Monday, January 28, 2013


We arrive in Bangkok after more than 17 hours of travel, bleary-eyed but energized to finally be in Thailand.  It's been a long time coming.  After a hectic week driving around the Pacific Northwest, it was nice to actually board our plane and start our trip.  We left Seattle at 12:30 pm on January 16th, and are arriving a day and a half later.  I'm trying to figure out how 17 hours can equal 36, but my mental state is making it really difficult to figure out whether to multiply by the dateline or divide by the time zone I left, so I drop it.  Besides, my watch is broken so it doesn't matter anyway.  Instead, I join Abby and Mary in tackling the task at hand - finding ourselves a place to stay for the night.  We decided to wait and get a guide book here, because we're cheap, so only have a vague idea of how to proceed.  We heard there was a light rail, so we collect our bags, change some US dollars to Thai baht, and eagerly make our way to the Skytrain platform.  With a brand new sleek and sexy airport and requisite door-to-door mass transit, Bangkok seems to be stepping hard into the 21st century.  Or maybe not.  Despite the fact that the airport is packed full of thousands of tourists disgorging all at once from more than a dozen flights arrived from all over the world, the last Skytrain of the night has inexplicably left the airport exactly 15 minutes after the first international flight landed.  I love this place already.

We’re in Thailand for a brief stopover on our way to Kathmandu.  We wanted to break up the trip to Nepal and decided to give ourselves a few days to explore Bangkok - enough time to get a good sense of the city but short enough that we could ignore the the siren song of Thailand's beaches.  Part of our stay involves a visit to my friend Dan. He’s actually one of my brother’s best friends from high school, but over the years I’ve made it a point to visit him whenever possible as he’s built an international teaching career.  I made it to Guatemala and Kuwait, was slightly bummed to miss out on the Dominican Republic, and seriously cut up when he left Brasil before I could make it over.  Thailand was a sure bet.

In Guatemala City he threw a party for a friend’s birthday so I could meet his crew and be introduced to the expat existence.  I managed to make it through the birthday piƱata but spent the rest of the night naked in the maid’s bathroom, alternating between the toilet and the shower.  In Kuwait I met his future wife (Kim), made out with one of his coworkers (not Kim), had drinks at the American Embassy, and commando-rolled and saluted my way through a graveyard of burned out Iraqi tanks and personnel carriers from the 1st Gulf War.  That was in 2002, and I've only seen him once since, for a brief moment back home a few Christmases past.  I'm eager to introduce Abby to my international benefactor, and am excited to have him share his Bangkok with us.

But first, we have a couple of days to discover Bangkok on our own.  Instead of the Skytrain, we settle for a shared taxi to Khao San.  It's a 30-minute drive on a mostly empty expressway with nothing much to see, so our energy has flagged again by the time we reach our destination.  Not for long.  We step out of the taxi into mayhem.  It's almost 2 am and the neighborhood is literally jumping to the pounding music coming from any number of bars and dance clubs lining the cramped little street.  In my mind Khao San Road, the stuff of traveler legend, was supposed to be longer.  In reality, it's barely 100 meters long, albeit densely packed.  It's a wall of neon above, and a mass of sounds and smells below. Travelers are here to party, and party hard.   We elbow our way through the half-drunk crowd, backpacks conspicuously bumping into people, racks of t-shirts, tables, and find an alleyway to duck into and escape the onslaught.  We grab the first room we can find, and fall into a fitful sleep.

Morning arrives quickly.  None of us can sleep, so we're up with the roosters, and exploring the area much too early.  The street is mostly deserted, except for a surprising number of hard core partiers who are still at it.  Their persistence is impressive, although their communication skills have mostly devolved into a series of loud grunts and bawls.  For once I'm glad I went to bed instead of hanging out.  We spend the day wandering around the city, ecstatic to once again be in the land of outdoor markets.  You can buy anything you can imagine if you wander long enough!  Jewelry, clothing, furniture, office supplies, even pets.  Every corner you turn is a new world to be discovered.  We find ourselves on a university campus and investigate the library.  It's full of academic journals and students studying, pretty much exactly like home.  We hop a ride uptown on a water taxi, and visit the world's largest reclining buddha.  It's really big.  We sample from the variety of street food and everything is delicious.  By the time we get back to our hotel, Khao San has woken up, and the party has started again, early.  It's incredible.

We decide to find a cheaper hotel, since we we weren't too inclined to hunt around the night before.  Abby finds a nice place just down the road for half the price, and is excited since the receptionist is upfront about the place being a little bit noisy.  Heck, everything is noisy around here, so the honesty is appreciated.  We pack up our stuff and move the half block down the road.  Dan arrives for dinner, and we eat some more delicious food and knock back a few drinks.  Jet lag sets in halfway through dinner, so we call it a night  early and walk back to our hotel.  It turns out that the hotel is more than a little bit loud.  The reception area is a little bit loud, but the noise builds with every step up the stairs to our floor.  By the time we reach our room, the place is bumping, and we open the door to a disco in our bedroom.  It turns out that the building next door is a club, and the bass is so loud the beds are rattling.  Abby, Mary, and I share a giggle, and Dan bursts out laughing.

"I kind of miss budget travel, you know?  Hey, you guys have a good sleep, okay?" he cracks.  "I'll see you tomorrow."  His laughter can be heard echoing down the hallway.  We are tempted to follow him out the door, but resignedly crawl into bed and stare at the ceiling as the dance party rages next door.  Sleep eventually finds us.

The next morning, we take a water taxi out to Dan's house.  If it's possible, our jet lag has actually increased.  The music didn't stop until after 6, but whatever, it was an experience.  It turns out, Dan's Bangkok isn't much like our Bangkok.  He calls his Bangkok Pleasantville, and compares the expat community where he lives to the bubble world of The Truman Show.  I'm inclined to agree.  They live in a gated neighborhood amongst ambassadors and CEOs, drive around in golf carts, and have a live-in maid.  When they venture forth outside the gates, they call it "going to Thailand".  The contrast between our thumping hotel room on Khao San and his friend's 3 floor condo where he puts us up could not be more stark. I won't lie - it's really nice.  We go for a swim in the condo pool, we eat some fresh thai food prepared by B, the house keeper, and we catch up on our lives over the past half-decade.  We go to bed happy and relaxed, but ready to move on.  Thailand is good, but we have a country to walk across, and besides, we get to come back in a few months.  Nepal, here we come!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Thamel Gear Shops

Who wants to buy some gear?  This is a small sampling of the number of gear shops in Thamel, the tourist ghetto in Kathmandu.  This is maybe a quarter of the shops found within a 1 km radius of the central intersection.  It boggles the mind. They all sell slight variations of the same knock off gear at similar prices.  How do they all stay in business?

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Skookum: Epilogue

Skookum has been sold.

After a month of halfhearted efforts trying to sell the POS remotely - we were in Hawaii, Skookum was in Vancouver, B.C. at my brother's house - we finally decided that we were going to have to buckle down and use our free week between Hawaii and Nepal to focus on selling the van.  Initially we had discussed just parking it in Vancouver and dealing with it when we got back, and spending the week in Oregon, skiing at Mt. Hood where Abby's brother Zak works as a lifty.  A strongly worded email from my brother outlining the potential effects of a wet winter on poor little Skookum's already fragile state convinced us to get off our metaphorical asses and sell the damn thing.  So we knocked off a couple thousand dollars from the posted craigslist price and really announced our intentions to the market.  It worked.  We got lots of interest from Vancouver all the way down to Portland, and we were hoping that someone would buy it before we arrived in Hood River.  If not, we'd park it there and deal with it when we got back.  We set up some meeting times and locations, and left Vancouver late Friday night, eager and optimistic that we'd be on foot and snowboarding by Sunday.

It was not to be.  Bellingham was 0 for 2.  Everett was a swing and a miss.  The Northgate Mall was tepid, at best.  Ballard was a bit warmer.  By the time we arrived in downtown Seattle, it had been a long day of test drives, and we were starting to settle in for the long haul.  Perhaps this was going to take longer than hoped.  And then we met Alan and his girlfirend Sue.  They were excited.  Really excited.  And eager.  They took it for a cruise around downtown and loved it immediately.  I went over the problems in thorough detail, waiting for the inevitable sag in demeanour, first noticeable in the eyes and moving rapidly down to the edges of the mouth.  I'd been gauging it all day, and discovered that it usually took about a minute and a half for the upside down frown to right itself.  But not this time.  They were still really excited.  They owned a van already, a '63, so were undeterred by the Saga of Skookum.  After a brief discussion, the deal was sealed.  They'd take it!  We'd take the van to Hood River for the weekend, they'd get their money together, and then we'd fly off into the sunset, literally.  We shook on it, and agreed to meet up in three days.

Our smiles were irrepressible as we rumbled our way south.  We stopped in SeaTac to grab some food and a few odds and ends for the next couple of days.  It was late and we weren't going to make it to Portland, but we wanted to get about halfway before spending a final night camped out in Skookum, saying goodbye.  After dinner, we hopped back into the van, and headed back to the highway.  I immediately noticed that something was not right.  I couldn't find the low gears, and as soon as I let go of the shifter, it flopped over awkwardly to it's side, limp and sad looking.  We couldn't believe it.

We limped into the next parking lot, which turned out to be that of Total Liquor.  How convenient. We drowned our sorrows as we rued our luck.  Truly, Skookum was getting the last laugh.  On the plus side, we were getting our wish of spending the night camping out.  The next morning dawned frigid and deserted.  It was Sunday.  No garages in the world are open on Sunday.  Instead of getting the van fixed, we had a mall day.  We took care of some last minute errands, we saw two movies for the price of one, and we had a fancy dinner at the food court.  It was memorable.  A second night at Total Liquor followed (still convenient), and Monday was spent at the garage, repairing a broken bushing on the shifter assembly.  By the time Skookum was back in action (for less than $200, I might add), it was 5 pm on Monday afternoon and we were exhausted from our inactivity.  We were scheduled to meet Alan and Sue the next morning in Seattle, so our weekend of snowboarding at Mt. Hood had turned into a weekend in the mall parking lot, 20 km from our starting point.

The meet on Tuesday went well.  We were very upfront about all the problems we'd had with the POS, and made it very clear what they were getting themselves into.  Alan and Sue were still very excited, even when we told them about our weekend.  We exchanged keys for money, and as they drove away, our hearts were in our mouths.  We were waiting for a clunk, or a crash, and half expected the whole van to coast to a stop, sigh slowly and collapse into a heap in front of us.  But no, they just...drove away.  It was glorious.  They drove off happy as larks, and we flew off into the sunset.  How much more poetic can a vehicle transaction be?

We're still a little apprehensive about the deal. We want them to like it and have a positive experience.  We don't want them to have the problems that we had.  Overall, we loved our big POS, even if it was of the unrequited variety.  We have no regrets over the way our foray into the world of VW van ownership turned out, but I think next time we'll be buying a Toyota.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Saga of Skookum

Early March, Anchorage, Alaska.  It’s cold and dark, but we have a warm glow in our souls lighting our way as we drive our newly purchased VW Eurovan across town to its new home.  We’re starting to get excited for our big fall road trip, and the van is a key piece of the puzzle.  The love affair lasts exactly one week, until Abby runs out of gas.  The tank is still supposed to be half full.  The gas mileage turns out to be drastically less than advertised – 8 mpg instead of 20.  As the weeks pass by, we discover more hidden treasures.  There’s a hole in the windshield washer fluid reservoir.  The blower motor has been replaced by a hack, and is ducktaped in place, hidden behind the dash.  The interior ceiling fabric falls off revealing that the pop-top is actually an add-on – it wasn’t made that way but modified later.  The list grows longer.  It turns out we bought a piece-of-shit (POS) van from a lying POS on craiglist.  Abby breaks into tears.

Late July, Anchorage, Alaska.  It’s Day 1 of our trip. The morning dawns cold and dreary.  It’s been raining in Alaska nonstop since May but we’re embarking on our epic journey!  Our summer of glory has turned out to be full of aborted trips through wet tundra, but it’s still been a good time.  Now it’s time to move on, and we’re excited.  The open road is ahead of us, and we leave Anchorage with a nervous anticipation of what lies ahead.  The van has been repaired, tuned up, and pimped out.  He has been hopefully christened Skookum. 

6 hours later we stop for a last slug of cheap gas before crossing into Canada.  Our newly tuned-up Skookum, fresh from the garage and his pre-roadtrip checkup, refuses to restart.  We enlist our passengers, a couple of French hitchhikers who have been rained out of Denali, to help push start the van, and park on an incline at subsequent stops all the way to Whitehorse.  We limp into the Superstore parking lot and debate our options.  Our mechanic in Anchorage pulls through over the phone, and with some poking and prodding (and a few bangs and clangs thrown in for good measure), I find a loose connection on the starter and fix the problem.  Click and Clack would be proud.   My mechanic skills are improving at an unsustainably exponential rate.  Surely the curve will flatten soon?  Abby starts scowling, a permanent furrow developing in her beautiful brow.

Late August, Big Sky, Montana.  We’re on our way to a Michael Franti concert at Big Sky, toiling our way up the mountain through the hot summer air.  The faint smell of gas appears shortly outside of Bozeman and gets gradually stronger over the next few hours.  It eventually becomes unbearable, so I pull over and get out to check the gas tank.  The smell is immediately overpowering.  I hear a strange bubbling noise coming from the tank, and can see fumes billowing out.  The gas cap fairly blows off when I loosen it, and gas starts spurting out.  The fuel is literally boiling in the tank. 

We try to make the best of it by running a 5k the morning of the concert, winning resort gift certificates by beating a half dozen severely hungover ski resort employees who haven’t slept since leaving the bar the night before.  We score some guest passes to the resort spa with our sob story, and drown our sorrows with the winnings as afternoon thunderstorms threaten to cancel the concert.  We stare silently into the storm clouds, the reality of what being a VW van owner really entails hammering home like so many raindrops. 

The clouds miraculously pass, the sun comes out, and then it’s time for FRANTI!  We get down, and the world is happy once more.  The next morning, we limp slowly to Abby’s sister’s house in Salt Lake City, Utah.  We stop every hour to prevent the van from getting too hot.  Abby spends the entire time with her hand on the seatlbelt release, ready to eject at a moment’s notice.  She is developing a distinct nervous tick.

Early September, Salt Lake City, Utah.  We leave Skookum with John and Shannon’s mechanic, a gruff semi-retired character who restores vintage race cars and POS VWs.  I rumble in to the parking lot and park Skookum between an early model Porsche 911 and a Lamborghini.  The mechanic takes apart the gas tank, traces the gas line and vents the whole system.  He comes up with nothing but charges us $400.  Abby has begun to stutter.

Late October, Corvallis, Oregon.  After spending a few days visiting our good friends Chris and Leanne, we pack up and head south, towards Ashland.  Half an hour down I-5, the storm that is dumping more than 6 inches of rain along the Oregon Coast and flooding cities up and down the western seaboard threatens to rip Skookum’s pop-top right off.   We pull over to debate our options, and decide a skylight will not add to the van’s value.  We turn around and limp back to Corvallis, surprising the Cusacks when we show back up at their door.  Along the way, we remark on the interesting new grinding sound coming from underneath Abby’s seat.  We end up needing “nothing more” than an exhaust hanger replaced, but the mechanic remarks casually that the vehicle “really needs some work”.  We thank him, and head north.  Abby is an unresponsive, limpid puddle in the back seat, staring vacantly into space, a steady trickle of drool escaping the left corner of her mouth. 

Late November, Vancouver, B.C. Skookum gets posted on craigslist in Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland.  A potential buyer emerges who takes him to a mechanic where he is told that under no circumstances should he buy the van.  The list of recommended repairs is long and sordid, and only 75% accurate.  We fly to Hawaii. Abby bursts into song.

Skookum is still for sale.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

We said it, we did it!  Yup, that’s right – the Rideouts have retired.  After a meager and miserly half-decade, we have attained financial freedom.  Abby and I had a plan when we got married: we wanted to have the financial resources to pursue our dreams within 6 years.  We set an aggressive goal and were relentless in our financial decisions. No frills, no vacations, no fancy groceries, no new gear. Our rule was no extras, ever.  We sewed our own clothes from native Alaskan plants.  We carved our own skis from the birch trees in our front yard.  We grew and trapped our own food, subsisting mostly on boiled cabbage and arctic ground squirrel.  And Alaskan chickens (*wink*).  We insisted on absolute adherence to our own rules, and now, at the ripe old ages of 32 and 35, we can do whatever we want for the rest of our lives!  It’s very exciting.

While the plan as laid out seems very simple and straightforward, I’ve left out the most important element.  What’s that, you ask?  Simple: delusion.  In reality, we managed to save some money over the course of the past few years, and are taking a year off at the expense of any type of responsible long term financial planning.  Screw it – let’s go travel!  Oh man, it’s been a long while coming, and not a moment too soon.  It’s been more than 4 years without anything longer than a 3-week vacation.  4 long years sitting behind a desk, watching the clock tick-tick-ticking away the hours.  4 long years spent skiing, and climbing mountains, and running through the woods, and…wait, I’m not really painting a very sympathetic picture, am I?  Woe is us?  No?  Well, you get the idea.  Life in Anchorage is great and fantastic and wonderful and…[superlative ad infinity]…, but we had been growing more and more antsy as the seasons continued to turn and we became entrenched in our lives. Life was great, but we were restless.  In particular, we fiercely missed the simplicity and freedom of living out of our backpacks, so we quit our jobs, rented out our house, bought a piece-of-shit (POS) VW van, and up and left.

In reality, our year off started before the fact last November, when we took a month off to raft the Grand Canyon. 16 people for 28 days over 270 miles.  5 rafts, packed full of top-notch food, plush camping gear, and beer.  Lots of beer.  6 shopping carts full of beer, plus 2 chest high stacks of cases for good measure.  Ah, it was a beautiful thing, watching those wobbly carts wheel awkwardly through the checkout aisle.  Case after case of Coors, Coors Light, High Life, PBR, Tecate, and then the microbrews.  Actually, we drank lots of beer, but the visual impact of buying that much beer at once was the best part.  I have never seen such a collection!

Beer run for the Grand Canyon.  This is 80%.
The trip itself was magical, and will stay with us for a long, long time.  The group got along incredibly well, and the trip was a powerfully immersive experience.  Once you push off from Lees Ferry and engage the current, your existence becomes defined by the canyon walls on either side.  The outside world drops away as the walls rise, and you surrender your life to the river for the next month. Ours was a winter trip (although we all agreed it was the same as an Alaska summer), so we mostly had the place to ourselves.  In 28 days on the river, we saw but 5 other groups, all of who passed us by since we were the slow boat(s). We climbed side canyons and explored their surreal sandstone sculpture parks.  We hiked up to the rim just to be able to look back down into the depths of our home.  We had nightly campfires, where we watched the stars work their way across the narrow strip of sky visible from the river bottom, and laughed with new friends.  We drank lots of beer. 

Rafting in the heart of the canyon.
Dawn at the Nankoweap Granaries.
Approaching Vegas towards the end of the canyon, we were reminded that the trip couldn’t last forever.  Helicopters started invading our silence as they took groups of tourists on flightseeing tours.  It was an abrupt break from the world we’d been travelling through and we showed our discontent with a full moon as the full moon rose behind us.  The symmetry was impossible to pass up.  We ended our trip in Lake Mead, and spent a final night camped in the desert, trying to finish the last of the beer.   We were unsuccessful – barely – and our shuttle arrived early the next morning to return us to the real world and the madness of Christmas. 

Dawn at our takeout on the Colorado River.  It was a sad occasion.
We flew back home, back to winter, back to the most epic ski season on record.  Cold snow, impossible stability, and sunny days made for incredible skiing.  We skied lines we’ve been eyeing for years, and crossed more and more off our list as the days rolled by.  The west face of Pyramid, a 3200-foot run we’ve drooled over for 5 years got skied in knee deep powder, from summit to the sea.  We explored some new areas, and in April flew out of Haines for another weeklong ski trip in Glacier Bay National Park.  When the snow finally started melting and the ridges were clear enough to run, it was with mixed emotions that we traded in our skis for trail runners.

Dennis skiing a new line in Peterson Creek.
Andy and Abby eyeing 3200 ft. of perfect snow off the summit of Pyramid.
Getting ready to head down to camp near Haines.
Mary reaching the top of a run near Haines.
We both finished our jobs by the end of May, and planned on spending June and July in Alaska.  With two commitment-free months we figured we could check off a lot of the trips on our list that were too long for a weekend, or needed more planning, or whatever.  There was no shortage of ideas.  The plan was a sound one, but the weather refused to cooperate.  April turned to May, and it started raining.  And it never stopped.  In the month of May, it rained 15 days.  In June, it rained 17 days, and in July, it rained 20 days.  Of the 41 rain free days during those three months, 13 were foggy, and a measly 6 were classified as “fair” (source: National Weather Service Anchorage office monthly climate summary).  The weather combined with the record snowpack leftover from the heavy snow year turned the entire state into a bog.  It was miserable. 

Packrafting the upper Susitna River.
We hid under a rock ledge in the middle of the glacier when it started raining sideways.  
Abby wearing all her layers and some of mine in a futile attempt to stay warm.
Yay!  Off the wet snow, into 6 inches of standing water!
Into the midst of this soggy mess entered the Rideout parents and 4 of their friends.  They drove up from Ontario in a pair of RV trailers and we spent three weeks touring around with them, getting a sneak preview of what retired life in an RV park can be.  We always thought it could be good, but we had no idea it could be this good.  Dinners at 5, cable TV, yappy dogs galore – what more could a person want out of life? We dubbed them the Geriatric 6, or G6 for short.  It was a bit of a change from our standard approach to travel, but it was great to have some company in the rain.  

The G6 in action.  Only 2 of the 6 got lost, and then only for 3 hours, so really a pretty successful outing!
They left in late July and finally our time had come.  We packed the house, loaded up our POS VW van and headed south. 

The open road!
Dinner at our campsite for the night.  Walmart parking lot!
Our plan for the fall was to spend time in the mountains and deserts of the West – mainly the Canadian Rockies, southern Utah, and the High Sierra of California.  Our van betrayed us almost immediately, and the Saga of Skookum began (see attached). From the Yukon we headed south to Alberta, and were blown away by the mountains and access there.  And the weather, oh my, the weather!  After three straight months of rain, the sunshine was intoxicating. We spent the better part of three weeks peakbagging throughout the area, exploring Jasper, Banff, Yoho and Waterton Lakes.  We got our hands on a guidebook, Scrambles in the Canadian Rockies, and set to work.  We dug into the mountains with a summer’s worth of pent up energy and climbed everything in sight. We tried to take days off, but every morning would dawn sunny and clear, and our hard-wired Alaskan brains were incapable of sitting around on a sunny day.  Weather windows are more valuable than gold, and we felt like we’d won the lottery.  It got to the point where we started hoping for rain so we could rest our legs.  It never happened. 

Uh-oh.  Monday looks terrible.
Abby nearing the summit of Mt. Wilcox on the Icefields Parkway.
Steve on the summit of Mt. Yukness, Yoho National Park.
Abby trying not to die in Little Yoho.
A comprehensive hygiene routine was part of our daily ritual.  Scrub harder!
Before we knew it, September was looming and we had to push on.  Next on the list?  The Sierra High Route, a 200-mile off-trail route that roughly parallels the John Muir Trail through California’s Sierra Nevada.  Photographer friends of ours invited us along as a photoshoot for Black Diamond, and we gladly accepted.  We got outfitted with a bunch of BD gear and modeled our way through the mountains.  We looked good.  It was a return to an area we hadn’t visited since our through-hike of the PCT in 2005, so we were excited to spend more time in such a beautiful place. The sunny weather continued, and we made sure to stop twice a day to cool off in some of the innumerable pristine alpine lakes along the way.  Cliff jumping, skinny-dipping, star-gazing – three weeks without roads through the high mountains left us all with shit-eating grins from ear to ear.  

Diving board near the Evolution Basin.
Tricky footing coming down from a pass.
We ended in Yosemite and hitched rides to Reno, where we spent a few days easing ourselves back into the civilized world.  For anyone tempted to visit Reno as a cheap alternative to Vegas – don’t.  It is a cheap alternative to Vegas, but in this case that’s not a good thing.  The facades are crumbling, the people seem desperate, and the whole place has a dirty, used feeling that leaves you sad. But the food was great and it served out needs perfectly.

The hiking extravaganza continued with an attempt at the Hayduke Trail, something we’ve wanted to do since we first came across it in a dusty magazine years ago.  It links the highlights of Southern Utah from Arches National Park to Zion National Park with lots of canyon country in between.  We’d heard it was tough and at times tedious, but full of spectacular scenery.  We gave ourselves 6 weeks to cover the 700+ miles, and mailed food to the more remote resupply points along the way.  Buying 4 days worth of food at a gas station is possible, and has been done before, but is far from desirable.  We took a bus down to Moab, and after running out of reasons to stay in town, we started putting one foot in front of the other and we were off! 

The Joint Trail in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
Sunrise at our favourite camp on the Hayduke Trail.
Descending into Youngs Canyon on the Hayduke Trail.
Trail magic from Owen the Ranger at Hite Marina.  They were even cold!
Exploring a slot canyon.
Despite the breathtaking scenery, the “wow” moments were separated by long sections of road walking and thicket-bashing in the bottom of canyons.  We were constantly surprised by the route selection, and spent half our time scratching our heads in confusion. As the frustration grew we started questioning why we were pushing ourselves so hard, hiking 20 miles a day through the desert for views of mostly tamarisk.  We like bushwhacking – it’s a requirement of living in Alaska – but the math wasn’t adding up.  Oftentimes the hardships in a long trip are what really make it worthwhile and allow the great moments to stand out in contrast.  This time, it wasn’t working out that way.  We wanted a tough challenge, but our hearts simply weren’t into it.  Halfway through we pulled the plug and converted our M.O. to strictly hiking the highlights.  Life became much easier.  We cherry picked the appealing sections from the second half and had a great time exploring the surreal landscapes in the area.

Abby keeping her feet dry in Buckskin Gulch.
Sunset in the heart of canyon land in southern Utah.
Kolob Canyon in Zion National Park.
Our road trip drew to a close with a final swing through the Pacific Northwest, back in to the land of rain.  We’d forgotten about the mysterious precipitation that fell from the sky, and had grown soft in our prolonged period of sun worshipping.  We stopped in at numerous friends along our way north and eventually made it Vancouver by the end of November.  We temporarily adopted our niece and nephew and took the ferry over to Vancouver Island, where we enjoyed the excellent hospitality of friends and more rain.  Ella and Kole loved sleeping in the pop-top, and were sorely disappointed when we arrived back home.   Being parents was a breeze, and there were only three things that happened which we swore to never tell their mom and dad about. 

It’s now December 20, 2012, and we’ve been in Hawai’i for 3 weeks.  We’re living in Captain Cook, on the Big Island at Abby’s parent’s place.  We just finished a dinner of seared ahi caught fresh this morning accompanied by a mango and papaya salad made with fruit picked from trees in the yard.  Earlier this afternoon, we went into town and swam part of the Kona Ironman course.  Yesterday, we hiked down to the Pacific Ocean from the property and snorkeled with dolphins at the spot where Captain Cook was killed in 1779.  When we were done, we made a fire on the beach and roasted (tofu) hot dogs as we watched the winter surf pound the jagged volcanic coast. 

Sunset from Phil and Trudy's in Captain Cook, Hawaii.

Beautiful scenery in the Pololu Valley.
Since our arrival, we’ve adapted to the tropical lifestyle nicely. Life in Hawai’i is easy, and good.  Abby’s parent’s retired here last year, and their house was completed in August so much still remains to be done.  We’ve gotten into a nice routine where we spend most of our time working on the property: building rock walls, picking avocados, planting an herb garden.  Up at dawn, work hard all morning and into the afternoon, then we down to the beach for a swim before sunset.  Back in time for a sundowner, and then dinner and hang out before early to bed.  It’s been very satisfying to make tangible progress on the property, and as Phil (Abby’s dad) says, “The best part of building a rock wall is standing back once it’s finished and admiring it”.   We celebrated Christmas early with a pig roast on 12/12/12.  Family from both sides came over to the island and we did it in traditional Hawaiian style.  We caught a pig across the street, and roasted her in an imu, where the pig is filled with hot rocks and then smoked in an earthen pit.  It was delicious!  

Bert placing the food in the imu - he's the resident expert.
Now we only have 2 more weeks of the easy life and then we’re off to the grand finale of our gap year – the Great Himalaya Trail in Nepal.  We’re returning to the land of giant mountains and dhal bhat (rice with lentil stew) where we plan to hike across the entire country over the course of 3 months.  Planning is difficult since there is a pronounced dearth of reliable information on the more remote sections, but we have our tickets booked and are confident that the remaining pieces will fall into place once we arrive.  We land in Kathmandu in late January and plan on beginning our trek the first or second week of February.  Our good friends Mary and Andy will be joining us, co-conspirators on most of our longer adventures over the past few years.

As for the future, nursing school is officially a go for Steve.  Sort of.  He bit the bullet and took a full slate of classes this past winter, getting all of his prerequisites out of the way in order to start applying to different schools.  He has currently narrowed the choices down to the University of Alaska Anchorage, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, and Montana State University in Bozeman. Now he just needs to figure out where and when he’ll start.  He has absolutely no idea how to choose between those four schools, but has plenty of time to figure it out, and Abby is supportive of all four locations.  There will be hours and hours to think about it during the long walk through the Himalaya, and perhaps the thin air will provide some clarity and enlightenment.  School will start sometime between next fall and the following May depending on where enrollment is granted, so our plans upon our return from Asia are also completely up in the air.  Abby can get a nursing job pretty much anywhere, and is looking forward to exploring the diversity that nursing has to offer.  We are tentatively thinking about spending the summer in Juneau, Alaska, but have some other possibilities rattling around as well.  How’s this - we’ll let you know where we end up once we get there!

And before we sign off, we have one unresolved item left on the agenda.  How could we write another lengthy missive and fail to mention our beloved chickens?  The best is saved for last.  Where are the chickens now, you ask?  They’re living in the van with the Vancouver Rideouts.  We built a nice coop in the far back of the van that has a feeding station and a roosting box, and we’ve trained them to potty in a litter box.  It was a bit awkward smuggling them across the border so many times, but they’ve become adept at staying quiet when the pressure’s on.  Actually, none of that is true.  In reality, they’re at summer camp.  Except it’s now winter and they’re still at camp.  So maybe it’s a bit more than just summer camp.  Don’t tell them, okay?  Our friends across the neighborhood adopted them and they’re doing well!  It’s been below zero (F) for about a month straight now, but luckily they moulted earlier than last year, so had a fresh coat of feathers before the cold really hit. They frostbit their combs last winter and developed a more streamlined look from the amputations that followed, so they’re more prepared than ever for the long Alaskan winter.  We look forward to seeing them upon our return.

Chicka, Nascar, and Apocalypse.
Merry Aloha Christmas and Happy Mahalo New Year!  With luck, we’ll talk to you soon. 

Steve and Abby.