Saturday, August 19, 2017

Thru-hiking the Long Path


It's official! Scott and I preparing to hike New York State's Long Path in September! I have been holding back on writing a blog post about our upcoming adventure until I knew for certain that we would be hittin' the trail. I can barely contain my excitement as I write the very words. It has been two years since I hiked the Finger Lakes Trail and believe me...these feet are calling for the open trail! We will be beginning in the least likely of places...the 175th Street subway station in Manhattan and traveling 358 miles to John Boyd Thatcher State Park near Altamont, New York. If we choose to follow a mapped but not required roadwalk portion of the trail, we will reach the Adirondack State Park, making the trip a total of 420 miles. We are giving ourselves 4-6 weeks to complete our trek.  

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) 
Now of course we will not only be hiking the Long Path but botanically hiking the Long Path.  Each day we will be turning our attention to the plant life that calls this trail home and highlighting a plant - or a tree or a moss or a rock tripe -  that speaks to us and furthermore to you. We plan to keep a sort of online journal of our botanical finds, insights and musings at www.Facebook.com/TheBotanicalHiker and www.Facebook.com/HikeLocal, and here at this blog. For those of you who have been following me on my blog, you know that during my time on the Mountains to Sea Trail and Finger Lakes Trail, I researched the edible and medicinal plants of the trail, keeping a daily list of those that I saw along the way.  Given that we will be hiking during the Fall, there are many plants that have gone to seed and are in the soil awaiting next spring. However, I think that this time of year will allow us to better see those that we do encounter and to appreciate the subtleties of the trail, perhaps even seeing more than we would otherwise. Also, by botanically hiking with a more open structure, we are hoping to illicit the full experience of the trail and its plants, with both head and heart. The Long Path has, afterall, always spoke to me subtly...but it has been persistent.

a portion of trail through the Catskill Park
The Long Path has seemed to always make an appearance when I was on my way to somewhere else. The first time I saw a sign for the Long Path was when I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. After shimmying and scraping my way through the Lemon Squeezer, a narrow passageway through which the AT travels between house-sized boulders...I popped out the other side and spied at the intersection a wooden sign with arrows pointing left and right to the Long Path. Huh. Seemed to me I was already on the long path. I snubbed my nose and kept on walking. Although throughout those many miles it continued to reappear in my mind. Some years later, when I hiked the Finger Lakes Trail, I remember taking my last steps at the end of the trail thinking only about the monumental hike I had just endured and displayed just below the terminus sign was yet another wooden sign pointing further down the trail...the Long Path. I knew I could choose to hike the Long Path to the Appalachian Trail to Culvers Gap in New Jersey and pretty much walk my way home. But I had already walked nearly 900 miles and that seemed enough. Then, just this past year when Scott and I were section-hiking the Shawangunk Ridge Trail, what did we keep coming across maps for, and trail descriptions for, and even blazes for while hiking? The Long Path. These past few months when we sought a summer's overnight in the Catskills (and we had began to think seriously that this would be the next long distance venture), we would pull out the maps and begin to follow an enticing loop or spy an intriguing mountain and as we would trace a finger down the dotted line of a trail...smack! The Long Path. In turn, forcing us to change direction and find some other less exciting route so as not to see too much of the trail before we really hiked it! This trail has seemed to beckon me from every angle and with it's aquamarine blazes it's always seemed cool and calm and welcoming, ready to take me in when I was ready to take it on. Now we are ready.

An aqua Long Path Blaze above a blue Shawangunk Ridge Trail blaze
The fact that we keep bumping into the Long Path is actually not all that surprising given that it was initially dreamed up to be a path, like the Appalachian Trail, that connected the hiker to a multitude of other trails from NYC to Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks. The idea for the trail was actually proposed by Vincent J. Shaefer of the Mohawk Valley Hiking Club in 1931, making its conception nearly that of the AT which was proposed in 1921. So although far less people know of this trail and even fewer thru-hike it - as of today just over 20 people have backpacked it continuously from end to end - it has been in existence for nearly a century. Learning this, I think I better understand the presence of this trail. It is an elder trail, patient and cool, waiting for those who wish to hike a more humble trail, lacking the glory of the Appalachian Trail but perhaps richer in solitude, quiet insight, and wilderness experience.

So just where does this Long Path go?

Map of Long Path in its entirety
From NYC, we will trek across the George Washington Bridge and into the Palisades State Park, walking the cliffs along the Hudson River with views of Manhattan and the active waterway with numerous opportunities to make a quick jaunt down to the shoreline. Entering the Hudson Highlands, we will begin to climb our first mountains, hiking into the grassy boulder-strewn land of Harriman State Park through which the Appalachian Trail also passes. 

View from Sam's Point in Minnewaska State Park Preserve - excellent example of Shawangunk slab stone
From here, we will enter into Orange County and the Shawangunk Ridge, an area that we have explored some already. This is the passageway between the low mountains of the Hudson Highlands and the beginning of the Catskill Mountains further north. Here we will hike alongside railroad tracks that carry the train into Port Jervis, meander through the small villages of Chester and Goshen, through the marsh lands of the Basha Kill Wildlife Refuge, scramble over chunks of Shawangunk slab rock, and marvel at the far-reaching views of Sam's Point in Minnewaska State Park Preserve. Because the AT parallels and the Shawangunk Trail parallel the Long Path so closely for roughly 50 miles with easier camping, the NY/NJ trail conference does consider hiking those trails instead of the official Long Path through part of this section acceptable, however at this point we have not decided to do that.

Scott looking out along the Basha Kill Wildlife Refuge
Looking out from Burnt Knob in the Catskill Park


We will then reach the rugged and remote Catskills, summiting Slide Mountain, the tallest in the Catskill Mountain range and intersect with my familiar Finger Lakes Trail. We will summit a few of our favorite peaks, Acra Point, Windham, Burnt Knob, and a host of others above 3500 feet that we have been sizing up for a long time now.  Gradually we will descend from the Catskills into the Schorarie Valley, home to early Dutch settlers and into the Mohawk River Valley following a long escarpment through land that has long been appreciated from native tribes to loggers to farmers. If we continue past the Mohawk River we ramble along winding rural roads heading towards Lake Desolation inside the Adirondack State Park

It should be quite the journey! I will be posting again as our date gets closer so please do stay tuned here and at our facebook pages: www.Facebook.com/TheBotanicalHiker and www.Facebook.com/HikeLocal.  Join us for a virtual botanical hike on the Long Path!  

Planning the route from a view at Acra Point in Catskill Mountain Park






Saturday, June 24, 2017

Summer Events in the Northeast

Entrance to the Medicine Wheel Garden at the Annual Medicine Wheel Festival that happens every May

What a Spring it has been! It has been a wild Rampin', Reishi harvesting, Black Locust flower nibbling, Saxifrage sampling, Toothwort tasting, mouth-watering Waterleaf eatin' Spring to be more specific and it seems that I have had the hardest time sitting down in front of this blog to share the stories with you. Hopefully all of you have been too busy roaming the hills, combing the meadows, and climbing the mountains near and far to notice. We have also discovered a number of trails that wind locally through our Pocono mountains and also made our first overnight excursion to the Catskills. These tales of hiking and harvesting will come in less than ideal steamy-hot days to come but for the time being...I want to get the word out on the upcoming plant walks and festivals that we have coming up this Summer! I hope that you can join in the botanical bounty with us!

Plant Walk on the Paulinskill Trail with Angry Erik Brewing
Lafeyette, NJ
Sunday, June 25th 1 - 4:00 pm
Join me for a guided plant walk along the easy- walking Paulinskill Trail, where you will see a plethora of woodland and backyard wild edible and medicinal plants. After the walk, return to Angry Erik brewing for a pint of local beer and plenty of plant talk
Cost: $25 per person (pint of beer included)
Visit to register: https://www.facebook.com/events/1648529925175923
 
Milford Plant Walk and Wild Edible Tasting with Holy Crepes
224 Broad Street, Milford, PA
Sunday, July 23rd 11 - 2:00 pm
Join Hike Local for a wild edible and medicinal plant walk through the streets and alleyways of downtown Milford. Many of these plants can be found in your own backyard or favorite wild spaces. After the walk, we will return to Holy Crepes for a delicious meal incorporating a wild edible plants accompanied by an herbal tea.
Cost: $25 per person (crepe and herbal tea included)
Pre-registration preferred, please email Hikelocal@gmail.com to register 


Plant Walk with the Skylands Sierra Club
High Point State Park, NJ
Sunday, July 30th, 10 - 1:00 pm
Take a hike on one of High Point State Park's beautifully maintained trails and learn how to identify, harvest, and prepare the wild edible and medicinal plants we see along the way. The hike will be moderately difficult in nature.
Cost: $20 per person (children under 13 years of age are free)
Pre-registration is preferred, please email dwhoob@gmail.com to register

 
Festival of Wood
Grey Towers, Milford PA
Saturday and Sunday, August 5th and 6th, 9 - 5 pm
Tour the beautiful grounds of Gifford Pinchot's Grey Towers and visit the many vendors offering information on the natural area and a wide variety of beautiful crafts. A family friendly event. I will be there with the Delaware Highlands Conservancy, eager to talk plants and sign copies of my book!
Cost: Free of charge
For more information, please visit: http://www.greytowers.org/festival-of-wood/
 

Wild Plant Walks and Presentations at Woodloch Spa and Resort
Hawley, PA
Wednesdays and Saturdays or Sundays beginning in July
Perhaps you like a little five-star spa treatment with you botanical identification walks? I have most recently signed on with the Woodloch Spa and Resort as their resident naturalist. I will be leading wild edible and medicinal plant hikes, offering a Go Local: Discovering the edible and medicinal plants of the season presentation, as well as a Basic Botany class weekly. Hikes will be held on and off site at a variety of nearby trails. Schedule a day at the spa or an overnight, pamper yourself with luxury and hit the trail while you are at it!
To more information, visit: https://www.woodloch.com/spa/

 
Customized Plant Walks and Local Hikes through Hike Local
PA/NJ/NY
Scott and I are continuing to offer customized botanical excursions and challenging hikes on nearby trails in the surrounding area. Hikes can range from easy to very difficult in nature. Let us introduce you to a little known trail favored by the locals or take a hike on the infamous Appalachian Trail that lies virtually in our backyard. You tell us what you want to see or experience and we will make it happen. Individual or group hikes and rates.
Visit: www.Facebook.com/Hikelocal for more information and send us an email at HikeLocal@gmail.com for rates and to schedule a hike
 
Keep on hikin' and we hope to see you on the trail or at one of our upcoming events!

Hike along the Appalachian Trail with the Skylands Sierra Club


 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Spring Events in the Northeast



Purple Dead Nettles (Lamium purpureum) - a member of the Mint Family that prefers our lawns and  often goes overlooked. Delicious when pureed into a pesto, tossed in a green salad, or baked atop pizza. One of the first greens to appear in early Spring.

It's really truly here!! Spring, that is! You know I didn't realize until it suddenly returned that I had kind of resigned myself to a full year of winter. What a relief when on the Milford Cliff trail I spied the white blossoms of the Cherry trees along the rocky cliff and the tiny star-shaped flowers of Early Saxifrage lining the grassy trail amidst slender still young Dandelion leaves, the tiniest hearts of Violet leaves, and the fragrant green spikes of Wild Onion. If you haven't already, it is time to hit the trail and see just what Spring has in store for us!

Below is a list of Upcoming Events to help you do just that. New events are still being added so please do check back for updates. And don't miss what is at the end of this post ... a special announcement about mine and Scott's customized hikes!

Crystal Springs Resort and Spa
Vernon, NJ
May 6th and 7th
The Botanical Hiker: Artist in Residence
A Presentation on Spring Foraging: Easy to Find Edible and Medicinal Plants
5/6 4:30 - 5:45 pm
Wild Edible and Medicinal Plant Walk
Cost: $20
5/7 9:30 - 11:30 am
 Visit http://www.crystalgolfresort.com/play/events-entertainment/may-activities/ for more information

Medicine Wheel Festival
Lusscroft Farm, Wantage NJ 
May 20th and 21st
Edible and Medicinal Plant Walk both days on the grounds of Lusscroft Farm
1:00 - 2:00 pm
Cost: Walk is free, entry to festival is $7/person
Enjoy plant walks from a number of herbalists and naturalists, peruse vendor's handmade goods, purchase starter plants for your herb garden, and walk the Medicine Wheel. I will be on site with my book for sale and eager to talk all things plants!
 Visit http://lusscroftfarm.org/index.html for more information

Milford Edible and Medicinal Plant Walk

Departing from and returning to Holy Crepes, 224 Broad Street, Milford PA
May 27th 
Join both myself and Scott for a wild edible and medicinal plant walk through the streets of Milford. Together we will see just what useful plants can be identified along our sidewalks, alleyways, parks, and thickets. This will be an easy stroll with many stops along the way. Enjoy a crepe for lunch upon returning!
11:00 - 12:30 pm
Cost: $15 per person
Children welcome and (under 13 yrs of age) free
Visit Holy Crepes to pre-register or email Heather and Scott at HikeLocal@gmail.com

Plant Walk with the Sierra Club

Stokes State Forest, NJ
May 28th 
Walk a wooded trail through Stokes State Forest, learning how to identify and utilize the edible and medicinal plants we see along the way. This roughly 2 mile hike along the Appalachian Trail to Kittatinny Ridge will be moderate in nature, but with many stops along the way.
10:00 - 12:30 pm
Cost: $20 per person
Contact Dave Alcock at dwhoob@gmail.com to register

Nature Walk with the Botanical Hiker

Angry Erik Brewing, Lafeyette, NJ
June 4th 1:00 - 4:00 pm
Take a walk along the Paulinskill Trail located across the street from the Brewery and learn about some of the edible and medicinal plants that can be found in your own backyard. Finish up with a pint of refreshing Angry Erik brew back at the brewer upon return!
Cost: $25 per person (includes 1 pint of beer)
http://www.angryerik.com/home.html
Call Angry Erik to register: (862) 432-9003

 I would like to announce that in addition to my seasonal plant walks and botanical presentations, Scott and I will be teaming up to offer specially tailored hikes just for you throughout the region. Read below for more information and to learn how to schedule a hike!

Scott and Heather ready to take you on a hike!
Hike Local: Customized Hikes in the Poconos
  • Wish to find out about more trails that weave through your nearby woods?
  • Visiting the area for the first time and want to see the area's rushing waterfalls, little-known coves, epic vistas, or that stand of Old Growth Hemlock?
  • Have family or friends coming to the area and want to offer them a unique activity?
  • Yearning to learn more about your local flora? 
We are available to customize a hike just for you or your group depending upon your desired focus. Hikes can range from easy with lots of stops to see the plants along the way or a vigorous hike along one of our nearby long distance trails such as the Appalachian Trail, Finger Lakes Trail, Long Path, or Shawangunk Ridge Trail
Group rates available
Check us out on www.Facebook.com/HikeLocal 
and
email us at Hikelocal@gmail.com

















Monday, April 17, 2017

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala - Our Journey

View of San Pedro Volcano on Lake Atitlan from the site of the Mayan ruins
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala...you leave me struggling for the words to describe my experience. This is why it has taken me over a month to even begin crafting a post about our mere week spent in this little place, a hidden oasis from the complexities of our present-day modern life as we experience it. But to keep it all to ourselves would be a crime, so I will do my best to share.

Crumbling side streets en route to Lake Atitlan from Guatemala City
Although the flight to Lake Atitlan was five hours long with one layover in Atlanta and the fact that we were running on 1 hour and 45 minutes of sleep, given that it left at 7:00 am in the morning and we hadn't arrived at our hotel by the Newark Airport until nearly 1:30 due to work commitments...the flight would prove to be the easiest part of our travel. On our flight we also had the luck of sitting next to a man, Henry, who lived part-time at the lake and part-time in Naples, New York. For those of you who know the Finger Lakes Trail, this place will be familiar,as it is a tiny town located along its route and which I blogged about while hiking. He and I talked moutains before talking Lake Atitlan. Small world. 

Chicken bus - primary mode of transportation throughout the country of Guatemala

Henry, myself, and Scott on a launcha
Henry became our impromptu navigator for what laid ahead. You see, after the plane ride, came the shuttle ride...three hours driving windy mountain passes on the Pan American Highway, shortcuts down broken cobblestone, gravel, and dirt roads. We wove in and out between chicken buses - the main mode of transport throughout the country -  and which we had purposely avoided taking by hiring this shuttle. Henry reiterated that the shuttle was a smoother ride than the chicken buses. However, these colorfully painted buses are the cheapest route, and hey I guess sometimes free if you don't mind stowing away on the top of one as I spotted a man doing when we came dangerously close to a passing one. Besides the chicken buses, we squealed past dilapidated pick up trucks, many a VW bus and various other holler-backs to the 1970's, and tuk-tuks - three wheeled taxis that travel within cities and towns. However...amidst all this...we remained surprisingly calm and with the window open for some welcome air, we gasped in awe at the rolling hills of farmfields, the rough and tumble cities that laid side by side with them, and the many man, woman, child, pig, mule, and dog walking the roadsides. Our shuttle driver could not have been more friendly and fresh-faced but he drove like a taxi driver and spoke not a drop of English and well, we spoke not a scant of Spanish. Henry proved most helpful not only in communicating with the driver when we needed a pitstop but also in pointing out what cities through which we traveled and the passing landscape, and even gifting us a few quetzal when we realized we had no currency with which to even buy ourselves a cup of real true Guatemalan coffee at our first stop.

View from a vegetable stand above Lake Atitlan
Our rollercoaster finally led us to the top of a steep winding road where we caught our first glimpse of the lake shrouded in late afternoon clouds. The shuttle driver took it upon himself here to stop beside a small vegetable stand so that we could get a good view from above. We stood wobbling on the edge of a cliff in splendid speechless awe of this deep crater below us. Then clenching the seats in front us the whole way down, we bumped and bounced our way through the city of Panajachel, passing the blurred rainbow that is Santander Street, the main market street and finally landing us on the edge of town, close to the dock. Panajachel is the largest city that sits on the Lake and the main hub for reaching the other smaller villages surrounding it. Upon exiting the shuttle, just as Henry had warned, we were greeted by many a small child offering to help us with our roll-away suitcases (we were asking for it with those!) for a small tip of course. After hitting an ATM - few to none in each village - we hustled for the dock where we would hop our next mode of transportation, a small boat called a launcha. The launcha, which seats about 25 passengers, would carry us 45 minutes across the lake to our village of San Marcos.

Launcha facing San Marcos - launchas are the only transportation between villages surrounding the Lake
On the launcha we were accompanied by mostly Mayans - dark-skinned men with leathery skin donning brown round brimmed hats and worn work clothes and soft-bodied women adorned in the most colorful dresses and tops I have ever seen, their tiny children close by their side. As we motored from village to village, the setting sun cast the soft pink hues against the green mountainsides that make up the bowl of the lake. Henry explained that the Army Corps of Engineers had tried in vain to build roads into the villages but that the soft volcanic soil would not support them. Hence why there are only two roads that provide entrance to the lake - the one that we took into Panajachel and another that did indeed lead into our village but that our shuttle driver advised us against taking due to its poor condition. Henry departed at Santa Cruz, and by the time we reached our village, two stops, later, the sun had set.

Walking up the main street at night after departing launcha
Let me remind you...still on 1 hour and 45 minutes of sleep...we headed up the lantern-lit corridor of the main street, still rolling our suitcases, and headed for the basketball court where we would meet Moises, the caretaker for the Air B n B home we had rented for the duration of our time there. Amazing that you can now arrange to stay in someone's home that is 3,000 miles away via a few emails but even more amazing if you are able to find it without a contact phone number and with directions no better than to follow this unnamed road to that unnamed road and to walk up the dirt path following the rocks with the flowers on them. We made a stop for some important staples - coffee, sugar, and whiskey - and were again reminded of how little Spanish we spoke when the Mayan girl behind the counter giggled at us and punched in the total in a calculator screen for us to read. How strange it was for me to experience this for the first time in my life - I had no way to communicate. I thanked the girl in english, with a correction of "Gracias!" 

We then stood at the basketball court, with rollaway suitcases in hand and asked every Mayan male we saw, "Moisies?" receiving only a headshake that said no. Although about 20 minutes late, Moises did arrive as planned, cruising up on his motorcycle and spotting us immediately. From here, with a smile, he led us to the dirt path that we never would have found on our own. By the light of our smartphones, we hoofed it up the rocky trail, passing many a bamboo fence, rock wall, and cement encampment, large vegetation weaving alongside and overhead the whole way. Moisies was a gentleman and carried my bag at least, atop his head.

The wooded pathway to our home

Our Air B n B home, Casa de Bambu, with Bill, one of the resident dogs
Boule in his favorite spot beside the front door
Reaching a tall bamboo enclosure, we were greeted by the barking of the home's two resident dogs, Bill and Boule. Moisies fumbled with the padlock on the bamboo door and led us onto a artfully laid stone walkway that lead to the bamboo front door of our beautiful and beautifully simple home here in San Marcos. The house is aptly named Casa de Bambu, given that it was crafted entirely by bamboo poles, rock, and some cement to fill in the gaps. The roof was corrugated tin lined with sheets of plastic and placed atop a woven bamboo ceiling. There was no heat nor air-conditioning, although there was a rounded wood-burning stove in the main room. The windows, plentiful and large, bathed the space in sunlight during the day. The bathroom consisted of a large stand-up shower that was hot...sometimes...and a composting toilet made up of a wooden box, five-gallon bucket that could be retrieved from the outside, and a large trashcan of woodchips to help break down your poo. The kitchen had all that we needed, with a four-burner stove, oven, open shelves with a mish-mash of dining ware and utensils, and sink with running water with one side providing purified water (no drinking the water here in Guatemala). And of course no kitchen is complete without....a pair of scorpion tongs. Moisies was keen to point this out with a smile and a full demonstration of how one would pinch the scurrying scorpian with the tongs and toss it out the window. Happily, we never did see one. 

Scorpion tongs in their respective Scorpion Tong bucket
Once left alone to ourselves in our abode after over 12 hours of travel, you would think we would be delirious with exhaustion, but we felt quite the opposite. In fact, from the moment that we had stepped into our launcha it was as if time had slowed. We were energized by our mysterious new surroundings and its people and just as we had hoped unavoidably present. However we did need some food. After a couple granola bars that we had packed along for the ride and a shower, we donned our headlamps and headed back into town.

Il Gardino - our favorite restaurant
That night we had our first of many incredibly delicious vegetarian meals there in San Marcos, but this restaurant, Il Gardino, remained our favorite. As you can see from the picture above, the restaurant was largely open air and low-lit. In fact, we would come to find that most all the restaurants in San Marcos consisted of only seating outdoors or partial indoor/outdoor seating. Of the kitchens we saw, most all had a brick oven for baking and rather than noisy hoods for ventilation there were large windows where smoke and steam would freely billow out. The restaurants seemed to be owned largely by ex-pats with foreigners and Mayans working alike and we quickly became friends with Mark from Scotland who owned this establishment. On this night we had curried empanadas with a side salad of avocado, shredded beets and carrots with sliced cucumber as well a veggie burger with pickled veggies atop and pressed between two pieces of homemade whole grain bread slathered with beetroot hummus. I would like to take a moment to stress just how fresh all of our meals were around the Lake. Because it is so difficult to get supplies into the region, most everything is made from scratch using vegetables and grains that are grown here. I don't believe we had a single morsel of processed bread while we were here and the vegetables were imbued with flavor. There appeared to be little cold storage and there is no need for it, when the merchants buy fresh produce daily. The one morning that we enjoyed breakfast here, we watched a Mayan man walk into the dining area carrying a wooden crate of tomatoes on his back with the assistance of a headstrap. Mark bought a few handfuls and the man went on his way. Doesn't get more local than that. As an added bonus...the eating was cheap...most all of our dinners were between $15-25 dollars, including drinks and appetizers.

Drinks at Casa de Bambu
That first night, once home, we enjoyed a couple of cocktails -  ginger ale and Jack Daniels sans ice - and soon collapsed into bed. However, our eyes had no sooner closed than the cacophony of dog barking, yipping, and howling began. We had read in various sources that there was quite the stray dog population around the lake and that it was not safe to wander outside of the villages at night because of the packs that lived in the hills. Had I been at home in the wilds of Lackawaxen I would have thought them coyotes...but these calls were different. I heard them calling in yips and howls to each other on the mountainside behind the house and also barking and howling down in the village. Bill and Boule were putting on their best guard dog act as well, barking and growling in response. It seemed once the villagers turned in for the night, San Marcos became the dogs' domain. The crickets chirped away steadily despite the raucousness and we reveled in hearing them for the first time since last Fall as we dropped off to sleep.


View of mountain behind house from our bedroom window
Above is the view that we awoke to the next morning and every morning while at the Lake. What a way to start the day...and we did...early. Neither of us are early risers but here, without any electronic devices streaming images before our eyes at night and little artificial light, we easily got to sleep before midnight and awoke naturally around 7:00 am. This schedule of course worked out beautifully for all that we had to do while we were there. And there was so much to do! 

Scott in one of the many alleyways throughout the village of San Marcos, along with one of the many stray dogs (notice the snoozing pooch to the left)
On our first day, we explored our village which was largely made up of one main street, some lesser side roads, and a spiderweb of interconnecting alleyways that were home to businesses, hostels, and residences alike. Mayan women and children sold fruits and vegetables and homemade bread and foreigners displayed their handmade jewelery street-side. Also, we quickly learned that here in San Marcos the hippies are alive and well, and so all that is spiritual abounds from yoga and massage to cacao rituals to crystal meditations to pyrimadal consciousness to root-flute musical immersion. You name the chakra imbalance...San Marcos had the healing art to realign you. All this striving toward harmony did make for a warm and welcoming vibe of ex-pats and an entire village of indigenous Mayans who seemed just fine sharing their space with them. However, it did seem that the indigenous people largely lived in the modest homes that climbed halfway up the hillside.

Street in San Pedro
In the afternoon we visited the larger village of San Pedro, that possessed many more paved roads and therefore more tuk-tuk, motorcycle, and pick-up truck traffic. This village seemed more home to the backpacker (in the European sense) than the hippie. Hostels, bars, and coffeeshops lined the streets but so did the shops selling indigenous wares. Here I purchased a beautiful scarf dyed with all-natural plant teas and made by a Guatemalan woman and mother of two from a non-profit that benefitted the education and skill building of the indigenous people. We sipped on  espresso at La Terreza, an open air cafe, which had the best view from any coffee shop I have ever visited.

View from Cafe La Terraza - we sat on the second story, looking down upon the tin roof of first story, no railings or barriers to keep you from sliding off into the lake - far less safety regulations here!
On our second day we hit another delicious open air cafe for brunch, Shambhala, where we sat on cushions on the floor and enjoyed fresh brewed coffee from china teacups while surrounded by lush greenery and the periodic dust from passing feet in the alleyway. Here we also found ourselves in a group discussion of just what one can safely eat before a cacao ritual. As far as we understood, after a google search, a cacao ritual was nothing more than ingesting hot chocolate with coconut milk. The most popular site in town for such an experience was led by a Canadian man named Keith. Somehow his cacao inspired deep emotional release that led to life-changing epiphanies. How could all this come from cacao? But we did our best to remain open, given that the ritual was supposedly based upon ancient Mayan rituals.

Dining at Shambhala
We then then hopped another launcha heading for the Nature Preserve a couple miles outside the village Panajachel. Once in the village, we took a tuk-tuk up a windy mountain road, through what appeared to be a traffic jam, and then down the crumbling roads to the preserve. Here we finally had the time to really spend some time with the native plants and...monkeys! If you can identify any of these plants - please comment below!

Unknown Guatemalan plant

Scott walking one of the many swinging bridges in the Reserve - anyone else here reminded of that movie Romancing the Stone?
Unknown Guatemalan plant


Spider Monkey at the Reserve

Waterfall inside the Reserve
We hadn't really considered how me might get back to town after we had finished hiking the Preserve...so we hiked the two miles back into Panajachel...passing through what we now realized was not a mere traffic jam but a protest. Warily, we walked hand and hand through the crowd of men shouting, some baring machetes and other tools commonly used by the Mayan people. Making it through unscathed, we then took a stroll down Santander Street - the largest market street of all the villages and practiced our haggling skills. This is the street that we had passed by speedily in the shuttle. Now we had a chance to take it all in and there was so much - handcrafted shoes that used recycled tires for the soles, handwoven tapestries galore, gypsy style hand-stitched clothing, and intricate beadwork that took the shape of bracelets, necklaces, and tiny dolls. After purchasing three tapestries for $20 each we hoofed it across town to the home of Guatemala's award winning Best Cup of Coffee, Crossroads Cafe, owned by Michael only to find him closing up shop early for the day. He informed us that last year when a similar protest had happened he'd inadvertantly gotten teargassed and he wasn't sticking around to see what happened this time. He explained that the Mayan people were protesting a hike in electricity costs and indigenous rights. However, because Mike must be the most excited person on the planet when it comes to coffee, he still took the time to give us a tour of the roasting facility and talk about the zen of coffee roasting with Scott.

Scott and Michael of Crossroads Coffee - Voted Best Cup of Coffee in Guatemala
On our third day, we visited the tiny village of Jaibalito, home largely to indigenous Mayans. Here we saw for the first time, the truly tiny and simple homes of these people and were brought face to face with the luxury that we Americans take for granted. Homes were simple, many made of cement and cinder block with side tiny yards for chickens, pigs or vegetable gardens. We had come here seeking Hans, a single business that we had heard of that catered to tourists here. Most fortuitously, as soon as we docked, a boy no older than five ran up to us and asked where we wanted to go. We simply said, "Hans" and he showed us there with a smile. We happily passed along two quetzal to him.

Hans - the only business catering to tourists and ex-pats in Jaibalito
Hans was a coffee roasters and cafe, hostel, and home to a community computer that could be rented by the hour. We enjoying a hot cup of fresh roasted and pressed coffee and chatted with an older couple from Canada that was staying in an Air B n B home there in the village. They had come to the lake only to visit with another couple that had wanted to explore the area. The other couple had already gone home and these two were ready to hit the road. Turns out they had rented the most lush accommodations that we had heard of on the Lake. They had air conditioning and satellite television, flushing toilets, and hot showers. However none of this is worth much when the power goes off regularly and stays off or when the water shuts off at random times in the evening and doesn't return until the morning. We did not have this issue with power in San Marcos, however we did notice that most nights at about 10pm, there was no more water to be had. We could understand how these people would be ready to leave. With all these amenities, it would be hard to ever truly unplug and immerse yourself in the tech-free lifestyle that is Lake Atitlan. To paint a better picture...we did not see a single television the entire time that we were there. Therefore whether at home or out on the town, you were forced to be present and interact. Additionally, unless we were at home where we had wifi (a luxury for sure!) we did not have cell signal so there was no getting lost in the smartphone. In fact we remarked repeatedly on how few cell phones we saw even amongst the ex-pats and foreigners. People talked to each other.  One further... I don't think residents even had landlines as we saw no evidence of them. We didn't hear a phone ring for an entire week. It was a gift...but it surely would have been harder to adjust if we stayed in an American style home and then walked outside to this simple land.

Moutainside trail traveling between Jaibalito and Santa Cruz
Following the directions of the Canadian couple, we meandered down some alleys, shooing clucking chickens as we walked, and hit the mountainside trail that led from Jaibalito to Santa Cruz. This roughly 2 mile trail is used both by locals to travel in between villages and tourists for its incredible views 


View along mountainside trail

View of Jaibalito from mountainside trail

View of launcha and volcano in distance from mountainside trail
After climbing many a stone step and rocky path both up and down and passing a stray dog or two, we arrived in Santa Cruz and walked the long steep road to the top of the village. This village is home to CeCap, a non-profit that works to educate indigenous people, a schoolyard that was busy with afterschool activities, and a smattering of many a tin-roofed home and business. It seemed to be a busy place on this sunny afternoon.

The many tin-roofed shacks in Santa Cruz - tell me....can you spot all the animals here? Hint: a black cat, chicken, and dog

Scott in village of Santa Cruz
We climbed Volcan San Pedro on our fourth day. Even for this thru-hiker, this ascent was no joke. The village of San Pedro at its base is at 5,000 feet. The summit of San Pedro Volcano is at nearly 10,000. Yes, that's right...5,000 feet difference. Now, mind you, you start your hike at 6,000, after a tuk-tuk ride to the visitor center, but the hiker must then climb nearly 4,000 feet in 3 miles. This is White Mountains, New Hamsphire standards. When we hailed our tuk-tuk in town and told the driver where we were going, a Mayan man named Nick hopped in along with us. He would be our guide...and he was the first English speaking Mayan we had met. Besides having him as our guide for the first leg of volcano trail which was at times poorly marked at intersections, we had an opportunity to ask him all the questions we had been dying to ask the entire trip...including just what is the deal with the cacao? As we climbed through the groves of coffee plants where Mayans were gathering ripe coffee berries and the tall avocado trees laden with fruit and between the tall drying stalks of corn fields and up wooden step after wooden step...we learned about Nick and his people. He told us about how he had gone to work with his father when he was younger to harvest avocados and firewood from the mountainsides. They would rise at 4 am and walk for 3 hours to their destination, then work until late afternoon, climbing the trees as high as they could go, gathering what they could to sell at market and then walk home another 3 hours, only to do it again the next day. When he told his father he didn't want to have such an occupation, his father had told him he was a lazy man. Nevermind the fact that Nick now climbs this mountain most days of the week, guiding tourists. He also shared with us how his grandfather had passed down the stories and traditions of the Mayans to him, but that his parents who had converted to Catholicism - like a number of the Mayans - had told him that his grandfather was crazy.  Given his knowledge of the Mayans as well as his candor, Scott went ahead and asked about the Mayan ritual of cacao and its mysticism. Nick paused and then turned to reply, "Come on, Scott...it's chocolate...not magic! Don't be silly!" As we told him about ourselves and about our lives back home, he repeatedly responded with "You are strange." We eventually learned that this meant "different", and was actually a compliment. Through our sharing we had fostered a mutual admiration for the other. What a gift to have had Nick's company on this trek...he even knew a few of the edible native plants!

Scott and I with our guide, Nick

View while ascending San Pedro Volcano


Scott climbing just a few of the many stairs leading up San Pedro Volcano, headed for mountainside cornfields

Myself hiking up yet more stairs, this time through the forest

A fresh coffee fruit - almost ripe (ripe when red) and containing two coffee seeds

Izote (Yucca guatemalensis) - it is a common practice for the Mayans to harvest the edible flowers for various dishes. We can do the same with our Yucca here in the States!
We parted ways with Nick somewhere around 6,000 feet but nonetheless made it to about 8,500 feet before the elevation got the better of us. In addition, we had gotten a late start and were moving slowly...if we didn't turn back we would miss the last boat back to our village and would be spending the night in San Pedro. It was an amazing hike no matter...and we will be back for you San Pedro Volcano! 

We're hiked that volcano!!
That evening back in the comforts of our own village...we hit the town to see how Guatemala does Blues Night. We visited what was probably the largest restaurant in the village, Blind Lemon's, named after the Blues legend himself. The music was pleasant and we couldn't help but be reminded of the atmosphere where Scott plays in Milford, PA. However, it was a certain person in the crowd that was most interesting. Scott noticed a tall slender African American man bouncing his head to the music and playing air guitar with his fingers. This man was diggin' it and Scott knew he must be a musician. They ended up striking up a conversation outside and it turned out that both had heard of the other and had played with the same people. Once again...small world. His name was Deforest Whittaker and he would be playing at a venue in the village the following night.

Inside Blind Lemon's Cafe
On our final full day at Lake Atitlan, we remained in our own village and visited the Reserva Cerro T'zankujil. Here we ascended 1,000 feet nearly effortlessly to the scraggly tree mountaintop where the ancient Mayans had performed rituals, including human sacrifice, to the God No'j, the God of clairvoyance. Just a couple large stones remain, however the most noted was one engraved with Mayan symbols overlooking the lake. Without fences or ropes protecting it, the sacred space felt timeless. 

Mayan altar stone to the God No'j - God of Clairvoyance

Walking down stone steps to the Lake's rocky shore
At the base of the mountain, we visited the shores of the Lake. Although we had been there all these days, we had had yet to dip our feet in its waters. We considered going for a leap off of the 30 foot platform that was mobbed with young people and hostel goers but decided against it, opting for a wade instead. Although the lake is shimmering and blue with beauty...it is used for everything...from bathing to washing to a catch-all for waste...better to play it safe. Here we sat on the edge of the rocks and felt overwhelmed with the bittersweet knowledge that the following day we would be taking our long shuttle back to Guatemala City where we would spend the night in a hotel and hop a plane the next morning. It was hard to believe that we had done so much in such a short period of time. The lake felt strangely like home. 

Bathing our feet in Lake Atitlan
That evening we returned to Il Gardino the first restaurant at which we had dined, for a dinner under the stars and a couple of Guatemalan beers called Moza. We chatted about how hard it would be to return home. We did have two weeks in Asheville on the horizon which certainly helped matters, but we imagined that even that special city would seem busy and overwhelming given the peace and simplicity that we had experienced here. While finishing up dinner to the music of a wandering foreigner who had come to play his guitar and pan flute for a meal, Mark the owner of the establishment, came over and invited us out to a concert at a venue called Del Lago. He would be leaving in a few minutes. This was the very same place that Deforest Whittaker had said he would be playing at, but we hadn't known where it was. Perfect. 

DeForest Wittaker's band playing at Del Lago
 With full bellies, we joined Mark, his friend an opera singer from New York and a German girl who was visiting the Lake for the weekend and headed over, following a road we hadn't even noticed during our time here. When we arrived we found the largest gathering of people in one place that we had seen since the protest in Panajachel. However... these folks were happy and excited. Once inside, we found that Del Lago was indeed the most accommodating business in the village. It was a not only a concert venue with a large second-story balcony where we posted up, but a hostel, restaurant, bar, and sauna...the sauna we were clued into when the naked folks started wandering out  beside us. The venue was open-air, and so on two sides, just feet beyond the stage, were the sparkling waters of the Lake with a golden sliver of a moon hanging above. Magic. And in this short span of time, we had already made friends. The show opened with a young woman with a big voice alongside a young man playing guitar and Deforest playing the bass. Entrancing. However, the main act, Dr. Nativa, was enlivening! With just acoustic guitars and hand-drums, they got the whole place hopping. The best I can describe their style is a rapping Santana meets reggae. Below us young people threw their bodies to and fro, letting their bodies create their own interpretation...and there from our balcony we danced by the light of the moon, both of us completely present, doing our best to imprint the magic of not only the moment but this land up our memories.

Signage for one of the many volcanos in the region
Needless to say, we made it to home safely, even if all the flights had been grounded the day before due to Volcano Fuego...ahem...burping. We had learned this from the woman with which we shared our shuttle back to Guatemala City the next day who had been due to leave sooner. Actually, this was the only way that we learned of current events while we were there...by word of mouth. We had been too immersed in this beautiful land to even think of clicking that little newspaper icon on our smartphones and we hadn't seen a real newspaper in any of our travels. 

Sunset in the churchyard in San Marcos - notice dog and woman carrying large basket atop head (a wee difficult to see in this tiny pic!)
This presence of mind and more greatly, this presence of self that we noticed even in the smallest of actions is what we keep coming back to about our time spent at Lake Atitlan. The natural landscape was stunning, being a 10 mile lake surrounded by 3 volcanoes and quaint villages largely isolated from the rest of the country. The people were warm and friendly, always passing you with a "Buenos!" and a small smile. The food was fresh and nutritious and abundant. The pleasures were largely simple but fulfilling. However, despite all this beauty from all sides, we do not harbor the romantic notion that life at the Lake is without its flaws and its hardships. The indigenous people live hard lives with little means to change that which they are born into. Most who are born at the Lake will never leave the Lake. This is not a life I can begin to grasp as I have had opportunity and the luxury of choice from the time I was a child. I have never had to walk 3 hours to harvest avocadoes nor as a little girl sell loaves of bread on the street for 10 quetzal (about $1.50) to feed my family. But...this place did speak to a simpler life lived and in our opinion, one lived authentically, valuing those things that deeply matter and finding happiness everyday in the smallest gifts such as food to eat, water to drink, time spent with loved ones, or the feeling of the sun on your skin and damp soil beneath your feet. In our standards, these people had nothing yet they largely bore happy expressions in passing...a sharp contrast from the scowling or blank faces I see when I sit in traffic or go shopping for the day. I think the difference is this...for good or bad...the indigenous people are forced to be present. Those who visit, if you allow yourself to be, are forced to do the same. 
Mayan young women walking with fruit baskets to sell
And this is just what we wanted...so desperately I hoped that we would find ourselves irrevocably present. That removed from our comfort zone, expectations, and pre-conceived notions, and in awe of our new surroundings and how to exist in them, we would be present, with a host of new feelings, sensations, ideas about how it is to live and what it is to live. And we were. The trick now is holding onto that presence. I can liken it to returning from a long distance hike and have told Scott numerous times since our return that I feel like I went on a 3 month long trek...but we were only there 1 week. Lake Atitlan, I think we have only begun to understand what your magic is all about...like a good trail...we are sure to return.   

View of Lake Atitlan from Mayan ruins in San Marcos