Backpacking Wyoming’s Wind River Range, September 2017: Part 2

Day 5

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We got a late start again today but at least the sun peaked over the horizon to the east sooner than usual and got us warmed up after a night below freezing. The mile hike down Ranger Park was gentle and easy and we kept watch for wildlife. We had to duck under a rope crossing the trail as the guys who had generously donated the beer the night before were blocking their horses’ escape route. We passed their camp, wished them a good morning and moved on. The trail split and we took the upper trail to Grave Lake. The initial climb was moderate and it soon leveled out. We passed two amazing waterfalls before we reached the lake and took a moment to enjoy the scene.

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Grave Lake was beautiful and more still than I think I have seen any body of water. It was like a mirror for the mountain surround. We paused for a snack and to take pictures…right up until I dropped my camera in the water. Yes, the second camera I have now drowned but the first that was almost brand new. I wasn’t happy but I hope I saved the SD and dried it out quickly. (How many photos were posted earlier in the blog will attest to how successful this was!)

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Thankfully I still had my phone and could continue to take pictures (which ironically turned out to be better quality than the ones from my camera). Of course the guys are taking plenty too so there will more than enough to choose from.

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We circumnavigated Grave Lake and climbed up over a boulder field which had taken out the old trail. The trail could be seen below us. We soon faced another steep climb to yet another waterfall, and then above it to cross the creek that flowed out of Baptiste Lake.

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We stopped for lunch and to refill with water while we enjoyed the incredible view of Mt. Hooker, a slab of sheer granite with a vertical wall that just didn’t look real.

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From the creek crossing it was all uphill to Hailey Pass. What looked like a short 1000 ft climb over 1.2 miles ended up being one mile of easy hiking followed by .2 miles of snow fields and a near-vertical trail of marbles. It was a trail where one false move would send you crashing to the bottom. Jerry said we could be at the top in 40 minutes. I thought that would be impossible and just laughed, but with that challenge in my head I motivated myself to get moving.

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Initially the trail meandered through rock-strewn grass meadows next to a snow-melt-fed creek before ending at the bottom of another snow field, beneath which was buried the switchbacks of the trail. We eye-balled the trail above us in order to give us a rough direction of travel and then went for it. Shoes with good grip and my hiking poles helped immensely to stop me from slipping more than a few inches in the melting snow. If I fell too far I’d probably have taken Jerry’s feet right out from under him too as he wasn’t far behind me.

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The trail after the snow field then got tough…and I mean one of the more nerve-wracking and steepest climbs I have ever done. I was amazed at how tough it was but also at how fast we managed to do it. Although it wasn’t 40 minutes we did make it to the top in 50! Now that was something I was proud of…and I still felt good and like I had energy. It was pretty freaking awesome.

We spent a few minutes at the top, hollering down the valley at Doug way below us, just a tiny dot on the trail, before turning west and heading down towards Pyramid Lake.

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We passed two alpine lakes immediately, one with a massive snow field to the side that looked like it would be fun to glissade down and fly off straight into the lake…if only it wasn’t so cold.

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We crossed the stream leaving the lakes and followed a rocky path down the valley for two miles before reaching a trail junction…and a bunch of tethered llamas! It was an odd site to walk on. From there we hiked another mile to Skull Lake where we made camp for the night at 4pm…a good time to allow for eating and relaxing.

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It was still warm and breezy and our tents dried quickly as we did camp chores. (We hadn’t had one morning where we woke up with dry tents…frozen, but not dry). Jerry had erected a large sign for Doug to see when he arrived in camp comprised of a dead-fall branch and his Ursack (I forgot to take a picture of it though). He wandered into camp a little before 6pm looking a little beat and voicing the same disbelief at the pass we had all just climbed, crossed and descended.

With dinner eaten we discussed the next day’s plans as I crawled into my sleeping bag to stay warm. We talked together as day faded to night, and waited for the moon to rise. We went to bed before it did.

Day 6

We were out of camp by 9am this morning with a short day ahead of us. We hiked only a mile before I emptied my pack, Doug pulled out his sleeping pad and umbrella, and Jerry and I made the 2.2 mile side trip up to Shadow Lake. Both of us wanted to hike more miles than the approximately 5 miles from one camp to the next.

We had barely gone 10 minutes when we saw a group of 4-5 people with a loose dog that didn’t look like it was under control. We stepped way off the trail, more than 40ft (further than I usually do), and as usual I put Kye and Cody in the down-stay position. This dog barreled up to us and then after sniffing introductions the dog laid into Cody. I kicked the dog who backed off and Jerry grabbed my hiking poles from me and stood on the defensive. One of their group hurried over to get their dog and several of them apologized although I wasn’t exactly in a mind to accept it. (Forgive the rant here: Dogs should always either be on a leash if they are not under complete voice control at all times. I always think it’s a little sad that people feel like they have to thank me for having well-trained and well-controlled dogs).

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The hike to Shadow Lake was easy terrain and we made the 2.2 miles in 50 minutes. We passed or talked to several groups going up over Texas Pass and into the Cirque. The pass looked pretty intimidating…as steep, or steeper, than Hailey Pass and no maintained trail over the top. As we ate a snack and drank some of our water we could see two tiny dots that were people on the top of the pass. That is what we must have looked like to Doug when we were at the top of Hailey Pass.

Texas Pass is the saddle in the far left of the picture:

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We returned back to the trail junction to see Doug taking a nap under his umbrella. I ate lunch and then we headed down the trail for a few miles. It was a short day, mileage wise between camps, and we set up camp in Fish Creek Park. Still no wildlife to be seen anywhere…this certainly isn’t the Bighorns where I usually see a ton of wildlife.

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We talked and did camp chores, ate dinner and talked some more with some very interesting subjects coming up. Once the debates on some of the more popular conspiracy theories came out I kept my mouth shut…not a subject I generally get into as it can get pretty heated and I don’t argue a point without facts to back me up.

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We had the clearest night yet and spent a while watching the stars and the Milky Way appear overhead before finally retiring to bed for our last night.

Day 7

We woke up to an earlier-than-usual-sun due to our camp site location which was nice as our tents and sleeping bags were once again soaked. I ate breakfast and brushed my teeth in my tent as I let my sleeping bag dry in the warming sun. We were slow to get going (again) as we only had 4 miles to hike to the truck…and from there a few decisions were going to have to be made.

Jerry and I talked most of the way back as we followed an easy trail down a mild grade with very little in the way of the spectacular scenery we’d been seeing over the past few days. Doug mentioned he wanted to take his time and savor the last few miles we had left in the Wind River Range.

Jerry and I got back to my truck around 11am, removed our packs and I grabbed a much needed diet Pepsi…it tasted pretty awesome. We found a note on the windshield from Jeri and Wayne and we set off to find them in the campground, just next to the trail head. They had done some hiking while we had done the loop but Jeri had remained sick the entire time we had been gone although she was starting to feel better, finally.

Upon a brief discussion all agreed that a hotel, a shower and beer and burgers in Pinedale were definitely called for. After that had been decided (we already knew Doug’s opinion on the matter) Jerry went to wait for Doug by the privies so he didn’t walk all the way back to the truck at the other end of the parking lot as Jeri and Wayne packed up their camp.

While Jeri and Wayne packed up, and Doug threw his pack in the car, Jerry and I headed for my truck to go see if we could find my misplaced headlamp at the place we had camped the first night. We had no luck.

With no headlamp to be found (I did find it in the camper when I got home) we headed down the mountain towards Pinedale and I pointed out the original trail head we had planned on using (Scab Creek TH) which was much further out in the basin than Big Sandy TH. We agreed we had made a good choice in changing it.

The sign as we drove into Pinedale was pretty apt. It read “Pinedale: All the civilization you need”. After a week in the wilderness a small town was exactly what we needed to ease back into the world of motors and money.

The first stop in Pinedale was the liquor store during which time Jeri, Wayne and Doug must have passed us as they called us from outside the brewery, and they had originally been behind us. We drove to meet them and I made a few phone calls and managed to locate enough hotel rooms in the same hotel to accommodate us all for the night. With beer in tow we headed for the Gannett Peak Motel, and despite desperately needing showers we all opted for a cold beer or two first. Showers did follow quickly as we were all hungry and ready for a good meal and did not want to completely offend the Pinedale locals with the smell of the mountain and hard-earned sweat.

With everyone showered and in cleanish clothes we finally walked the couple of blocks to the Pinedale Brewery and Grill where everyone ordered the much-talked-about burgers, except for Doug who had been more vocal about steak (and Rocky Mountain Oysters but they weren’t on the menu). We were also joined by our motel neighbor, Ramone, who was heading out for his own solo trip in the Wind River Range the following day.

Burgers, beer and steak disappeared fast and the conversation flowed well. Dinner was followed by Jerry riding a moose and then a brief visit to the Cowboy Bar where we listened to the jukebox and played a couple of games of pool (Wayne and I won both games as a team). We headed back to the hotel shortly and all headed to our respective beds to get some much needed rest.

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Day 8

No one slept well last night. I think we all slept worse than we did on the mountain, which is saying something for me since I did a lot of cussing at my hammock quilt (such a small one is not recommended for ground sleeping).

Coffee was found across the street, as was a cold diet Pepsi. Bags were packed and loaded in vehicles, dried tents were folded and put away and final pictures were taken. Dogs pouted and sulked as they knew something different was happening with people they had bonded to. With not much left to do we said our goodbyes with hugs and handshakes and I watched everyone drive away.

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It felt strange and kind of empty now that I was alone. I had spent 24 hours a day with Doug and Jerry for a week and we had certainly built a bond between the three of us with our shared time on the trail and the experiences we had. If this is what it feels like coming back to civilization after only a week on the trail, and creating amazing memories with new friends, I can begin to understand how it feels for a thru-hiker who has spent many weeks and months on the trail creating these relationships and then having to go back to “real life”.

Summary

The Wind River Range loop we did was brutal, beautiful and challenging but all those facets came together in the most amazing way to push me harder than I have ever been pushed before and also to learn how much more I can challenge myself. Depsite how tough it was there was never a moment in my mind I thought I would quit or couldn’t do it and I thrived on the challenge.

We had impeccable weather despite most nights dipping below freezing. We saw almost no wildlife (a couple of deer, multiple marmots and lots of squirrels and birds) which was surprising, but the majesty of the mountains mostly made up for it.

I created some friendships that I believe will last a lifetime and we are already talking about other trips together. This really was one of the most amazing weeks of my life and I look forward to repeating it in the future.

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Backpacking Wyoming’s Wind River Range, September 2017: Part 1

Day 1

I awoke early to frost on the windows and a frozen water bowl for the dogs. I heaved myself out of the warm confines of my cozy bed to let the dogs out, brush my teeth and grab a diet Pepsi (my coffee). We were soon on the road and heading over South Pass at the southern end of the Wind River Range, and a well-known re-supply hub for CDT thru-hikers.

A right turn onto Lander Cut-Off, a well-packed dirt highway, would take us straight to the turn-off for Big Sandy trail head where I was to meet the others backpackers I would be hiking with but whom I had never met. The road was typical Wyoming dirt highway and it was safe and easy to drive at 40-50 mph, except on the frequent and often-unmarked curves. After 26 miles I took the right turn up to Big Sandy trail head. The road was slightly rougher but still a decent 20-30 mph road with a few washboards and some small rocks, but the views at the top were stunning.

I had planned on arriving early as the fishing looked promising in Big Sandy creek. After finding a good campsite 3/4 mile south of the trail head I checked the creek out for a hour or so using the 2-weight fly rod my dad had left in my care. Other than being completely thrown by the right-hand reel the fish just weren’t interested no matter what fly I cast out into the water. I could see a handful biting but just not where I was. The creek was wide enough that my 4-weight might have been a better choice for fishing. After just over an hour of attempting to catch a fish I gave up and went back to the truck.

I ate lunch and took the dogs to the creek to play since there were no fish biting and no fishermen to disturb. I threw sticks and rocks for them to chase and go after in the current (the sticks not the rocks) and Kye brought me at least half a dozen 1lb rocks that she had dragged out from the bottom of the creek, and not the ones I had thrown. With the dogs worn out and thoroughly soaked we headed back to the truck where I set up a chair, grabbed a beer, turned on the music and made bets with myself about when the others would arrive.

Arrive they did, right at 3:15pm (I had bet myself 3pm) and introductions were made as we talked and drank a few beers. (Despite comments on White Blaze not enough beer had been brought in their cooler). One by one everyone grabbed their packs to set-up tents and roll out sleeping bags and pads…I was the only one who didn’t as I was going to use and appreciate one more night in a bed with sheets and comforter in my truck. As dark settled over us we gradually dispersed to our sleeping areas, all excited and looking forward to the week-long adventure that lay ahead of us.

Day 2

Last night was slightly less chilly than the night before which was surprising since I believe the elevation was higher.

I awoke to the sounds of car doors slamming before the sun had peeked over the horizon. I think I was the last one out of bed, but the window coverings I use keep my truck a lot darker than the tents were. It was a slow start to the morning as everyone made their coffee or oatmeal, stretched, warmed up and eased their way into the day. Camp was packed up and we hit the trail head parking lot at 9am where we made good use of the privies before heading up the trail.

Doug and Jerry:

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With the exception of a few rocks and a couple of short, steeper sections the trail was easy hiking through old pine forests with a lot of ground debris and dead fall (not on the trail). We passed dozens of parties coming down the trail, pulling off to the side almost once a minute for the first hour. Couples, singles, groups with dogs…most of which also carried packs, and almost all of which were well behaved…hiked down as we hiked up. We took our first break at the half hour mark as Jeri was struggling slightly. It was a good place for a snack and we BSed for a while until everyone was ready to continue.

Wayne and Jeri:

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The trail remained mostly flat and easy to hike and I barely used my hiking poles…they began to feel like a useless appendage. Within another half hour Jeri was really having a hard time and we took another break with an amazing view of green meadows beside Big Sandy Creek. Sadly Jeri became unwell and decided to that she needed to rest a while before continuing. She told Doug (Huck), Jerry (Not Bad) and myself to continue. We left Jeri and Wayne and hiked on, all three of us feeling terrible about leaving them behind but also knowing what we had each committed individually to this trip, financially and emotionally. We committed to only hiking as far as Big Sandy Lake and waiting for them, camping the night there.

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So on we went, taking our time to meander the four easy trail miles, enjoying some stunning views in between the trees and taking breaks to refill water and BS. We all hiked at our pace and caught up with each other every 10 minutes or so. Jerry, with his long legs and tiny pack was way out front leaving the rest of us in the dust. I found myself in the middle of the pack hiking my normal moderate pace with a heavily loaded pack set up with seven days of supplies. Doug brought up the rear, enjoying a leisurely stroll.

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By 2pm we arrived at Big Sandy Lake and stopped to eat a late lunch as yet more groups passed our phenomenal lunchroom-with-a-view lake-side eatery. We looked at the map and got our bearings, picking out a good spot half way around the lake to stop for the night, flat and easily visible if and when Jeri and Wayne showed up.

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We picked our tent spots and got our tents up in between gusts of wind, and despite the rocky terrain the ground was surprisingly easy to put stakes in securely…always a nice thing to have. Sadly Doug’s tube of pesto sauce had leaked in his food bag and all over his now-smelly bear-resistant Ursack (so much for the smell-proof Opsak liner). At a suggestion he grabbed his soap and headed to the creek to at least try and get some of the oil and smell out before dinner (and no, he didn’t wash it in the creek).

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We had plenty of time to kill so we took pictures, I sent my check-in message to a friend via my InReach and we talked. We hoped we’d see our missing companions but none of us were optimistic, sadly, and all of us were bummed as this trip had been long in the planning.

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With evening drawing in we cooked and ate dinner as the wind remained strong and kept me a little chilled…the other two were fine. We debated about hanging food. We had Ursacks which are bear-resistant kevlar bags with odor-proof liners and can be tied to a rock or tree to prevent bears taking off with them. However, with the area known to have habituated black bears around we decided to try and hang them too…just to err on the side of caution. It was an interesting hang and definitely a team effort to get 3 7lb bags of food high into the chosen tree. On a positive note for me I managed a personal best for rock throwing…made it over the branch on my second throw. Yay me! Hope we still have food tomorrow or this is going to be a very short backpacking trip.

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After the bags were hung and camp was set for the night we looked at the map and brainstormed about the trail for the next day or two and made a rough plan, all the while still watching the trail across the lake for the others.

Finally it was too cold to be outside the tent and I crawled into my tent with the dogs and under my nice, snug quilt. Just as I was switching my socks for bed I got called back outside to watch the moon rise over the peak to the east…it was very cool to watch but tough to take a good picture of.

The guys talked for a while as lay in my tent writing…of course, being guys and knowing my feelings on bears (this trip was only going to be a possibility as a group trip for me) they tried growling, which I just snorted at. Then, of course they had to give me a hard time about not providing them with epic Dune Elliot reading material for the trip…something they had both asked for prior to the trip. Funny guys, and good entertainment too. They don’t know I hid peanut M&Ms under their tents for the bears to find!!!

Day 3

For some reason we seem to be slow getting started in the mornings. It might be something to do with it being damp and cold and it is hard to get out of a warm sleeping bag and into cold clothes.

The view was just as stunning this morning as we packed up camp, retrieved food bags, ate breakfast and tried to warm up. The only bad thing about such an amazingly gorgeous location was the tougher-than-normal search for a private location to dig a cat hole!

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We were out of camp by 9am (again) and the trail immediately started out steep, turning and curving up some switchbacks before flattening out for a short time but the grade and foot-bed was generally pretty good…not the incessant rocks I’m often subjected to on less popular and more remote trails. Each step higher gave us more and more incredible views as we approached treeline. Every time we paused to look back at the view the cameras were immediately pulled out.

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There were a handful of other hikers on the trail but there were far fewer than yesterday. We finally asked a group of climbers to take a group picture of the three of us. We took our time, slowly climbing towards Jackass Pass that would lead us into the Cirque of the Towers. Each panorama was more spectacular than the last, although how I am not sure.

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We crossed the creek and bypassed the first lake as we looked down into its clear blue waters, which looked inviting but were bitterly cold. At the head of the lake we were half way to the top of the pass and we snacked and refilled with water before making the final push to the top. Another steep tail led up from the lake before once again flattening out for a short time before we reached our biggest challenge.

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Between us and the pass into the Cirque was another small lake. On one side was a solid wall of granite with a pretty deep snow shelf hanging above the water, on the other was a small boulder field followed by a large boulder field…this is where the trail went.

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Initially it wasn’t too bad as most of the boulders were hoppable and easy-ish to navigate. A short dirt trail led onward into another boulder field and then led up. This was no longer hiking…this was bouldering and climbing. The dogs did superbly although Kye got stuck in one place and almost fell into a hole…thankfully Doug was behind her…but she managed to extricate herself and move on. It had my heart pounding slightly as I couldn’t get to her quickly and she could have fallen. It was a pretty gnarly section of “trail” and we agreed to stop and have lunch before hiking the last half mile to the top.

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Some of these boulders were as big as trucks and small cabins:

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I gave the dogs a reprieve and removed their packs as they had done a lot of hard work in the boulder field. They took naps and we ate. It was the first glimpse we got of one of the towers that comprised the cirque. We also watched two rock climbers either climbing or repelling a seemingly sheer rock face.

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The last half mile was the steepest yet and nothing but loose sand and a few rocks. I was stopping often, not just to give my muscles a break but to visually inhale the view. Nothing up until that point compared to the towers, peaks and valleys of granite that assailed our eyes as we reached the apex of Jackass Pass (aptly named) and the beautiful Lonesome Lake at the base of the Cirque. It was too much to take in…there were just no words to describe what it looked like or how it made me feel to see. If I could imagine a cathedral God would create…that would be it.

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Feeling dumbstruck and slightly emotional we descended towards Lonesome Lake (the first test if how my knee was holding up, and it did good), stopping every five minutes again to take more pictures of the snow and intense fields of wild flowers that were still bright and blooming in vivid reds and yellows and blues at this time of year. It seemed surreal.

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We took yet another break at the edge of Lonesome Lake, trying to absorb the majesty of what we were surrounded by before covering the final two miles to our camping spot. A great trail, stunning views and good conversation helped the final 45 minutes disappear beneath our feet and we made it to the trail junction at about 4pm.

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We all scouted the area for suitable places to camp and I found one just south of the trail with several nice, flat tent spots:

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I got my tent up quickly, as did Doug and Jerry as we all needed them to dry out from the condensation and dew from the night before. We ate dinner, looked at the maps again, hung our food bags and then went to spend the final hours of daylight watching the sun set over the Cirque’s towers and listen to the bugling of bull elk next to the creek. It was a pretty amazing evening and we all went to bed tired.

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Day 4

We all awoke to the sounds of elk bugles this morning and were up and at ’em at 6:30am as I yelled at the guys in their tents. We had decided we wanted an early start as we had a big climb ahead of us and a long day. It was definitely cold and I tried to do as much stuff from the warmth of my sleeping bag that I could…it wasn’t enough and I still had to brave the frigid air for multiple things. I’m definitely a little jealous of the guys as they don’t feel the cold like I do.

The sun finally peaked over the tops of the trees as we were finishing packing up and the guys went to replenish water. I always do mine the night before so I don’t have to deal with more cold stuff in the mornings.

With water bladders and bottles full we started up the steep and grueling climb from Lizard Head Meadows to Lizard Head Pass. The trail started in trees but soon climbed above them for more views of the Cirque of Towers and dozens of other granite walls and peaks, valleys and lakes. We could see down to the place we camped and the probable location of the elk from the night before. Walls still towered above us and the alpine tundra soon lay before us, criss-crossed with natural springs and plenty of water (we had been a little worried before as some of the water sources were seasonal).

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Rocks and short-tufted grasses and low-scrub plants were abundant, with the plants starting to turn pretty fall colors of reds and yellows.

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We finally reached the top of Lizard Head Pass and a gently-graded but rocky path led us down the far side until we reached the bottom of another short but steep climb that circumnavigated Cathedral Peak and down the other side. We stopped for lunch to fuel up for the final climb of the day and it was then that Doug told us that he’d tweaked his knee and that it wasn’t doing so good. He was just going to take it slow and easy as we continued.

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Nap time while we waited for Doug:

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From Cathedral Peak we descended along the side of the hill to our first snow-field traverse. I picked my way across rocks for the most part on the near side of the snow as it seemed to be the easiest and safest route and had less snow to fall through. The snow was solid, though, albeit a little slick and Jerry and I made it safely to the bottom. Doug, on the other hand, chose a different route as he caught up with us and managed to slip twice and fall once…it was definitely graceful. Two thumbs up and a high score.

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Can you see Doug on the snowfield in the picture below?

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The trail followed the valley for two miles, high above the creek and I ran out of water half way down. Thankfully Jerry had caught up with me and helped me out with a little water.

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We reached a trail junction where we left signs and arrows for Doug to follow so he knew where we went and then headed past Valentine Lake were I chugged half a liter of water after filtering two liters. Jerry and I then quickly covered the last mile to Ranger Park, crossed a creek shoe-less which was uncomfortable, painful and cold to say the least…thank God for hiking poles. We found a gorgeous tent site…the best one of the trip so far…with an amazing view akin to Devils Tower. Doug showed up within the hour.

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As we were setting up camp two riders with pack horses veered off the trail to come and talk to us. Jerry, the sweet-talker that he seems to be, managed to wrangle three beers out of the riders who were heading up to Grave Lake, fulfilling our much talked-about interest in a cold beer while hiking this amazing place. It was awesome trail magic and a wonderful gesture, so thank you to the two kind gentlemen from Casper, Wyoming. There’s a reason I love this state and will always call it home.

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We ate dinner and watched a mule deer wander near to camp before hanging our food bags and talking for a while as the moon rose. It was a grueling but amazing day. A few coyotes and a couple of elk bugles were the farewell song of the day.

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England 2017: Week 5

Tuesday: Hiking the North Downs Way, Part 1

Westhumble to Merstham

Mom dropped me off at the Burford Bridge Hotel near the Boxhill and Westhumble train station. I walk a short way south, following the Stepping Stones trail to the beginning of the hike. The North Downs Way crosses the River Mole just north of Dorking, Surrey and you can either use the foot bridge at times of high water, or the stepping stones.

From the river crossing the trail climbed steeply upwards towards the summit of Box Hill, the second highest point in Surrey. Steps had been created in the trail to supposedly make climbing easier but I just found them harder to negotiate than managing my own climbing steps, and despite the overcast skies and cool weather I was soon drenched in sweat.

With the first big climb behind me the path stayed moderately level for a while, following a side path around the south side of Box Hill. View points were plentiful and provided stunning views of the countryside and the south downs many miles away. Villages and fields dotted the landscape below with country lanes and an occasional major road joining them together.

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I ran into a few people and their dogs near the beginning of my hike, and other than one very large and noisy group of school kids, there were few others using the trail until I reached the far end.

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Flowers like lilac, blackberries and wild roses were still out in full force painting the sides of the trail with purples, pinks and delicate white among all the greenery.

Most of the trail was well signposted except for a few spots where it looked like someone had removed the signs, and probably not under the proper authority.

The views continued to impress and I stopped at one particularly enjoyable view for lunch, relaxing for a few minutes until I heard the raucous voices of the school group closing on me. I should have just let them past me earlier as they were obviously gaining on me despite my fast pace. It dawned on me, at the bottom of the last steep but short climb, that they were not faithfully following the North Downs Way and were taking short cuts on bridleways and other public footpaths. They finally caught me at the top of the downs in Gatton Park where I stopped to take a water break. Thankfully they too also decided to stop there and eat lunch. I headed out.

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Belted Galloway cattle were grazing at alongside the trail and I passed many other people on foot and on horseback. Many people were out walking or playing with their dogs and I was impressed with the amount of people who had control of the dozens of unleashed dogs that were romping around. I have seen more evidence here in the UK of better trained unleashed dogs than I have in the US. I also saw a very elusive Muntjack deer crossing the path ahead of me but it had disappeared into the undergrowth before I had the chance to pull out my phone and take a picture.

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I passed Reigate Fort, an old WW2 fort that had housed troops and ammunition. From the fort the path headed gradually down the hill and through the grounds of a boarding school, a golf club and a small cricket ground before finally finishing at the town of Merstham. A quick stop at the pub for a very expensive beer in the beer garden provided a time killer before the train back to Horsham arrived at the station, two minutes away.


 

Thursday: Hiking the North Downs Way, Part 2

Westhumble to Gosham

Before I even got out of the car as my mom dropped me off I was already hot. The air was humid and the sun pressed down with a fairly intense heat.

I started the hiking from the visitor center at Denbies Vineyard, just south of where the North Downs Way crosses the A24. It was a more convenient location for my mom to drop me off than the actual road crossing due to the high speed of the carriageway.

The trail started on a paved path through the vines and climbed slowly and easily through the fields. A land train used for tours around the vineyard passed me on its way down and I continued climbing for about a 1/4 mile until I reached the trees and the intersection with the North Downs Way. I appreciated the shade beneath the trees as I continued to follow the ever-climbing paved trail. Views over the valley, the vineyard and the town of Dorking came intermittently and I was pleased with the occasional cloud cover that seemed to appear every time I stepped out into the open.

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Once done climbing the trail turned onto a dirt path before rejoining a roadway at the top of the hill and through a different section of the Denbies estate. The trail finally left pavement behind as I passed St. Barnabas church and crossed another quiet country lane. I was now surrounded by wildflowers and magnificent yew trees. From this point on the trail remained at a more or less constant elevation which made for some easy hiking and was easy on my knee.

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The chalk hills of the downs provide some of the most unique and unusual habitats for various wildflowers, plants, animals and insects that you will find no where else. The kind of chalk soil found in the downs of south-east England can only be found in northern Europe and a small area of Texas with the downs claiming more than half of all there is in the world. It is a beautiful and rare wild habitat that used to be widespread but is now only found in small pockets. Various organizations and volunteers are working on increasing and nurturing these locations.

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With the exceptions of a few open pockets of land the trail remained under the shade of the broad branches of oak, ash, beech and yew which was much appreciated. I passed the occasional walker or runner out with their dogs, including one lady who was wearing a skirt and dress shoes, and looking a little out of place.

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The second half of the trail had me passing an assortment of brick bunkers called pillboxes. These small shelters were built along the south side of the downs as a home defense against a possible German invasion and were mostly hexagonal in shape with blast protection on the roof and small gun ports on three or more sides. They were manned by the home guard but provided no living accommodations for the men who were in service.

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More wildflowers and extensive views of the south downs continued for the remaining miles until a left turn took me down the hill to my destination, the tiny village of Gomshall. Unfortunately it was this last downhill that had me in pain again and me knee was protesting violently. I was glad to rest my knee at the beautiful riverside pub, The Compass, as I waited in the beer garden for the next train that was still an hour out.

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I stopped in at the minor injuries unit at the hospital on my way home to have them do a quick check of my knee as a precaution. Thankfully there was nothing major but I am sadly out of commission for hiking for a month or so as I let it rest and heal.

The rest of my week, and thus the last few days of my time in England, were spent with family and old family friends. On Friday we took a drive to Hollingborne in Kent, just east of Maidstone, to meet an old friend of the family, his wife and her daughter. We met for lunch at a quaint little 13th century pub called The Dirty Habit. The food was good albeit slightly unusual for a pub and the service was excellent.

From a great lunchtime meet-up we headed west to Yalding, on the other side of Maidstone, to spend the afternoon with my nan. We enjoyed a few hours in the garden before having a light tea of hot buttered crumpets and heading home.

Saturday was grocery day (exciting, right!) and then we headed to the local garden and falconry center where we spent an hour looking at and interacting with all the beautiful falcons, owls, hawks and eagles before a two hour flying demonstration of several of the birds.

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They started with two gorgeous Harris Hawks which are not native to Britain (they are an American bird) followed by a peregrine falcon/lanneret hybrid who took a long excursion away from the center. The falconers were worried and explained that it was normal to let them get out and fly. While we waited they brought out and flew a stunning and large eagle owl, which required a couple of volunteers from the audience…of course I jumped at the chance. He was a spectacular bird and it was quite an awesome opportunity…sadly my mom forgot to take photos so there are none of me and the owl together…at least I took a picture of him in his enclosure:

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Toward the end of the owl flying the falcon returned and it was incredible to see him dive at high speed to take down the lure.

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They flew a few more birds, including a kestrel, before calling it a day at 4:30. A 2 hour show for $6 plus a handling experience was a steal for a well-spent afternoon. We wandered through the camping store that was also on site, a place my mom had never been, and meandered through the maze of large “glamping” and basecamp-style tents…so many to look at and so many styles. Exhausted and hot we grabbed a quick cold drink and headed home for a light dinner.

Sunday started out a little gloomy but eventually warmed up and I did the last couple of loads of my laundry before packing my suitcase. My sister and her boyfriend arrived for lunch (a proper roast beef and potatoes English-style roast lunch) which we spent an hour or more enjoying before we headed to a quaint little pub in Barnes Green that my mom recommended. The afternoon was warm and pleasant and the conversation was fun and jovial. We headed home for tea, dipping chocolate and strawberries and a light-but-competitive game of Scrabble. Sadly I had to now say my last goodbye to my sister as I would not be seeing her again before my Tuesday departure.

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Monday was a relaxed day as mom did some garden work before we walked into town. I took her to lunch at The Giggling Squid, an excellent Thai tapas restaurant on the east end of the pedestrian high street, as a thank you for everything over the past five weeks.

Tuesday came all too quickly as I loaded the suitcases into the car and we headed for Heathrow airport. With a little time to spare after checking bags and getting my boarding pass we grabbed a quick bite to eat and then it was time to say good bye as I headed for security. As always it was an emotional parting from my mom but I was ready to head home, back to my dogs, and spend a few weeks with my dad and step-mom before they returned to England for the final time.

England 2017: Week 4

I awoke to grim-looking clouds on Monday morning but they soon gave way to brilliant blue skies and vibrant sunshine.

Mom and I packed a lunch, jumped in the car and headed to Bignor Villa, the site of a roman settlement dating from 200-400AD when it was destroyed. It is a villa known for its high quality mosaic floors which are some of the most complete and intricate in the UK. It was discovered in 1811 when a farmer plowing this field hit a stone. The mosaics themselves are only aboout 3 feet below the surface and it surprising that they had not been destroyed by pervious plowing of the field. The mosaics found at Bignor Villa include the head of medusa, and one of the goddess Venus with gladiators above a hypocaust, an underfloor heating system.

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The short tour of the intricate mosaics did not take much so we ate lunch and headed out for a 3 mile hike in the south downs. A pretty trail guided us by a medieval church, across grasslands and fields until we reach a culvert and a pretty creek where we decided to turn back and try our luck at a local pub that was just off the path. Sadly, being Monday, it was closed. It certainly was in a good location to cater to thirsty hikers. With no cold beer to slake our desire we headed back to the car and drove the 1/2 hour home, making a brief stop to pick up my morning supply of “coffee” aka diet Pepsi for the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday and Wednesday were pretty uneventful as my mom had to work so I spent the days catching up on laundry and wandering around Horsham town center looking for a new pair of jeans. Shopping is exhausting and I generally don’t enjoy it, and this was no exception. I did finally find what I was looking for after a few hours of looking but I was unimpressed by most of the choices and the reintroduction of high-waisted jeans and other fashions that harken back to the 80s. There were almost no low-rise jeans in sight.

Thursday brought more clouds and overcast, cool weather and we headed to Basingstoke in Hampshire to the Milestones Museum, a 19th century replica town built inside a huge arced building.

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We borrowed one of the free audio guide handsets and followed the guide through various workshops, trades, stores and streets of Victorian England. Most of the information we learned was local to the specific area including the production of steam equipment for farms and road building such as traction engines and steam rollers. There was a replica firehouse in one building with historic ladders, tanks and carriages that saw the dawn of the fire service. A mill and lumber yard could be found near to the fire station with full-sized saws, log moving equipment and horse-drawn wagons complete with human figures frozen in action.

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We perused the hardware and toy stores before reaching the old pub just before closing where we enjoyed a beer and a cup of tea and read a few pages of a newspaper dating back to WW2.

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Many restored and refurbished old vehicles, from buses and trams to tractors, trucks and hand carts were parked along the cobbled street curbs, adding to the air of nostalgia that the town provided. There was so much to look at and we paused at the Olde Sweet Shop to buy a small bag of sweets, sold by the ounce in white paper bags. We munched on the shared dolly mixture, an old favorite of mine from childhood, as we explored the last few shops and wandered between the old buildings towards the old-style railway ticket office, steam engine, and horse and cart loaded with coal.

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Milestones Museum was a step back in time and was created with an imersive experience in mind, which included the staff in the pub and sweet shop being in period dress. A room near the front of the museum also provides clothes for children to borrow and dress up in the garb of the time. It was well worth the longer drive to visit and spend a couple of hours learning more about the 19th and early 20th centuries in such a hands-on and realistic environment.

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Friday: Hiking the South Downs Way

Mom dropped me off at Horsham station with my day pack and lunch where I bought my return ticket to Amberly, the closest town to the South Downs Way. After a short trip down the tracks I reached Amberly with a number of other backpackers who were equipped for overnighters rather than just a day hike.

From the station it was a quarter mile roadwalk to the trail. I was following a guide I had found on line but the trail was well signposted and I only checked the guide once to make sure I was turning the right way out of the station. You can find a great guide to the whole trail here: South Downs Way Guide

The first part of the hike followed a narrow but straight country lane next to some farmed fields to the crest of the hill. It wasn’t steep but I could certainly feel the lack of recent hiking in my working muscles. The road soon curved to the right and the trail turned left, still climbing as it wound beneath some trees. The cloud cover was intermittent which made it pleasant and not too hot but it was humid and I was soon sweating profusely. Once on top of the downs the path leveled off. There was very little variation in the direction of the trail and it was contained between two fences for almost the entire route. The views to the north, over the Arun Valley, were pretty and green and were similar to the stunning views to the south but which also included a view of the English Channel. Sheep and cattle became very familiar faces along the trail, especially after the restrictive fences either side disappeared and the trail was more open.

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With a 9:30 start I expected to hiked the 6 1/4 miles to Washington in just over two hours, which I did, even including a stop for lunch with a fantastic view over the village below.

Perfect rock-carved chair for lunch:

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Sheep stare-down:

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I thought this sign was hilarious…see if you can see what I thought was funny:

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A recommended detour, avoiding the busy A24 dual carriageway, led me into the little hamlet of Washington where a very pleasant pub and beer garden provided a welcome respite and a cold beer while I waited on the bus to take me to Pulborough train station. From Pulborough I took the train to Horsham and walked the mile back to the house, after a brief stop in town to replace my hiking shoes. My current pair had begin to wear due to heel slippage and the resulting hole in the fabric of the shoe was creating a hot spot which would eventually mean a blister.

Friday night I headed to Leatherhead, my old stomping grounds, to meet an old friend for drinks and dinner. The evening was a blast and it felt like no time had passed at all as we reminsced and talked about where we were now and what the future was looking like for each of us. After four hours, four beers and a meal we walked back to the station where we said our farewells and I headed home.

Saturday morning mom and I were heading out the door fairly early (at least for her) and heading to the Isle of Wight, the largest of England’s islands and located off the southern coast, just south of Portsmouth. A ban on overtime by the train drivers’ union meant we were a little concerned about the trains and their reliabilty but we made it to Portsmouth Harbor just in time for the next passenger ferry to the island. A brief wait in the terminal while passengers disembarked the catamaran and a short 20 minute ride across the Solent, the strip of sea between the island and the mainland, put our feet on the Ryde Pier Head. The Solent was extremely busy with the world-famous Round the Island race and it felt like we were dodging hundreds of sail boats. My mom’s partner, Robin, was waiting to meet us at and deliever us back to his flat where we chatted and ate a light lunch as we looked out over the marina from the front window.

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A perusal through a 5 year old island magazine, at Robin’s suggestion, gave me some ideas of what I would like to do, but being 5 years old my first two choices had been closed since the magazine had been printed. With no good options striking my fancy we decided a coastal walk would make for a pleasant afternoon. We crossed the Medina River by way of a floating bridge, from which I sotted a couple of jelly fish in the water, before meandering through downtown Cowes and then beyond, along the sea front. We watched a continuous stream of sail boats coming into the harbor as they completed their circuit of the island and finished the race.

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A couple of mies along the sea front we stopped at a cafe in Gurnard for tea or lemonade and typically-British scones and tea cakes. The short break meant our feet and legs were well rested, despite walking on so much pavement, and we headed back to Cowes where we again crossed the river via the floating bridge (actually a chain ferry). Another brief pause at The Lifeboat Pub and Restaurant, overlooking Cowes Marina and dozens of tall-masted sailing boats, completed the walk and supplied us with a cold pint of Guiness’ new lager, a pint of bitter for Robin and some cider for my mom while we watched the milling crowds and sailboat teams enjoy a celebratory or commiserating drink in the hot sun.

We finished the day out with pasta and a refreshing white wine for dinner.

Sunday dawned as a beautiful day with warm temperatures and brilliant blue skies and we took our time getting “up and at-em” for our plans for the day. We were out the door at 11am and heading towards Rosemary’s Vineyard and Winery for a free tour and wine tasting.

During the tour we learned about all the basic procedures used in making and bottling their wines, ciders, liqueurs, and gin and vodka. It was a short tour but was informative especially as it was a small family-run winery and vineyard who took pride in doing things with care and precision by hand for many of the processes. The wine was decent but not the best I have had; their medium dry white was the best of the three I tasted and reminded me of a Pinot Grigio in many ways.

From Rosemary’s Vineyard we headed to the craft village of Arreton for a pub lunch. What we didn’t realize ahead of time was tat there was a classic car rally on the grounds and the pub was insanely busy. After a few minutes of walking through the various artisan stores we headed to a different pub in Newchurch a few miles away where amazing sandwiches and fries were had by all. A scenic drive around the island finished off the day and we headed back to enjoy a dinner of chicken, and another bottle of good wine and great company.

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We left early Monday morning for the mainland, retracing our journey from Saturday through Ryde, Portsmouth, Chichester and back to Horsham.

England 2017: Week 3

It was still insanely hot and humid Monday morning when we went to meet nanny. It was mid-morning by the time I had walked to the B&B from mom’s house. Mom had inadvertently dropped a very important piece of mail somewhere along the route and had to turn back to find it….eek…but I continued in order not to keep nanny waiting. We met mom in the center of Horsham. Most of the day was spent perusing the many shops in search of an ever-elusive, not-too-long plain skirt for my nan…and we never did succeed. Lunch was a brief but enjoyable stop at the cafe in the Waterstone’s bookshop afterwhich we left nanny at her hotel for a nap while mom and I headed home. Nanny was raring to go again around 4pm and mom went to pick her up so she could join us for dinner.

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Tuesday and Wednesday continued in much the same way, although without mom as she had to work. Nanny and I enjoyed conversations and walks in the beautiful park and manor house gardens, we watched shirtless guys playing soccer and sweating profusely in the heat, we stopped with young moms and nanny bubbled with effervesence as she talked to the babies, something that brings her great joy. We had lunches at outdoor tea rooms and in an old but air conditioned restaurant that once used to house the council offices. We wandered through the local museum and went to pick out nice gifts of wine snd chocolste for my mom and sister. I learned how her and my grandad had met and courted, I heard more stories about the war and her childhood and I listened to funny tales of my mom when she was growing up. When we were tired and fed up of being hot we headed home to enjoy the cooler confines of the house and shaded garden while sipping on a beer (me) or a cup of tea (nanny). I got to spend a lot of quality time with my nan, and take some wonderful pictures, and it is time I will hold in my heart for the rest of my life.

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Nanny joined us on Thursday as we headed to my sister and her boyfriend’s (Adrienne and Chris) house where I was staying for a long weekend. It was the first time either nanny or I had seen their house since they had bought it three years ago and the full renovation has only just been [mostly] completed. It was stunning and it was amazing to think they had done a large portion of the work themselves. It was a HUGE project but their house was stunning, especially the massive walk-in shower that, with a couple of hanging ferns, could have been the set for a shampoo commercial.

The afternoon saw us heading to Chartwell, the famous home of Sir Winston Churchill. Chartwell was bought by the former English Prime Minister in 1922 and it was his primary residence until he died in 1965. In 1946, when it appeared that financial constraints would force Churchill to sell the property, it was bought by a consortium of his friends, led by Lord Camrose and donated to the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, on condition that the Churchills could remain until their deaths. Churchill continued to live there until October 1964, when increasing frailty forced him to leave Chartwell for the last time and confined him to his London home.

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We did not purchase the house tour but wandering through the rose and kitchen gardens was more than enough regal splendor for all of us. Of course my poor sister was seriously suffering pollen allergies at the time and we didn’t stay more than a couple of hours. And in grand British tradition, no visit to a stately home or historic site would be complete without the obligatory cup of tea.

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On Friday I awoke to a much more gloomy sky, and much more British weather but that was not deter Adrienne and me as we headed to Hever Castle, not 5 minutes from their home. Knowing my love of castles and all things medieval Adrienne made this visit, plus lunch, her portion of my birthday gift.

Hever Castle, located near Edenbridge and 30 miles south-east of London, is the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. Henry inherited the castle after the death of Anne’s father in 1539. It also, in the later years of Henry’s reign, came into the possession of his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves as part of the settlement from the anulment of their marriage.

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Hever Castle went through three distinct periods of construction, renovation and repair in it’s 900 years. The original and oldest part of the castle, the gate house and walled bailey, dates back to post-Norman time and the time of the Plantagenets in 1270. In 1462 the castle was inherited by Geoffery Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s great-grandfather, who restored and converted the castle, which was in dire need of repair, into a manor and added a tudor dwelling within the walls. The final renovation, completed by William Waldorf Astor, and American millionaire, was undertaken after he bought the castle in 1903. It was used by the family as a residence until 1983 wherein it was sold to a private company as a conference center, although the castle and grounds remain open to the public.

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Sunday took us a Bough Beech Reservoir and the nature reserve where we planned on hiking a 2 mile loop near the lake. What started out well sign-posted ended in, not surprisingly for me, a complete and total lack of signage. We ended up walking 10 minutes the wrong way on a country road, dodging minimal traffic thankfully, before we turned around and headed back to the last signed gate on the opposite side of a wheat field. We found a second trail that was also sign posted and dared to follow it. Again, it was well signed and an obvious path…for a while…but once through another gate the trail and the signage once again disappeared. We were left to guess where the route was supposed to go, and unlike the badly signed Centennial Trail where I had a map and could make a good chice, we had nothing to go on. After wandering around for 15 minutes on the far side of the pasture I gave up looking and crawled through the fence. Two more fences and one minor barbwire injury later and we were back at the start. We debated getting a cup of tea or coffee but I was in the mood for something slightly stronger and we headed home to enjoy a movie and a beer or two.

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Adrienne and I had a quiet dinner before heading to the station to catch the next train back to Horsham at 8pm where mom was waiting to pick me up an hour later.

England 2017: Week 2, Part 2

After a long day on Thursday, and knowing Saturday would also be busy, mom and I kept Friday easy and simple. After a quick grocery shop to supply for my nan’s visit we packed a picnic and headed 16 miles south, by car, to Cissbury Ring, an old iron-age fort that is classed as the best preserved hill fort in Sussex.

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It is estimated that Cissbury Ring was built around 250BC with a double rampart, and ditches on the outside of each, with two gates on the eastern and southern sides. It covers and area of almost 75 acres. It would have been impregnable by other hostile forces with the weapons and tactics of the day. However, while inter-tribal war and skirmishes did happen the forts were more of a deterrent to inhibit conflict, similar to the nuclear weapons of today.

Cissbury Ring is in a beautiful location that looks out over the south downs to the north and the English Channel to the south, with green rolling hills full of immaculate farm fields and trees in every direction. While life at the time would have been hard they certainly picked a beautiful place to live it.

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After walking around the fort and admiring the views and taking photos of the semi-wild herd of horses that grazed the area we made a brief pit-stop at a very old local pub with a beer garden for a quick drink. It was a very pleasant way to end the short hike and enjoy the sun. Notice the one with a strange lion-like “mane” under his belly; I’ve never seen anything like that before on a horse.

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Friday evening saw me taking the train to Sutton, a suburb of London, to meet up with my two best friends from high school, Melanie and Uzma. We had decided on an inexpensive but well-recommended Italian restaurant near the station called Casa Nostra. Mel and I met on the train and arrived early so we asked to be seated at out table, ordered a drink and chatted while we waited for Uzma to arrive. We reminisced about our school days, and in the grand tradition of our friendship we had a very attractive Italian waiter who flirted shamelessly…of course, still being single, I obliged and flirted back (back when were 15 or 16 the waiters were too old to be interested in us “kids”). We talked about the “old” days and what our families were doing, where our jobs had taken us and what our plans for the future were. It was an awesome evening to be spent with friends I haven’t seen in a while but who have been a large part of my life for over 20 years. It was good to see them.

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Saturday had been planned more than a month ago, before I left the US. I had been looking for medieval festivals or renaissance faires that might be taking place while I was in England and found a small event happening at Arundel Castle. It also happened to be only a few stops down the tracks from Horsham which made it extremely convenient.

Arundel Castle is a stately home and a medieval castle with Norman roots. It was originally founded on Christmas Day in 1067 by Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Arundel who was one of William the Conquerer’s most loyal barons. Arundel Castle is one of the longest inhabited country houses/castles in England and many of the original structures, including the Norman keep, the gatehouse and barbican, and the lower part of Bevis Tower survive to this day. In the late 1800s the house was almost completely rebuilt in a Gothic style and is considered to be one of the great works of Victorian England.

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Upon arrival at the castle mom and I meandered along the winding pathways with magnificent views of the castle walls and towers before settling down in the shade of a large tree for “Story Time” with a bard recounting some of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”.

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From the tales of medieval England we made our way past the hog roast to the tents of the knights donning their armor in preparation of battle. We found another shady spot (prime real estate on such a hot day) in some long grass and waited for the event to begin. The event was a live-steal and full armor event which meant real-but-blunted blade, full shields and full suits of either plate armor or maille.

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The battles were a cross between SCA and the Armored Combat League and were continued through until submission upon the part of all but one combatant. Some battles were one on one and others were last-man-standing melees. It was a fun half hour cheering for or booing for whichever contestant the audience chose to support…mostly raucous loyalty for England and a lot of thumbs down and hissing for the French. The Danes and Poles were left somewhere in the middle.

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We enjoyed the hog roast for lunch, although it was a lot of food, and then made our way through the castle to the ancient Norman keep. The information inside the keep detailed the life of various members of the household, including soldiers, officers, musketeers, the King’s Cavaliers, a Lady in Waiting to the lady of the house and more. Sadly no pictures were permitted inside the castle itself but I did manage to sneak one or two on my phone. Outside of the buildings photos were permitted and I attempted to capture the grand scale of Arundel Castle and all of its buildings and walls but with limited success….it was just too much to fit into a series of pictures.

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A break for tea or lemondade was taken after the tour and we almost fell asleep as we settled into the large couches in what was once probably a cellar or kitchen of some kind, before it was open to the public. We were trying to kill some time before the falconry display.

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Finally we could find no excuse to stay and keep a table occupied and we strolled back through the lush gardens to the display arena, again finding a shady spot from which to watch. Sadly this time the whole thing was interrupted constantly by a young Chinese guy behind us Skyping with someone, who we guessed to be his girlfriend, during the show which was somewhat distracting.

We enjoyed the show and watched their Barn Owl, Benny, show off his moves although he was definitely slightly confused when commands he understood came from the speakers. Second was Neo the kestrel who was only 9 months old. Sadly for the falconer the bird’s age showed during the demonstration and he disappeared for a while and was almost impossible to bring back. Finally they did manage to call him back but it did shorten the rest of the show. The last bird flown was a peregrine falcon called JJ. He was beautiful to watch fly and they had to use a flying lure for him due to his speed. It was certainly incredible to see him dive for the lure and hear the whistle of the wind over his wings.

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The falconry display was the last event we stayed for. We headed for the main gate to head to the small town of Arundel outside of the castle walls but got briefly diverted by the rose garden that was in full bloom. The flowers were stunning and the heady scent was almost overwhelming in the heat. It was a stunning place and very much a little sanctuary.

I had voted for ice cream earlier in the day and so we stopped in at a little tea shop as we explored the medieval town, although mom thought hers was too large and too indulgent. It was very good ice cream and well worth the pause to eat it at the war memorial.

A brief but hot walk took us back to the station and we headed home, tired and sweaty but having had an amazing day.

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Sunday

My heart was heavy this morning as I staggered out of bed and sent my dad an email to wish him a Happy Father’s Day. Of course I missed my dad while he was in the US and I over here but what weighed more heavily on me this morning was my grandad’s memorial service. The funeral service, open to one and all, had been held at the beginning of May but my nan had very kindly and lovingly suggested holding a brief memorial and burying my grandad’s ashes during my time in the UK. Today was that day, all the more special and emotional for it being Father’s Day.

The vicar said a few words of faith and remembrance as my mom, my uncle and my nan lowered the box into the hole. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and those who chose to laid flowers and dirt in or around the grave site. It was an emotional time and tears flowed for some, but not all.

To make the occasion lighter and more celebratory of life rather than the sadness we all felt the entire family (minus one husband who had to work) went to lunch at a local eatery called The Red Start, a restaurant/pub establishment a mile or so from the church. It was the first time we had all be together since my cousin’s funeral in 2013. It was a lunch of great conversation and family memories and I made sure to get family portrait in the beer garden after we were all done with lunch and the bill had been paid. It will likely be the last photo we have of us all together.

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It may have been fate, or the gods smiling on us, that we ended up at that restaurant on Father’s Day as they were having a Viking event in the beer garden. While the day was a somber the feeling was light and I enjoyed watching the Viking warriors battle it out in the arena and teaching some of the kids how to use and sword, axe and shield. Sadly, it was another one of those things I didn’t get pictures of as I was more concerned about talking with family.

With lunch over and the afternoon turning into evening we met my nan back at her house. I took the chance to spend a few moments alone in grandad’s workshop, viewing the last train he had been working on before he died. It was a beautiful engine with saddle-style water tanks along side the boiler. It was so close to completion. This was the place I knew grandad best and was a more fitting place for me to say my final goodbyes than the grave site. The familiar plastic bags still covered his old but precious lathes, drill presses and grinders, among other various pieces of classic metal-working machinery. I still felt his memory and spirit around me in that place and my fondest memories will always be watching him construct these beautiful steam engines from scratch. I dug through some of old scraps of metal in a box on the counter top that grandad had fabricated but discarded and took a couple of random pieces that would remind me of him.

The train he was working on when he passed away:

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Finally, as the temperature of the day started to cool slightly we packed nan’s bag in the car and headed home. She would be spending the next few days close to mom and me in a local B&B to get away from things for a short while. This was exactly what I had wanted to focus my trip on…spending time with grandparents who I knew didn’t have too much more time left. Sadly I missed out on seeing my grandad by two months but I will make the most of the time I have with nan.

England 2017: Week 2, Part 1

Monday was a very quiet start to the week although it ended up being more eventful than I had planned. My UK passport was due so I sent in the renewal application for that, went to the bank, did yet more grocery shopping and then returned home for lunch.
After lunch was when things got exciting and mom asked me for some help with car shopping. She had been in need of a new car for a while but had procrastinated because her old car was still running well…but peer pressure from others had convinced her she really needed to get serious about looking, somewhere other than the internet!

Somehow the first place we looked had exactly what she wanted, coming in under her budget and checking all the boxes of things she wanted in a new car. Being the smart people we are we asked all the necessary questions and then left to go check out a few other used car lots. The first one we checked out, and the only other place my mom was convinced there might be some other good options, was fairly grimm. With that place checked off and some breathing room to decided my mom was convinced that the first car was the one she wanted…so we went back and took a test drive, and I did some basic checks under the hood.

With both of us that certain that it was the car she wanted we waded through a few negotiations with tires and then the paperwork until mom had signed the papers committing to a new (to her) 2014 Ford Fiesta in dark blue…pretty snazzy little car. We pick it up this weekend.

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Tuesday mom had to go back to work which left me with not much to do. I walked to the station and caught the same train as her, although getting off a stop later in Ashtead…the town in which I spent the middle part of my childhood.

Having never explored Ashtead Common before I meandered along a series of paths surrounded by verdant undergrowth, avoiding blackberry brambles that crowded the trails, with limited success. Pathways scattered in dozens of different directions as walked beneath massive oak and beech canopies, and it felt incredibly peaceful. I saw few people and those I did see all had dogs…it made me miss Kye and Cody all the more since I knew how much they would have loved exploring the common. Can you see the heron?

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The path eventually returned me back to the station and I took a brief detour to an old familiar memory….Ashtead Pond. A man and his son were feeding the ducks and I did not want to disturb them so I circumnavigated the surprisingly-brown water and came across a heron perched on an old log. He didn’t seem spooked by me so I took a couple of pictures, watched a few fish grabs flies from the surface and headed back to the station where I caught the next train to Leatherhead.

Leatherhead was the town where I spent the older and last years of my childhood, right up until I was 18 and moved to the US so it holds some good memories for me. Not much had changed in the town center as I strolled by the store fronts; some stores were new and had been replaced but some were still the same stores as 20 years ago. It felt comfortingly familiar.

From the town I took the river walk, an old favorite of mine, along the River Mole and heading west out of town. I was heading for another place that held amazing memories for me, Wildlife Aid. From 1995-1998 I worked as a volunteer, cleaning cages, feeding injured or orphaned wild animals and helping with rescues and releases, including a couple that were aired on their TV show “Wildlife SOS” in the first season…it was one of the most rewarding and satisfying things I had ever done and I loved it.

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Sadly Wildlife Aid is not open to the public, not even former volunteers, and Simon (the founder) was in a meeting so I didn’t get the chance to chat. It was amazing, from the little that I could see, how much the center had changed and grown in twenty years. A brisk walk back to the station in the slightly-oppressive sunshine and humid air brought me to the platform just in time for the next train to Horsham. I arrived back at the house just in time for lunch and to enjoy a relaxing afternoon in the warm sun while typing up blog entries

Thursday: The Science Museum

Thursday saw the beginning of another busy and long day. Walking to the station with mom instantly made me regret bringing an extra layer as it was very warm already. I had a bad feeling that all I would be doing was carrying my light-weight hoodie.
Mom caught her train to work and I crossed the platform to get the faster train to London Victoria train station where I was meeting my cousin, Siân, and her husband, Byron. After a successful meet-up we made our way to the Science Museum via the Underground and a subway tunnel.

I had forgotten how large the Science Museum was. There was so much to see across 4 floors and I knew we wouldn’t get to see more than a small portion of it. We started with the “Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care” which was one of the temporary exhibits the Science Museum does in order to keep their content fresh and educational for repeat visitors.

The Wounded: Conflict, Casualties and Care focused on the medical side of World War 1, following the care injured soldiers received on the front lines and in the trenches and then through their journeys home for rehabilitation and recuperation. It didn’t just include information about the care these soldiers received but also how medical practices improved and how better equipment was invented in such a short period of time to deal with the huge variety of injuries and maladies, as well as the huge number of soldiers affected. It was the first war that had seen chemical warfare and old medical practices were initially not equipped to deal with the aftermath. Many soldiers feared gas more than any other aspect of the war they were fighting. This exhibit was of particular interest to Siân and I as our great grandad had served in the medical aspect of the army, taking care of hundreds of soldiers himself.

From the injuries of World War 1 to steam-powered engines we saw and read about the initial stages of early energy production. Large steam-powered pumps and machinery was initially used to pump water out of shallow mines, to drain wetlands and to pump water to towns. Later improvements saw the introduction and development of locomotives and traction engines with ever-increasing horse-power and efficiency, much like modern combustion engines. This was another exhibit that hit a personal note for me since my grandad, who had recently passed away, had spent much of his life building various steam engines and pumps.

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From steam and energy to space, we traveled with astronauts to the moon, looked at photos from Mars, read about Jupiter’s moons and imagined Saturn’s rings. We were taken inside the life on man on-board a space shuttle and how they stayed cool in their space suits, grimaced at what they had to eat for extended periods and had an odd degree of interest in space toilets. A temporary, visiting exhibit, made possible by a co-ordinated agreement between Russia and the UK, gave us some unique insight into the life and history of, Valentine Tareshkova, the first woman in space, but who also did so solo. Again, there was so much information it was hard to absorb it all.

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From Space exploration we stepped back 250 years to the “Making the Modern World” exhibit. The Making the Modern World gallery presented some of the Museum’s most remarkable objects. It charted a quarter of a millennia of science and technology and presented some iconic items that have shaped our society. We came face-to-face with the Apollo 10 command module, Stephenson’s Rocket, Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 1, Crick and Watson’s DNA model and the first Apple computer.

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Thought-provoking objects such as penicillin from Fleming’s laboratory, a porcelain bowl salvaged from Hiroshima and a clock that will tell the time for the next 10,000 years helped to round out the collection of thousands of historic and modern pieces of equipment we have used over the decades.

The final gallery we meandered through, cursing our lack of time and feeling a serious case of information overload, was ironically the Information Age exhibit. This hall followed the journey of communication technology from the first radios to the modern call phone and how each iteration led to the next. The one thing that I felt was missing from this gallery was the influence of the Linux operating system in the modern world, used by 3/4 of major “back room” operations around the world.

We finally gave up trying to add any more information into our already over-saturated brains and decided it was time to head home before the work rush-hour and crowded trains. We said our farewells and departed home.

England 2017: Week 1

I checked in with Denver Air Connection at Sheridan airport more than two hours before my flight which gave me and extra hour and a half to spend with family in town and grab a snack before having to brave TSA security.

Dad dropped me back at the airport an hour before my flight departure time and we said our farewells. I would see him in five weeks.

The flight was bumpy but otherwise decent and the service was excellent with free soft drinks and snacks offered during our time in the air. The plane smelled a little old and musty but the price was decent for the quality of service and 50 minute flight from Sheridan to Denver. With a bit of a cross wind blowing as we came in to DIA it was a bit of a stomach-lurching landing.

Sadly my flight landing at 2:50pm gave me over four hours to kill in Denver airport which I barely managed to fill with a wonderful lunch and a couple of beers at the Mesa Verde Grill on Concourse A followed by an episode of Supergirl on Netflix I had downloaded before I had left Story. It still didn’t fill all the time I had to fill and I eventually ended up at the gate half and hour too early.

The flight was a full one and marked one of the only times when I have been stuck with someone sitting in the seat next to me. It does make it much harder to sleep with someone else there. Despite the amount of people the flight was a good one with only a little turbulence followed by another rough landing due to some very strong winds as we came into Heathrow.

While my bag took a while to come through, both immigration and customs were super-fast and took no time at all. Some times it is really nice to have dual citizenship when it comes to immigration.

My mom, who I have not seen in almost in four year, was there to meet me with a happy smiling face at Terminal 3. It was good to see her and the smile was followed by a massive hug. We located the car and got the heck out of the madness of Heathrow airport.

While I was definitely tired it did not stop me from chatting with mom all the way to Horsham, and appreciating all the greenery and lush growth that is synonymous with the English countryside. Wyoming had been in the middle of its six week green period when I had left, but it was nothing compared to the vast emerald landscape of England.
For the next couple of days I caught up on sleep, did a little grocery shopping to make sure I had my diet Pepsi for the morning and to get my body onto a new circadian rhythm as quickly as possible.

Friday was my birthday and I had planned this trip to be able to spend this one with my mom and other family for the first time in nearly twenty years. It was a huge thing for me, and for them. Mom and I decided to head to the coast by train for the day so we headed to the station and made the journey to Bognor Regis, a well-known and frequented tourist destination…when it’s warm. While the weather wasn’t cold it was extremely windy and the rolling breakers were quite impressive. We sat behind a wave break to get out of the wind and eat out picnic…cheese and pickle sandwiches, although mom had forgotten the pickle! A walk down the pier followed by a coffee and a walk around beautiful Hotham House Park near the station completed the day.

Returning home we stopped for birthday cake and instead of the traditional fare I opted for berry pavlova, a favorite dessert of mine that can only rare be found in the US.
Saturday saw us relaxing for most of the day until my sister and her boyfriend, Adrienne and Chris, and my mom’s partner, Robin, arrived for lunch and a cup of tea, and to celebrate my birthday with me. With the sun shining down on us and with a light breeze keeping the temperature perfect we took a beautiful nature walk by Boldings Brook to the nature reserve about a mile and a half from the house.

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Another cup of tea was consumed by all but me (not very British of me, I know) before we spent some time in the Tern Hide to watch some of the reserve’s inhabitants. Sadly there were no kingfishers which are apparently in residence, and also my sister’s favorite bird.

The returning walk was just as pleasant although a few black clouds did threaten to dump their load on us once or twice. Thankfully the rain never materialized.

Reservations had been made for my birthday dinner at a local Thai restaurant. When my mom had asked where I wanted to go my only requirement was for food I can’t easily get where I live…so Thai is what it ended up being…and it was very good, as was the wine and the company.

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Back at the house mom pulled out a birthday present my sister had given her a month ago; a large “sharing” collection of dipping chocolates. With five of us in the house it was time to warm up the chocolate, pull out the tongs and get stuck in. It was a pretty yummy way to finish out the evening with my family, and a really great birthday.

A late night last night did not encourage an early morning start and I slept until almost 9. A relaxing morning a little grocery shopping preceded lunch, and lunch led into an afternoon of visiting my nan. This was the first time I had been to the house or seen her since my grandad died and I found it a little overwhelming and emotional. It was good to see her, and for being 88 years old my nan is still wonderfully nimble and independent…she is truly an amazing woman.

Below is a picture of the first train I watched my Grandad build. I have some amazing memories of watching him build it and how excited I was as it was more and more complete each visit

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