2015 – A Year in Review

2015 is almost over and it is time for the year in review which, I think, is an exercise not just in writing but in re-living the many blessings the year bestowed on me.  Here it goes and share with me some of the travels in your 2015!

In the city of brotherly love – Philadelphia, USA

My first trip of the year was to Philadelphia where family and friends live.  It is a place I love to visit though I do not get to do so often.  I welcome the opportunity whenever it comes though as I greatly enjoy spending time with my aunt and uncle who make me feel so at home whenever I go.  Though I got to see many, I did not get to see all my relatives nor all my friends which was a bummer – but good reason to go back!  As usual, my uncle likes to show me around places historical to both country and family.  I had not visited Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell since the early 90s and I enjoyed my visit there.  We also went to Valley Forge which had a special look since it was winter-time (and was also very cold!).

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Liberty Bell with Independence Hall behind it

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Independence Hall across the mall

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Valley Forge in winter – reminder of the cost of our freedom

Now, those places are not where the family history comes from 🙂 instead this building served as their home right after they moved up there from Miami.

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House where my parents and relatives lived

My first hike of the year – Blood Mountain, Georgia, USA

My first hike of the year was a training hike as I was going on a trek to Patagonia with Trekking for Kids.  My friend Phil who also enjoys hiking and I decided to do a hike near Blood Mountain that ended up -accidentally- in a climb of Blood Mountain.  While it was unplanned, it was a fortunate ‘accident’ as it all ended well and we enjoyed great vistas and trails.

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Entering Freeman Trail from the Appalachian Trail

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Along Jarrard Gap, the start of our hike

An amazing metropolis – Buenos Aires, Argentina

The orphanage work related to my trek to Patagonia was going to take place on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina.  So I knew I was going to be spending time in this great city – and more importantly, eating the best beef in the world paired with great wine!  I enjoyed walking about town and having nice meals with my fellow trekkers (some which I knew already and some which I met there).

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The parrillada at Campo Bravo

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Don’t forget dessert: this beauty courtesy of Cabaña Las Lilas

But the best part was meeting the children and staff of the two homes we worked with on our projects which included repairing a very leaky roof and damaged walls and furniture.  Much as I loved spending time in BB.AA., this work was the highlight of my time there!

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Painting new furniture with the kids was an adventure onto itself!

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These kids were hard workers and also great with the soccer ball!

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At Temaiken, Buenos Aires’ zoo

Back in time – Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay

When planning my Buenos Aires travel, I decided to add an extra day to cross the river by ferry and spend half a day exploring a town that was a good throwback to the colonial period of the region:  Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay.  I sold three other trekkers on doing this short trip with me and we had a great time walking the streets of this easy-going town.  I highly recommend making the crossing if you ever have time in Buenos Aires!

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One of the MANY vintage vehicles in town – an Austin

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Basilica del Sagrado Sacramento

My favorite spot on Earth – Chile’s Patagonia

As I wrote earlier this year, I loved Patagonia when I first visited the Perito Moreno glacier and Chile‘s amazing Patagonia in 2010.  I’d always hoped I could return some day and that did happen… in 2015, much sooner than I’d ever thought possible.  I returned to hike around Fitz Roy in Argentina, re-visit the Perito Moreno glacier, and then trek through the Torres del Paine National Park – which I had not done in 2010.  And it was a rewarding effort for sure with great vistas and a glacier hike to boot.  Memorable is not a good enough word for the experience.  And, secretly, I hope I get to return a second time for my third visit!!  (click on the hyperlinks above to see more photos from each of the visits)

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Grey glacier, where we hiked

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On the trail to Fitz Roy

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The Torres del Paine massif

The great northwest – Portland, Oregon

Thanks to work, I spent five days in Portland, Oregon.  I had never been to Oregon so it was cool that I got to go there.  I arrived at mid-day on a Sunday and decided to take a walking tour of Portland as it would be the most effective way to see the highlights of the town while enjoying the great weather.

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Portland street

Mercifully, daylight went on late so I got to take advantage of it to take a drive along the Columbia River to see the waterfalls that dot the riverside.   I also got to enjoy dinners in establishments along either side of the river which was a phenomenal day to end the workday.

Family, friends and food fest (4 F’s) – Spain, olé!

Friends of mine were going to hike the Camino de Santiago, a hike I did in 2014.  I thought it would be cool to combine my wish to meet relatives I had not met who live in the outskirts of Santiago with my friends’ arrival in Santiago de Compostela.  My grandmother has two surviving cousins she never met in person who live in Bastavales.  I had met one of them last year when I finished the Camino walk but I had not met the other.  So I met María and her son, grandkids and great-grandkids for the first time and enjoyed their warmth and sharing special memories and photos of the family.  I also visited time with Flora, the cousin I had met last year.  It was really cool.

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With Maria, my grandmother’s cousin

I then welcomed my friends and their fellow trekkers as they arrived in Santiago at the end of their Camino.  It was wonderful seeing them glow in joy as they wrapped their long walk.  After they got their Compostela and going to Pilgrim’s Mass, it was time to celebrate with some cañas (beer) and tapas in one of the many beautiful old streets of this phenomenal city.  We also took a day trip to Finisterre on the Atlantic coast, a nice place.

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Beer and tapas in Santiago de Compostela

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The left side of the Cathedral

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With friends Phil and Tommy at Finisterre

The visit with my friends continued in Madrid and, after they left, I got to spend time with madrileños friend of mine, enjoying good drinks, food, and atmosphere around town.  It was fun spending more time in Madrid (check out “6 Cool Things to Do in Madrid“!).  I love Spain but I loved more the opportunity to be there with friends!

Reuniting with dear friends – California

In late May, dear friends left Atlanta to head to California due to a job opportunity.  It was hard to see them go as I spent many a Friday night over ten years hanging out with them pre-kids and after-kids.  So, it was great when work offered me the opportunity to go to San Francisco so I could spend the weekend after the conference with them in their home outside of San Jose.  They took me to two great Mexican restaurants, one of them right by where they live.  I enjoyed a drive down Pebble Beach on the famous 17-mile drive (which I still have to write about!).  And we visited the charming coastal town of Carmel – and its impressive mission.

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Glorious skies at the Carmel Mission

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Waters along the 17-Mile drive

Up-north (WAY up north) – Duluth, Minnesota

Work took me for a brief business trip up north, to a small town 45 mins north of Duluth, Minnesota.  Driving along the coast of Lake Superior was very nice and peaceful.  We only had one night in Duluth but enjoyed a nice breakfast at a mom-and-pop type of place and dinner at a pub.  Of course, being the traveler that I am, never having gone to Wisconsin, and realizing I was just a bridge-crossing, I just had to do it… We had mostly an open morning so, along with a colleague, I drove across the water to a coffee shop I found online in the town of Superior, Wisconsin!  A coffee later, we crossed the bridge again and back in Minnesota!

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Wisconsin, here we come!

Returning to one my favorites – Chicago, Illinois

I first went to Chicago in a bitterly cold January in 1991 with company for training.  And I kept returning over the years mainly in winter.  This year I got to go in August for pleasure, after spending a few days in Minnesota for work.  I got to enjoy walking everywhere, getting to the lake, which I had never done.  I also explored new parts of town thanks to friends (including little gems in terms of eateries).   Overall, what I enjoyed most about this trip was a first for me in Chicago:  going to a museum!  The Art Institute of Chicago was right up my alley as very much an amateur in terms of art.  It made it all approachable and enjoyable without overwhelming.  I highly recommend it.  I look forward to returning to Chicago and having more time to see all the friends who live there (this was practically a day-and-a-half visit) – and explore a new museum or two!Chicago, Illinois, skyscraper, cityscape, photo, glass. buildings, architecture

An epic trek to close the year – on the route to Everest Base Camp, Nepal

I was not planning any other hike on 2015 after having done Patagonia earlier in the year.  However, I found out that several folks I knew from prior treks were going to do the trek to Everest Base Camp and I started wondering if I could go…  I was generally fit even if not well-trained, it was a generally good time to go from a work standpoint, and though I did not have vacation time to be able to go to base camp, the trek offered a shorter itinerary.  So, I went for it.  I had a great time and was thrilled to having seen the Himalayas, Mt. Everest, and the hamlets and people of the highlands of Nepal.  I am still writing about the trek so I will just point you to a couple of the writings:  flying into scary Lukla airport to begin the hike, day one of the hike (you can keep going from there to later days), and one of the neat sites I saw in Kathmandu.  The best part of the trek was the work done before the trek in the village of Kumari.  Check out the work we did with Trekking for Kids here.

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The prayer wheels

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Kids from Kumari

Epilogue to a year that ends…

2015 was an epic year.  From great hiking experiences, time with family and friends, new destinations, and good food and drinks, it had it all.  I got to step in South America, North America, Asia, and Europe all in one year!  However, as the year came to a close, we lost my stepdad, Rubén.  It was a bittersweet time as he had been suffering from Alzheimer‘s and his last week was one full of suffering.  So his passing offered him rest that we were thankful for, sad as it was to not have him around us any more.  Rubén, as my Mom, loved to travel.  They traveled across Europe and other places many times.  I got to travel with them and my sister and her family in several cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, and the Baltic Sea, as well as explore places like Copenhagen, Panama, and Paris (where they visited me in 1999 when I was living there).  Though we will sorely miss him in this final journey he has undertaken, I know I will see again at the final destination.  Until then, I will continuing journeying here.  Rest in peace, Rubén!

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In Panama in 2009

An Unexpected Climb of Blood Mountain

I enjoy hiking and love exploring new routes.  Living in Atlanta, I have access to great hiking an hour and a half away at the start of the Appalachian Mountains, host of the famous Appalachian Trail (AT) that runs from north Georgia, all the way to Maine.  There is nice hiking closer to Atlanta but for longer and more strenuous hikes (and overall better vistas), I like going up to the north Georgia mountains.  I was looking for a long hike to do on a daytrip and was seeking a loop, instead of an in-and-out hike.  A good friend who also enjoys hiking offered to come along (I don’t hike solo) and we set out to do Jarrard Gap Trail connecting it to the Slaughter Creek Trail by traversing a 1.85 mile stretch of the AT for a total hike of around 5.75 miles.

While I have hiked in interesting places (like the Transylvanian Alps in Romania and Mt. Kilimanjaro), I am not an expert hiker who knows all the tricks of the trade, who is used to half-missing signage, who is secure in his inner compass, etc.  So I rely on maps and stuff I find on the Internet to create a route.  (My friend Val in Real Life would probably laugh her rear off at my lack of innate outdoor skills!)  On this occasion, my friend and I got a little complacent thinking we had clear in our head the route we were taking.  I will first share with you the hike we DID as it was definitely diverse in terrain and views, and enjoyable, if long.  I will then tell you what we THOUGHT we were going to do that day and highlight the difference between the two.  And then, I will share some lessons I learned!

The innocent start to the hike

After driving about 1.5 hrs, we arrived at Winfield Scott Lake, a rather small lake at the start of our hike.  To get there, we passed the entrance where visitors are supposed to take an envelope and place $5 in it and drop it in a locked box.  One is supposed to tear off part of the envelope and hang it on the rear view mirror of the vehicle (the number on that stub and the envelop in the locked box would match, telling the part ranger that this car has paid).  There were no envelopes to be found so we improvised and dropped the fee with a label that indicated my license plate in case someone checked.  We doubted anyone would be checking on this Sunday but we preferred being good citizens.  I took a picture of what I dropped in in case I needed it later to fight a citation!dollars

The hiked route: from Winfield Scott Lake via Jarrard Gap to the top of Blood Mountain and back

We entered the trail and, after crossing a narrow and single-side handrail bridge, we were dumped on a paved road where we saw a house with Halloween decorations still on the mailbox (this would prove useful later!).  There was a simple sign indicating the way and we walked maybe 0.25 miles on the road until the real entrance to the real Jarrard Gap Trail.

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On the Jarrard Gap Trail

The terrain was a nice upward slope but not too intense.  Nice views of the downhill on this winter day.  Once we exited this trail at the Jarrard Gap, we walked a little to the next set of signs which helped point the way in this 4-way intersection.  Except it was not all too clear as it did not have any of the names in our map.

Someone told us which way was the AT and we walked little on it until we saw the white mark that is used to mark the AT so on we went.  So we entered the AT in the direction of Blood Mountain.  There were slight (rolling, I would call them) downhills and flat bits of terrain.  We passed a camp area on the left after having taken a quick break, and soon on the right we saw the trailhead to the Freeman Trail which sort of parallels the AT (it re-meets the AT on the opposite end).  At that point, we were 2.6 miles from our beginning point and so we went off on Freeman Trail.

Freeman Trail is about 1.8 miles of very different terrain than what we had been on on the Jarrard Gap Trail and the AT.  At parts narrow, often very rocky (small and big), it was actually a fun trail to hit as long as one is not expecting a cozy walk.  We were not.  We even passed an icy spot on our way to the other end of the trail.

We understood we would exit Freeman Trail and take the AT in the direction back towards the entrance to Freeman Trail.  But, before setting on the AT, we stopped to eat our lunch at this popular intersection.  At this intersection, besides the AT and the Freeman Trail, there is a trail that leads to a parking lot 0.7 miles away.  That parking becomes probably the point with the shortest route up to Blood Mountain.

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At the spot where Freeman Trail hit the AT

By taking the AT in the direction of the entrance we took into the Freeman Trail, we were proceeding to ascend Blood Mountain which, at near 4,400 ft, is the fourth tallest mountain in the state of Georgia and one of the most popular mountaintops in the state with breathtaking views all the way to North Carolina and Tennessee.

The climb to the summit was hard.  Rocky and steep with many switchbacks, with vegetation everywhere.  It definitely worked out my gluteus maximus and my hamstrings!  I had the same trouble I had had on Day 4 on Kilimanjaro after passing the Barranco Wall segment of that hike.  I carried a 16-lb backpack as part of my training but ended up emptying my extra bottle of water (one that I carry precisely as a way to drop backpack weight should I feel like I need to; it is not the water I expect to consumer during the hike). It indeed was a challenge – an unexpected one – but I am glad I did it as it was good training for my upcoming hike and a great workout.

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On the way to the summit!

At some point, we reached a clearing with large smooth rocks replacing the ground, like how Stone Mountain is when you are climbing it.  We stopped briefly and chatted with some folks who had gone up ahead of us; they had not heard of Slaughter Creek (which was a little unnerving but they had come from the “nearby” parking lot so they were likely not expecting to hit the creek on the other side of the mountain).  From this clearing, one could see Stone Mountain and Atlanta in the distance.  That was very impressive given how far north we were.

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The view from the clearing

The AT is well-marked with rectangular white boxes painted on trees and rocks so no issues knowing where we were so we continued on it as we knew the AT would connect to the Slaughter Creek Trail.  Not long afterwards, we reached the summit which has a neat rock outcropping from which to soak the entire view.  It is located right next to a nice shelter structure for those who stay overnight (further down, there is a “privy” or basic toilet facility).  After checking the view and confirming which of the two possible ways was the way down (other than the one we came up from), we began our descent which I welcomed as going up had been hard.  I read later that the side we went up was harder but I am glad we did it that way because going down that way would have killed my knees with all the rocks…

The descent was uneventful.  We passed a campsite area on the left and it was a little mis-leading as the white box marking the trail made us think we had to detour at the campsite because the other part of the trail did not have the white rectangular boxes.  But the crude wooden map on the campsite and a brief exploration of the other trail (where we saw a sign that said “Water” and pointed down that path) led us to determine that the unmarked way was the way to go.  Confidently we moved forward and downward and soon we ran into a trio that confirmed for us that was the way down indeed.  So it was nice to have that validation.  They told us that we would make a left at the steps at the bottom that were still iced over.   The descent was not too rocky at all so that made it better for our knees.

We reached the iced-over steps and felt really good that we were on the final stretch.  We walked maybe 0.4 miles before we hit the entrance that we had taken to enter the Freeman Trail and then returned to repeat backwards the way in – a final 2.6 miles to get to our parking lot.  Along the way, we had forgotten about the road we had been dumped into before hitting the real Jarrard Gap Trail.  Thankfully, the house that still had Halloween decorations on the mailbox saved the day as we remembered having passed it.

The intended route:  from Winfield Scott Lake to Jarrard Gap to Slaughter Creek

So after having read what we did.  Here is what we had intended to do…

We were supposed to get on Jarrard Gap Trail (check) and hike it until it ended at the Jarrard Gap (check) and then connect with the AT (check) and walk towards Freeman Trail (check) but continue 0.4 miles past the entrance to Freeman Trail without taking Freeman Trail (NOT CHECKED!).  After the 0.4 mile stretch, we would encounter the trailhead to Slaughter Creek Trail which would have taken us back to the road near Winfield Scott Lake.  End of a moderate day hike.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we were supposed to do.  5.75 miles that could have taken us 2.5-3 hrs, perhaps.

What went wrong on this north Georgia mountain hike?  No, no banjos or bears

The map from the website where I got the route instructions did not label the trails the proposed route would take us on.  Thank goodness there was a clear map at the parking lot by the lake that had trails with names on them.  We could not quite reconcile this map to the one in our printout so we took a photo of the map so we could have handy along the way (boy, was that a good idea!).

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The parking lot map

However, the map sort of helped get us confused – we saw that there was clearly a way from Freeman Trail on to Slaughter Creek Trail (via the AT) so we thought we were good.  But, what we failed to grasp was the increased distance such a route meant:  instead of our intended 5.75 mile plan, we ended up doing about 10.5 miles (per our reconstruction of the facts once back in the comfort of our respective homes).  This is how…

Remember when I said earlier that we encountered the start of the Freeman Trail so off we went on it?  Well, as you read on the “intended route” bit above, we were not supposed to take Freeman Trail.  The route instructions we had printed were just highlighting that at mile 2.6 we would encounter the trailhead for Freeman Trail. The explanation of the route was peppered with beautiful photos that certainly kept us from focusing on reading the text carefully as, upon careful reading later, we realized it never indicated that we needed to get on the Freeman Trail!

0.4 miles after passing the Freeman Trail, we were supposed to find the start of Slaughter Creek Trail at which point we would be returning along the same-named creek.  After a while on Freeman Trail we wondered if we had missed a turn 0.4 miles after we had started on it to find Slaughter Creek Trail (the connection to that trail was not evident in the map from the parking lot).

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Along the Freeman Trail

We should have turned around…  However, the map we had taken a picture of did show that we would hit the AT again and would swing back to hit Slaughter Creek Trail at some point (which we didn’t realize was much later than expected…).

And so we kept going on the rougher trail that is Freeman Trail.  Partly perhaps because we were distracted by our conversation and maybe partly because the trail was unusual (narrow, rocky, with more interesting vegetation that leafed-out winter trees).  Maybe it was just such a nice day for a hike so why rush it?  Eventually,we ran into a man and his dog and we asked him how far to hit the AT and he told us “one mile or so.”  We were taken aback but pressed on as we knew this way we would get to where we wanted to go.  We finally hit the AT and decided it was time to sit down and eat our lunch.  We had worked hard and had, at least, the same effort to go still to finish!

As we continued the hike by getting back on the AT, I still didn’t realize we were headed all the way to the top.  I thought this trail would swing on the south side of the mountain and some other trail would take hikers all the way to the top since I didn’t think the AT would run through mountaintops.  But we agreed we didn’t want to backtrack across the Freeman Trail so we went forth.  I think this was a good decision as, at least, we experienced reaching the top of Blood Mountain.

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Yours truly on the climb to the summit – note the white mark towards the bottom

The descent from Blood Mountain was uneventful except that we totally missed the entrance to the Slaughter Creek Trail!  When we reached the spot where we were supposed to turn off, we ran into a group of folks and we briefly chatted as we passed each other (after having seen a sign indicating the trail was coming up) and seemed to have missed the trailhead.  We had seen a little of the creek but missed the fact that we lost it at some point.  Or we assumed that for part of the trail, it would not be right by us. I am not really sure.  Anyway, we realized something was amiss when… we encountered the sign that marked the entrance to Freeman Trail that we had seen a few hours before!

At this point, I don’t think we were in the mood to backtrack and find Slaughter Creek Trail.  We understood we had missed the entrance and, given how much we had done already, we decided to back out the way we had come in via the Jarrard Gap.

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Back in the familiar territory of the Jarrard Gap

So, there you have it.  A series of mis-steps that, while annoying, did give us what looking back was a challenging and rewarding day of hiking.  However, there are lessons to be learned and that is also a good by-product of this experience!

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Nice views on this hike – worth the effort

Key lessons learned for future hikes

  • Read the route carefully and if it does not explicitly say to take a trail, do not; do not be distracted by pretty pictures!
  • Corroborate the route on another website if possible.
  • Use a clear map that labels all the trails and shows a scale so you can properly estimate things.
  • Take a photo of whatever map you find once you arrive on-site and compare to your map to be sure you are clear.
  • Signage will not always be clear so the points above are important.
  • Cell service, though not always available, can be at some clearings.
  • Be prepared with enough food and water (we were, mercifully).
  • Bring a headlamp even if you think you are hiking in the daytime (had the hike been even longer than we thought, it would have started getting darker).
  • Always hike with someone.  Certainly, solitude can be an aim of hiking for some – but not for me!  If something goes wrong, I want another head thinking about things along with me!
  • Never stop hiking because you had one hike were you were not “with it.”  That is how one learns and it can still be very rewarding and worthwhile – plus it gives you a good story to laugh at and not take yourself too seriously!  And one does learn.

Regardless of all this, if was great to be able to do such a long hike to help my training for Patagonia and to prove to us that we were fit enough for such a hike combining length and climbing.

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Read about other hikes in Georgia:

Sope Creek

Sweetwater Creek

Island Ford

Tallulah Gorge

Panther Creek

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