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Italy Week 2: The Dolomites

We took trains to get from the western Italian coast to the Italian Alps in the East.  I found myself unable to stay awake and drooling as the trains rocked and hummed through fields of corn and vineyards of grapes.

What a magnificent place, the Dolomites of Italy. When Anita and I talked about where we wanted to go, we knew that we wanted to be in the Alps somewhere.  At first, I wanted to go to the Swiss Alps, which I still think would be amazing, but we decided to go to the Dolomites when we couldn’t find an open reservation for the Swiss Alps.  We took several trains and a bus to reach Cortina in northern Italy.  I did not know that northern Italy was once Austria and much of the cultural influences come from that history.  Nornthern Italy came under Italian control during WWI.  Many historic sites including tunnel systems and the Via Ferrata are in the Dolomites from WWI.  We booked a self-guided hike through the company Dolomite Mountains.  We were not disappointed. They booked all of our taxis, nights at the hotel in Cortina, stays and meals at the rifugios, and our guide on the Via Ferrata. Cristina, our informant for the trip, met us our hotel the night before the start of our hiking.  She had a map with the course for each of our five days clearly marked, each rifugio (mountain refuge) we were to stay at, and any voutures we needed for food.  Tent camping is actually illegal in the mountains surrounding the Cortina area.  Instead, backpackers book rooms at a refugio where warm beds, hot showers, and amazing home-cooked meals are provided.  All we had to carry was our clothes, sleep sack, snacks, and water. It’s the most posh backpacking I’ve ever done.

Our first day we started a Lake Braies.  We hiked about 8 miles and climbed around 5000 feet of elevation, taking lunch at a refugio half-way through our hike. Feeling fresh on the first day after our lunch, we summited an additional peak and had some incredible views of the lake where we started. The views from the top were amazing, but I was most captivated by the bells we could hear throughout the valleys. All the cows where them, and when they eat, the bells ring, and when all the cows are eating it creates a soft, wind-chime like effect that enchants the valley. We listened a bit, ate some Nutella, and then hiked on to Refugio Fedaro, where we ate and slept our first night.  We also encountered a famous German talk show host, though we didn’t know it, who let me borrow his 3-day-old carbon fiber mountain bike for a quick ride in the mountains. I can’t tell you how excited I was to ride!  We kept up this schedule for the next few days: breakfast at the refugio, hiking to a lunch refugio, eating lunch, hiking to our evening dinner and rest refugio, shower, eat, sleep, repeat.

It sounds a bit monotonous, but the scenery of our hikes removed the monotony and made it absolutely amazing.  Because I live in Colorado and hike frequently at elevations over 10,000 feet, I thought the 7,000 – 8,000 foot elevations of the Dolomites would be easy.  I was incredibly wrong.  The Rockies, though difficult, have saddles connecting many of the peaks. I have a post from September 2014 describing my 100-mile hike along the Colorado trail.  It was tough.  The Dolomites, even though at a lower elevation, are much more rugged. They have more steep ups and downs. Most of our hike was along the Alta Via #1 hiking system.  It was very well-marked and traveled. So, we felt safe the entire time.  On the second day, we hiked through an amazing green valley along a river where domestic horses grazed. Another hiker gave us some sugar cubes to feed them as we took pictures.  After that wide, easy valley, the trail started to climb steeply, and we found ourselves in a series of constant, short switchbacks that led to a pass that was only 10 – 20 feet wide and virtually impassible before 2014. As soon as we reached the top, we began sharply descending between two high rock walls.  Fog sat over us, and we could hear the echo of our voices among the rocks. It was an earily beautiful and surreal experence.  At the end of the descent, we went slightly off-course to eat our packed lunch at a pond.  Because it was cloudy, it was too cold to swim, but we put our feet in the water and watched as the little fish gave our feet pedicures in the mountain pond.  After lunch we continued hiking up to the highest refugio in the area, Laguazoi. It rested at the top of an historic tunnel system used by the Austrian soldiers in WWI.  They do reenactments on a daily basis with people in full dress.  At the top, we stopped for a snack and a beer and met a family from Norway having one last vacation with their daughter before she went for a foreign exchange year with another family in Idaho. We rode the tram down with them, and they gave us a ride to the next tram we were to ride to our next refugio. We were already exhausted from a full day of tough hiking.  We ended up missing the lift by two minutes and had to hike a very steep hill to Scolliatoli (squirrel), a refugio that had beautiful views and access to Chinque Tori, the five towers.  At dinner we met a photographer with a couple that he had taken on a photo tour of the Dolomites. The views from this location were stunning.  The final day we hiked on seeing more beautiful valleys and views.  We ended our hiking at a restaurant where we waited for a cab to transport us back to Cortina.  We had one beer, and then the two people we met at the bar insisted we have another. Ok. We stayed at Hotel Panda that night and ate at a pizza placed owned by a guy who went to school at Denver University. We shared grappa in honor of Denver.

My final day in the Dolomites (Anita stayed a few more), we hiked and climbed on the Via Ferrata (the Iron Way), exploring the rope system paths and tunnels that the soldiers of WWI used. It was a very cool lesson in the history of the area. That night we ate a four-course Italian meal, and I had my now favorite melon and parma ham as well as fresh pasta with mushroom sauce, and of course, wine.

The last day we meandered a bit and then I caught a train to Milano (Milan) to fly back to the States the following day. I stayed at an AirBnB where Marina, the hostess, had decorated the place with famous jazz musicians that she photographed while playing. She recommended a restaurant with delicious Italian food, and I was set to eat and wander through Milan to see what it had to offer in the dark. I didn’t have enought time to do more, but it was enought to get a taste of the city, it’s history, and it’s sense of fashion.

Italy Week 1

Italy.  What an incredible country.  Anita and I arrived to Milan at 8am and immediately took a train to Naples and then Pompeii.  After a two-hour flight delay and a one-hour train delay to Napoli (Naples), we caught the wrong train to the ghetto, had some friendly Italians redirect us, landed in Pompeii late, took a ride with an unofficial taxi driver and landed peacefully in our beds at Eco B&B.  Thanks to the help of Anamarie, the hostess there, we were able to navigate more successfully the next day.  We visited the ancient petrified city of Pompeii, preserved in ash and now uncovered by archeologists, we could walk the streets and view the recreated bodies of the people who were surprised by the volcano.  We didn’t know, but the next day the workers went on strike and the entire city was closed.  We also asked several people where we could buy tickets for the Pink Floyd concert.  We thought a cover band was doing a tribute.  Turns out there was no concert at all, only a museum with pictures and videos of a concert Pink Floyd did at the ancient coliseum in 1971.  Oops.  Cool museum.

From Pompeii we explored Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.  Driving down the crazy roads of the coast, we stopped to try out some Italian diving.  Anita had never been, so she did one snorkel and one exploratory dive.  I went on two dives, swimming with schools of barracudas and diving into a cave.  The cave dive was interesting as my dive instructor and I turned off our flashlights because no light reached the cave.  When I flicked mine back on, he was right in front of me.  Whoa Italian!  Once we finished our dives, we ventured to Positano to eat some lunch and take in the scenery.

The next day, we explored the church and tower close to us in Pompeii and then took a train to Roma (Rome).  Rome was HOT! Think 40C = 104F, lots of concrete, an AirBnB with no air conditioning or fan.  We were irritable to say the least and ended up fighting for part of a day – we’ve been friends for 15 years.  We did start our Rome adventure with a night tour of the Coliseum, walking in the depths where the gladiators and animals were kept.  We met up with some friends of friends afterward for some Italian cuisine and interesting conversation on fashion with our new friend, or was it Jack Nicholson? Of course, we toured the Vatican and many many relics.  We also saw the Capuchin Crypt, a series of chapels decorated with the bones of 3,700 Capuchin monks – as a reminder of how fleeting this life is.  Later in the day, we toured Rome on bikes to see a few different perspectives of the city.  I love riding bikes.  We decided to take the bus back to our Trastaverre neighborhood for dinner.  A sweet highlight of the trip came when we asked a non-English-speaking Italian lady which bus to take, she rode on the bus with us to show us.  Despite the heat, crazy lines of people, and higher prices, we really enjoyed Rome.  Maybe it was because we stayed next to a place that had amazing DAIRY-FREE gelato (for my anti-lactose bowels). Either way, Rome was an experience.

After Rome, we took a train to Cinque Terre, the five towns – five towns close together that you can hike in between that are right on the coast and beautiful.  We stayed in Vernazza at a great little AirBnB that was across the street from a breakfast place that had a sign that said, “We do not serve eggs.  Don’t ask. This is Italy.  We have excellent food.  Eat it.”  The food was good.  We hiked to Monterosso after breakfast, milled around, meandered through a cemetery of mausoleums (next to a church that was a part of the Capuchin Monks), and then got lost finding the train only to end up in a beautiful winery and vineyard.  It was a great find and enjoyable tasting and setting.  Our time was short in Cinque Terre before we rode the train to spend our second week in Italy in the Italian Alps.

Is there a life lesson in this? Always.  So much beauty surrounds us no matter where we are, if we only look, we will see that there is hope. In friends fighting, we find resolution and deeper relationships, in unpredictable travel, patience, in unexpected kindness, grace.

Meandering through Colorado

I recently needed to make a trip back to the Farmington, NM, area for work and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to also visit friends and places from my previous home.  I started from Golden on Sunday morning and made my way west on I-70 to Palisade, CO.  The drive held views of snow-capped mountains and amazingly green hillsides (thanks to May and its showers; does that mean there will be flowers in June?).  I met up with friends in Palisade just in time to get a drink at the Peach Street Distillery before heading to the Palisade Bluegrass Festival for the last act.

We hopped on cruiser bikes to ride to Riverbend Park and watch Elephant Revival close the festival.  I got a couple videos of this Boulder-based band singing acapella and playing their last song.  It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon with the sun shining warm and clouds providing a little respite from the heat.

While Sunday was incredibly relaxing, Monday was full of activity.  After taking a 75 minute hot yoga class to warm up, we went on a 10-mile bike ride of Horse Thief Trail in 91F weather.  It’s one of my favorite mountain bike trails in the Fruita-Grand Junction-Palisade area because of the amazing views and flowing single track.  After a sushi break and showers, we hiked up Mt. Garfield – a 4-mile out-and-back with 2000 feet of elevation gain – just in time to catch the sunset and more incredible views.

The adventures in the valley ended and I drove south to the Durango/Farmington area.  It was an incredible time of catching up with friends, seeing what has changed since I moved, and riding trails that taught me to mountain bike.  I had the ever-famous GPAM (ginger-pineapple martini) at Distil while hanging out with my crazy-fun friends from Williams, I ate green chili for multiple meals, and relished the rain-cured trails of the high desert.  I heard stories of new paths, new baby bumps, and new little walkers.  Then I packed up (and helped a friend pack a bit before their move) and drove through Pagosa Springs and on 285 back to Golden.

For me, while traveling is incredibly rewarding, it is also tiring and sometimes lonely.  I relish the sweet time with all these friends of old and thank God that I have such incredible people in my life.  It is a good reminder that memories shared are better treasured. and also that I am incredibly blessed.

Making Waves in Aruba

Twenty people, two houses, a hotel room, and seven days in the country of Aruba proved to be an interesting experience.  The core group, self-named the Carnival Club, formed after spending time in the military together and now takes a trip together every couple of years to reunite and adventure. Friends, significant others, cousins and acquaintances jumped aboard this trip expanding the group to twenty and representing a variety of careers:  pilot, doctor, physical therapist, pharmacist, meteorologist, entrepreneur, engineer, corporate manager, teacher, mom, marketing consultant, and professional gambler – all interested in adventure.  Aruba itself was beautiful, warm, and windy – a much needed change from the many consecutive days of rain continuing in my hometown of Seattle…I mean Denver.  (Isn’t Denver supposed to be one of the sunniest places in the U.S.?  Just checking.)  Aruba is known for a few things like turquoise water, white sand beaches, wind surfing, kite boarding, deep sea fishing, and wreck diving.  Many of the residents are from Venezuela, because it is close, and the Netherlands, because of the colony and rule of the Dutch. At one time, one of the biggest refineries in the world operated in Aruba, and though the boneyard of a facility still exists, it no longer operates, and tourism now almost fully supports the country.  And as tourists, so did we.

Our main vacation rental (Villa Tropical) had beds for twelve, a full kitchen, ping pong, darts, corn hole, pool, games, a hot tub, sand volleyball court, and a swimming pool with a waterfall.  We played sand volleyball the first night, four-on-four, and realized that we were in a danger zone.  Someone must have hauled in the sand directly from the beach – broken shells and all – leaving us with bleeding cuts and scratches.  We kept playing.  Then, if the ball went out of bounds, the goat heads (the meanest stickers your foot has ever encountered) pierced the soles of the retriever and stuck in the ball meeting the next server’s hand.  We kept playing.  When the ball went over the fence, Justin went to get it and came back with a seriously sprained ankle.  We finished the game and stopped playing.  We didn’t play volleyball again.

For the next six days, we swam, snorkeled, dived (SCUBA), laid on the beach, wind surfed, and did all the things the ocean calls to do.  We even took a Jolly Pirates Cruise fully equipped with pirate punch, snorkeling stops, and a rope swing.  The rope-swing antics grew with each swing, and at the end two people came out of the water with injuries.  Is anyone surprised?  No.  On another night, we formed two teams to compete in Aruba Mansion Olympics (AMO).  Z and I put the games together using almost all the resources from the house.  We played in relay fashion starting with a shot of tequila.  Two balls to the corner pocket, a volleyball serve, rolling a seven with dice, taking out one piece in a Jenga game, a corn-hole toss, a ping pong ball throw, and one dart to the board, all while carrying the football baton that had to be passed down the stairs to the next contestant. In the end, the teams tied because Z and I finished the relay racing against each other but in all the confusion, he ended by throwing the football and I ended by jumping in the pool. Then everyone jumped in the pool, someone made chocolate chip cookies, and I don’t think anyone really cared that we weren’t certain who won!

Overall, I got to lead yoga a couple times for a few of the girls in the house.  I had two wreck SCUBA dives, which were my first wreck dives, and two reef dives.  I got to see Panama city for one night on the way in and another night on the way out. I felt the heat of the sun and the cool of the ocean for a few days in a beautiful place with some really interesting people where I heard incredible stories of passion, dreams, and adventure.  It’s a good reminder to me to be thankful for what I have, to appreciate where I’ve been, and to look forward to the future.

Yoga Meditations: Week 2

What a full week! We started the week on Sunday with our day off by celebrating the first birthday of our yoga teacher’s son.  The party had it all: balloons, a piñata, a horse, and a massive chocolate cake with loads of icing.  We all sugar-loaded (which took no time at all due to our limited-sugar diet) and then headed to Maderas Beach.  The local transportation ranges in style and class.  My personal favorite is standing facing forward in the bed of a pick-up while holding the steel bars to keep from falling out and ducking at appropriate times to keep from getting whipped by a branch.  It’s like riding a motorcycle with a wider base.  After a 30-minute ride, we made it to the beach and prepared for our surf lesson.  I’m pretty certain that the two surfer dudes, also called our surf instructors, were friends with someone from the yoga facility who landed them a sweet way to make some cash.  In Spanglish Pedro and Oscar gave us a brief lesson on the beach and then took us to the water without instructing us on the finer points of navigating a board through waves that crashed over us.  We did, however, discover the ultimate neti pot experience from this particular form of teaching.  Throughout the day when I bent over, water would randomly pour out my nose.

Pedro also offered to video us using one of the girl’s GoPros.  Though I managed to stand up and ride a small wave on my second try and several times thereafter, he only captured this awesome FACE PLANT (click the words to view). Overall, we all had a really good day with a few souvenirs in the form of scrapes, bruises, and board rash.  Plus, we devoured some really great fish tacos, watermelon smoothies, and crepes; treats outside our amazing vegetarian cuisine.  I’ve included a few more pictures of the food because I’m just so impressed with the diversity of the food.  I also included more pictures of our living arrangements, just to give a better idea of the community living.

Finally, the week included a lot of yoga…a lot of different yoga for me.  We’ve been furthering our practice of asana’s and assists so we can build our own vinyasa classes.  We also learned a bit about partner yoga and acroyoga.  Acro stretches boundaries of trust and balance.  In one picture below, I’m doing a shoulder stand on one of my fellow yogi’s feet.  Acro is a lot of communication, focus, strength, and stamina.  I’m excited to learn more.  For now, I’m off to bed before the next 6:30am, 2-hour yoga practice.

Memories in Belize: Week 1

I just finished a two-week trip in Belize.  My boyfriend, Justin, and I chose to go to Ambergris Caye for the first week of our trip and then decide from there what would happen next.  We found a great little place on Airbnb away from the large tourist resorts in a private home.  Diana welcomed us to our private room and told us about herself and a bit about the island.  She was a generous hostess and great resource by directing us to her favorite shops, restaurants, and activities.  On the day of my arrival, Justin arranged a SCUBA and snorkel discovery trip.  So, I had my first SCUBA experience and then my first snorkel experience swimming with sting rays and nurse sharks.  It was awesome.  So, I decided to get my open water diving certification.  I had no idea that Belize was so known for its diving.  Most of our adventures required only ten to twenty minute boat rides to reach pristine reefs and dive sites. What a truly incredible experience.  On my second dive, I saw reef sharks; on my third dive I saw turtles.  Dive four was a night dive; dive five was a cave dive to 85 feet.  And then we ventured to do the Great Blue Hole.

The Great Blue Hole is a large sinkhole in the middle of the ocean about 45 miles from Belize.  We had a small group on a large boat equipped with tasty snacks and cool drinks for the two hour ride.  As we approached the dive site, I could see the reason for the name – a ring of light-colored, sandy reef and turquoise waters perfectly encircled a vast dark blue disc of inky water.  The boat anchored, we put on our gear, and jumped into the water.  The man floating next to me said he had waited to do the Great Blue Hole his entire life.  He said he knew he was finally ready and that this would be his 50th dive.  Then, he asked me how many dives I had under my belt.  Five, I said.  His eyes grew wide with horror as he asked me if I was concerned about the depth.  I didn’t even know I was supposed to be concerned.  So on my sixth dive, I dropped to 130 feet below the water’s surface, a depth at which narcosis is possible. We dropped so quickly I didn’t realize we had reached 130 feet until my dive master warned me to stop descending.  For the most part, all I could see around me was blue – and my fellow divers.  Then, I turned and saw the amazing rock formations.  We swam through stalagmites and stalactites six feet in diameter that had formed when the cave was empty of water – just a void in the ocean that later filled with water and, apparently was the playground for a group of 5 reef sharks we saw swimming in the distance.  Because of the depth, our time at 130 feet was very short, and soon we swam back to the boat to do two more dives that day.

The next dive took place in the Aquarium – an area swarming with uncountable fish and marine life.  Our dive master led the way carrying a spear this time.  About halfway through the dive, he propelled the spear forward and killed a lion fish.  The lion fish has no natural predators and is slowly overtaking the reefs of Belize; so, anyone can kill them at any time.  With the lion fish on his spear, the dive master began pulling at the fins and making the dead fish bleed.  Then, he waited, and soon a reef shark swam toward him and ate the lion fish right off his spear.

After witnessing this amalgamation animal and man, we surfaced, swam to the boat, and drove to a tiny Island called Half-moon Caye.  The island is the breeding place for the Red-footed Booby Bird, which is protected.  We took our lunch of stewed chicken and rice off the boat and sat on the dock hovering above turquoise water that teamed with fish.  When we dropped rice into the water, the fish would swarm and eat it, a delightful bit of entertainment.  When we finished we walked onto the white sands of the island and followed the trail to the lookout point for the Booby nesting look-out point.  We walked under the tree canopy of palms laden with coconuts while large iguanas stared at us skeptically.

When our time on Half-moon Caye finished, we headed back to Ambergris Caye, where our time was also coming to a close.  We enjoyed the rum, the Belikin beer, the lobster tail burrito (with a side of lobster), the beach, sun, sand, and water.  Then we hopped on a shuttle to enter the jungle at an eco-resort known as Pook’s Hill Lodge.  More on this in Belize #2.

Miles 1 to 95 on the Colorado Trail

On September 5th, I drove with friends, Anita and Lila, down to Turquoise Lake near Leadville, CO, to join Laneha on the Colorado Trail.  I’ve mountain-biked part of the CO trail, I’ve backpacked, I’ve hiked, but through-hiking for several days is a completely different experience.  The first two days, Anita and Lila joined us for 10 miles of the trail and a Mt. Massive summit.  Then, they returned to work and our little group shrank to two girls and their dogs.

The good: it was BEAUTIFUL!  Just when it seemed like we’d climbed forever and not seen anything new, we would top a ridge that opened into a huge valley of pine trees, changing aspen, streams, and lakes.  The views were breath-taking and unexpected.  Colorado, I learned, has so much more for me to explore.  On the list: Twin Lakes/Leadville, Salida, Hope Pass, Cottonwood Hot Springs.

The bad: we walked for an entire day in rain; we camped on a seemingly sleepy pass (13,140 feet), only to learn in the deep of night that the wind had changed directions and become belligerent.  I woke up at regular intervals to watch the tent roof come within a foot of my face.  After that day, the wind never seemed to give us any rest.  Fall and its chill had officially come.

The ugly: through hiking for more than 5 days is more than a fitness challenge.  Between days 5 and 7, Anita (currently getting her psychology PhD and former adventure trip leader) told me that people usually struggle with their thoughts.  I didn’t really think it would happen to me in such a beautiful setting with so much to admire, but it did.  It’s amazing what miles of hiking will bring to mind and force a person to recognize.  I now understand why so many people use through-hiking as therapy.  Whatever emotion or thought is there, there’s no one to blame, nothing to act as a distraction, no reason or use in complaining.  It is what it is, and the choice was mine to make it what I wanted.

So, I ended on 95 miles (Laneha on 130 miles; click to read her blog on the experience).   After 95 miles, we stayed and soaked at the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs.  It was an absolutely amazing way to end the trip.  I was happy to have experienced it and would like to do more miles on the trail – maybe during summer months when the passes aren’t quite as cold.