Changing Seasons, New Lifeforms

The last time I took a hike at Mianus River Park it was early summer.  A gentle summer rain fell on a thick canopy way above my head.  Everything was green – even the air felt green.  Everything was young.  Everything filtered through that canopy.  The promise of adventure lay ahead.  The way it has every summer since I was a kid released from school.

And as they do, summer’s days passed.  Slow and lazy at first.  Then picking up speed until you find yourself sliding out of control through August. Labor Day coming at you like a train.  Then it’s over.  Back to work.  School buses trudging along backstreets.  I’m in a daze of transition.  The rich memories of my overseas travel – exploring new countries, eating new foods, finding new time-flows all begin to fade like old photographs.

Mianus Park OctoberBut now it’s October.  The weather is mild and sunny, the air noticeably different.  Again the woods call me out.  I stuff my trekking pack with towels to simulate the load I will carry on an upcoming trekking trip in New Zealand.  I lace up my boots, unscrew my trekking poles, and head to Mianus, my old friend. It’s past noon.  The early birds have been there and gone.  A few afternoon strollers, joggers, and dog walkers dot the trails.  Now and then a mountain biker passes like a shadow.

The canopy is still there but now more sun dapples through it.  The light coming in on a slant, from the South.  Yellow begs to show itself among the fading green. A loosely-woven carpet of early autumn leaves covers the ground. A reminder of the approaching “fall.”

As I bend to take a picture I am startled by the sight of new lifeforms.  Fungi in all shapes and sizes have sprung from the rich mix of the forest floor, now in the early stage of decomposition.

Mianus MushroomsThese lifeforms surprise me.  I don’t know why.  But it appears suddenly.  (I forget for the moment that it has been four months since I was here last.)  It takes the most wonderous organic forms and colors – tan, white, brown – and it exudes rich earthy smells.  I am drawn to it. With each step I find a new form, more luscious than the last.  Large-capped mushrooms are almost invisible against the dark earth, itself almost undiscernible from the small tree branch disolving into it.  Some look spongy, some look fragile –  like fine china.

Autumn Fungi

Some are small and grow close together, almost obscuring the soft rotting wood that is its new home, finely textured, like coral. They look like they would dissolve under my touch… But I don’t dare touch…

Some are large – one is huge, like an elephant’s ear. One species spaces itself sparsely on what’s left of a mature tree, most of it shorn off unexpectedly. There it stands, alone in a little clearing, as if the other trees don’t want anything to do with it, seduced by its new best friend.  I have the sense that this lifeform will, with stealth, multiply until it consumes its lover and the trunk will, like its cousins, topple and dissolve into the earth from which it grew.

For a few moments I am lost in this world of mysterious life forms. They seem to have sprung from some deep ancient place.

Further down the trail, the river runs slower than it did in June.  There are places where it does not seem to move at all.  As if waiting, not sure where to go.  Waiting for its next cue. A display board at the end of the trail shows the park in its many seasons. Soon the yellow will take over and light up the woods.  Stealing the spotlight from the dark mysterious fungi.Mianus Park Autumn

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24 Hours to the Salamanca Groove

Salamanca

Salamanca [Spain] is known for its ornate sandstone architecture and for the Universidad de Salamanca. Founded in the 1100s and an important intellectual center in the 15th-16th centuries, the university continues to contribute to the city’s vibrancy with its international student population. (booking.com)

On my second visit to Salamanca, I  found its groove.  I can’t be in a hurry.  I can’t have a schedule. I have to stay loose and let it come to me. Summertime is for finding the Salamanca groove.

August is generally very… very hot in Salamanca… dry heat.  But hot is hot when temperatures soar into the high 90s.

SalamancaThere’s a lot of stone in Salamanca. It soaks up the heat then sends it back to you in merciless radiating sweat-drenching waves.  There comes a time when you just don’t want to be out on the streets.

Finding the Salamanca groove starts with seeking shelter.  With little to no air conditioning and most shops and museums closed anyway from 2-6 pm (for what is commonly called siesta), wise Salamancans retreat home.  With shades drawn and floor fans pressing a cool breeze from nothing, it’s a time to relax, or better, nap.

Salamanca sunsetFor night owls this must be bliss.  To rise refreshed from an afternoon nap, shower, and make for outdoor cafes as the sun sets and night’s breeze stirs the air like a chilled martini.

SalamancaHaving taken the main meal in mid afternoon, night hours are for leisurely sipping wine and dining lightly on tapas – small plates of specialty foods like patatas importantes (important potatoes!), crispy pancetta, razor thin slices of Iberian jamome (ham), garlicky salmon wrapped asparagus spears, hamburgsita Americana (like a slider with fries, but strangely served with a sauce of what tasted like raspberry jam), pork kabobs, muscles served two at a time topped with a relish of finely diced peppers and onion then sprinkled with a light oil and vinegar. It’s an endless list of delights. This time, though, is more about life than dining.

Plaza Mayor Salamanca

Night is when Salamanca blooms. Its intellectual tradition sparking to life as the city awakens to enjoy the last hours of each day with family, conversation and laughter. Short strolls link a maze of sidewalk cafes dotting the city’s inner core – Old Town, the heavy stone of its past now shimmering golden yellow under night’s lights. The heat has finally given way. And I’ve found the Salamanca groove.

Salamanca groove

Photos (top to bottom): University of Salamanca, Salamanca summer day (adapted from a street mural), Salamanca sunset, Salamanca full moon, Plaza Mayor at night, Salamanca’s old town skyline as the sun begins to rise

Finding My Heart on a Low Altitude Tundra

Rondane National Park: Norway’s first national park, Rondane was established in 1962 to protect the wild reindeer herds.

Norways Rondane National ParkI am trying to wrap my head around all that I saw and experienced in Norway’s Rondane National Park. First off, apparently few Americans visit there. I can’t figure this out. It is one of the most beautiful places I could have imagined. Delicate alpine wilderness under 6,000 ft. altitude. In my book that’s a no-brainer.

Norways Rondane National ParkAs a former Colorado Rocky Mountain resident and very occasional high altitude hiker (like I can count them on one hand), I don’t expect to see tundra and snow fields like this below about 11,000 feet. And up in the clouds it is hard to breathe.  But so far north as Norway, “alpine tundra” occurs at much lower altitudes. So my initial impression was, “this is GREAT!  I can hike through pristine tundra, take in its exquisite beauty, and breathe alpine-fresh air, all without finding myself completely breathless every dozen steps!”  Not so fast…

Norway Rondane National Park imageThis was a humbling hiking experience, or as the Norwegians call it “walking.” I did not fully comprehend the daily distances (up to 18 km), rugged terrain (rocky, with immense boulder fields long-ago pushed by glaciers into our modern-day path), and elevations (1,000 meters/day with at least one steep incline/decline each day). The inclines I can handle.  The declines are knee killers. The distances and terrain are just plain exhausting. Thankfully, the huts where we stayed always provided a delicious and plentiful dinner and breakfast the following morning, a warm bed and a hot shower.  The latter at a price of 10-20 NOK (about 2-3 USD) for 3-4 minutes of hot running water.

Norway Rondane National Park
DNT Tour Leader Hans, “Today is an easy walk.”

I’m not sure how I missed this in the itinerary, but it is fair to say that the Norwegians and Americans have a wide disparity in their understandings of the term “moderate.” (As in our tour-leader, Hans, exclaiming on all but one day: “Today we have an easy walk.” To his credit, the day of endless boulder fields he readily described as “very hard.”)

Rondane is not for the weak of heart or legs. It brought me to my knees in a way that frightened me more than once. “In over my head” came to mind daily. I am proud of our group of 16 American-born Appalachian Mountain Club adventurers for hanging in there and making it through with nothing worse than a few scrapes and bruises. It was truly magical. We were blessed with perfect weather and instant camaraderie. Anything less could have been disasterous.

Norways Rondane National ParkI can’t say I would return to Rondane.  I am happy to let it sift through the memory cells of my brain, along with a fondness for the Scandanavian peoples, while my legs begin the process of repairing themselves.

Norwegians are perhaps the most unique of all who hail from the Northern reaches of our planet. They keep themselves more bottled up than we boisterous Americans. But their hospitality and kindness are exceeded by none. They are perhaps the most fit and hardy of the Scandanavians. To Norwegians, this “walking” (or in wintertime, Nordic skiing) is a lifestyle.

I can say that I hope to return to Scandanavia – perhaps even farther north next time.  Where herds of domesticated reindeer roam the frozen tundra and the daylight is either ever-present or non-existentent altogether.  And of course the Northern Lights beckon… Til then!

Watery Worlds, Ferries, and One Kindly Gnome

20,000 islands means a lot of water.  In the watery world of Finland’s Turku Archipelago, ferries serve as bridges.  Also in this watery world of dark forests and fickle wild flowers, fabled mythical creatures may just step out to help you find your way.

One day, 60 kilometers of riding, 5 island crossings, six ferries.  Sometimes the ferry is a small single floating deck fastened to a cable drawing it across the channel.  Some ferries cross only when called by pressing a button on the opposite shore, or when the pilot spots a car on the other side.

Other times the ferry is a monstrous yellow thing, deisel powered, looming high above us like something out of “War of the Worlds.”  These behemoths have two big pointed arms sticking out in front that are skillfully fitted by the pilot into slots on the dock to secure it for loading and unloading a long stand of cars, buses, repair vehicles and heavy-equipment.  These ferries leave right. on. time.

The larger ferries have cafes with coffee, beer, pastries, sandwiches and ice cream.  And on one, freshly made salmon soup.  My favorite.

On our final day of a 6-day bike tour, we returned to the mainland.  Where the islands had been easy to navigate, as they were small with few road choices and clear directional signs, the maze of cycle paths criss-crossing the City of Turku’s countryside and suburbs proved that our “route notes” were not well constructed, and in fact were probably just downright wrong in places.  (We suspect that our touring company staff are not cycling specialists…)

Things went right for the first 10k or so.  But as we got further into the congested city-scape, we got crossed up and found ourselves stopping at each intersection scratching our heads over Finnish street names of unprouncable words with long streams of vowels.  Our directions bore no relation to the landmarks in site.

We asked locals, all but one who spoke more than adequate English, who would say “yes, yes, just stay on this path and continue straight ahead,” pointing up the road (which was decidedly NOT constructed of yellow bricks).   And we would ride on with a sigh of relief.  Soon enough though, we would approach another intersection with no clear sense of “straight ahead.”  And again we were scratching our heads.

In a while, we spied a figure up the path, peering over a fence.  Again we asked for help.  Uncurling himself from his task, we saw a disheveled man dressed in a faded yellow jacket, sloppy denim pants and well worn sneakers (no socks).  He had a shock of thick tangled lightish hair, long past having seen a barber’s chair, or even a comb.  The raggedy man repeated the now-familiar instructions “just stay on this path,” and pointed ‘straight ahead.’  We must have looked dubious.

The raggedy man climbed on a bicycle as old as myself, which until that moment I had not noticed.  It was a single speed contraption, the style favored by locals.  His appeared to be held together by rust.  His manner though was thoughtful and kind.  “Why don’t I show you,” he said. “I’m going there anyway.  I will take you the shortest route.” (I’m sure he sensed our fatigue and frustration.)

He then led us into town, skillfully maneuvering through streets now crowded with afternoon traffic and pedestrians.  We rode right up to the block where our hotel sat, and right next to the town square market.  He veered off with a friendly wave of his hand.  I noticed a dingy shopping bag in his other hand.  I hadn’t seen it before.

Yes, this land is filled with magical creatures, and I think this day we met a kindly gnome.

Dark Forest Floor

A bike tour is a slow-motion view of the big picture.  But to really explore the details, I have to get off the bike and single out my subject.  I admit that I often, though only on a lonely country road, pull my phone out of my pocket flick it on with my thumb, swipe up for the camera, point and shoot off a picture or two.  All while steering with the other hand and peeking over my shoulder at what I want to capture.

I am working my way from Turku, on the Baltic Sea in southwest Finland, through a few of the Turku Archipelago islands. The first thing I notice is the dark forest floor, surrounded by a perimeter of wildflowers in every color, shape and texture.  This is a land of trolls, fairies and elves, where strips of land jut out of the Sea, carved by glaciers.  Only their very tops are visible above the water line – a cross between Maine’s North Woods, perhaps, and the lower elevations of the Rocky Mountains.  But this is the Old Country and there is no question that these deep lush woods house mythical creatures.

Tomorrow we leave the islands.  I am sad to leave this inquiry behind.  The watery world of an archipelago, where ferries serve as bridges to keep the islands’ traffic moving mostly year-round, and local residents swell from 800 to 5,000 for a few short weeks when the weather turns to “summer.” The long days of the sun’s northernmost-most angle reaches high into our hemisphere.  Fair haired people, always friendly, go-out-of-their-way friendly.  And so hospitable, eager to share their bounty – from their sea and from their land and from their heritage. Proud to share their culture.  They know they live in a magical, protected place.

It is August and the Finns are already talking of the end of summer.  This one was cooler than usual, after a warmer than usual winter.  I get the sense that there is an uneasiness about this in their islands.  Our group of 14 explorers were lucky to have hit the first good week of weather – temperatures mild, if cooler than normal, and mostly sunny skies.  (Perfect biking weather!) From the sound of things, it may be among their last.

I wonder, where do those mythical creatures go when the weather again turns bad?

A Rainy Day in the Woods Testing Equipment

A Walk In The WoodsI forget how quiet the woods are on a rainy day.  Not a hard driving, soaking rain.  But a day with soft loamy paths from steady overnight showers.  At noon a light rain is falling overhead, filtered by the top branches of the tallest trees in an urban woods.  While at ground level I remain dry.  The air is heavy and damp.

It’s not a place for serious hike training, Mianus River Park.  But it’s close to home and offers me a chance to get out in the woods.  Usually a Sunday in this park is swarmed by mountain bikers and dog walkers.  But today it is quiet. One jogger, two dog walkers and a pair of young girls riding their bikes on the trail, tentatively crossing a smallish log, fallen long ago across the pathMianus River State Park, or maybe placed there by Friends of Mianus trail maintenance volunteers to manage erosion.

I must look strange to them: in full hiking gear complete with a backpack loaded to about ten pounds, hiking boots and poles.  Usually people (and me when I am not trying out new gear and thinking ahead to an upcoming weeklong trek in Norway’s Rondane National Park) hike this park in sneakers or trail runners with nothing more than a bottle of water.  But like I say, I am gearing up for a bigger journey.  More on that later.

So today I am not only getting a little mind-peace and fresh woodsy air, but confirming my selection of gear for said Norway trip: Deuter Act Lite 45+10 SL Backpack, Salomon Discovery GTX Trekking Boots and REI Traverse Power Lock Trekking Poles.  (I do love sporting gear!)

A few of my favorite places

When you journey to a lot of places you generally have a lot of photographs.  So I begin this blog by pulling a few of my favorites from the files to get things going.  I hope you enjoy them as much as I have enjoyed taking and sharing them.  Stay tuned for lots of photos and stories as I skip, trip and journey through life.

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