Friday, January 29, 2016

A Look Back at 2015...

I figured 2015 was going to be a fascinating year when I bumped into Natasha in January. Not many people share my sense of unconventional adventure and general loathing of the ready-made tourism industry. But she did and that was awesome. What made it even more special was how quirky we both are, like the time she launched into a monologue about her bladder on our second date. I was hooked.  

Here's a brief rundown of some of our year's highlights: 

Exploring Panama
Panama is such an amazing little country. Of course everyone knows about the Panama Canal, but what many people don't know is that the north of Panama is absolutely gorgeous. You have the Bocas del Toro archipelago just off the eastern coast and then you have beautiful mountains in the mainland, topped by the mighty volcano, volcan Baru.

Our plan was to escape the cold of February in DC and spend a week exploring these areas. Given our restless nature, we spent almost every night in a different place and experienced everything from scuba diving (it sucks in Bocas, btw) to ziplining in Bastimentos National Park (ton of fun), to climbing volcan Baru. We stayed in a bed and breakfast, an eco-resort, a regular hotel, and kid-you-not an actual treehouse.  

Arriving in Panama city
Our legitimate treehouse

Perhaps the most physically challenging part of our trip was climbing volcan Baru. Now you can google the volcano and find a million different tour operators who will hold your hand all the way to the summit or better yet take you up there in a jeep. The hold your hand "adventure" is also on the same jeep trail.

Not a chance in heck that I'd be caught dead on such a trail. Fortunately an alternative route does exist but is really difficult to find. After hours scouring google for information, I gathered some basic beta from the two people on earth who had decided to post about it online. Basically, you have to drive all the way around the mountain to the other side where an obscure trailhead marks the beginning of the hike. Its pretty clear why this side is rarely used or marketed -- just look at the elevation profile on the sign at the trailhead. The jeep route starts on the right and our chosen route starts on the left. They meet up at the top. Need I say more?

So off we went one bright early morning, a bit later than an alpine start given Natasha had spent the entire evening spewing her guts thanks to food poisoning. I offered to postpone or cancel but she's one stubborn girl and refused to be distracted by minor life inconveniences such as severe caloric depletion or dehydration. Food and water -- way overrated...

The trail was quite well marked and steady at the beginning but very quickly turned nastily steep and littered with volcano scree. We didn't really see anyone on the trail except for a few locals who were surprised to see us there. But I can easily pass as a local and Natasha speaks fluent Spanish so we ended up having some fun conversations. We were so glad we weren't on the jeep trail.

The going was tough but we kept at it and were soon above treeline and into warm sunshine. 

Here, the going got really tough as each step forward was followed by half a step sliding back on the scree and we struggled for handholds on the steep terrain. After what felt like eternity, we conquered the major steep bit and could see the summit and made the final few boulder scrambles to the top.
Summit Panorama
After a brief nap near the summit and some snacks that Natasha could hold down, we started our descent. Coming down was a real pain in the butt as we had no footholds and risked sliding all the way down the side of the mountain. But steadily we made it back to the car with some sore toes! Baru definitely belongs on the list of places to go but only if you climb the route we did. I have the GPS file handy in case anyone wants it.

Overall, Panama was great and we saw so much of it in just a week!
Two happy explorers

Pittsburgh to DC Bike Blitz
Recent Amtrak changes have made carrying bikes on trains much easier but back in May of 2015, there weren't many options. But there was one very attractive one -- the slow train from DC to Pittsburgh that allowed bikes on board. Well technically they provide these large boxes where you slide your bike in.

We wanted to ride from Pittsburgh to DC with panniers on bikes. This was my first real bike touring trip so I was stoked and happily carried most of our weight on my newly acquired rear rack on my self-converted old cross bike. Natasha was in charge of route planning and made a killer itinerary for us -- we really didn't want to do the conventional route of the GAP/C&O trail for several reasons. Chief among them were that everyone else does it so we should do something different, and also that riding on a rail trail is excruciatingly boring. Riding on an endlessly flat course with basically the same scenery (even if its great scenery) for miles on end just doesn't excite me at all. So instead, we charted out our own route on the road with ridewithgps. It was hard -- day 1: 72 miles, day 2: 101 miles, day 3: 107 miles. Did I mention the 20,000 feet of climbing?!

Undeterred, we boarded our train one long weekend in May. The train ride was long, I can't remember exactly how long but it was over 7 hours. But the train was nice and the seats were comfortable and we were pretty excited so it wasn't that painful.

Arriving in Pittsburgh around midnight
We had a hotel booked near the train station, which was convenient. The next morning after a hearty breakfast we set off initially on the GAP trail but with some road diversions just to add variety. The plan was to more or less follow this trail for the first day till Ohiopyle and then diverge onto roads completely. 

Merica, son!
On the GAP trail
We made it to Ohiopyle in good time and after a nice dinner settled in for a restful sleep. The next two days were going to be tough.

Indeed, the journey did not disappoint. Our planned route took us over what seemed like the continental divide with gravel roads and double digit gradients. Riding all of this with panniers took a lot out of me, as evidenced here:

Surprisingly, the next day both of us actually felt better and even a bit of rain did not deter us. Plus, my choice of bright yellow rain gear with a mushroom head provided ample entertainment for both of us. 

The plan was to ride past Harpers Ferry (where we had lunch) and then make our way to Point of Rock where we had a rendezvous with a friend who had graciously ridden out to accompany us back to DC. Man, the last few miles around Point of Rock are just excruciating. No wonder it has that name -- one bloody hill after another. To top it all it was 100 degrees out and we were boiling under the sun. 

Thankfully, our meetup spot was an icecream parlor and we happily scooped up some ice-cold calories before the last push home.

One of our many stops along the way. Notice my knee-high socks -- very fashionable indeed
Harpers Ferry
We rode the last 40+ miles at a pretty brisk pace and after an unwanted stop for puncture repair we pulled up to my house to end this epic trip. Here are two exhausted but happy cyclists:
Home. Finally.

Tour de France
Not the one you're thinking of but every bit as exciting, at least for us: Tash and Bilal do France

Wedding Bells in Mexico 
No, we didn't get married but it was Natasha's best friend's wedding. Marianna and Xavier were really nice and invited me to their ceremony as well and I was delighted to go as I've never been to Mexico. Another good place to practice my budding language skills plus I wasn't going to miss out on the chance to visit Mexico City where Natasha grew up.

The only downside of this trip was that it fell smack in the middle of cyclocross season and I was having a good time there with some top 10 finishes. But the last race I did before this trip I crashed and broke my rear derailleur so perhaps it was good timing after all.

Mexico City is huge! I guess the Spanish really like big things and the influence has stuck. This flag for instance, in the main city square, was humongous. The picture doesn't do justice but I'd reckon its as big as a house. 

Thats one ginormous flag -- lest you forgot you're in Mexico
Our timing was such that we hit the preparations for el dia de los muertos (day of the dead), which everyone in Mexico takes very seriously. Think Halloween but on steroids. We saw numerous intricate floats on the main reforma (main boulevard in the city) such as this one:

Of course, being bikers we utilized the local bikeshare and saw the whole city in a day. Thankfully we were out and about on a Sunday so many of the streets were closed to traffic.

After two days in Mexico City, we met up with the wedding party and headed over to the little town of Tepoztlan for the festivities. For the next few days we explored some local gems in the area such as a massive cave and some castle ruins. We also hiked up to the top of a local hill where a temple is located and found this massive tree along the way.
Inside the cave

And then it was time for the wedding. We clean up alright when we absolutely have to: 

But formal wear isn't really our thing so the evening quickly turned into this:

And shortly thereafter we were in our element:

What a fun wedding it really was! Mexico is great and I can't wait to go back there to explore some more. 

So there you have it -- 2015 in a nutshell. Of course there were numerous other happenings in 2015 such as a successful bike racing season, many fun training rides, and some interesting work travel. But its late and I'm tired so I'll leave you with this:   
Bike tour around France? No. Pittsburgh to DC in 3 days on bikes? Nope. Fun adventures in Panama and Mexico? Not a chance. Natasha's crowning achievement of the year was her successful cucumber harvest in the back yard. I haven't seen her this excited um ever! 

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