bag – top portion

  • “duck’s back” backpack rain cover
  • tiny umbrella
  • foldable shopping bag
  • moleskine notebook, modded with a duct-tape penholder; zebra ballpoint pen
  • antibacterial hand wipes
  • safety whistle/compass
  • passport
  • yellow fever vaccine certification
  • “travel wallet” (cash and backup ID with a rubber band around them – sophisticated, I know)
  • chapstick

Main Portion

  • 3L water reservoir and drinking tube

Electronics

  • iphone
  • headphones
  • kindle
  • iphone charger
  • kindle charger
  • universal plug adapter
  • Headlamp

Misc (some in day bag, some in main bag)

  • paracord (50 ft)
  • vegetable peeler
  • combination lock and cable lock
  • moneybelt
  • small scissors
  • 2 sharpies
  • extra ballpoint pen (I’m in love with Zebra brand)
  • duct tape (wrapped around an old credit card to conserve space)
  • plastic utensils
  • tampons
  • mini sewing kit
  • thank you cards for couchsurfing hosts
  • postcards of Roanoke for couchsurfing hosts/friends
  • small thank-you Roanoke souvenirs
  • extra hand wipes
  • deck of playing cards
  • passport-sized photos
  • Credit and Debit cards
  • ID

Clothing (main bag)

  • 1 pair of quick-drying olive green pants (can be rolled up to convert to shorts)
  • 1 wrap-around skirt (can convert to a dress)
  • 1 pair thermal leggings (can and probably will be worn as “pants”)
  • money-hiding belt (looks like a normal belt but contains a hidden zipper that can conceal bills)
  • 1 camisole/undershirt
  • 1 basic black tee
  • 1 dressy sleeveless top
  • 1 casual blouse
  • bra
  • bathing suit
  • 6 pr underwear
  • 4 pr socks
  • head warmer/earmuffs running underarmour thing
  • scarf
  • light jacket
  • ultralight down jacket
  • waterproof shell
  • misc jewelry
  • chucks
  • teva sandals

Toiletries

  • dr bronner’s magic soap
  • toothbrush
  • travel-size conditioner
  • travel-sized deodorant
  • small comb
  • tazorac (prescription acne cream)
  • nail clippers
  • tweezers
  • dental floss
  • earplugs
  • Concealer
  • Eyeliner
  • glasses case & backup glasses
  • Clip-on sunglasses
  • sunscreen

Medicine

  • doxycyline (anti-malarial, also an acne treatment)
  • ciproflaxin antibiotic (in case of a brief illness)
  • 30 iodine/water purification tablets
  • 5 packets oral rehydration salts
  • geigerrig water filter (clips onto the hose attachment for the hiking water bladder) – filters up to 150 L
  • tylenol
  • sudifed
  • benadryl
  • lactaid (lactose-intolerance medicine)
  • immodium
  • pepto-bismal tablets
  • triple antibiotic ointment
  • hydrocortizone
  • band-aids
  • Bug spray

Other

  • Quick-drying microfiber towel
  • Extra zip-lock bags
  • travel-sized tissues (aka emergency toilet paper)

Total weight is 17.4 lbs and feels manageable. The weight will definitely go up if I throw in a tent and sleeping bag.  For the first month, I’m planning to travel without the camping supplies as a trial.  If I end up with a lot of camping opportunities I wish I could have taken, I’ll have the tent and sleeping bag mailed to me, and that will bring the backpack up to around 24 lbs.

All this, to carry on my back for the next 6 months (maybe longer).  It’s a little scary to plan to live on so little, but also immensely freeing.  My hope is that limiting my possessions will encourage me to think creatively about solving problems with what I have (rather than just buying more things), that I will feel more free to spend my time exploring new places, interacting with and serving those that I meet, and working toward other goals I have set for myself (my reading list is up to 50 new titles and I intend to learn Spanish on this trip – to name two).

Fellow travelers, what has your experience been with the things you’ve brought with you?

Travel Update: Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park was my farewell to the West, a final camping and hiking adventure before I was to spend three very long driving days covering the 2,000 miles of hot asphalt that separated me from my parents in Virginia.

My experience in Yellowstone was probably typical to that of other visitors.  Buffalo, geysers, long stretches of vast wilderness between natural wonders, and so many photographs taken.

Old Faithful at the tail end of its eruption

Old Faithful at the tail end of its eruption

I’ll be honest – a lot of the scenery in Yellowstone didn’t impress me as much as I thought it would.  I drove through long corridors of unremarkable two-lane road bordered by dense evergreens – maybe unique in the west, but not remarkable for someone who comes from a heavily wooded state.  I didn’t understand until I visited how big the entirety of the park really is, and how far you can drive from one place to another before the scenery changes.

Saphhire hot spring

Sapphire hot spring

But loved the Geyser Basin.  The area around Old Faithful called Biscuit Basin is riddled with (very) hot springs and erupting geysers.  The trees thin out and rainbow-colored pools of boiling water and steam dot the landscape.  This part of the park is unreal – unlike anywhere else I’ve been, even unlike the hot springs I’ve visited.  The barrenness of the Western landscape is what has always drawn me, so it makes sense that this was my favorite spot in the park.

cloudy pool in biscuit basin

cloudy pool in biscuit basin

On a short hike, we were lucky to see a rainbow in the valley just as Old Faithful erupted again.

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Lamar valley is the first place I would go back, if I ever make it to Yellowstone again.  Camping here would have been divine; I’m sorry we didn’t try to make it work, but I don’t think I nor my couchsurfing friend were prepared to wild camp in grizzly bear country.

Lamar Valley panorama

Lamar Valley

Possibly I could also have been trampled by a buffalo, always something to be avoided when in a tent.

Buffalo crossing

Buffalo crossing

My favorite long-distance views were from Mount Washburn.  It’s not a very difficult or interesting trail, but I would recommend it for the views from the top.

Panorama from the spur trail

Panorama from the spur trail

Wildlife on the trail was limited to some mildly interesting moths, but from the summit we could look through telescopes to see the bighorn sheep on the opposite hillside.

two bighorn ewes and a kid

two bighorn ewes and a kid, seen through a spotting scope

I would have loved to continue hiking the spur trail that follows the top of the ridge from the Mount Washburn summit.  The grassy plains and scattered rocks reminded me of the rolling fields in Ireland, so green and vast.

Spur trail up to Mount Washburn summit

Looking up toward the watchtower from the spur trail

And the hillsides covered in butter-colored wildflowers didn’t hurt either.

Field of flowers

And that was it.  I put the holy West behind me reluctantly, cutting a sprig of sagebrush as as last souvenir.

As cross-country trips go, mine tend to be hurried.  Three solid days of driving got me back to Virginia without much to show for my journey except 15 cups of coffee and emergency oil change in Montana.  And so the lull in my travels began, which as I write is coming to an end.  In two weeks, I’ll begin a trip through South America that may last six months or more.  I’ll keep writing and posting photos, so stay tuned.

Travel Update : Tetons

I’d wanted to return to the Grand Tetons for nearly two years.

I first saw the mountains while driving west on my way out to Reno. They struck me almost like a blow, I’d never seen mountains so sharp or tall. We had crossed the Rockies, but this was different – these were like the fingers of God.

Grand Teton mountain range

July was my first time seeing them again. In 2012 we’d driven past the mountains at sunset, passing herds of bison and taking pictures of the mountains until the light failed. The next day we were driving as far as Reno, so there was no time to do more than learn the name of the mountain range and give our own secret names to the peaks that had most unsettled us.

I expected to feel frightened and disturbed like I had when I first saw the mountains, but I’ve grown since last time, and they didn’t affect me the same way. I must have taken a hundred photos, trying to catch the range from every angle as the light changed. I hiked into some of the canyons, exploring the hidden places of the mountain range.  After all the exploring, though, I left feeling like the mountains still had something to tell me, something I hadn’t quite heard while I was there.  Maybe to really understand this mountain range I need to summit one of the peaks – something I wasn’t prepared for on this visit.

Misty, ambient sunrise on the drive into Jackson

Misty, ambient sunrise on the drive into Jackson

I’d left Reno for the last time (in the foreseeable future) on Tuesday midmorning, car packed to the brim with the remaining possessions I couldn’t part with.  I followed a route that took me through northeastern Nevada, northwestern Utah, and a corner of Idaho where I eventually camped for the night.  My roads were two-lane highways and I generally avoided interstates, so cell phone reception was spotty and my musical selection limited.  I kept things interesting by sampling the ancient CD collection that has lived in my car since high school; for the misty, ethereal morning sunrise over the Idaho farmlands, I picked Radiohead’s Amnesiac.

I was just beginning the second listen-through when I entered Jackson from the south – gas stations and supermarkets crowded each other and broke the mesmerizing atmosphere just as the sun rose high enough to burn through the last of the morning mist.

Mountain and Thistle

Mountain and Thistle

It was a different experience seeing the mountains after driving through crowded, superficial Jackson as opposed to coming on them suddenly after miles of empty mountain roads.  I felt more like a tourist, less like I was discovering the mountains unexpectedly.  I was in luck, though – the road was busy but not congested (apparently this is rare), and I was lucky to snag a campsite for the following two nights.

Family in front of Rockchuck peak

Family in front of Rockchuck peak

I set up camp, but the morning air was clinging to the inside of my head and making me feel aimless.  I hadn’t planned any major activities for the day – a mistake I still sometimes make as I’m getting the hang of solo travel – so to keep myself from feeling like I was wasting time, I packed food and hopped on my bike to explore the park and get some exercise.

Teewinot Peak

Teewinot Peak

The drama of this range can’t be conveyed through photographs – it must be experienced in person.  These mountains were formed along a fault – no, they are the fault: the top of the ridge is one edge of the fault, the other edge far below at their roots.  There are no foothills, no gradual rise in elevation.  They burst from the landscape.  Standing by these mountains, you can almost feel the surrounding area still trembling from the violence of their rising.

Grand Teton

Near sunset I swapped my bike out for the car so I could take in the length of the scenic drive that parallels the Teton range.

Sunset

The next morning I was sick from something I’d eaten the night before, but I’m an old hand at weathering exciting digestive incidents, so I decided to drive into Jackson for espresso (and the coffee shop’s flush toilets).  By midmorning, after  I felt well enough to go through with my plan for the day – volunteering for trail maintenance with a cleanup crew.

It was a day of hard work brushing out a trail above one of the park’s alpine lakes.  Working alongside me were a very young ranger on her summer break from college and an old retired woman who had more energy than me and the ranger combined.  By the end of the day I was exhausted and happy to have spent the day getting plenty of exercise and fresh air, and making a contribution (however small) to the health of the park.  As I begin this long season of traveling, I don’t want to experience the places I go as a typical tourist.  It was good to participate more deeply in the growth of this park – not as a consumer, but as a participant in its maintenance.

That evening, feeling deeply worn out and satisfied from my hard day, I put on a flowy dress and drove into Jackson.  I walked slowly along the busy streets of the tourist district, window shopping at the upscale outdoor outfitters and jewelry stores, people-watching.  As the sun set, I drove back into camp, stopping for a couple of unexpected wildlife sightings – a bull moose and a bull elk!

a moose!

a moose!

Looking Northeast, a bull elk grazing with two does nearby (not pictured)

Looking Northeast, a bull elk grazing with two does nearby (not pictured)

At this point in the story, I suspect a normal exhausted person would have taken a day to recover from the hard work, possibly sleeping in, but I tend to push myself when I’m traveling.  I don’t want to spend my time sleeping when there are mountains to climb! So, I hauled my tired butt out of my sleeping bag at 6:00, broke camp, and headed out to a trail for a 10-mile hike.

Grand Teton at Sunrise

Grand Teton at Sunrise

The morning light gave me a new look at the mountains – their shape and character changes subtly throughout the day as the light moves over new faces and into canyons.

Tired as I was, getting up really early turned out to be a great decision.  All the hiking information in the park contains strict admonitions not to hike alone due to the presence of bears.  I didn’t have a traveling or hiking partner, so after consulting with a ranger I’d planned to go up the trail armed with bear spray and plan to stick close to other hikers on the popular trail.  However, I was in luck – I met another solo hiker at the trailhead and we agreed to hike together.

Hiking buddy!

Hiking buddy!

It only took about an hour of conversation for us to discover that we were both Couchsurfers and on road trips in opposite directions – I was going east, he was headed West.  It was a serendipitous meeting that wouldn’t have happened if I’d slept in the way I wanted to!

Surprise Lake panorama

Surprise Lake panorama

The views at the top – Surprise lake and Amphitheater lake – were lovely.  As we rested at Amphitheater lake, a gentle rain crossed the ridge and made its way east, gently dimpling the surface of the lake with perfect rings that gradually spread out and crossed each other over and over.

Amphitheater Lake

Amphitheater Lake

I wish I’d had the energy to follow the spur trail up to the peak pictured above – an additional 2,000 feet of climbing, with the top of the mountain just brushing the clouds.  Starting a hike like that with uncertain weather is not the best idea, either, so I passed on the opportunity this time.

Indian paintbrush flowers

Indian paintbrush flowers

I didn’t find the trail particularly exotic, but we were treated to beautiful scenery.  The park has had a late spring this year, and wildflowers blanket the trail corridors at various elevations.  I also happened upon a beautiful leather belt that someone had abandoned on the hike.  Good strong leather, it must have been made for a woman, because it was the right length for me, and tooled with ducks and wetland scenery.

After 10 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain, I was seriously worn out.  Couchsurfer and I decided on a drink in Jackson, then headed to a campground by a developed hot spring, where I’d originally planned on staying on my way into the park.

I’ve been spoiled by many visits to beautiful undeveloped and remote springs, so I was a little unimpressed by the large concrete swimming pool “hot spring” that required a $6 entry fee.  However, even the grumpy hot spring snob in me had to admit that the warm water felt amazing after two days of hard work.  We soaked and floated in the water for about an hour, and enjoyed a hilarious conversation with a very drunk group of middle-aged ladies who had snuck vodka into the pool in their water bottles and were having a fantastic time splashing around in the spring and making snarky comments about the fat tourists.

The next day we headed north to Yellowstone, separately – planning to meet again in the next park, both of us a little lonely from our days spent traveling solo.  I left the mountains for the time being, still not entirely understanding them, and promising to come back.

Teton Range

Speed bumps in Zion

Like my drive to Tucson, the story of my trip to the Zion National Park in Utah is one that could be told several ways.

looking toward the entrance to Zion

looking toward the entrance to Zion

I could tell the unglamorous story. This story includes my feelings of isolation, fear, uncertainty, and self-criticism. I’d talk about how a lack of sleep made me less able to enjoy my stay, hindered my decision-making process, and generally made me cranky. I’d tell you that I suffered the effects of camping inexperience, not feeding myself well or using my time effectively. I didn’t explore nearly as much of the park as I might have under different circumstances. It would be kind of a lame story, to be honest.

The story of my trip to Zion wouldn’t be complete without the lame parts – the speed bumps. But sometimes I wonder if I should censor things like that from my travel stories. They make me sound whiny, and after all I’m truly privileged to be able to take this trip. When things don’t go as planned, when I feel lonely and unhappy and uncertain, I wonder if I’m acting spoiled. I’m embarrassed to think I might actually be a spoiled person, so I feel I should omit my negative feelings from my stories to avoid seeming ungrateful for the opportunity I’ve been given. I don’t usually think of myself as a spoiled person – but what spoiled person does?

cliffs bordering Zion.  Note the tiny window in the rock - that window borders the tunnel that passes through those mountains into the Zion valley

Cliffs bordering Zion. Note the tiny window in the rock – that window opens onto the tunnel that passes through those mountains into the Zion valley

So what would my non-spoiled-person story sound like? I could post pictures and talk about the hikes, the wildlife, and the natural beauty – it would be the story of a lucky girl who got to travel to a beautiful national park many Americans will never visit, the story of an independent woman venturing into a new chapter of her life and discovering new and exciting skills, preparing for her next adventure.

The story of my trip to Zion wouldn’t be complete without that side of it, either.

This formation is called The Watchman

This formation is called The Watchman – visible from the campground where I stayed

For now, I’m choosing not to censor my negative experiences from my travel stories. For one, I’m not entirely convinced that they make me a spoiled person – an honest picture of travel isn’t complete without the dirt and tears and worry. Hell, an honest picture of life isn’t complete without those ugly bits. I think leaving out the unglamorous bits of a travel story makes it shallower, and less realistic. I’ve gained a lot of useful information reading the travel blogs of other nomads, and if those people had chosen to leave out the difficulties they faced while traveling I’d probably be a lot less prepared for some of the speed bumps that have come up on my road.

So – here’s the story of my trip to Zion National Park, speed bumps and all.


You’ve already seen how beautiful are the views on the way into the park. I was on a bit of a schedule: my research suggested that the first-come first-served campground in the park would fill by about 11:00 and I was still a couple hours’ drive away when I woke up at Lake Powell. I made it into the park around 10:00 and was delighted to find plenty of campsites still open, including a spacious site with plenty of shade directly across from the bathrooms and water pump.

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my hotel for the night

I feel so lucky to have snagged this campsite!

That first day I explored. Zion is a relatively small park – really just the one canyon and a few surrounding cliffs. The park management has made the wise decision to close the main canyon to traffic and instead rely on a series of shuttle buses to transport visitors around. I found this system to be surprisingly comfortable and quick, and definitely preferable to long traffic delays up the canyon! The park roads are also open to bicycles, and I found them easy enough to navigate on mine.

That first day I explored the route up the canyon and did the Emerald Pools Hike.

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I would recommend the hike to anyone! It was strange, though – after only a couple of days of traveling alone I was already a bit lonely, and met a lot of blank stares on the trail. Maybe it was the general population density, or maybe I was meeting mostly foreigners (there were a ton of French and German-speaking tourists in the park), but I didn’t find myself striking up the usual conversations with fellow hikers. It’s possible that my perspective is skewed by having more recently done challenging and less-traveled hikes, where it’s in your survival interest to chat up the passing hikers who are few and far between, knowing that they may be the ones you call to for rescue if you run into trouble up the trail. That’s certainly not the case in Zion – I probably passed 200 or 300 other people on this hike. Loneliness was my first speed bump.

Cliff by Upper Pools - tiny dots are climbers

Cliff by Upper Pools – tiny dots are climbers

At the Upper Pools I found a crowd gathered to watch the descent of two climbers down a massive cliff. Here’s a zoomed-in crop of the image above so you can appreciate the scale:

The hiker is wearing a red shirt and descending with a light blue bag

The hiker is wearing a red shirt and descending with a light blue bag in the upper left quadrant of the image

It was at this point in the hike that I realized how difficult it was for me to grasp the scale of the cliffs in Zion. The people in those pictures look tiny in comparison to the rocks! It has the effect of being so overwhelming it’s underwhelming – it’s similar to being in St. Peter’s church in Rome. Everything is massive, but all in proportion to itself, so it’s actually harder to appreciate the scale. On my hike down, I challenged myself to keep the human scale in mind (comparing the size of trees wedged into cracks in the rock helped). I thought of my mind as something that was being physically expanded by the presence of so much large and dramatic scenery.

Virgin River and... some pointy rocks.  I can't remember right now.

Virgin River and… some pointy rocks. I can’t remember which right now.

That night was a big speed bump – I slept well at first, but a fierce wind began to blow through the canyon at about midnight. At that point, I wasn’t accustomed to camping, and the noise of the wind whipping my tent around terrified me. I was worried that a huge storm was brewing (it sounded like a hurricane from inside the tent) and I was sure I’d never be able to hike Angel’s Landing in the tempest. I slept only a few hours that night, and I woke up frustrated and disappointed (especially since the wind never turned into a storm and died down by the time I would have been on my hike).

I then proceeded to have an irritating morning that involved dropping my bra in the toilet. Speed bump after speed bump.

To cheer myself up, I decided to spare a few extra dollars for breakfast at a local cafe in the nearby town of Springdale. Revived by breakfast and coffee, I spent the morning biking around the park and wading in the river.

mule deer buck grazing at the campsite

mule deer grazing at the campsite

The rest of the day was so hot I couldn’t sleep even in the shade. I was down on myself at first for not getting out and doing more that day, but in all honesty it was lovely to spend the afternoon taking periodic dips in the river and lying in the shade on the soft sand of the banks.

The next morning, despite another sleepless and windy night, I resolved to hike Angel’s Landing.

worth it.

worth it.

This was a good decision.

Looking toward the canyon entrance from the top of Angel's Landing

Looking toward the canyon entrance from the top of Angel’s Landing

It was a challenging hike, but at 7:30 in the morning the air was cool and dry as I slogged up the steep ascent. The chain grips along the final stretch were mainly free of the crowds that swarm them later in the day, and the early morning light threw the cliffs into dramatic relief. The view from the top, as you can see, was memorable.

Looking upcanyon along the river

Looking upcanyon along the river

On the way down the trail, I struck up conversation with a group of fellow hikers and ended up sharing stories all the way back to the trailhead – finally having found the connection I was hoping for! It’s starting to happen in my life that anytime I strike up a conversation with someone and it goes well, it turns out that person is either a nomad or traveler, or they’re from another country. It’s kind of annoying in that it makes me wonder if I’ve lost the ability to connect with anyone else… but then I think, what the hell, travelers are the coolest people anyway.

Sunrise panorama

Sunrise at Angel’s Landing

I’d only been in Zion for about 48 hours by that point, but it was time to move on – restlessness kicks in for me after a couple of days and I begin to long for the open road. Though I’d initially thought of going to Bryce Canyon and Arches in Utah, Nevada was calling me back.

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Reno>Idaho

It was a good decision to take back roads instead of highways on my way from Reno to Wyoming.

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Night fell on the backcountry Idaho road I was traveling. Decided to stop for the night and met a fellow family of travelers with fantastic stories of visits to Moscow in winter during the Cold War, Papua New Guinea, and remote areas of Africa.

Grand Teton national park today and for the next few days. It’s just over two years to the day since my best friend and I fell in love with the mountains here. I’ve been dying to explore them ever since!