Guatape by Scooter

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My love for two-wheeled adventures is not limited to leg-powered bicycles. No, I’m a fan of any adventure or excursion that involves riding any sort of ‘bike’.

So I was thrilled when I saw a shop in Guatape that rents scooters by the hour.

Most people who come to Gautape come for two things: to see the colorful zocalo in the center of town and to hike up the steeps steps of La Piedra for an amazing view over the lakes and islands that make up this part of Colombia. Most, in fact, just make Gautape a day trip from Medellin.

But before coming to Guatape I had done some research and found out that there is much more to this area than a colorful plaza and a big rock. There are cascading waterfalls, beautiful rivers with sandy beaches, off the beaten path Colombian towns, and lush, green coffee country to explore.

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So I decided to spend three nights in Guatape and dedicate one full day to exploring by scooter.

The guys at Gautape Motos are super friendly and helpful and on the morning I showed up they made sure I had everything I needed before setting off into the unknown. They gave me a laminated map with points of interest clearly marked, a pre-paid phone for ‘just in case’, and a surprisingly brief overview on how to operate a scooter. Then they sent me off with a wave and probably more confidence in my abilities than I had for myself.

My mighty steed for the day was a little red Yamaha Fino that was perfect for my limited motorized bike experience, but after a few miles I began to feel pretty silly as Colombian men, women, and kids passed me by on their beefy motorbikes. Needless to say, I got quite a few funny looks. A solo gringa on a bright red scooter is probably not something they see every day.

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My ultimate destination for the day was San Carlos – a small town about 70 kilometers or two hours away from Guatape. Yep two hours one way. The road (which is actually quite good and not heavily trafficked at all) plunges over 3000ft into a lush, tropical valley with Rio Guatape running through it.

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The views are stunning and I had to remind myself to keep my eyes on the road less I veer off over the side.

After about 45 minutes I passed through the bustling town of San Rafael where my newly found scooter skills were put to the test as I navigated the busy streets and the funny looks multiplied tenfold. An eccentric old woman tried to strike up a conversation with me – something about my shoes vs her shoes and the scooter…. I just smiled and nodded. Then it was open road to San Carlos.

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My destination: a waterfall right outside of town. It’s a locals hotspot for sure and there were several families splashing around in the pools, but I have a feeling very few tourists come to visit. I was definitely off the beaten path.

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There are two tiers to the waterfall. The lower falls cascade over a giant slab of rock and is quite an impressive sight, but there isn’t much opportunity in the way of swimming. The upper falls, however, tumble down into a deep, clear, inviting plunge pool ringed by mossy rocks and giant ferns. Go even farther up the river and there are some beautiful, quiet pools that you’re likely to have all to yourself. I chose the secluded pools and lounged on the sunny rocks for awhile until it was time to make the two hour return trip back to Guatape.

This was definitely one of my highlight days in Colombia for sure.

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Biking Through Medellin

Give me a choice on how to explore a city and I’ll pick ‘by bike’ every. single. time. For me, it’s the perfect way to get to know a place. By bike you can:

  • Cover more ground than walking
  • Go where cars can’t go
  • Lock it up and continue to explore by foot
  • Get some exercise!
  • Impress the locals (or piss them off depending on your biking skills…)

While today’s ride wasn’t my first rodeo when it comes to biking through a city – I’ve biked through Ecuador, Bangkok, Barcelona, Seattle, etc…) it may have been the wildest, in the best sense of the word.

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One of the first things I do when researching ‘things to do’ in a new city or country is to google ‘bike tours’. More often than not, I get a hit and for Medellin it was no different – Medellin Bike Tours looked legit.

After spending a day getting acquainted with the city, I met my bike guide, Dan, and Liam, another crazy adventure seeker, in the neighborhood of Laurales, about a 15 minutes by taxi from where I’m staying in the ever so trendy and way too touristy neighborhood of El Poblado. Had I known better, I definitely would have booked an Airbnb in Laurales to 1: save money and 2: not be immediately identified as a tourist. Next time, I guess.

But anyway, I met Dan and Liam in the basement of a high-rise where Dan has set up his tiny one-room, bike-bedecked office. After signing waivers, getting fitted with bikes and gear, and swapping emergency phone numbers ‘just in case’ we hit the streets of Medellin. Right off the bat we were thrown into a crisscross of swiftly moving cars, bold pedestrians, and other bikers attempting to muscle their way through the mess. It was chaos! Thankfully I’ve had plenty of experience navigating busy roads, but I think poor Liam was a bit taken aback at first. All three of us made in through intact, though, and found our way to a pleasant two-way bike path that paralleled the busy street. Only for a short while, of course, then we were back on the defense.

Our first stop was at the top of Cerro el Volador, a small mountain in the middle of Medellin. Cerro el Violator was apparently the go-to place to off poor citizens in the Pablo Escobar era. Not a pleasant history at all, but it had pretty views of the surrounding city.

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From there, we cruised back down the hill and made our way to the Botanical Gardens, but not before tasting the delicious and so very refreshing taste of guarapo – a Colombian concoction made solely of sugarcane and lime juices. Dan has his go-to lady for the best guarapo in Medellin and even though it was my first taste of the stuff, I have to agree. It was the best. Think margarita without the tequila. I know that probably sounds pretty disappointing, but after we had been out biking in the hot sun for a few hours, fighting through thongs of cars and motorcycles, it tasted pretty magical!  Half the fun was also watching her press the sugarcane and limes through her industrial looking guarapo machine.

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After we had our fill of the sugary stuff, we walked our bikes into the Botanical Gardens, which was a great reprieve from the busy, noisy streets of downtown Medellin. It was almost like we had stepped into a different world. Inside, we stopped at a quaint little lake where larger than expected iguanas sat up high on thick tree limbs giving us the cold stare, birds of all sizes strutted and flitted about, and turtles basked one on top of each other in the middle of the water. Families, lovers, and individuals alike enjoyed the peaceful setting as the city whirled around outside the walls.

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After the Botanical Gardens, our ride evolved (or devolved?) into even more of a chaotic whirlwind adventure. Dan, apparently impressed by our intracity biking skills, decided to take us into the heart of downtown where the streets were even more crowded with cars and smoke-billowing motorcycles, sidewalks were filled to the brim with people and things, and pickpocketers were on high alert for inattentive gringos. Despite all these potentially day-ruining factors, though, I honestly felt safe. The drivers were all respectful of our space, pedestrians gave us the right of way (most of the time) and as long as we didn’t flaunt cameras or iPhones, I didn’t feel threatened in the least by opportunists.

Somewhere amid all that craziness, we emerged onto the Plaza de Botero – a large square studded with a handful of Botero’s famous and proportionally challenged sculptures. There was a large horse with a small head, a curvy woman with huge thighs and a tiny waist, a soldier man with a six-pack and microscopic you-know-what… the sculptures were both evocative and puzzling and I would have liked to have spent more time wandering among them, but we had a schedule to keep.

 

 

Continuing on our way, it wasn’t long before we emerged back onto sane – or what we now called sane – streets and made our way to our last few destinations of the day: Parque de la Luz with its iconic tall pillars that light up like hundreds of beacons at night, the EPM building (and business) that has helped shape Medellin into what it is today through hundreds of forward thinking community projects, and finally the cute but touristy Pueblito Paisa that sits at the top of Cerro Nutibara, another small hilltop in the middle of the city. As we sat on a stone bench and recuperated from the hot climb up, we treated ourselves to another delicious Colombian concoction – salpicón de frutas – basically a delicious tropical fruit gazpacho with chunks of papaya, banana, and watermelon

The afternoon thunderclouds were rolling in and it was looking like it was going to rain, so we sped back down the hill and navigated our way through traffic one last time. At one point, I heard Liam behind me exclaim “I’m getting the hang of this!” And then we were back at the start – tired, thirsty, hungry, sweaty, sunburned, but throughly delighted over the days adventure.

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Monthly Recap: November 2017

I have been traveling the world for far too many months (and years) to count correctly, but I’m only just getting serious about writing about my adventures. Whereonearth (my previous blog) was written mainly to keep friends and family up to date on my whereabouts as I traipsed around the world, but in truth, I didn’t really put all that much effort or intention into it. I wrote posts in 15-20 minutes max, slapped up some mediocre photos (at best) and called it good. Whereonearth was admissible enough for then, but with Forever A Wanderer, I want to be a bit more thorough and deliberate about the content that I create. In one sense, I want to inspire people to get out into the world and travel (particularly by bike) and in another sense, I want this blog to be my personal travel/life narrative. I’m not quite sure how that is going to look – getting back into blogging is still very new for me (I stopped writing Whereonearth in 2012), but doing monthly recaps seems like a good way to inspire and reflect at the same time. We’ll see how it goes!

So what did November look like for me? Here is the month in a nutshell:

Where I Was

  • 5 nights in Crowley, California housesitting for a friend
  • 11 nights in Sunny Slopes, California at my brother and sister-in-law’s
  • 1 night in Las Vegas
  • 5 nights in Hurricane, Utah
  • 1 night in St. George, Utah
  • 1 night in Cedar City, Utah
  • 6 nights back in Sunny Slopes

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Highlights

  • I’m going to Colombia! A big perk of working for Lindblad is being able to plan one forced layover when we book flights to and from the ships. So since I’m going to be flying to Panama in December for a 4-week contract on board the Quest, I thought why not have a forced layover in South America? Colombia is just beginning to emerge on the travel radar and it seems like an intriguing place to check out, so while booking flights to and from Panama, I added in a three week ‘layover’ to Medellin. Stay tuned for some fun adventures!
  • My dad’s visit to California. Shortly after I returned yet again to my brother and sister-in-law’s place after my last contract on the boat (I’m feeling a bit guilty about crashing at their place so often these last few months… thanks guys!), my dad came out for a visit from Vermont. It had been awhile since I’d seen him – over a year I think – so it was great to catch up and have some family time. He’s the kind of person that can’t sit still, though, so we caught up over chores around the house like cleaning hair out of the drains and changing lightbulbs…

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  • Our top to bottom Rock Creek ride. As a family, the Timbers’ have a tendency to go on some pretty epic adventures, mostly unplanned. One of my favorites was when my parents came to visit me when I was living in Hawaii. My dad and I headed out for a short bike ride, but somehow we missed a turn and ended up biking around the entire east wing of Maui – not an unreasonable feat when properly prepared, but that we were definitely not. I had to work that night, too, and after eight hours of biking I showed up at Paia Flatbread all sweaty and still in by bike clothes. Oops! Our Rock Creek ride definitely wasn’t of that caliber, but it was still pretty epic. My brother scouted out the route on a GPS map and we headed out without really knowing what to expect. Thankfully, the ride was more than spectacular. We started out at over 10,000ft and descended 3,000+ft over the next 20 miles on a good mix of technical and well-build trail. It will definitely be a regular ride during the summer months.

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  • Manny! This month we welcomed the newest addition to my brother and sister-in-law’s menagerie: an adorable 5 month old husky name Manny. I, and I’m sure more than a few other people, were a bit skeptical of this decision given the fact that Will and Louisa are expecting their first kid in April, but man, oh man is Manny a perfect fit! He’s cuddly, he gets along great with Loba (husky #1), he doesn’t chase the cats (although Rocco, who has never warmed to Loba, is less than pleased to have another dog in the house), he hasn’t chewed a thing, and he seems to be great around kids. Score! Plus, he’s ridiculously cute, don’t you think? Welcome to the family, Manny.
  • By far, the biggest highlight of November was my mountain bike trip with friends to Hurricane, Utah. It was the first time I’d ever done a dedicated multi-day mountain bike trip and it definitely won’t be the last. We spent 8 fun-filled (albeit exhausting) days in and around the Hurricane area exploring the vast network of trails and having loads of fun. Gooseberry Mesa and Guacamole are top-notch rides! In between hours in the saddle, we camped under the stars at night, toasted bagels over the campfire, ate way too many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, used obscene amounts of baby wipes to clean the sweat and dirt off our bodies, and perfected the panorama cloning photo. Good, good times!

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  • Winning at the slot machines in Vegas! Woohoo! On my first ever venture into Sin City, I managed to leave $35 whole dollars richer than I came. Now I know that $35 is pretty insignificant (ok, very insignificant) when it comes to potential gains in Vegas, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I won something and didn’t turn around and lose it all again, which is probably what would have happened if our table at the buffet restaurant wasn’t waiting for us, haha.

Lowlights

  • Getting bitten by birds while housesitting. I housesit a lot since I don’t actually have a home of my own and for the most part, all of the animals I’ve taken care of have been lovely. Dogs, cats, horses, even goats. But birds, apparently, bring on a whole new challenge. They like to bite and they have sharp beaks. After a week of housesitting for a friend in Crowley, my fingers were covered in small, but deep (!) lacerations curtesy of Lucky, a little green parrot with an attitude. His friend – Isa, an African Gray parrot, was less nibbly, but I still kept a wary eye on his every movement.
  • Searching for affordable international healthcare. What. A. Headache. Why can’t the healthcare system enter the 21st century and actually be easy to understand and navigate? Furthermore, why isn’t healthcare actually affordable!? I won’t go on a tirade about my opinions on this matter, but lets just say that I am more than a little disgruntled about the lack of affordable and comprehensive options for nomads…. Get it together America!
  • A bike crash in Utah. Thankfully, there were no serious injuries during our trip to Hurricane (although Adam should have gotten stitches for the pedal strike on his shin), but I did have a crash on the last day that left me with a super sore shoulder, a deeply scratched up pinkie, and a body that definitely felt like it had just been tossed from a bike traveling at high speed. I was going around a corner when my right handlebar caught a stray tree branch and sent me flying a few feet down the trail. Thankfully it was nothing serious! I do love mountain biking, but man, it can mess you up.
  • Avianca flight changes. After hours of playing with itineraries, dates, and times for flights to Colombia, I finally pushed the submit button to finalize my trip. Or so I thought. As it turns out, Avianca likes to change their flights and time schedules A LOT. I’ve gotten at least 5 emails over the past few weeks informing me that my flights to and/or from Colombia have changed and one change even caused me to miss a connection. So I’ve had to spend quite a bit of time talking with the nice people at Egencia (who Lindblad books our flights through) to sort out my ever-changing flight schedule. Frustrating!
  • Being too scared to climb the last leg of the Angel’s Landing trail in Zion National Park. Yeah, it’s hard to admit, but I chickened out on finishing this hike. To be fair, though, I went with zero expectation on what the hike would be like and I was more than a bit surprised (and intimidated) at the last section: it’s super steep, super narrow, and super high up – not something taken lightly for a person with a fear of heights. From afar, the final chunk seriously looks like a trail up one of the floating mountains in Avatar. If I had known what was ahead, I think I would have been a bit more prepared to throw my life on the line. Perhaps next time…

What’s next

Colombia! I’ll be spending about three weeks in and near the city of Medellin. For Pablo Escobar fans, Medellin was the drug lords home turf, making it one of the most dangerous cities in the world during his reign in the 1980’s and 90’s. Now, thankfully, the city has made a tremendous rebound and is definitely becoming a traveller’s destination. I think it’s still a bit under the radar, so I’m excited to explore! After Colombia I’ll be meeting the National Geographic Quest in Panama on December 23rd for a month of work. It’s been about 5 years since I’ve been down there, so it’ll be great to get back.

Mountain Biking Hurricane, Utah

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When most people think of mountain biking in Utah, what comes to mind are the classic red slickrock trails of Moab. But while there is undeniably some fantastic mountain biking to be had in Moab (I’m looking at you Porcupine Ridge), there are tons of other epic mountain bike destinations in Utah. Enter Hurricane – pronounced ‘Her-ah-kun’ by the locals. (Don’t ask me where the name or pronunciation came from).

I’d actually never even heard of this little town before until I met my friend Adam this past May while visiting my brother and sister-in-law just north of Bishop, CA. We met, of course, on a ride (via a mutual friend) and after a few fun jaunts together down Lower Rock Creek and some high speed downhill at Mammoth Mountain, I was initiated into his little circle of mountain biking friends – his girlfriend Jessi, Cal, Marsha, Lane, Lindsay, his sister Deanna, Rick, Amanda, Rachel… Hallelujah! Mountain biking is not really a sport to be done solo (depending on your style of biking, it can be pretty high stakes), so it’s alway nice to make new mountain biking friends that can call 911 in case of a crash. Just kidding. Kind of.

Anyway, every year Adam and co drive out to Hurricane for a week of mountain biking fun over the Thanksgiving holiday. This year, he invited me along and of course I said yes! I was a bit nervous at first because I’d never done a big destination mountain bike trip like this before and I was still pretty new to the close-knit group of friends that do all sorts of adventures together. But holy moly, I’m so glad that I went. It was a blast! The riding was epic, the people were amazing, the weather couldn’t have been better, and I definitely level-upped in the skills department. Goat lunges, reasonable jumps, and moderate drops are all easy peasy now. All around, it was an amazing week and I can’t wait for our next adventure: Sedona, 2018! Before I break the week down into what we did each day, here are some highlights (and lowlights, because everything can’t be all berms and kickers):

Highlights:

  • Winning $35 at the slot machines in Vegas, haha!
  • Two downhill runs in Cedar City: a C Trail link-up and Blowhard. Both awesome rides!
  • Gooseberry Mesa and Guacamole. Aside from the downhill in Cedar City, these were my favorite networks of trails
  • The crew. So many good, inspiring, fun, and generous people. I can’t wait to go on more trips with these guys
  • Roasting marshmallows stuffed with peanut butter cups over the campfire
  • Gaining skills and confidence. I definitely feel like I leveled up over the course of the week both in technical skills and in fitness. I just gotta keep it going 😉

Lowlights:

  • Changing camp spots every night. I was the only one in a tent and it got a bit tiring to take it down every morning and set it back up every night. Sleeping in a car is definitely the way to go for mountain bike trips.
  • Thanksgiving dinner at the Black Bear Diner. Huge portions, but definitely not the best Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever had.
  • Feeling sticky and gross for most of the trip. I took one shower over the course of the week and then relied on baby wipes to keep myself looking (and feeling) at least a little bit presentable
  • Final day crash – my right handle bar caught a tree and I landed on my left shoulder, which is still a bit sore. I also busted up my right pinkie finger. Good thing it was the last day!

DAY 1

Adams sister, Deanna, graciously offered to shuttle me to, from, and around Hurricane since I don’t have a car of my own (yet!). She picked me and my bike up at my brothers house just south of Mammoth Lakes, where I’ve been shamelessly hiding out in between ship contracts. Then we drove 2 1/2 hours to her aunt and uncles place in Las Vegas for a quick overnight stop before continuing on to Hurricane. I’d actually never been to Sin City before, so I was excited to see and experience a bit of the hubbub. Almost immediately upon arriving, we were whisked away to the Aliante Casino + Hotel + Spa where Deanna’s aunt insisted we have a go at the slot machines before digging into a buffet dinner of crab legs and prime rib. I was a bit disappointed to find out that you don’t actually pull a lever to spin the slot machines, but my disappointment quickly faded as the coins started piling up. I ended up winning $35 dollars, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but for a first time casino-goer it was pretty exciting! Poor Deanna only won 10 cents, lol. Then, after a messy and mediocre dinner of crab legs, we made our way downtown to drive the strip. Despite never having ever seen it in person, the strip unequivocally lived up to my expectations – ungodly amounts of lights, many of them flashing, extravagance everywhere, live shows on the streets, and a general sense of excitement, drunkenness, and splurge permeating the entire 4.2 mile strip. For some crazy, odd reason, though, this non-clubber, non-partier, definite introvert, loved it. I’m excited to go back and really dive in to the scene!

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Image taken from Wikipedia

DAY 2

After a semi-early start and a stop at Trader Joes for groceries, we said goodbye to Vegas continued on our way to Hurricane. Several others in our group were already there – Cal, Marsha, Lane and Lindsay – and we met up with them in the afternoon for an easy loop around the Jem Trails. It was a good warm-up for the week, but I’m not sure I would ride these trails again. They’re pretty flat and don’t have much in the way of a challenge. The surrounding views are great, though!

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DAY 3

On our second day in Hurricane, we met up with two more members of our group – Adam and Jessi – at Wire Mesa, thus making our group a party of eight. This network was a bit of a step up from the Jem trails we had done the day before, but truthfully not much of a challenge. Still, we had a blast cranking along the winding trails, scouting alternative routes, and taking in the stunning vistas of the surrounding red rock mesas and cliff faces. After we finished the 7.5 mile loop (clockwise), Adam, Jessi and I decided to hit up another section of nearby trails: Show Me The Money to More Money and then back up the Grafton Mesa Road. These were super fun! And definitely a lot more technical than our first couple of rides with some tricky rock features, narrow squeezes, and a lot more vertical descent. My kind of riding.

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DAY 4

This was a big day. We did the Guacamole network in full: Margarita to Salt on the Rim, back on Margarita to the Guacamole Loop to the Holy Guacamole Loop and back to the parking area via Margarita and Salt on the Rim again. Phew! We were tired puppies after this one, but it was totally worth it! What a great network of trails with tons of diversity both in terrain and technicality. The only bummer was that Adam got his shin good on a pedal strike. He probably should have gotten stitches, but…

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Photo by Lane Dumm

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DAY 5

Gooseberry Mesa! My favorite trail of the lot (so far). Lots of riding on big rock slabs, goat lunges up onto small boulders and ledges, amazing 360° views especially at Gooseberry Point, and huge cliffs to try not to fall off of. Our route was the Secret Trail to South Rim to Gooseberry Point, then the White Trail briefly to the North Rim to Bowls and Ledges and finally to Practice. By the time we got to the last two trails, though, we were pretty tired and didn’t really get to take advantage of their natural playground potential – fun rollovers, little drops, wall rides, etc… I could definitely have spent another full day exploring these trails. Next time!

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Photo by Lane Dumm

DAY 6

After four big days of riding, we were all due for a rest day. But since we were car camping and Hurricane isn’t known for its city life, there weren’t many downtime activities to be had. So Deanna and I went to explore Zion National Park – not exactly a rest day activity, but fun nonetheless! We ended up having to bike into the park, though, because it was the day before Thanksgiving and apparently everyone wanted to explore Zion. The shuttles weren’t running and the parking areas within the park were full by early morning, leaving many people stranded at the gates. Good thing we had the bikes. Deanna had chosen to do the hike up Angel’s Landing, which proved to be a lot harder and a whole lot scarier than either of us anticipated. I am NOT a heights person, so I chickened out at the last part, but Deanna made it all the way up. Give me speed over heights any day.

DAY 7

This was by far my least favorite day of the trip. Our group (now down to 7, we lost Lane and Lindsay, but gained Rachel) shifted gears over to the trails outside of St. George, about 20 minutes west of Hurricane. The riding there is a lot different and, in my opinion, not nearly as good as the mesas above Hurricane – there’s more dirt, less rock, more sustained climbing, less shade… We (or I, maybe it was just me) suffered up and down the steep switchbacks of Suicidal Tendencies then some of us called it quits while a few others continued on to do Barrel Roll. I honestly would skip this one next time and stay around Hurricane.IMG_8019

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DAY 8

After riding the mostly flat (in terms of elevation gain/loss) trails around Hurricane for a few days, we (plus Rick and Amanda now!) ventured up north a bit to check out the downhill trails near Cedar City. Now, I love all forms of mountain biking, but zooming along well-built downhill track is probably my favorite of all. The first shuttle we did was to link up the C Trail to Highlands to Green Hollow to Lava Flow, which got better and better as we descended. The top half was mainly tight switchbacks with loose gravel (not much fun…) but the bottom half was filled with swoopy turns through a pretty forest, fun little jumps, a rock wall ride, and some mini rock gardens to bounce down. We were all smiles and fist bumps at the end. But our second downhill shuttle of the day was my favorite: Blowhard, a 7 mile downhill track that starts at 10,600ft and drops over 3,300ft through all sorts of terrain with some great views of red rock cliffs and bizarre looking hoodoos. It’s not the smoothest trail I’ve ever been on, but I like a challenge! The top was definitely the steepest (with a few snow patches to slip and slide through) and then came some tricky switchbacks, rutted and rooty single track, lots of rock gardens, and a few features to practice jumps. My forearms and thighs were definitely burning after this one! It was also the first time Adam and co have ridden the area, and they said they will most definitely make it part of their annual pilgrimage.

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DAY 9

Our last day! We definitely finished with a bang at Little Creek Mesa back in Hurricane. The trails are pretty similar to Gooseberry (lots of fun rock riding, little punchy ups, flowy singletrack through trees and shrubs…), but not as well marked as the other networks. We got turned around a few times, making the ride feel so much longer than it should have been. By the end I was feeling pretty fatigued and when I’m fatigued on a bike I tend to get sloppy… At one point, my handlebars caught a wandering tree branch and sent me flying a few feet down the trail. I landed on my left shoulder which is still quite sore and my right pinkie got banged up good. Nothing serious, though, thankfully! I think I found that seven days of good riding is about my limit 😉

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And that wraps up our week of mountain biking in Southern Utah! As I mentioned several times above, it really was a fantastic trip and I can’t wait for more adventures to come with these guys 🙂

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Soul Searching in Southwest England + A Photo Gallery

This past summer, I spent almost three months in Southwest England. I had recently upended my life in Seattle and I felt like I needed a getaway where I could reset and reground myself. I was feeling lost and lonely and incredibly heartsick. I was doubting my decision to leave the life I had built in Seattle with my (ex)boyfriend and despite my tearful self-assurances, I felt intensely anxious about my path going forward. Was going back to the ship the right choice? How would I pay back student loans if I didn’t pursue a high-paying career? Would I ever meet a partner who jived with my nomadic tendencies? These questions, and more, left me feeling pretty anxious and lost. While some people might turn to family and friends for reassurance and support, I tend to do the opposite. I needed a solo adventure. Something that would clear my head, mend my heart, and hopefully help me see a more resolute path forward. So I signed up for a three month housesit in southwest England.

It’s actually kind of a funny side story of how I landed the housesit. I was interviewing with the British couple over Skype and they were telling me about their plans to do a three month around-the-world trip with their six year old daughter. Their first stop was New England – a month-long road trip from New York to Maine and back again. Vermont, of course, was on their itinerary, so being the proud Vermonter that I am, I asked where they would be visiting. Lo and behold, they had already booked an Airbnb in the very same small, rural town where I grew up! What!? Underhill, you have to understand, is not a tourist destination. It’s a tiny town with a strong local community, some great mountain biking and hiking trails and lots of cows but not much in the way of tourist infrastructure at all. There are no museums, very few restaurants, no public transportation, and definitely no night life. Nearby Burlington, Shelburne, Charlotte, et al… have all those things and more to entertain tourists, but not Underhill. It’s a mystery how Caroline and Will decided on an Airbnb in my tiny rural home town. And the story gets even better. It turns out that the B&B they booked was located at the other end of the dirt road my parents house is on, only about 8 miles down from my childhood stomping ground. How crazy is that!? And to get even crazier, they ended up wanting to stay a few extra nights in the Underhill area (of course, it’s the best), so they booked a room at my parents Airbnb. The world can’t get any smaller than that.

So it kind of felt like fate that I landed this three month housesit in the UK: I needed a solo adventure, I couldn’t afford all the expenses of a big trip because I had just quit my job with no future job lined up, I had no personal obligations, the timing was right, and the homeowners were traveling to my home town in rural Vermont. All the signs pointed to yes. It was settled, then. Just before my 32nd birthday in June, with my mountain bike in tow, my few belongings stuffed into my backpack, and a sense of adventure that I hadn’t felt for a long time, I left for the UK.

There were plenty of ups and downs over those three months. I wish I could say that I healed my heart, I gained new insights on myself and my future, and I came away stronger than I left. But the truth is that none of those things really happened. England ended up being more about stepping away from it all, not about figuring it all out. And that’s quite all right with me. Instead of getting my ducks in a row, I went mountain biking and hiking every week, I watched wild ponies graze on the moors, I explored small, medieval towns with their quaint markets and boutique shops, I ate wood fired pizza with the locals, I made friends… I also spent days on the couch watching marathons of Gilmore Girls and eating ice cream out of the pint to distract myself from ‘real life’.

So despite my intentions of ‘figuring things out’ in the UK, I left England still feeling pretty lonely, lost, anxious (particularly about money), and unsure about how things would continue to unfold as the year went on. But I also left with some pretty great memories, a handful of new friendships, and most importantly, I left England with a regained sense of being a strong, independent, female traveler, an identity that I feel like I lost during my four years in Seattle. It was good to feel that confidence again and know that I still have the travel mojo 🙂

Onward and upward!

Below are a few of my favorite photos that I took from various places and adventures around southwest UK. I hope you enjoy!

EXMOOR NATIONAL PARK

I spent a lot of time in Exmoor National Park because it was one of the closest nature areas to where I was housesitting aside from the Quantock Hills. Besides being gorgeous, the park is also home to numerous herds of wild ponies, which I never got tired of watching. Many of my trips into the park were with my bike since the mountain bike guidebook I found in Exeter had a whole section of rides in Exmoor. Each one was stunning!

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DARTMOOR NATIONAL PARK

I only spent one glorious day in Dartmoor National Park and I regret not exploring it further. It’s different from Exmoor in that it’s more wild (think actual moorland rather than farmland) and there are ancient stone circles and standing stones hidden among the valleys and hills, something I didn’t come across in Exmoor. Of course, wild ponies roam freely and the cattle and sheep that graze within its boundaries have the best life of any farm animals I’ve come across in my travels. Plus, one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes episodes was filmed there – The Hounds of Baskerville 😉

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THE QUANTOCK HILLS

Like Exmoor, I spent a lot of time in the Quantock Hills mountain biking and taking the dogs for a walk. It’s a beautiful area, if a bit more popular and crowded than the other two parks. Some of the downhill rides were top notch, but the climbs back up were not…

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KILVE BEACH

I found this beach in an off-the-beaten-path guidebook that was sitting on the bookshelf in my room. I used that guide book for a lot of outings over the summer and it never disappointed. Every destination was off the beaten path and it felt like I was actually discovering a local’s only place every time I ventured out per its instructions. Kilve Beach was no different. I actually missed a turn trying to find it because the road down to the beach was so inconspicuous. The beach itself was fascinating. Crazy geological features, huge prehistoric fossils, beautiful views out to the ocean, and an adorable (and delicious) little cafe that serves light lunch fare in a ramshackle (but historically significant) old church.

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CLOVELLY

The farm I was housesitting at was pretty remote, but thankfully I had an awesome neighbor – Amy – who lived in the ‘malt house’ right next door. She’s a bit younger than me, but we hit it off and we’re actually doing a road trip together in California in April! Super excited about that. Aside from movie nights, wine nights, walks with the dogs, and picnics on the lawns, we went on a few adventures farther afield. One of my favorites was to the super cute town of Clovelly. No cars are allowed in town because the cobblestone streets are so narrow and steep, which made the vibe even more quaint and charming. The houses – all brightened up with flowers and garden beds – are built close together and overlook a small bay and boatyard. A few of the houses were actually set up as the would have been in the old fishing days with lanterns, antique furniture, old pictures and photographs, cast iron cooking utensils, etc…

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BATH

Towards the end of my stay in England, my mom came for a short visit. It was a bit of a rollercoaster ride because tension often runs high (I won’t go into that now), but we did embark on some fun adventures. One of those outings was to the old Roman city of Bath, renown for its classical architecture and, of course, its geothermal baths. Funny story – we actually thought that we could go into the ancient Roman baths, so we walked around the exhibit with a large bag packed with towels and swimming suits… turns out you can’t soak in the 2000+ year old pools. Silly us.

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CORNWALL

Another adventure my mom and I went on was an overnight trip to the southernmost county of England – Cornwall. Prior to visiting, my only reference to Cornwall was the binge-worthy British drama series – Poldark – that takes place in the Cornish countryside. If you haven’t seen this show, I highly recommend it, it’s sooo good! And a little sappy 😉 The landscape scenes alone will make you want to visit this gorgeous part of England.

We didn’t have a whole lot of time to explore since I had to get back to the house and dogs (Amy was kind enough to watch over them for a night), so we did a whirlwind tour of a few standout places.

We went for a short but stunning hike in Zennor head. Unfortunately I had a back pain thing going on, so I couldn’t do anything too strenuous, which was a bummer since it was so unbelievably beautiful there.

We caught a day-time show at the cliffside Minack Theater, which was such a trip. I’m not a huge theater aficionado, but this was a definite highlight. The theater is carved out of stone and is situated right at the edge of a cliff that overlooks the English Channel. The views were absolutely insane and the show itself – Nell Gwynn – had us in stitches.

My mom wanted to see a real castle before she left, so we stopped at St. Michaels Mount, an island fortress just outside of Penzance. You can walk to the island at low tide or take a boat shuttle if the walkway is covered in water. Since the tide was high in the morning, we took the boat over then walked back a few hours later along the long, paved footpath.

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I visited and explored many more places than these few highlights, but these were some of my favorites. I can’t wait to get back and explore more of beautiful England. I hear there’s some fantastic mountain biking in the northern regions, especially Scotland and Wales 😉

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Rock Creek Ride from Top to Bottom

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I’ve been spending the last few weeks at my brother and sister-in-laws place in the Eastern Sierras since I have a good chunk of time off between contracts on the ships (two months to be exact). Two months is a long time of no work, but all the ships are in shipyard this time of year, so it’s time to play. And play for me equals mountain biking!

Last time I was in California I bought a new mountain bike, which was long overdue because my old mountain bike was at least 8 years old. It was a Gary Fisher Rumblefish and it served me well for many years, but it was definitely time for an upgrade. And what a difference that upgrade has made! I ended up settling on a Devinci Troy and thanks to new geometry and technology I’m faster, I feel more confident going over jumps, technical ups and downs are easier, and it’s so much lighter than my last bike so pedaling isn’t as laborious as it used to be (or maybe I’m just in better shape…). But really, it’s amazing.

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Since we’re coming up on ski season, though, the mountain bike park at Mammoth is closed for the winter, so we’ve been riding a few of the lower trails in town like Uptown, Downtown, Paper Route, Mammoth Rock Trail, etc… and of course Lower Rock Creek just south of Mammoth, which is one of my favorite trails ever.

But this past week my brother scouted out a downhill route that runs all the way from Mosquito Flat trailhead at the top of Rock Creek Road to the bottom of Lower Rock Creek Trail that shoots out into the tiny community of Paradise:

20+ miles, only 350ft gain in elevation, and a whopping 5200ft drop in elevation. Yessss! I was definitely game. My dad, who was visiting, was also in and a friend of my brothers came along as well.

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The upper part of the trail is pretty technical with lots of rock gardens and drops to navigate around, but as we descended, the trail kept getting better and better. We skirted around a glistening lake on perfect, packed down single track then entered a wooded area with slightly sketchy plank bridges (sketchy because some of the bridges had 2-3 inch gaps between the planks that could easily eat a bike tire). We scooted through empty campgrounds, bounced down chunky stone steps, weaseled our way around tight hairpin turns and eventually had to hit the tarmac for a 4-5 mile descent down Rock Creek Road to the start of the familiar Lower Rock Creek Trail, a trail we’ve done countless times before, but never gets old.

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Lower Rock Creek is divided into three sections (i.e. three road crossings) and each section is pure mountain biking fun. The first two are flowy with little-to-no technical sections, but the third section is a bit more tricky. It’s my favorite, though, because I love a challenge 🙂

All-in-all, it took us about 2 hours of moving time to get from the top of Mosquito Flats all the way down to the bottom of Lower Rock Creek and there wasn’t an inch of those 20 miles that wasn’t fun. I loved it so much, in fact, that a friend and I went back and did it again two days later. This will be a routine ride, for sure!

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Biking The Grand Western Canal To Knightshayes Court

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During this past summer in England, I spent a lot of time taking the dogs for a walk along the Grand Western Canal trail which was located just a few minutes drive from where I was housesitting in Stawley. The trail is a 11.5 mile bike/walking path that runs all the way from Lowdwells (basically just a parking area) to the small, cute village of Tiverton. Apparently the canal was dug in the late 1700’s to connect the English Channel to the Bristol Channel, but it was never finished because the railway beat them to it. Now it’s just a pretty waterway that cuts through stunning farmland and is home to families of swans, ducks, and other wildlife.

 

After a few weeks of settling into England and housesitting life, I decided to ride my bike from one end of the Canal to the other and back again. I started at the north end and cycled south along the mostly flat gravel track toward Tiverton. The track passed under a million ridiculously cute and quaint stone bridges plastered with ivy and ran past picture-perfect English estates with manicured gardens. It was a pretty easy pedal, perfect for a lazy ride where the ‘experience’ is more important than the destination.

After about an hour and a half of pedaling, I arrived in Tiverton where I stopped for a quick coffee at The Flying Pickle before setting off on backroads to Knightshayes Court, a majestic old manor about 3 miles outside of town. At Knightshayes, I parked my bike and explored the grounds with included a beautiful walled kitchen garden, expansive greens,  manicured terraces, wooded paths, and a playground made from a gigantic fallen tree. Then I entered the manor and strolled from room to room gawking at all the cool, old memorabilia. Before heading out, I treated myself to a delicious elderberry ice cream cone and from there it was a slow, contented pedal back along the canal.

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