On Mountain Climbing

It’s been just about two months since I re-landed in Italy, and as I pack my bags, clean the house and get ready to join the annual migration of Southern Europeans to the beach, I’ve been taking stock. I had such big plans for this summer: dreams of idle, yet focused writing, flow-filled productivity and disciplined creativity. From my seat on the airplane, crossing the Atlantic, I imagined myself hitting the ground running again and transforming my life in Italy, making it something even more amazing and bigger than last time.

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From the beginning of a hike we took together in July, looking up to the mountain we’d summit the next morning.

This is not how my summer has been. Instead, I am weary. Wrung out.

As I’ve already written about a bit, this summer has been humbling, worrying and stressful. I have been frustrated with a system I can’t quite understand and caught up between the conflicting stories of how those around me have found their way through this mess. I have grown tired as I try to speak a new language, stuck in the consistent loop of realizing with each layer I break through in comprehension how far I still have to go. Gabriele and I – now legally married, yay!, and planning two more ceremonies and parties to celebrate this family we’re creating – have felt the swelling waves of stress pass between us, like tides on opposing shores; one of us standing strong and certain while the other crumbles and flounders. Back and forth as the to-do list grows. I am almost always the blubbering, floundering one, he the reasonable rock that tethers me to the big picture.

And nothing has made me feel so vulnerable than sitting next to my freshly-minted brother in law (bless his heart) in the immigration office, finally before the officer of the state who could process the paperwork I need. In that critical moment, my growing understanding of Italian failed me, was drowned out by anxiety and the pressure of the moment. I clung desperately to the papers that we had been told were enough on the phone, understanding clearly without knowing the exact words being said that they were, in fact, not right. Not enough. Every time we thought we’d done everything, it seemed we were always missing one more thing. One more thing that required another visit to City Hall, or 20 more euros or another official seal from a different official.

I have waited in many muggy, anxiety-filled rooms this summer, trying to piece together what exactly I need to prove who I, my new husband and his family are, and that we intend to be family here. I’ve struggled to comprehend the staticy voices on intercoms, joined the rush of bodies who all but mob the stressed immigration officers when they emerge from their office to call the next person into their appointment.

Never did we get a straight answer. One person told us we needed this on the phone, so we showed up with two copies of this, only to find out what we needed was that. I rushed back to Legnano, got to an office that I was told would help me before they closed, waited in line, presented them with the paperwork, and they handed me a piece of paper with a website scrawled on it.

This summer has been late nights filled with chamomile tea and copying documents. Moving forward, preparing my resume, purchasing plane tickets, putting down deposits on reception venues like we know what the next year will hold, with faith that things will come together as they always have. Because that’s how my husband and I have always operated: made plans, decided on dates, chosen the outcome we need and worked toward it. Things have always changed (often times pretty dramatically) between where we started and how it came together, but we’ve always come to the place we intended. And this time won’t be different.

I feel like over the course of the last two months – and let’s be honest, the years of back and forth and false starts leading up to this – I’ve been stripped bear. I’ve waited in so many lines, cried so many kinds of tears, gnashed my teeth in the night and lost myself between so many versions of what I think life should be right now.

I have been torn between myself as I am and my vision of my greatest self. What I tell myself I should be doing and what I actually can do on any given day. The challenge to be my best self and to listen to my true self.

Gabriele and I have climbed a few physical and metaphorical mountains over the last three years. In early July we went together to Monviso, in Piedmonte, for a surprise birthday weekend away he planned for me. (A fine example of why, a life with this man is worth all the stress.) Some of the mountains, like this one, we’ve prepared for, thought about and scouted before we started, and some we just found ourselves climbing because the trail looked interesting, like last fall in Valle D’Aosta.

The problem with climbing mountains is that you never can be sure where exactly the summit is. You think you might see it above you, where the rocks give way to sky. One should never assume, and definitely never say aloud “I think we’re nearly there!”, though. First of all, space is deceptive at such a great height, and you probably have farther to go than you anticipated. Secondly, the peak that you currently see is not necessarily the final one: you could easily summit this, only to see one more, with the possibility of other, even steeper peaks waiting behind that. The higher you go, the thinner the air gets. The bigger the fall is you lose your footing.

But we climb mountains anyway, even though we sometimes run out of breath, even though we never know where the top is, even though those enjoying a cocktail at sea level may find it crazy. We climb these mountains for the ever-changing view, for the challenge. Because the accomplishment of summiting even one peak is beautiful and worth it, even if just to the two of us who have done the work. It has brought my new husband and I us closer together, this practice of mountain summiting, especially this summer, when the peaks and surprising steepness have been difficult in ways we didn’t anticipate (because, yes, before you say it we knew this wasn’t going to be easy).

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Looking up to Monviso in early July, from the summit of the much shorter, opposing mountain.

And now, in this last week of July, I think I can say we’re at least reaching a plateau and will be able to walk without too much of an incline for a while. We can just enjoy the view and catch our breath. Have a conversation without panting and breaking down in tears (though, let’s be honest, I’m always liable to do that…).

I don’t know if my visa will work out the way we hope. But I can’t do anything about that now. It’s processing. The stressed out immigration officer finally told me we’d given him enough evidence, put the stamp on the paper, ran my fingerprints and told me to come back in a month.

So we’re waiting. And while we wait, we’re going on vacation. I don’t think I’ve ever needed to take a vacation more: to get off the grid, away from even the possibility of accomplishing anything besides several good books and enjoying time as newlyweds. We’re going back to Sicily, the hot, magical island where I knew, when we were there together two years ago, that I wanted to marry this man and create my life and dreams alongside his more than I’d ever wanted anything in my life. And now, as legally-bound newly weds, we’re going to take the opportunity to daydream some more about this life we’re creating, and plot out our path to the next summit we want to reach.

Exploring the Italian Alps in Valley D’Aosta

Italy’s smallest region is packed full of incredible mountain vistas, rewarding hikes and historic castles, and it is definitely worth the visit.

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OK, so you’ve heard all about Rome, Venice and Tuscany. Possibly, you’ve even had the pleasure of seeing why these are the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. When you’re ready for a whole different take on la vita bella, however, I suggest the small, mountainous region of Valle d’Aosta. Tucked into the northwestern corner of Italy, with France and Switzerland (geographically and culturally) hugging close by, clusters of castles lining the valley floor, sweeping Alpine vistas everywhere and enough hiking or skiing to keep anyone busy outside, Valle d’Aosta is a rejuvenating divergence from city life.

You can still get view of the Roman Empire in the regions capital city: Aosta, Parco Gran Paradiso – the first national park in Italy – is filled with unique wildlife, and blocking the end of the valley is the monstrous Monte Bianco: the tallest mountain in western Europe.

Whether you want to wander historic cities, take a week-long trek or sample the hearty mountain food of the region, this off the beaten path destination will keep you busy. Here’s a run down of the must-see stops and attractions in the area from our four day weekend in October.

Forte Di Bard

As you enter Aosta from Piemonte, highway E25 makes a 90-degree, westward turn into the main valley. As the road twists through the mountains, suddenly the impressive stone Forte Di Bard rises before you, guarding the entrance to the strategic valley. Napoleon’s encroaching armies were held up by the castle’s defenders for more than two weeks, a resistance which frustrated him so much, he destroyed the entire structure after finally winning it.

Luckily, it has been rebuilt to it’s former glory, and it’s possible to climb the road through the charming Medieval town of Bard, then up the winding side of the cliff the fort perches atop. Alternatively, there is a modern, glass elevator you can ride up to visit the various artistic and historical exhibits throughout the many halls of the fort.

Castle in Fenis

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As you continue your drive through the valley, castle spotting becomes almost too easy. There were times when up to four castles could be seen at once along the road side! It’s hard to know which to take the time and stop for.

If you are looking for an easy answer it’s the castle in Fenis village. With turrets, guard wall and surrounded by cattle pens, there’s something quintessentially Medieval about this structure that made my heart sing. We missed the timing for a tour, but it’s possible to go inside and explore for 7 Euros.

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The largest city in the center of the valley is full of easily accessible Roman ruins, colorful houses and good food. When we walked into the central piazza of Aosta, I turned to The Fiance and said “I feel like I’m in Torino .” Beyond the fact that we happened to be visited durring the annual chocolate festival, Aosta has a similar sense of refinement and elegance, the mountains just happen to be a lot closer. There’s plenty of shopping here, and the historic center is easy to wander in a few hours.

For dinner, stop into the Osteria dell’Oca for traditional Aostian fare which is rich, hearty and perfect for a winter’s evening in the mountains.

After leaving Aosta, I recommend staying off the highway because though you’ll be traveling a little slower, the main road leads you through long, dark tunnels and you’ll start missing many of the incredible vistas.

We stayed near the village of Aymavilles, which allowed us to easily reach all of the following valleys easily and head back to Aosta for dinner every night, while still enjoying the mountain serenity we were looking for.

Valnontey, Gran Paradiso & Rhemes Notre Dame

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Entering Parco Gran Paradiso

With thick larch forests, dramatic glaciers, lots of wildlife and picturesque villages, Parco Gran Paradiso should be high on the bucket list for anyone who loves mountains. We took two drives into the park from the main valley of Aosta: towards the village of Valnontey at the more popular entrance of the park then towards Rhemes Notre Dame on the western side of the park, which we slightly preferred, perhaps because it was a little less touristy.

Both drives took under an hour, were filled with beautiful vistas that made me increasingly happy I don’t know how to drive a manual transmission car and could just look around me and were filled with hiking trails to branch out onto. From Valnontey, we climbed a few kilometers up the side of the mountain, spotting Alpine Chamois, past a waterfall and towards incredible vistas at the mountain summit.

Just past Rhemes Notre Dame, we walked on a more even-graded path along a river bed, through the brilliant fall colors of the larches.

No matter what, in solid European fashion, you are certain to find cute cafes to enjoy an espresso as you savor the views while considering your next move.

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The tiny village of Rhemes Notre Dame, where we seriously considered just buying a cabin for a lifetime of weekend getaways.

Mont Blanc

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No matter the language you’re discussing this impressive mountain in, the color descriptor is on point. Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco is the tallest mountain of the Alps, is situated in both France and Italy, and features some unique choices for traversing its imposing position. There is a 7.2-mile tunnel running directly through the mountain if you’re in a rush, as well as an incredible cable car which you can ride up and over the glacier that spreads across the wide summit, eventually touching down again in France (get in line early! Wait times can be tedious.)

Alternatively, the Tour do Mont Blanc (TMB) is an 170-kilometer, 11 day trek, passing through villages and mountain refuges across France, Switzerland and Italy, circling the entire mountain. It’s officially on the Bucket List for a future summer.

The city of Courmayeur is a little pricey – being a haven of ski resorts – but there are more valleys to the north and south along the imposing line of peaks along the range before you that offer plenty more hikes where you can spot glaciers and stop for a hot chocolate at a mountain refuge. We had hoped to go south to Val Veny to see what are some apparently amazing glaciers and lakes but the road was closed for the season. In the end, we were not disappointed by turning north and the hike to Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, which took a little more than a hour to reach from the valley floor.

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Looking south to the peaks of Monte Bianco from the hike to Rifugio Walter Bonatti.

Even if you only have the time to drive through the spectacular Valle d’Aosta on your way to France or Switzerland, this tiny Italian region provides a unique divergence from the more traditional Italian tour, and you will certainly be rewarded for your divergence from the beaten path.

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Off The Beaten Path in California

Sometimes it’s still hard for me to believe that I lived in Los Angeles for three years. It was the sort of place I never really considered visiting, much less making a home, but I’ve come to appreciate that life’s curveballs often offer the greatest rewards.

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An  evening in the Hollywood Hills

During the time I lived in California, I spent at least one weekend a month out of the City of Angeles, visited almost all of the National Parks in the state, tasted a lot of wine and climbed up a lot of mountains. I also went clubbing in Hollywood, took studio tours, went to live tappings of late-night talk shows, attended fancy rooftop parties and hiked to the Hollywood Sign (though I never did make it to Disney Land). Suffice to say, I made my way around the place.

If you are planning a trip to the Golden State, the most obvious tourist activities of Southern and Central California may be jumping out at you. But I’ve got a few off-the-beaten-path suggestions to get you away from the hordes of tourists and into the heart of California.

A Night at The Moth Story Slam

So I’m a bit of an NPR junkie. No matter where I am in the world, I’m usually streaming a live broadcast or have a horde of podcasts downloaded to help me pass the time. I’m also obsessed with real life stories and think radio is an incredible way to share common humanity (there’s just something about listening to someones voice – I hate, as a writer, to admit – that can be specifically impactful). Naturally, The Moth is one of my favorite things on the radio: random strangers getting on a stage and telling true, unscripted stories. In Los Angeles you can attend a live Moth Story Slam and listen to an hour and a half of these incredible stories in an intimate setting. It’s a different, more raw take on the many forms of entertainment that you can seek out in Los Angeles: you never know what you’re gonna get, but you’ll always be surprised.

For more information and schedules check out The Moth’s website. Do make sure to get in line early if it’s not a ticketed Main Stage event, as the smaller venues fill up pretty quickly.

Paso Robles Wineries

Ok, you’ve heard of Napa Valley. It’s elegant, the wine is delicious: it’s the it place. But there are many reasons my friends and I opted for many a weekend trip to the vineyards of Paso Robles over California’s more well-known wine regions.

Firstly, location. Paso Robles is situated exactly between LA and the Bay Area (about 3.5-4 hour drive from either direction) making it pretty convenient for a long weekend away. It is surrounded by beautiful rolling hills, which happen to be perfect mirco-climates for wine cultivation.

Secondly, it’s totally accessible to a burgeoning wine-o. When I first came to Paso, I knew I liked wine, but I didn’t know a darn thing about tasting, making, or the wine itself. Over the next two and a half years I learned so much from the wine makers here, partly because I felt like I could ask them even simple questions and get nonjudgmental answers. These people are proud of their craft. The cost is also accessible, ranging closer to $5 for a tasting of 5-7 wines rather than $15 or $20 as a starting price.

A few of my favorite wineries (there are so many, you could drive around for a week and not stop at them all) are Midnight, Cass and Whalebone, partly for ambiance but mostly for the wine.

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Cambria

Thirty minutes west of Paso Robles is the town of Cambria, a picturesque village along the coast. Not only is the drive through the hills between the two cities stunning, I also just love the cute, artsy vibe of this town. It’s full of amazing restaurants, unique B&B’s, crafty shops and beautiful walkways along the rugged coastline.

From here you can also travel just a few minutes up the coast to the spectacularly strange Hearst Castle and marvel as the monstrous elephant seals that congregate all year long at Piedras Blancas beach near San Simeon.* You can also find the tiny town of Harmony (population 18) just to the south, nestled between the hills.

*Peak Season for seal viewing is December-March, and depending on when you come, a whole different group of seals might be hanging out, from juveniles, to terrifying males ready to mate, to new mothers with infants. I’ve never NOT seen seals here, though. 

Malibu Beaches

Say Malibu and images of wealth, luxury and movie stars come to mind. And it’s true: you’ll find some of the highest-priced real estate value in the country in this stretch of a “city” up the Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Monica. You’ll also find some really dramatic beaches, like El Matador State Beach with it’s intriguing cliffs and rocky outcrops (and possibly find a photo or music video shoot – sorry, I mean almost definitely walk into one).

The water in Malibu is usually a few degrees colder than Santa Monica – and I get it: I’m from Minnesota and grew up swimming in Lake Superior, but if you can brave the water here, I’ve found it to be much cleaner than to the south. As a bonus, while I’ve swam here, otters and dolphins have popped their heads up within 10 feet of me. Not to mention, from the shore at Zuma Beach, I’ve seen pods of whales feeding all afternoon.

King’s Canyon National Park

Often overlooked in favor of Yosemite or Sequoia National Parks, King’s Canyon is a little harder to get to (ie: a longer drive) but it is truly magnificent. The High Sierras should be on anyone’s California bucket list, and though there is certainly a reason Yosemite is the most popular of the National Parks, if you’re looking to break away from the intensity of the crowds in Yosemite Valley, I would highly recommend Kings Canyon as an alternative.

You still get the towering, majestic Sequoias. You still drive into a valley surrounded by granite cliffs. There is camping, lodges and tons of back-country exploration, pristine mountain lakes and rivers dotted across the landscape. In particular, my friends and I enjoyed the hike to Mist Falls, a moderately challenging but rewarding walk that leads through the valley floor, up the cliffs to an incredible waterfall, and beyond.

California is an American classic, and there is plenty to explore in the big cities, movie studios and theme parks. There are also hidden gems across the state, where the locals are vacationing, and they are absolutely worth your stop, too.

Back roads in the Andes: An Inca Trail Recap

5:00 am. We’re waiting – hundreds of us – huddled in a line before a dimly lit check point. It won’t open for a while yet, and no one is sure on the exact time. So we play games to amuse ourselves, 20 Questions (which proves a little hard with slight variations of the English language between the Americas, Brits, Irish, South Africans and Australians in our group) and Never Have I Ever. We’re chilly: the smoke rising from our lips is illuminated in each of our headlamps, but the excitement of the moment keeps the discomforts at bay as we glance ahead. The last three days of labor and hiking have lead up to this: we’re going to reach the mystical city of Machu Picchu as the sun rises.

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After an hour of waiting, the line starts to move and we scramble to our feet, pulling out passports and the trail passes we’ve been carrying for the last 40 kilometers, up and down the Andes. Our group is one of the first to go through: Rosa, our guide, woke us early to get as close to the front of the line as possible. The final campground of the Inca Trail is the size of a small village. Other nights we staked out an area more or less to ourselves. But on the last night of the trek all 500 people allowed to start climbing the trail on a given day (including guides, porters and cooks) sleep in this closest campground to the ruins together.

We’ve been hiking for 3 days. We are disheveled, unshowered, most of us a little  sick to the stomach or light headed, but once we make it through the check point, we all but run the trail, making a snake of headlamps midway up the mountain. In the valley below a train can be heard, carrying tourists from Cuzco. We reach the monkey steps: a set of stairs at a nearly 90 degree angle from the ground, which you must climb all all fours like you would a ladder, and at the top our guide waits, shaking our hand and congratulating us as we walk through the Sun Gate.

Below sweeps a dramatic view, and perched upon a small mountain, dwarfed by those that surround us, is the ancient, mysterious Inca city of Machu Picchu.

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About an hour after we crossed through the Sun Gate, the sun slowly receded beyond the mountains.
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The beginning of the Inca Trail, the 43 kilometer road through the Andes to Machu Picchu.

I don’t remember exactly when or how the idea of climbing the Inca Trail, or even to visit the ruins of Machu Picchu city first piqued my interest. But when I decided that Peru was where I’d spend my summer vacation in 2013, I knew I didn’t want to just see the popular, unfinished UNESCO World Heritage Site. I wanted to take the three day trek through the high altitude Andes in order to reach the city via the stone-paved road built by the Incas. I wanted to camp and to wander the ruins of waysides and smaller cities all along the way. To follow the path the Spaniards never reached when they were warring against the last Inca (emperor) in Ollantaytambo and were lead away from Machu Picchu into the heart of rain forest.

Much has been written about Machu Picchu, and I’m in no way an expert on Inca history. I remember bits and pieces of what we do know about the culture that met it’s match when the Conquistadors showed up. But I wont try to relay any of that here, since it seems trite and beside the point. The point is that when you are actually wandering this back road of the Andes, walking along the stairway built specifically for this journey, all of the details the guide tells you at each resting point create such a tapestry of history and culture against the dramatic mountains, it is more real than any history classroom or museum in the world.

Up and over Dead Woman’s Pass (4,215 meters or 13,828 feet), down the Gringo Killer stairs, through fields of llamas and bypassed by local women carrying huge colorful bundles upon their backs, the Inca Trail is as iconic and difficult as I imagined it to be. The sun is strong and the nights are cold in July, and the oxygen gets thin all the way up there – beginning from the moment you land in Cuzco. Returning to Cuzco five days later is a victory: the knowledge that you crossed those mountains on your own two feet – slept in them, sagged against them, sweat upon them – is buoying.

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Cuzco, the capitol of the Inca Empire, is literally layers of conquerors covering one another: the Spanish built their colonial buildings atop the foundation of the city they destroyed.

The Specs

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Prepping for lunch one afternoon: warm water and soap was provided to wash our hands, chairs, table cloths and napkins shaped like swans waited in the tent.

I traveled with the adventure travel group GAdventuers. It is required that any traveler on the Inca Trail have a permit and travel with a valid tour group. To put it simply, I loved traveling with GAdventures. The guide was informative, helpful and genuinely loved her job (it was almost her 200th time walking the Inca Trail – in 2013! According to Facebook, where we’re friends, she’s still doing it). I loved the company so much, I traveled through Turkey with them a year later – but that’s a different story. GAdventures really went above and beyond just a hike from the beginning to the end of the trail as well: with tours of the Sacred Valley in the days leading up to the hike, comfortable accommodations and great food- they carried a bottle of wine for us to toast the two(!!) couples on their honeymoons and even prepared a cake on the trail for a birthday!

Though it’s not such a problem any more, there was pretty strong porter and resource exploitation in the past. But at the check points mentioned above all porters bags are weighed and travelers are counted, so everyone on the trail today should check out.

The tour was 7 days, with 3 on the trail and 1 hiking the final few kilometers and finishing with a day-long tour of Machu Picchu. We gathered in Cuzco, toured the Sacred Valley and stayed in Ollantaytambo before beginning the hike. We visited village co-ops where we learned how traditional dies and handcrafts are made, and were able to purchase them directly from the women who made them. The price included the entrance fee to the historic site, as well as the train ride back to Cuzco.

Tents were included in the cost of the tour. We were able to rent camping gear (sleeping bags and mats) as well as hiking poles for very affordable costs. Food on the trail was included, but not for the days spent off the trail.

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Learning about local handcrafts firsthand on the way to start the trail.

Pro Tip: Carry an extra (charged!) battery and sim card for your camera, because you are going to take a million photos in the three days on the trail, and the last thing you want is to have no more battery left when you get the chance to take that money shot with Machu Picchu behind you, or to be scanning for other photos to delete to make room.

A Word on Porters: Yeah, I felt super weird and colonial about this before I started. I read the description of the hike and thought “I’m strong. I’ve backpacked. I’m walking the trail. Why is someone else carrying my stuff for me? Can I get away without it?”

The short answer is no, and not just because they won’t let you get away with it (by this I mean, you can’t not travel with an authorized guide, and all of the tour groups provide porters). I learned very quickly that even though I had trained for this trip, even though I was a mountain-climbing woman myself, the altitude hit me in a pretty rough way, and if I had had more than my day pack on my back, there’s no way I would have made it.

I also realized once I was on the trail and met our awesome group of porters and cooks, that this is a pretty good job, given the area’s economic situation and the regulations passed to protect their interests. My impression was that they make good money given regional options, have a solid community among the group and take pride in their ability to dash past all the struggling tourists, carrying five times as much as them.

Can You do it? Yes. Absolutely yes you can.

Yes, I did do a lot of hiking and a fair amount of training before this trip, and sure, you should be in decent shape before embarking upon something like this. But the fact of the matter is, you’re not hiking that far every day (the most is about 12 kilometers, or about 7 miles, and you have all day to cover the distance). And no one, not even the most fit, can account for how the altitude will affect them once they are on the ground – or really close to the sky, as the case may be. I was horrified when I started getting as sick as I did, and perturbed by the man who hadn’t done a day of prep for the trek and was able to walk up the steep mountainside no problem, but such is life. There were all age ranges in our party, and many fitness levels.

And even if you do get sick, so sick that you are literally vomiting off the side of the mountain, so sick that you force your body to walk five steps up before you sit down on the next step and gulp for breath for several minutes before you can do five more… Even if the guide has to lay you down on those steps and give you give you five minutes of straight oxygen from a small tank she’s been carrying (something she will inform you with a careful smile she does very rarely), you’ll make it up that mountain and back down the other side.

I promise. This exact thing may or may not have happened to a… ahem, *friend* of mine.

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On the final full day on the trail we passed through this ruin. Completely inaccessible except by the Inca Trail, you pass through many more hidden treasures by taking the long way.

As we walked through Machu Picchu, suddenly surrounded by tourists who had woken up that morning in Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of mountain), taken showers and gotten their makeup just right before arriving to pose for their photos, I didn’t at all wish that I was one of them. It wasn’t exactly a spiritual experience for me to have walked through those mountains, as it may have been for the Incas who built the trail and city, but it was a massively rewarding one.

And if it’s one that piques your interest, it’s most definitely the way you deserve to experience these incredible mountains and the history hiding within them.

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Minnesota’s North Shore: Why you need to add it to your Bucket List

One thing that has continually amazed me as I travel and live in different cities around the USA is how rarely people appreciate the incredible place I was raised.The Midwest is so often written off as “flyover country”, and the Great Lakes seen as freezing, industrial, unsalted seas. I have come to think that the North Shore of Lake Superior is an utterly unappreciated gem of our country, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve argued with people who assume I left this place for lack of culture or inspiration. Let me set the record straight: I can’t fully explain why I felt compelled to leave, but it was not  because I needed new trails to hike or lakes to swim in.

Especially if you like camping and outdoor adventure, Northern Minnesota is one of a kind for rugged wilderness. How many other places can you find more than a million acres of lakes, rivers and forest, untouched by mining, logging and motorized vehicles? Where else can you hike for hundreds of miles along the largest lake in the world, all the way to the Canadian Border?

Though it’s a little off the beaten path of many of the classic American road trips, I believe that making a trip Up North is well worth the divergence, and that you’ll start to feel the magic as soon as you drive over the hill in Duluth and see Lake Superior stretching before you for the first time.

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At Palisade Head, the highest point along the North Shore of Lake Superior, just north of Silver Bay, MN.

Duluth, MN

Nearly every trip to the North Shore begins in Duluth, and it’s a city worth spending at least a day or two exploring. As the largest and farthest-west freshwater seaport in North America, Duluth’s harbor is busy and bustling all summer long with huge cargo vessels from all around the world (the boyfriend and I have joked about how many a ship will leave Duluth full of grain grown in the Midwest of the USA, bound for Italy to be transformed into pasta “Made in Italy”, then shipped back to the States for consumption) and it’s possible to watch the ships come into the harbor underneath the unique Aerial Lift Bridge. Duluth isn’t the rough shipping town it once was, though. Today it is a fantastic place to live and visit, named Best Town in America by Outdoors Magazine in 2014 and a perfect launching point for a North Shore adventure. You’ll find a plethora of parks and hiking trails in town, lots of unique shopping, good food, good microbrewed beer and plenty of museums to get you antiquated with the history of the area and vast variety of natural resources.

I’d recommend getting a hotel room in Canal Park, where you can walk to historic downtown and along the lake, braving a quick dip into Lake Superior on the beach at Park Point, prepping for outdoor excursions at the Duluth Pack Shop and making sure to drive up the hill to climb Enger Tower where one can truly appreciate the hugeness of Lake Superior from her mouth.

For more about what’s happening in Duluth during your visit (so many awesome summer festivals!) and for all the info you need to plan a great stay in the coolest* city in the USA, click here.

*Note: The huge, cold lake can cause pretty dramatic temperature shifts, even in the middle of August so being sure you’ve got a sweatshirt in your bag for your trek up the North Shore in case the wind’s change direction!

Superior Hiking Trail

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A section of the Superior Hiking Trail which runs just a few miles from my parent’s house.

Think Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails, but along the North Shore of Lake Superior. The Superior Hiking Trail runs 310 miles (499km) along the length of the the lake from south of Duluth to the Canadian Border, and is dotted with  93 free rustic campsites along the way. The portion of the trail reaching Jay Cooke State Park and the WI border was just completed this summer, 30 years after the original vision of the Trail was begun.  Along the way, you’ll hike through boreal forests, up and down the ancient Sawtooth Mountains, past smaller lakes and rivers and catch glimpses (and breezes!) of the incredible Lake Superior nearby.

You can take a day hike (I recommend heading north from Silver Bay towards Bean Lake and Mt. Trudee for some spectacular views and a good work out) or you can spend months on the trail, enjoying the changing landscape of the lake shore intimately.

Check out all the trail information, including sections for day hiking, backpacking and thru-hiking here, or stop in the Superior Hiking Trail Association office in Two Harbors.

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A section of the Superior Hiking Trail, climbing Carlton Peak near Tofte.

State Parks

Maybe you don’t have the time, energy or gear to get too far off the highway? The great news is whether you’re traveling north of Duluth by foot or by car, it’s easy to get out and experience the highlights of the area. Highway 61 winds up the coast of Lake Superior through a handful of small towns and 8 fantastic state parks where you can stop and take a short or long hike or camp for the night.

Just north of Two Harbors is Gooseberry Falls State Park, a non-negotiable in my personal tour of the neighborhood for newcomers. You don’t need to pay an entrance fee to park at the great visitor’s center and follow the easy, paved path to the breaking point of a three-tired waterfall rushing over the ancient volcanic stones which make the lake shore so unique. A little farther up the shore, Split Rock Light House is an iconic landmark, and in the summer you can take tours of the historic site. Temperance River State Park features a short, moderate hike along the gorges the river must pass through to reach Lake Superior which  you cannot miss.

Check out more about each of the parks you’ll find along the road here.

BWCA

dsc08204If you are looking for wilderness like you’ve never experienced before, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a treasure you must explore first hand to believe. Over a million acres have been set aside in the chain of lakes, rivers and short portages where no logging or mining and not a single motor vehicle is allowed. You explore the land the way the French Canadian voyageurs did in the 18th and 19th centuries: by canoe. In order to camp in the BWCA, not only do you need a permit, you’ll need to cross lakes, carry your canoe and gear through the forests for short (less than a mile typically) portages, and seek out the rustic camp grounds that dot the lake shores. It’s a fair amount of work, and takes preparation, but for the intrepid, it is a rare journey into a true wilderness area. One where you can really see the incredible star-filled sky, hear the loon’s eerie calls across the still water and disconnect away from the modern world as you swim, hike and bask in the wilderness.

It is possible to just go out paddling for a day, too. For all sorts of gear rental (by the 1/2 day or longer), as well as for quick tutorials on canoe carrying and BWCA info, I recommend Sawbill Outfitters, on Sawbill Lake, about 20 miles inland from the town of Tofte.

Grand Marais, MN

Of all the towns along the North Shore to stop at, I believe Grand Marais is probably my favorite. It’s far enough away from Duluth that the 1,300 people who live there have really chosen to be up north, whether for artistic or personal reasons, and the town culture reflects this. You’ll find more breweries, outfitters and artist’s shops, a marina and plenty of smoked fish to eat as well as festivals and unique events throughout the year. It was named the Coolest Small Town in America in 2015, in fact. (And I believe that may mean both temperature and quality of fun.)

The first time I brought my boyfriend here, he looked northwards, into the horizon of cold water and said “I truly feel like I’m at the end of the earth here – but there is a whole country and continent still beyond!” This feeling only intensified when we came back in the winter. The fact remains that Grand Marais does have the feeling of the farthest place one can go before they’re falling off the map.

If you’re partial to sleeping in town rather than a tent, Grand Marais makes a great home base for plenty of small day trips into the wilderness. If you want to see something truly incredible and spend some extra cash, grab a table (and or a bed) at the spectacular Naniboujou Lodge.

Winter

Yes, most of the activities I’ve described above are summer-based, but don’t disregard the long, cold Minnesota winter as off-season! Throughout the winter months, the North Shore is busy with cross country and downhill skiing, sled dog races and tours, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, surfing (no, I’m not joking!) and general fireside, hot coco sipping. There are a plethora of resorts that cater to the winter crowds and with a good base layer, you can find just as much delight on a cold January day as a hot August one.

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The yard of my parent’s house near Duluth, January

At the heart of my love for Northern Minnesota is not just the artists and adventurers who live here, not just the history of hard work and industry, not just the trees and trails and lakes, it’s not the silence of the forest and the sound of folk music. It is truly Lake Superior, the cool, calm, powerful force of nature that is unlike any other body of water I’ve come across in my travels round the world. Lake Superior is a grand mystery which calms and confounds, breathes quietly and shouts with winter gales. This water is ageless, it is uncompromising. But every once in a while it is forgiving, and you find the tides have turned just enough: you can slip into the water for a swim: an incredible gift, a quick submersion into something more ancient and intimate than any ocean who’s held me.

Go, and discover the gift that’s waiting for you in this incredible place.

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