Scotland Diaries: a Day in the Highlands

Monday, Aug. 19

Soundtrack: “Forests and Sands” Camera Obscura

Itinerary:

  • horseback riding in the Highlands hiking near Plodda Falls
  • look for the Loch Ness Monster
  • high tea at The Loch Ness Country House
  • glamping in Inverness

The Highlands
One of the first lessons we learned in the Highlands was to add 30-40 minutes onto all our driving times previously estimated from our ignorant positions in front of Google Maps back home. We had booked a horseback riding tour through the Highlands, supposedly 90 minutes from Spean Bridge. However, the final stretch took us on a single-lane winding road in and out of a valley, with multiple byway stops in order to let oncoming vehicles pass. By the time we reached the stable, we were nearly an hour late and our group had left without us. Even the sheep on the stable grounds ran away from us before we could pet them. Our disappointment was palpable. But sometimes, things are just not meant to be, so we pivoted to a new plan: hiking to Plodda Falls.

Plodda Falls

The hike turned out to be the perfect thing to lift our spirits. A short walk from the trailhead led us to the top of the falls, and we ventured out onto a wooden bridge over 40 meters (131 feet) above the riverbed. Among the treetops, we had a fantastic view of the forest all around us. I’m telling you, the greens in Scotland are unreal–leaves, lichen, and moss saturated with chlorophyll and rain and fairy magic probably, to the point of bursting with color. We followed the trail down alongside the waterfall, where we got drenched with mist. I was thrilled for this chance to do some hiking before we reached the city-bound stretch of our trip, and happily stomped my way through puddles to get the most of out of the waterproof hiking shoes I’d hauled across the Atlantic.

Loch Ness

It’s a Sassenach summer

Fun fact: I have a Loch Ness monster tramp stamp (or as I call it, a Triassic stamp, ba-dum-bah!) I am a sucker for any sort of mythology, especially if it involves fantasy creatures. The area surrounding Loch Ness is full of kitschy tourist attractions, pretty similar to what I experienced recently in Roswell, New Mexico. This was where we did some souvenir shopping browsing the selection of t-shirts, tchotchkes, and calendars of men in kilts. We paid £7 each to enter a Nessie exhibit, which I found rather disappointing until we discovered a hidden OUTLANDER-THEMED ROOM (seriously, way to bury the lede, Nessieland!). After doing a quick change out of our hiking clothes behind a shed in a parking lot, we rushed over to our next agenda item, traditional tea service in a country house. Though first, we did a shot of whisky sharing Adrienne’s family name as we stood alongside Loch Ness, toasting with her clan motto: “If not peace, war!”

No Nessie sightings today

During our tea (which included Prosecco, cold sandwiches, appetizers, and a crowd-pleasing three-tiered tray of desserts), we noted the background music, a Spotify playlist of acoustic covers. Little did we know at this point the popularity of this particular playlist in Scotland, as John Mayer and Ed Sheeran would continue to follow us the entire week, crooning from hidden speakers in the corner of multiple coffee shops and restaurants. I always get a kick out of seeing what is popularly used as atmospheric music (for example, Sweden had a preference for pop tunes straight off every Dawson’s Creek soundtrack from the mid-aughts).

our tea time view

Inverness
We stopped at a Tesco to pick up wine and snacks for our night of glamping (I can’t think of the popular UK grocery chain without hearing Lily Allen sing in my head “She was struggling with bags from Tesco”). Our glamping pod was located in the outskirts of Inverness, a round little hobbit house with a fire pit. The pod was an adorable decked out with a double bed, two bunk beds, and a shower that made me feel like I was in a transporter from Star Trek. It was a cool night, slightly misty, and we craved a little more exploration, so we embarked on a “wine hike” through a nearby park. The wooded path was lined with holly shrubs, and followed a winding little creek.

Back at the pod, we made a fire, had some more wine, and enjoyed the peace, quiet, and lack of John Mayer.

our glamping pod

 

Bandelier and Facing Fears

Tuesday, May 7: Taos to Santa Fe National Forest

Soundtrack: “Keep Yourself Warm” Frightened Rabbit

After this stretch of city stays, we’re going to be camping again. I shower in the Earthship, taking advantage of running water plus enjoying the experience of bathing next to a flower garden. Once we’re packed up, we get coffee to go and say goodbye to Taos, headed back towards the large national forest that surrounds Santa Fe.

Bandelier National Monument is our first stop. The canyons within the 33,000-acre park are an ancestral home of the Pueblo people. In 1150 to 1550 CE, people carved homes into the soft rock formations created from volcanic tuff, creating cliffside dwellings.

In the parking lot, we pack a daypack with snacks, water bottles, and jackets, then begin our day of hiking. The park trails take us right up to some ancient dwellings where we can climb wood ladders and explore cave-like spaces, their ceilings blackened with soot from campfires.

Once we finish the easy Main Loop Trail, we head deeper into Frijoles Canyon towards Alcove House. Set high in the mountain ridge, Alcove House is a sacred ancestral site where historians believe up to 25 Pueblo people lived at one time. I’ve seen photos of the steep trail leading to Alcove House, so I mentally prepare myself during the 2-mile walk to get there. Along the way, two signs warn us that the final .5 mile of trail is a 140 ft. vertical climb involving ladders, and those with health problems or a fear of heights should not attempt it. Awesome.

the 140′ vertical trail to Alcove House

When we reach the first ladder, I want to give it a shot. I can always turn around if it gets too scary. Kurt goes first, and I catch up to him on the initial rock landing. The trail is incredibly narrow, at points barely wider than one of my boots. At the base of the longest ladder of the trail, we reach a traffic jam as obviously, only one hiker can climb at a time. I stay on the rocky landing as a woman watches her 11-year-old daughter make her way down. The girl had gone all the way to the top, and after she climbs down, I tell her that she did an awesome job and she’s much braver than me. “Thanks!” she says, before adding “You can do it too!”

Kurt on the Alcove House Trail

Well now, I HAVE to climb all the way to the top because a kid believes in me. The next wooden ladder is about 30 feet tall, flat against the rock face, and there’s nothing but air to the right of it. I take a deep breath, then go up at a steady pace, focusing on the next rung up and not looking down or over the cliffside. As I near the top, I see Kurt above me taking photos. I grip the last metal handle in relief. There’s some trail, some stairs, and a few more short ladders, and the next thing I know, we’re at the top.

the view from inside Alcove House

The view is spectacular. For a few minutes, Kurt and I are alone in the Alcove House, so we are able to take photos free of any other hikers. An ancient kiva sits within the dwelling, and I try to imagine what it would be like to live all the way up here and look out at this beautiful view of the canyon first thing every morning. Eventually, more people make their way up, so Kurt and I begin our downward descent so that they can take their own photos. I have a feeling the return trip is going to be scarier, because you HAVE to look down as you go.

Focusing on my breath, I take it one step at a time. My heart is pounding, not just from nerves but also from the high altitude, which always affects my dumb sea level-accustomed lungs. Slowly, the forest floor gets closer and closer, and my boots land on earth with a final thud.

Success!

We rest on a bench, eating our snacks and watching hikers move up and down the trail above us. The trail back to the visitors center is an easy stroll through the forest, and I spot a young elk resting beneath a Ponderosa pine. We take photos from a safe distance. When we pass an elderly woman holding binoculars, Kurt tells her about the elk, and she replies “Oh I’m from Idaho, elk are a dime a dozen to me!” I guess us Illinoisans are easily impressed.

As it gets later in the day, the temperature feels cooler. I pull my fleece jacket on over my tank top. We drive towards Santa Fe National Forest. While stopping for gas in Los Alamos, we take a weird exit off the main road and accidentally get into a lane that takes us up to the security gate for some large sprawling building complex, so we do a quick u-turn. Oops, we almost tried to enter the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Awkward.

In the national forest, we use a forestry map to find a stretch of roads designated for dispersed camping. There’s a good spot on the ridge, set in a bit from the dramatic cliff (I’ve had my fill of heights for today). I’m happy to be outside again after 5 straight nights in towns and Airbnbs. The fresh air smells so good. Also, at 8,300 feet, this is the highest elevation we’ve ever camped at. A cold drizzle starts to fall, so Kurt gets out the grill to finish cooking dinner–bratwurst and chopped veggies.

I add more layers as the cold sets in.  The rain turns into snow. This puts me strangely at ease. Camping high on a mountain range is unfamiliar territory to me, but camping in the middle of a random snowfall is just like home.

 

 

Ancient Ruins and Acrophobia

Thursday, May 2: Chaco Canyon to Albuquerque

Soundtrack: “Ruins” First Aid Kit

There’s a ton to see in Chaco Canyon, so we get an early start and drive to the visitors center to pick up some maps. Thousands of Puebloan people lived in the canyon between the years 850 to 1250 A.D. until they eventually left the area during a 50-year drought. Chaco is a UNESCO World Heritage site, filled with structures and petroglyphs over a thousand years old. These ancestral homelands are considered sacred ground to Hopi and Pueblo people today, and it’s important for us to remember this as visitors. Or, as I put it to Kurt, “Let’s not do anything dumb that Justin Bieber would do.”

We start at Pueblo Bonito, the largest great house in the canyon. The scope of it is incredible to see in person. It is estimated that close to 800 people lived in Pueblo Bonito at one point. Each of the houses has multiple kivas, where rituals were practiced, and from the beams visible in the remaining standing walls you can see that some parts of the structure were once 4 or 5 floors high.

It’s a perfect day for hiking; the air temperatures are cooler now that we’re in a higher elevation, but the bright sun keeps us warm. I start the day in a tank top and long-sleeved shirt, but I quickly stuff the outer layer into our daypack. The trail takes us through the ruins, and we are even able to walk into various rooms, ducking through the doorways and peering down into the many kivas. I’m glad we bought a few trail guides at the visitors center so we can follow along and read the in-depth history as we pass each historical marker.

Kurt wants to take the Overlook Trail so we can see the aerial view of Pueblo Bonito. it’s a 2-mile trek that travels 177 feet up the canyon wall, hugging the ledge. I am terrified of heights, but I also want to see the view, so we forge ahead. The initial climb is steep and requires you to scramble up boulders then into a narrow crack. By the time we reach the top, I’m shaking and need to sit down to collect myself. I hate being acrophobic; I don’t want to miss out on experiences like this.

Kurt climbing up the Overlook Trail

A man passes by us on hiking poles and notices my hesitance to join Kurt closer to the  cliff edge. “You must be afraid of heights,” he says, and when I reply in the affirmative, he kindly says “It’s OK. We all have a fear of something.” He then goes on to tell us all about his plantar fasciitis, then we exchange pleasant goodbyes. The exchange makes me chuckle; it’s so purely American to be outwardly gregarious and kind then totally overshare. We continue our hike to  the overlook, and the view is absolutely worth it.

view of Pueblo Bonito from the Overlook Trail

After we climb back down to sweet sweet solid earth, we drive a little deeper into the canyon to reach the trailhead of the Peñasco Blanco Trail. We do the 4-mile version which takes us along the bluffs to a section covered with petroglyphs. Kurt and I scan the cliffs for drawings carved into the rocks. The Pueblo people tended to place their petroglyphs 10-15 feet off the ground, which helps us to differentiate authentic carvings from the fake ones and graffiti left by visitors at standing level (the fact that anyone would do this infuriates me). Historical markers also help us find the petroglyphs located higher up the cliffs, some eroded by the passage of a thousand years.

The trail continues several more miles further into the wash, to what the park calls the Supernova pictograph. While petroglyphs are carved into rock, pictographs also include the element of painting with natural pigments, so it’s more rare for them to stand the test of time outside in the elements. It’s theorized that the pictograph found in Chaco depicts a supernova that occurred in 1054. The Anasazi people who lived in Chaco left evidence that they were early students of astronomy, and the Sun Dagger petroglyph on Fajada Butte might have been used as a solar calendar.

After the Petroglyph trail, we need to hike back to the van. We could have easily spent several more days exploring the rest of the Canyon loop, but our schedule has us leaving today. 2 weeks is a generous, luxurious amount of time off of work, but no amount of time is ever enough when there’s so much amazing stuff to see. We take the rough road back out of the park, then make our way towards Albuquerque. On our way, we pass Cabezon Peak, a 7,785-ft tall volcanic plug jutting dramatically in the horizon.

Cabezon Peak

We reach our Airbnb around 8 pm, shower off all of the sweat and dirt from our long day of hiking, and then walk to a nearby restaurant for a late dinner. The next several days of our trip will be spent in towns, immersed in modern civilization, which feels a little jarring after so much camping. For now, I sit back and enjoy this easy access to chips, salsa, and handcrafted margaritas.

 

 

Emigrant Diaries: Coming off the Trail

Oct. 1, 2015: from Grouse Lake to San Francisco

Mileage: 4 trail miles, 4 city miles

We woke up to the morning light and the sound of light rain. Our last campsite at Grouse Lake was a short 4 miles to the trailhead, so we decided to get there quickly. Skipping breakfast, we put some trail mix and snacks into our pockets and packed up camp for the last time. The trail proceeded up a steady climb, then back down the ridge we had traversed a week ago. As we walked, the rain slowly grew heavier, and we put on our rain jackets for the first time on the trip. I quickly grew sweaty in my jacket with all of the uphill walking. Puddles began to gather on the trail and our boots were caked in mud. My trekking poles accumulated leaves on their tips; it was definitely autumn.

21957145412_88e5a02063_oEventually, the parking lot came into view through the trees. Our hike had reached its end. We were wet, muddy, and hungry, so the rental car waiting for us was a welcome sight. The first thing I did after resting my backpack near the parked Nissan was pull out the Ziploc of packed-out toilet paper and triumphantly toss it in the trash bins.

The drive to San Francisco was about 4 hours. We stopped in Sonora to get hot tea, coffee, and pastries, and I used my cell phone to find a hotel room in the city. Upon arriving and walking into the hotel lobby, I was very conscious of how terrible we must smell to the other people waiting in line to check in. We were wet, dirty, and our large backpacks felt cumbersome compared to all of the little suitcases on wheels. Upon receiving our room keys, we quickly retreated to our room (I made a quick stop to the gift shop to buy overpriced deodorant).

There is nothing like the first shower after a long camping trip. I relished the  hot water and scented shampoo, and watched the stream of dirty water disappear down the drain. Once we both felt clean and refreshed, we hand-washed items we’d need (underwear, sports bras), hung up coats that needed to be aired out, emptied the water bladder and cleaned the filter. We decided to go across the street and buy some new clothes than pay the insane prices for downtown hotel laundry service. It felt a little jarring to be buying 4 pairs of socks for $12 at an H&M when just that morning, I was sleeping on the ground near a lake.
21943118366_92b80d232b_oFor the next two days, we ate hot food, drank cold beers, and walked around the city. Kurt had never been to San Francisco before, so we went sight-seeing: Alcatraz, Lombard Street, Golden Gate Bridge. With some lucky timing, we ended up in town during the weekend of Strictly Hardly Bluegrass, a free music festival in Golden Gate Park, so we checked that out with a daypack full of boxed wine and snacks. Nearly two weeks earlier, we had camped and hiked along the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and now we were staying in the city that got its water supply from that very place. Talk about full circle.

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On Oct. 3, we flew home to Chicago. It’s always good to be back at home, to sleep in your own bed again. I was excited to see my dog and our friends, to share the stories from our trip and post photos and blog updates. Quickly, we fell back into our normal daily routines. Until the next adventure…

Emigrant Diaries: Our Last Night in the Backcountry

Sept. 30, 2015: From Wood Lake to Grouse Lake

Mileage: 12.19 miles
‘Floors’: 52

21979092951_cd7184fc5c_oDespite my fraidy-cat status when I went to bed the previous night, we slept soundly and disruption-free. The mornings were definitely getting colder in the final days of September, so we had a hot breakfast of eggs and dehydrated hashbrowns with coffee and tea.

On our way out of the site and back to the trail, we ran into the two hikers we had met the previous day, and ended up chatting with them for nearly half an hour. They had been hiking buddies since high school and had spent tons of time in both Yosemite and Emigrant. When we said we were from Chicago, one of them replied “And you came here instead of Disneyland?” They were excited that we had heard of Emigrant and made our way here. The two of them were gearing up to do the John Muir Trail in the next few years. After discussing trekking poles, the Chicago Cubs, and Levi’s Stadium, we said our goodbyes and continued on our way.

21969313995_95c13896d5_oThe trail to Grouse Lake involved a long stretch of downhill climbing over massive rocks, which I personally found more difficult than going uphill. Stepping down large boulders and over gravelly surfaces while wearing a large pack without rolling an ankle took a lot of concentration, and using my trekking poles was a huge help. When we finally reached the bottom, we passed another couple. “How’s it goin’?” we said in greeting. The man greeted us back and replied “It’s a tough day.” The downhill stretch was immediately followed by a long uphill climb, and then finally, thankfully, the trail leveled off. While passing through a wooded area, I saw two mule deer dash across the trail ahead of us.

The closer we got to Grouse Lake, one thing became apparent; the trail in this area got used for livestock quite often, and very recently. Manure was scattered over the trail at intermittent distances, as if the horses were trying to poop out a Morse code message to us. Upon reaching the lake, we walked around until we found a campsite with easy water access. I noticed hoof prints in the mud, more horse hair strands hanging from tree bark, and a few random horse turds. We set up the tent in a turd-free zone and went through the normal motions: gathering firewood, filtering water, and setting up our bear cans away from the tent.

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After the long hike, I wanted to wash up a bit. Jumping into a lake was getting progressively harder now that the weather was cooling down, especially now that the sun had been hiding behind clouds for the last few days. It would be my last time to ‘bathe’ before going back to San Francisco, so I took a deep breath and submerged myself into Grouse Lake. When you’ve been hiking for miles covered in dirt from head to toe and the smell of your own armpits can knock you out, it’s quite amazing how refreshing a 2-second dip into freezing cold water can be.

Just before sunset, the birds and squirrels started going nuts. Kurt and I both remarked on how many kingfishers and chickarees we could hear chirping away in the trees. It made me wonder: were they alerting us to something, or alerting everything else about us? We built a nice warm fire and made our last campfire meal of curry rice. The moon was once against hidden behind clouds so we had little light beyond the fire. As we warmed our toes near the flames, a light drizzle began to fall. It was the first rain we’d seen since arriving in California. The fine mist wasn’t enough to get us wet or affect the fire, so we stayed outside for another hour or so. Eventually, we retired to the tent and read books by headlamp while listening to the soft pitter-patter of rain.

Emigrant Diaries: Dark Night at Wood Lake

Sept. 29, 2015: from Buck Lakes to Wood Lake

Mileage: 7.61 miles

After two nights at Buck Lakes, we were ready to move on to some new scenery. Kurt was interested in going cross country to reach Karl’s Lake, which was off trail a ways. To get there, we crossed over a ridge, then down a large expanse of rock towards a forested area. One thing about backcountry camping is that it makes you aware of your strengths as well as your limitations. For me, I discovered my uneasiness over going off-trail for an overnight stay, even though it was just a few miles. While Kurt was confident navigating with a topographic map and a compass, I was afraid of a potential scenario where he was injured or incapacitated,and I had to find my way back to the trailhead to get help. I wasn’t confident that I could do this, so I asked Kurt if we could stay at a lake closer to the trail instead. He saw that I was outside of my comfort zone so he agreed to end our little off-roading adventure early. I felt a little bit like a wimp, but I also knew that it was the right choice for me at that time. Just a few years ago, I had been nervous about camping in the backcountry where bears were present, but with time and experience I was now doing just that for close to two weeks straight. Learning to be comfortable navigating off-trail would be a new future goal for myself.

21943146616_2b24a2c527_oWe continued along the trail to Wood Lake, and spotted a possible good campsite across the water. To get there, we crossed a series of downed logs (as we learned later, we took the long way). While I was setting up the tent, I heard Kurt say something like “Is this human?” That piqued my interest, so I went to see what he was looking at: a clump of long black hair intertwined in some tree bark. The sight creeped me out, but when I looked closer, I realized that it was most likely horse hair. The strands were long, coarse, and at the perfect height  to be left by a stock animal rubbing up against a tree.

21348178313_1754c7b3c9_oWe had just finished setting up camp and were hanging out by the lake when two other hikers came along, looking for a site. They were two men about 15-20 years older than us, both from the northern California area. We chatted with them for a bit; they had stayed on our site during a previous trip. They continued along on the their way to set up at another spot further down the lake, tucked back behind the rocks.

21979093531_f15392c009_oWe made a fire as the sun set, then heated up our dinner of Ramen noodles with added powdered eggs, dehydrated veggies and chicken. It was a cloudy night, the moon completely obscured. Now, I never get afraid of the thought of ghosts or monsters while camping; there’s too many real, practical things to fear like wildlife, lightning, hantavirus, flash floods, etc. I don’t know what it was about that night–maybe the initial unsettling discovery of the hair tangled on that tree, or the lack of any moonlight. But for whatever reason, the thought of The Blair Witch Project crossed my mind. And of course once I tried to shake it, it was all I could think about. Just beyond the fire, the forest was enveloped in velvety darkness. When I turned on my headlamp, a beam would illuminate only the handful of trees closest to us, the light dissipating weakly into the black forest. Once I accidentally turned on my headlamp on the strobe setting, and the intermittent flashes of light on the trees, then pitch darkness, made me think of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which was even more unsettling. That night, I burrowed deep into my sleeping bag like a dog relying on its thundershirt for comfort and security.

 

 

Emigrant Diaries: Hiking, then Relaxing at Buck Lakes

Sept. 27, 2015: From Gem Lake to Buck Lakes

Mileage: 9.38 miles

In the morning, I checked the area around the tent to see if I could spot the tracks of our nighttime visitor. There was a possible big cat print, but it was hard to tell in the light layer of dirt and gravel on top of the rocks. By now, we had our morning routine down: I rolled up the sleeping bags and pads and broke down the tent, while Kurt filtered water and cooked breakfast, then took care of the dishes. Once our bags were reassembled, we got back on the trail.

We blew past Jewelry Lake, our sights set on Buck Lakes, a chain of lakes and ponds that some hikers we had met had highly recommended. We had planned to set up a base camp for the next day, so it sounded like the perfect place to explore a little more deeply.

21781251400_9aae209c6d_oOnce we arrived at Upper Buck Lake, we made our way down and across the narrow strip of land and rocks at the top of Lower Buck, finding a good campsite just off the trail with a view of the water.  We set up our tent, washed up and laid out wet clothes to dry in the sun, then relaxed by reading and journaling (me) and fishing (Kurt). There were a lot of nibbles, and finally, he reeled in a rainbow trout big enough to eat!

We made a warm fire, and Kurt took care of cleaning and gutting the fish. He cooked it over the fire, and we had instant mashed potatoes as a side dish. There was a lunar eclipse that evening, but the clouds threatened to prevent us from seeing it. As the sun set, the sky grew darker than it had been for our entire trip. Finally, the clouds dispersed enough for us to see the moon partially covered in the shadow of the earth.

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Sept. 28, 2015: day hiking around Buck Lakes

Mileage: 7.37miles

21348202843_1014cdaecc_oSince we were taking an easy day of base camping/day hiking, we slept in until just before 9 a.m. We had a nice lazy breakfast with coffee and tea, hanging out on the rocks in our nano-puffs waiting for the sun to warm up the rocks. Kurt set out to explore for a bit and climbed the high rock ledge near our camp to get a view of the entire chain of lakes.

For our day hike, we used the tiny backpack that attached to Kurt’s larger bag to carry some Clif bars, trail mix, water, a camera, and our maps.  We followed the trail that wound back on the other side of the lakes up to Upper Buck, then went off-trail for a bit to explore Buck Meadow. The grass was tall and dry; we still weren’t sure if the dried brown state of every meadow we’d seen was typical for this time of year or a result of California’s epic drought. Kurt pointed ahead and I saw an animal leaping through the grass. A coyote!

We circled back around the other side of Upper Buck and had our lunch in a wooded area, listening to the bright blue kingfishers and brown chickorees chirping in the trees above us, alerting the rest of the forest to our presence. Kurt laughed to himself for a moment. “One of those birds has a call where the first two notes sound like the beginning of ‘We wear short shorts.'” Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it.

After finishing our snacks, we continued along until we reached the end of Lower Buck, circling the entire chain of lakes. From there, we found a fantastic spot to enjoy the view while eating our baggies of goldfish crackers.

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The day-hike had been just what I needed to reenergize. That morning, I had felt myself hitting a bit of a wall where I was tired and missed things like non-dehydrated/rehydrated food, deodorant, and toilets. Going for a scenic walk without a 40-lb bag in a gorgeous place was the perfect boost to my spirits. I could look around and search for wildlife or enjoy the views without worrying about watching my step and turning an ankle under the weight of a pack. I was refreshed and looking forward to another night by a warm fire under the moonlight.