Friday, June 22, 2012

Destination: Panama

(Mostly) packed and ready to go!

In three hours - no, less, we will hit the road for foreign lands. Panama is calling this year, although I will admit that it played second fiddle to my dream of traipsing Iceland's rugged landscapes. But no matter, an adventure abroad is an adventure abroad. It still seems somewhat surreal, especially when one has to work up to the last minute, and two weeks will be scarcely enough to tame my wanderlust, but we will enjoy our return to Central America.

Nothing is booked beyond our first night in Panama City, and nothing set beyond a desire to scuba dive with brilliant Caribbean fish, hike jungle-clad and cloud-swathed volcanoes, spot resplendent quetzals and harpy eagles, wander coffee plantations and frolic by foaming waterfalls. And of course, eat a lot of good food.

What will the open road bring this year? We can only find out. On the list of potential stops are Panama City where we will definitely check out a famous canal, Bocas del Toro and Humedal de San San Pond Sak where I hope to spot nesting turtles and the reclusive manatee, and Boquete, which speaks of gourmet coffee, fresh mountain air, and...of course, the masochistic enterprise of hiking Panama's tallest peak, Volcan Baru.

Now we can only pray for smooth trails, and for Mother Nature to be kind and send us all the wildlife we could desire, and the most gorgeous of weather to grace our days.

I would also dearly like to hug a sloth, but my research has not been able to give me anything conclusive on the possibilities of doing so - if anyone can direct me into the embrace of a long-clawed, slow-moving friend, please let me know!

The more I settle into the rat race and the 40-hour workweek, the stronger the niggling feeling that I might begin to fear the unknown more and more. I hope this trip revives the thrill of diving into places not yet trodden, and keeps my faith strong in the beauty of the world.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Biking Block Island!

Point Judith - last mainland stop before Block Island!
There was once an idea hatched in the minds of three lasses, born somewhere between a common love for sunshine, the ocean, and the dream that we would all someday be fit and muscled enough to take on a bicycle ride of decent length. Block Island was quickly picked as our target destination as two of us had never been (one being a life-long RI resident, so it seemed about time...), but life continually interfered with our plan - we never realized quite how difficult it is to coordinate both three separate schedules AND the weather. 

Days, weeks, even months passed. In that time, Abbey and I both tuned up our bikes and failed to ride them for an entire season (well, I did 3 measly miles to Savers to buy some biking spandex that sat unused in my dresser for a year), and then winter unreasonably got in the way. But as the shoots of spring began to unfurl, so did our dormant plan also reawaken. With unseasonably warm weather kicking off the year, we figured we'd jump on the sunny opportunity and so, with a glorious spring Saturday on the forecast and three open schedules, Block Island finally was to become a reality!

More boats at Point Judith
The first thing I did in preparation for the day was to load up my Camelbak with a ridiculous amount of stuff. I usually try to pack fairly minimally, but the idea of eating just peanut butter sandwiches and trail mix somehow did not appeal! I wanted my chicken salad and a cold beverage for a picnic on the beach, and so I found myself stuffing a cooler and a load of ice cubes into my pack. Adding on a couple liters of water and my over-3-pounds of camera made for a substantial load, and I wondered if I was just spelling trouble for myself. I figured that the chicken salad and cold ginger beer would be worth it, and that the melted ice cubes would be muchly appreciated as a beverage later on.

Still bleary-eyed, we stumbled out of the house at 6.30 am so Matt could drop me off at Abbey's by 7. I had wanted to wait till my eyes were less morning-gunky to put in my contacts, and so I figured I would do it at her place. In the bathroom, I tore open the package, lifted the contact to my eye, and had it pop back out. Undeterred, I dried my hands on a towel to get rid of the excess saline and brought it up again...hang on, there was a whole bunch of cat hair stuck to it! I tried rubbing it off, but the strands refused to budge. I had overlooked the important fact that everything in Abbey's house was covered in cat hair, and had neglected to bring my little bottle of saline. A few rubs later, I figured I was only going to tear the lens before I dislodged the hair, and I had no desire to take any chances on laminating any cat hair between my eyeball and the lens, which I could only imagine would make for an unpleasant situation. Oh well. Into the trash the lens went, and I resigned myself to wearing glasses for the day.  

Heading down to the bluffs.
After various introductions between significant other, cats and snakes, we got down to business and loaded up our bikes on to her car, which proved to be slightly more complicated than we had hoped for. A little finagling later, we managed to attach the bike rack and get the bikes safely (or so we hoped) strapped in, before zipping over to Seven Stars to pick up Debbie.

Still mostly on schedule, we made the drive down to Point Judith without much incident. Upon our arrival, some enthusiastically-waving girls succeeded in luring us into their all-day parking lot, which, despite the early hour, was already full of cars and a plenitude of bikes. At this point, I figured it was a good idea to at least get on my bike to see if it was functional - Abbey and I had both had a panicked moment in the last 24 hours regarding our tires, hers when she accidentally deflated them while using an air compressor, and mine when my rear tire suddenly refused to inflate! I guessed my situation was due to a bent pin in the valve and had fixed it that morning with a pair of pliers (good thing we jewelry-making girls always have needle-nosed pliers at hand!).

Walking by the bluffs
Anyhow, I wobbled my way on to the bike and down to the landing, wondering if the bumping I felt was normal but I soon put it down to just cracks in the sidewalk. We bought our tickets and headed on to the first ferry of the day, where apparently a multitude of boy scout troops had already laid their bikes for passage. We added ours to the two-wheeled heap and made for top deck, where we managed to snitch a section of bench that wasn't already occupied by aforementioned tie-dye-clad boy scouts. The bullhorn sounded, startling us fully awake, and we were off! 

It took a little under an hour to reach New Shoreham, with a little bit of rock-and-rolling ocean action, but thankfully no seasickness occurred among our crew. We finally saw the curve of Block Island's shoreline pull into view, and we were soon docked and raring to go. Deb disembarked ahead of us while Abbey and I headed down to retrieve our rides, trying to keep ahead of the Scouts. Standing in front of the pile of bikes, we perplexedly scanned the rows, trying to pick them out.

"He said row 5, right? Wouldn't that be further back there?"
We stared into the distance at rows and rows of indistinguishable bikes for a minute.
"I don't see them...yours was purple, right?"
"Yeah, what was yours?"
"Wait a minute, they wouldn't be right in front of us, would they?"

Great egret dropping by at lunch
We looked down and there they were, sitting right smack under our noses. We shook our heads at ourselves and proceeded to try to untangle our bikes from the rest of the pile. It took a little yanking and pulling, but we eventually got free and headed out to meet Deb on shore and get her a rental ride. A few minutes later, she was hooked up with a snazzy pink bike with a nifty basket, and we headed off on the Mohegan Trail.  

The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and we were all-too-apparently out of shape. Thighs started burning quickly, and lungs were gasping as we struggled up the road, cursing every uphill. We kept at it though, and with a few stops to catch our breath we came across the sign for Mohegan Bluffs, a picturesque spot with impressive steep clay bluffs that tumbled down to the ocean. Despite having been on the trail for only a little bit, we decided that we were sufficiently famished and decided to have lunch by the ocean. We trotted down the 141 steep stairs on slightly wobbly legs, clambered down a slightly treacherous rocky section at the bottom of the stairs, and found some welcoming boulders to sit on at the base of the 185-ft tall cliffs. 

Taking a rest stop
We cracked out our respective picnics, and I definitely scarfed down my chicken salad all too quickly. Dessert came in the form of ginger beer and a slightly mangled but deliciously drippy lemon cake courtesy of Deb. We watched a passing egret and examined the seaweed, enjoying the ocean breeze. It was a lovely spot for a break, although its namesake came from a far less peaceful event - the battle between the native Niantic and intruding Mohegan, who were forced over the cliffs to their deaths in the mid 16th century.

Bellies full, we decided we were re-energized enough to take to the road again, especially since hordes of Boy Scouts were now beginning to descend on the beach. We hauled ourselves back up the steep incline to the top of the cliffs, and resumed the loop around the south end of the island. The landscape was pleasant and rolling, with plenty of cute houses to envy and birdsong lilting in the air. 

Unfortunately, the length of the ride and the uphills got to Deb somewhere along the way and she started Charlie horsing pretty badly. Her water was also running low because she had somehow managed to spill one of her bottles in her backpack a little earlier on. As we stopped for a breather, I thought that the melted ice cubes in my cooler would now make for a refreshing treat, and the enthusiastic response that I got when I mentioned them definitely confirmed the idea. I got my ice cube ziploc and poured the contents into Deb's water bottle, watched her take a swig...and pull a face. Not one of delight and relief, but one of distaste.

"What's the matter? Does it taste okay?"
"It tastes like curry!"
Abbey sniffed the bottle. 
"That's weird, it does smell really strongly of curry!"

New Harbor - still shut for the season
Somehow, somewhere, my ice cubes had picked up some unwanted oriental spice. I was pretty bummed - I had wanted to be the savior of dehydrated biking souls, the provider of icy refreshment, but all that we could do now was dump out the unpalatable liquid and press on towards New Harbor, where we hoped we could restock on drinkables.

What seemed like miles later, we pulled into New Harbor and trotted to the only open restaurant in the hopes that we could use their restroom and get some cold beverages. No dice - they weren't even open for business - but we did get directed to the public restrooms by the pier. We took another good rest stop, resigned ourselves to the fact that no water was to be found here, and made the final push back towards New Shoreham. 

Over the dunes to Crescent Beach!
Enticed by the dunes, we made another  quick beach stop before heading into town to restock. We sat on Crescent Beach for a little while, letting Deb "ice" her ankles in the frigid ocean before cruising back into town to grab a few delightfully cold bottles of water from the grocery store.

Despite sore legs and muscle cramps galore, Deb was reluctant to leave the island before making an attempt to reach the tippy-top where the North Light resided. We made sure that she was certain in her masochistic plan before embarking northwards on Corn Neck Road. We made it there in fairly good time, although as I zipped down the last long hill I thought to myself that I would probably be rather unhappy trying to get up it on the way back - I was later proved absolutely right.

Rocky rocky beach
We pulled into the parking lot by Settler's Rock in Cow Cove, which was apparently named so when the first settlers swam in with their cows. North Light stood still a mile away over a curving expanse of rocky shoreline, but we hadn't come here for nothing, and so we started trekking out over the rocks towards the lighthouse.

Abbey and I made it out to the lighthouse - the fourth to be built on this site - and sat there for a while, waiting for Deb who took a little longer to arrive. She eventually made it, and at that point we realized that we had a little less time than we thought to make it back to the ferry in time for the last boat of the day. It was time to hustle, and so we started back at a good clip over the beach and back to our bikes. 

The hill we had so effortlessly cruised down on the way in proved to be our first and fairly brutal nemesis on the way back, and we all were pretty soon walking our bikes up the hill as pedaling had proved useless. Deb's Charlie horses had also kicked back into action, and although it was painful to watch, she was a total trooper and we made it all the way back to town with some time to grab a chicken wrap before getting back on the ferry to Point Judith. 
Heading to North Light

The ride back was a quiet one as we were all fairly exhausted - I Google-mapped out our route later on and concluded that we had ridden at least 17 miles around the island, a fairly respectable ride for 3 non-regular bikers on a hot sunny day. A few wrong turns later, we were back on the freeway heading home, with bike-sore butts and suntanned shoulders, content with our accomplishments for the day. 

More photos from our trip can be found here on my Flickr page.