Hiking Mt. Yamnuska- Come Blizzards, Pneumonia, or Babies

After a really busy two weeks of job hunting, house hunting and travelling back and forth from Saskatchewan to Alberta…twice, I was about ready to get out and enjoy the fresh mountain air. Me and a friend from Banff, Kelly, decided to call up Kelly’s friend James and go for a nice stroll among the trees. Neither me nor Kelly were overly ambitious in our hiking plans as Kelly’s 6 month old daughter was tagging along in her backpack carrier and I was recovering from a bad bout of pneumonia. As we pulled up to James’ house to pick him up, Kelly gave me a quick introduction to James and what to expect from him. After her description, we both decided on the nickname “Twenty More”. (I’ll let you see if you can guess how he got that nickname by the end of this story). Laughing to ourselves over the name, James climbed in the car and gave both of us confused looks.

As we stopped the car to grab a quick coffee before hitting the trail, we all looked out over the mountain and frowned over the heavy clouds rolling in, socking in the whole Bow Valley in fog, rain and sleet. Me and Kelly looked at each other, looked in the backseat at baby Katelyn, then looked at James, who would be our hiking guide for the day as he knew all the trails around the area. “I’m not taking Katelyn through that slush” Kelly stated, while I seconded her opinion with my own addition of “my tender pneumonic lungs are not going to handle well in the wet cold wind”.

The decision was made to drive out to kananaskis country and see how the weather was out there and do a trail out that way. So we hit the road, drinking our coffees and sharing some rousing and at times passionate theological debates. Once we cleared the Bow Valley, the sky opened up into beautiful blue skies and sunshine. And here is where “Twenty More” showed his first card. “We should hike mt. Yamnuska.” My first thought was, hills means harder breathing which means death right now, when walking up the stairs at my hostel sent me practically onto my knees in a coughing fit.

Kelly too was a little skeptical. Is it safe to take a baby up? *I will put a disclaimer here that Katelyn is not a normal baby, and has been going on hikes since she was about two weeks old, and Kelly is super mom who was out hiking within two weeks of giving birth, so “safe” is a relative term*. James, smooth as a politician stated that it was our decision but that he thought it should be fine. It was only a meandering trail through the trees up to the base, one narrowish gap to squeeze through to get around to the backside and then just a traverse across, and then back down a really beautiful scree field. All in all only like 5km, maybe 2-3 hours. And besides, if it gets too much, we can always turn around and come back the way we came.

a nagging voice at the back of my head told me not to trust Twenty More, but it was a nice day, I did want the fresh air, and if my lungs did explode out of my chest, well, James was a big enough guy to carry me back down the mountain to the ambulance. So we strapped on our bags, got Katelyn settled in her carrier and off we went. The switchbacks up the tree slope were steep enough in places to make me question my sanity in doing this with pneumonia, but the views, both floral, fauna and vista, made all the pain in my lungs worth it as we steadily climbed to the base of the rock face cliff that gave mt. Yamnuska its signature look.

Reaching the base, we suddenly found ourselves huddled in a nook in the rocks, doing our best to shelter Katelyn from a blizzard that had snuck up on us from behind the mountain. As the cold wind raked my tender lungs, I turned to the team and said, I think we should head back down. Kelly, who was already on the same track as me agreed. Twenty More said, well, let’s wait five more minutes, I’d hate to miss the whole mountain for a five minute weather system. Maybe it will blow over. But it’s your call. Well, how much more is there? We asked. The squeeze is right here, and after that it’s just around the back to the peak and

then back down. We meet up with the forest trail we just came up on the other side. It’s only probably about 5km more. Sure enough the system passed and we decided to just look around the corner past the squeeze, see how much more there was, and then decide from there. After all, we could always turn around and go back the way we came.

So with James in the lead, and me behind Kelly to help give her balance, we squeezed Kelly, the back pack carrier and baby Katelyn through the narrow slit in the cliff wall and rounded the mountain to the backside. The view was nothing short of spectacular. The path, while narrow and steep, was clearly marked and we could easily see the way to the summit of the cliff. We decided to continue on to at least there, stop for a quick break and decide whether to turn around there, or keep going all the way around.

Walking the path, it turned out was a whole different story from seeing it. Shaded from the full intensity of the sun, the path was still covered in patches of ice and snow which made for slippery scrambles up and across large rough scree fields with rocks that gave way under foot and hand. The path, which had been so easy to follow with the eye from a distance, disappeared up close as many paths merged and converged, disappearing and then reappearing suddenly several feet above or below you. While Katelyn is small and light, the backpack carrier was large and clumsy and the smallest gust of wind or shift of Katelyn’s weight would compromise Kelly’s balance. I spent most of the scramble to the cliff peak hawk eyed zoned in to Kelly’s movements, ready at the blink of an eye to catch her and the baby before they toppled over into serious injury.

But, awesome athlete that she is, Kelly handled the scramble like a pro and at long last we were enjoying our victory with breathtaking views. After a quick snack break, we once again consulted James. The peak is just around that corner. It will be just like what we’ve already done to get to the peak, then it’s just a quick run down the nicest scree field in kananaskis, and we are back down in the trees again. Once again repeating the old adage of we can always turn around, we pushed on. One corner, two corners, three corners, a cliff with a chain to traverse, and some bouldering down a steep narrow rock valley later, me and Kelly were both ready to throttle Twenty More. The peak was finally in sight, but the big snow covered ridge was firmly in front of us and the snow filled cold wind was bearing down.

We were now in too far. It was hazardous to go forward, but it was too dangerous to go back. Besides, it was five hours back or two to push on. Doing everything in our power to tuck in to the ridge to keep the wind sail of a baby carrier out of the gusts coming over the peak, me and Kelly scrambled, slid and pushed for the peak. We didn’t even slow down as we reached the top and kept right on going down the other side, racing to get Katelyn out of the blowing wind and snow. We practically dragged James away from another group of hikers who had come up the mountain backwards, when he stopped to talk to them. We ran down the scree slope (which for the record is one of the nicest scree slopes in Kananaskis) and finally found some relief from the cold wind and snow as we quickly lost elevation. Finally out of the danger zone, we tucked into some large boulders out of the wind

and stopped to eat some lunch. We decided nachos and an ice cold soda sounded great so we loaded back up and continued down the second scree field.

It was about here, as we were traversing a scree field that the path gave out under my foot and I fell, wrenching my hip and groin. Shaking it off, I pushed on, but it wasn’t long after we got off the scree field and hit the forest path that the combination of my hip and groin injury met with my old nemesis, downhill trails with bad knees. My hiking poles barely made a dent in my hobbling as I tried to put a brave face on and push through the pain, wanting nothing more than to get off the mountain and get Katelyn out of the cold. But between all the strain I had put on my ligaments traversing scree fields all day and the freezing cold stiffening up my joints, I could only handle so much before I gave into the excruciating pain and embarrassingly halted the group so I could massage and warm up my joints before descending a little more. I lost track of how many times we had to stop on the way down, but finally, the path levelled out and we were looking at the car.

By the time we got to the restaurant, it was already later in the evening around 8 or 9pm. The gentle hike I had planned on doing with pneumonia and a baby in tow had ended up being an 11km hike with a 900m elevation gain at 2232m elevation and between blizzards and injuries, the scramble had taken us around 7-8 hours. My nachos which had sounded so appetizing on the mountain tasted like sawdust in my mouth as nothing would taste better right now than a long soak in a hot bath followed by a long sleep in a warm bed.

Looking back now, I can say that bring back my pneumonia four-fold for the sake of that hike was totally worth it. And while I’ll never trust Twenty More James again when it comes to hiking directions, I can honestly say that he does know how to pick his adventures.

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Story Time
Have you ever hiked mt. Yamnuska? What’s your favourite hike in Kananaskis or the Bow Valley? What are some of the hikes you want to do this summer?

Speedy Sexy Singing Llamas and other ‘Tails’ from the Inka Trail

After another uphill losing battle with airlines, customs, airports and the other great joys of air travel, which deserve an entire blog all on their own, but which I won’t bore you with as we have all been there, and need a beer…make that two…to properly vent our frustrations on it, I arrived in Cusco; sans baggage. Somewhere between Toronto, New York, Panema, Lima and Cusco, my backpack containing everything including my hiking boots and sleeping bag had gone MIA. That’s right, I’m looking at you New York…you know what you did…

I had made the rookie mistake of not wearing my hiking boots on to the plane. My rationale had been solid. After going through what feels like hundreds of customs, I had developed a system that got me through at top speeds, and that included easy-on, easy-off boots. What I hadn’t counted on was them losing my bag. I know, rookie mistake. This was the first time I had ever lost a bag, which is a miracle in itself because I normally take really convoluted flights to get where I’m going, which is normally some far flung out of the way destination.

But regardless, there I was, a day away from disappearing up a mountain into the jungle for four days with nothing but the clothes on my back (which for the record, I had already been in for three days). And as you will notice in the pics, I was definitely not in hike-worthy boots. Now I could have bought new boots, but since the ones sitting somewhere in limbo were less than 3 months old, it put a bitter taste in my mouth. There was still twenty-four hours in which time my bag could show up…I’m a hopeless optimist, I know.

With that optimism bolstering my courage, and my annoyance at having to be optimistic in the first place feeding my stubbornness, I wandered through my hostel, making friends and looking for people who were leaving for the trail the next day, hoping that they might be in my group. Who I met instead was an amazing girl named Nydja from Washington, D.C.. She was one of those inspiring people who travel solo for months on end and she was a huge activist for women’s rights and abused women. We sat and talked for hours over lunch about her work and mine working with rescued women and children. Lunch turned into supper, and supper turned into drinks with friends, and before I knew it, it was 5am and I was shivering in the dark pre-dawn chill waiting for the van to pick me up to go hiking with a huge hangover. (Here is where I insert a medical side note…I’m one of those really annoying people who don’t get hungover, but because of the altitude and my lack of experience with hangovers, this one hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m sure the serpentine road, the tin can of a van with no suspension and the terrifying driving habits of the Peruvians culminating in motion sickness did not help matters any). No one was more excited than me when we finally climbed out of the torture chamber on wheels and strapped on our backpacks. For better or worse it was on foot from here, and by far and large on foot has always been my favourite way to travel.

The four of us, along with our two guides and our six porters, marched to the gate. Passport stamp accomplished, we were off. Almost instantly, it became clear that our group was something special. Casper from Denmark, two sisters Ilona and Linda from Holland and myself the Canadian. It didn’t take more than five minutes before one of us started singing. Two seconds later, the whole group was pulling off acapella masterpieces the likes of which had never been heard on the Inka trail before. At first our guides Eddie and Bernardo seemed a little embarrassed by our display, but by the end of the four day trek, they wore nothing short of proud looks on their face as every team on the mountain with us knew about us, and the guides and porters from all the other teams were asking about us, greeting us and we became a bit of celebrities on the trek.

Without being cocky or tooting my own horn, I say this is well earned. By the end of the second day, our fingers were permanently blue from the lack of oxygen at that high of altitude, and we had been hiking up a steady incline all day. We had also been singing at the top of our lungs…the entire way. That’s a 1200m altitude gain in 9km at 4200m above sea level. Most of the other Trekkers simply stared at us in wide eyed wonder, trying to figure out where we were hiding our portable oxygen tanks as we sped past them. We just cheered them on, and we went from being the strong speedy singing llamas to being cheering llamas.

The trek wasn’t all roses and melodies however. We had gone through rain that day, and would go through rain every day following. I was never more grateful to Nydja then when I changed out of my soaking wet jeans (I know, great hiking material right?) into a pair of leggings she had lent me. I wasn’t so lucky with the sleeping bag I had rented from the guide company. It was down filled, and while it was warm, it gave me an allergic reaction and every morning I’d wake up looking like a puffer fish, barely able to open my eyes from the swelling. A hot cup of coca tea delivered right to my tent door before I had even climbed out of my sleeping bag for the morning was an excellent consolation prize though and I’d often sit there breathing in the steam, letting it open my pores and leech out the histamines, and by the time I got out of my tent for breakfast, most of the team didn’t even realize I’d had a reaction at all. This only worked for the first couple days, by the third and fourth day, my system had wised up to my tricks and on the last morning my swelling didn’t subside to a half human level until well into the afternoon.

Casper, who had brought the entire pharmacy of Denmark with him, offered me some antihistamine, but I didn’t dare take it, because Day Three of the trek was no day to be drowsy. It was all downhill, and the downhill was all stairs. Now… When I say stairs, I mean ladders, cliffs and boulders. Some of the steps would be barely wide enough for your toe, some of them were so far apart you had to either do the splits or jump to reach them. Some of them were flat surfaces, but some of them were sharp as a knife. And all of them were wet and slippery as Canadian sidewalks in January.

Remember those hiking boots that were still in limbo? Ya, they weren’t on my feet as I was going over these knife blades pretending to be steps. Between the strain of the uneven ground, the sharp rocks and the wet mud, my boots disintegrated. My guide Bernardo came to my rescue like a heroic Gepetto, and somehow magically glued my boots back together. This would last until some point the next morning after slogging through more rain and mud, I’d stub my toe for the millionth time on the uneven rocks and they would split open again. Once again, Bernardo would sit by the dying light of the cook stove and glue my boots back together.

By the end of the trip, my boots became just as famous on the mountain as our musical skills did. Everyone who saw them would look at me like I was insane and then ask something to the way of “how are you walking in those? Don’t your feet hurt? Are you crazy?” To which I’d always respond with ” the airport ate my bag, and surprisingly, these boots are more comfortable than you think,” when really, the reality is that I basically walked the Inka Trail barefoot, since that is how thin the sole of those boots were.

By the last night on the trail. Everyone was soaking wet and chilled to the bone. For some odd reason the Holland sisters tent was the warmest, so we all crammed into it, blending into one giant sixteen limbed human pretzel and broke into Casper’s Oreo cookie stash. We all decided that there was no longer any point in conserving our phone batteries as for better or worse we would be back at the hostel by tomorrow night. We cranked the tunes up and sang our hearts out to European pop music, half of which I didn’t understand as I don’t speak Danish or Dutch. When they called us for supper, we were all really reluctant to leave our warm nest, even though it smelled like stinky feet and dirty wet sheep.

But the cook’s reputation for creating five star masterpieces off of a camp stove made our minds up for us and we crawled back out into the cold. And sure enough, we weren’t disappointed. I don’t know who is capable of making a cake on a camp stove, but try making a tiered birthday cake complete with fancy icing on one. Oh and by the way, you carried all the ingredients including the stove up a mountain. I was so excited about this trek, because I was going to lose so much weight and get in such great shape while hiking. Ya…. That didn’t happen. I gained weight, that’s how good our chef was. Passion fruit glazed chicken over a bed of rice, ceviche, you name it. These dishes belonged in the fancy hotel restaurants, set on fancy china and served with a perfectly chilled Dom Perignon, not on my tin plate as I balanced on an uneven plastic stool at a foldable table under a tent on the side of a mountain. Whatever the company pays the chef, it’s not enough. I won’t complain though, because I thoroughly enjoyed his fantastic cuisine.

Day One through Three were amazing. So many people talk about seeing Macchu Picchu, but there were so many other ruins on the trail, some of which I found better than Macchu Picchu (GASP! The sacrilege! I know). And I found that for one simple reason. Tourism. Macchu Picchu is slowly sinking, and to preserve it they are trying to sympathetically rebuild it, using the same ancient techniques that built it in the first place. But the problem is that Macchu Picchu is one of Peru’s greatest tourism draw, and to draw in the funds that come with that tourism, a lot of people go through the ruins every day, which wears down the site faster. They have since “touristified” it, putting in signs, and labelled walkways, and have basically raped the ruins of any original beauty. It has now become Disneyland ruins.

I prefer to see things untouched. And to be honest I was so disgusted with the scene that I encountered at Macchu Picchu, that I could have happily started the four day trek at Macchu Picchu and done the hike backwards, and enjoyed it more.

On Day Four, and the last day of the trek, were were up before the birds. 3am in the pitch black and freezing cold and pouring rain. We didn’t even stop to eat breakfast. We simply grabbed a sandwich and ate it on the trail. We were in a race against time. We had 6km to hike to the sun gate and we had to reach it just as the sun was coming up. The sooner we got there, the more time we’d have at Macchu Picchu before the mass throng of tourists invaded the ruins. We weren’t the strong speedy llamas for nothing. We were among the first to arrive at the Sun Gate, and there below us looking just like a post card, was Macchu Picchu. All the pain, the cold, the wet, the tired, everything melted away as we saw our goal, there in front of us shining like a diamond in the early morning light.

Not wanting to waste any time we descended down to the ruins. And suddenly, they weren’t so beautiful anymore. As I stood there waiting for our turn to stand on the picture rock (you know the one I’m talking about, the one that everyone stands on to get that classic Macchu Picchu picture), I overheard a group of women talking nearby. They were complaining about how tired they were, how sore their legs were from the stairs, how cold they were. I turned around to ask them how the trek was for them only to catch the overpowering stench of perfume. This was quickly followed by the view of mini skirts, heels, perfectly manicured hands, clean hair and a face that had makeup loaded on with a shovel. They were tired from the two sets of stairs that led from the main entrance to the overlook. I spun around in disgust. Here I was, going on nothing but stubbornness and adrenaline, soaked to the bone, in clothes that I had now been wearing for a week solid, with no shower in that week other than the rainstorms we had walked through, and I had walked 42kms up three mountain peaks on an injured knee, subsequently overloading the other knee and finished the trip literally hobbling, and now I was surrounded by people who found the stairs in the ruins too hard and wondering why they didn’t have buggies or vehicles that did driving tours through the ruins, or at least put escalators in.

My disgust must have been evident, or maybe Casper just felt the same as me, like the once beautiful place had been prostituted, because we both quickly left the sisters behind who wanted to snap a million pictures. Casper and I walked through the ruins as quickly as we could, looking for something that had retained its virginal luster, only to find more destruction. Days of hiking to reach it, and I spent a whopping 2 hours walking through it as quickly as I could, barely snapping ten pictures, before I couldn’t take anymore and we both went to the cafeteria and ordered a cheeseburger. And most of that two hours was waiting for throngs of high heeled perfumed mini skirts to get out of the way so I could run up the stairs.

Now more than anything, I just wanted a hot shower and a change of clothes, followed by a good long dry warm sleep in my hostel bed. We grabbed the bus down the mountain side and went into the town to catch our train back to Cusco. For some reason my train ticket ended up being for a train two hours later than everyone else’s, so I put my spare time to good use and went shopping for a change of clothes. I also bought some shampoo and new boots as mine had by now disintegrated even past Bernardo’s skill.

I had a great time sharing stories on the train back as I was lucky to have gotten a seat next to a group of two retired couples and the four of them had “earned their right” to Macchu Picchu by doing the two day river hike to reach the ruins. Since they were retired and obviously not in the best of shape, I didn’t hold the shorter easier trek against them. In fact I was impressed that they had hiked at all, and congratulated them on their trek. They laughed at my stories of losing my bag and boots and doing the trek in fashion boots and we shared in the adventure, conspiratorially glaring at and mocking the fakers who had taken the train to the ruins rather than hiking it.

And I discovered the best revenge for those perfumed mini skirts. They had to sit next to me on the train ride back, and while I was used to it by now, I’m sure my dirty wet smelly llama stench brought tears to their eyes. Serves them right!

Pulling into my hostel late that night, a shower had never felt better. In fact at first I grossed myself out as layer after layer of skin sloughed off in the shower. But once again clean, and feeling human, I couldn’t help but feel doubly accomplished. Not only did I do the four day Inca Trail Trek to Macchu Picchu like I had always dreamed of doing, but I did it solo, with no bag, no boots and nothing but the clothes on my back. I had never felt more proud to be in the experienced backpacker family then I did right then. Pure stubbornness and the will to never give up no matter what the world threw at me had seen me through.

And that ladies and gentlemen, is what it really feels like to be on top of the world!

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RIP boots… You weren’t made for walking but that is sure what you did.

PS… Guess what showed up in Lima when I went to board the plane home? Better late then never I guess!

The Diagnosis:

Accomodations: Milhouse Cuzco, $13 CAN/ night, 12 bed mixed dorm

Tour: Bamba Experience 4D/3N Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu $654/ person. (expensive but worth it as this is all included for the 4 day trek including food, trail permits, entrance fees, pays for the guides, cook and porters, etc.)

Transportation: taxis, buses, etc. Cusco is a big place and the best hostels are all located in the historic city center (and trust me that is where you want to be within walking distance of because it is beautiful). This is located approximately 30-40 min. drive from the small airport. And unless you are super adventurous, fit and have a military grade GPS unit implanted in your brain, you will never be able to find your hostel or walk to it from the airport as the streets are so labyrinth-like, blending without warning into other streets, not to mention the high altitude makes you extremely dizzy if you aren’t used to it. In fact my taxi driver had to stop a couple times and ask directions to find the street my hostel was on, and its a well known hostel in the area. Once you are in the city center though, everything is within walking distance

Food: Down the street from the hostel is one of the best places to try the national specialty dish of Peru; Guinea Pig. Kusikuy also makes a fantastic alpaca steak which I highly recommend. Bonus: if you show your wrist bracelet from Milhouse, you get a 10% discount! But if you are more interested in cheap/easy rather than experience, the hostel has a bar upstairs that makes a solid meal for anywhere between $15-$30 Peruvian Soles ($6-$12 CAN).

Story Time

Have you hiked the Inca Trail? What were the highlights/lowlights of your adventure?

WANTED: A Travel Buddy

2015/03/img_0449-0.jpg Have you ever had that one EPIC trip that you have always wanted to do? Hitchhike across the U.S, do a coast to coast road trip across Canada, backpack Europe for a summer? What has prevented you from doing it? Finding a travel buddy to share the adventure with. I’m mean, really. Who wants to road trip alone? When first asked if they would come on your adventure, they were so excited! They rip out their national geographic magazines, their laptop and their cup of organic green matcha tea and they start looking through Google for all the highlights that you guys will have to hit. Both of you decide that next summer will be the perfect time to go as the summer is half gone, and who wants to backpack in the winter? Besides it will save you sooo much money if you plan ahead of time so you can get cheap flights. The deal is made, you do your secret friendship handshake and you both go to bed that night dreaming of your amazing trip next summer. Fall arrives with its pumpkin spiced lattes, then winter with its warm woolly sweaters. The next thing you know, spring arrives with a few false starts and a couple of surprise 20ft dumps of snow blizzards. Your eye starts roaming toward travel websites and you start stocking up on travel advice off of Pinterest. And finally the day is here… The day you book your plane ticket and make this TRIP OF A LIFETIME a reality. You pick up the phone and call your friend because you want to book at the same time so you get seats next to each other. And the conversation goes something like this: You: “You ready to book this epicness? I’m so excited I don’t dare drink any coffee right now or I will start climbing walls! ” Friend: “I wish! But I’m starting school in the fall, so I’m going to be working all summer saving up. I can’t afford a trip right now. Sorry. Have fun though! And POOF! Atomic bomb lands in the centre of your dreams. But you will not be shaken so easily. You are a traveller! You will not let a little thing like complete and utter betrayal stop you from doing this trip! So you start a facebook chain and a mass text. “Who wants to go on an adventure with me?” You start with dignity. You ask your closest friends, weeding out the ones you know don’t like to travel (I know, who knew these people existed right? But they do). But as the excuses roll in, one after the other: I’m getting married, I’m having a kid, I’m buying a house/car, etc. you start to get desperate. Anyone, anyone?! How about you person I haven’t seen since kindergarten? Or you person who was my arch nemesis in high School? How about you random stranger whose pins I keep re-pinning? At this point you can literally feel the ground giving out beneath you and you start grappling at anything to try and hold on to this dream. Even if that means travelling with a person you hate, you rationalize that once you are on the road and neither of you know anyone else, that you will magically become friends (stranger things have happened, and in reality this could actually happen, though I’m not in a huge rush to test that theory). But one thing you never consider as the disappointment sinks in and you start moping in your pjs watching ‘Into The Wild’ with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream, is to simply, Go Solo. Finding a solid travel buddy, especially for long intense travel like backpacking and trekking is very hard to find. Some people get lucky and their best friend since high school is in the same life space as they are and they travel together for years. Most people however, me included, struggle to even find a buddy to go to the movies with on a Thursday night, let alone a 3 month long backpacking trek through the Amazonian jungle or wherever your dreams lead you. For me, the dream wasn’t even a long one. My dream was to hike the Inka Trail to Macchu Picchu. In total the trip was 10 days long, including flight there and back. And for 5 years I put off the trip. Friend after friend would give me hope, and then dash it on the rocks when it came time to make it real. And then came the realization. If I didn’t go solo, I would never go. And to this day, I have a 20% track record. 80% of my travel is done solo. And while it can be lonely, and I wish I had a friend to reminisce with for all my adventures, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t trade those past solo trips for ‘someday’ trips with a friend. So stay tuned to find out how a solo Canadian girl found herself halfway up a mountain surrounded by friends and speedy sexy singing llamas.

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Story Time

What is your dream adventure? What has prevented you from doing it?

I Am Officially A Tourist Attraction

A pair of eyes pop wide open. A camera appears out of nowhere. A flash goes off. The girls giggle and point as they speed by in their little red Hyundai.

At first I’m perturbed by their enthusiasm, but as the next three cars pass by without so much as slowing down, I sarcastically mumble under my breath about at least picking me up after you snap my picture. Then a car full of cute little grannies passes me by and the pointing fingers and horrified looks on their faces send me in to a fit of laughter. It must be official then.

I am a tourist attraction.

This is confirmed a few minutes later when a recently retired couple stop to give me a ride. “You don’t really see hitchhikers around here anymore,” the wife tells me as I thank them for stoping. “We saw you walking past the restaurant a few miles up the road while we were eating lunch, and we were commenting on how heavy your bag looked!” She confesses this, almost apologizing for their conversation, but I just laugh. My bag is stupidly heavy.

This was my first time hitchhiking and I didn’t know what to expect. The only thing I knew was that hitchhiking, like the Canadian weather, was unpredictable. So I packed with the expectation that at least once, I would be stuck in the middle of nowhere, with no ride, and have to spend a night in a field in the middle of a thunderstorm. But what was the most unpredicted thing, was the awesomeness of people.

I have heard horror stories where people have stood on the side of roads for hours on end, in all weather. I have heard of people pretending to swerve at them, pretending they are going to hit them, or people yelling horrible things to them as they drive by. These hitchhikers are true road warriors, bravely soldiering on without losing hope. I wish I could claim to be one of them, but I’m not. The worst thing that happened to me, was one girl honking her horn and glaring at me. And the longest time I waited for a ride? A whopping ten minutes, in beautiful warm sunshine. Such a hardship…I know haha.

But in another way, I hope I have gained acceptance into this brave tight knit family. I might not have suffered harsh road conditions, but I did suffer a few panic attacks for one sole reason: I hitchhiked alone. And just in case you aren’t putting two and two together, I’m a girl.

I also wish I could tell you that I now have some solid tips and tools on how to be safe while hitching alone as a girl, such as fail safe ways to judge whether your ride is safe or not. Don’t hitch with green cars, those people hide chainsaws in their trunks. And never get in a car with a single young female with brown hair, she’s secretly a serial axe murderer. And look out for the grannies, they are the most dangerous of all!

It’s ridiculous to try and pin point what’s “safe” and what’s not. Many people will say, don’t get in a vehicle with a single male driver, but I did. Twice. And they both ended up being in the hospitality business and ended up being awesome tour guides to the best places to stay/eat/visit in the area. One of them even offered to contact their niece in the area to offer me a bed and a meal for the night. Many will also say, having a sign saying where you are going is helpful, and this one probably is helpful, but it is not essential. I did not have any signs. Just a huge backpack and a smile. Friendliness goes a long way.

One thing I always made a point of doing though, and this one I do recommend for safety sake, was to walk up to the passenger window and speak to the driver before I even thought of jumping in the car. It is here that I can’t tell you what to “look for”. All I can say, is trust your gut. Your instincts will tell you if something is off. If you are talking with them and something in your gut is screaming, “don’t do this!”… Listen to it. Thank them for stopping, but that you would like to wait for a different ride. YOU DO NOT have to accept the first ride that stops. I repeat… You do NOT have to get in just because they stopped. If something feels off, back away. Another ride will come.

I grew up with “stranger danger” pounded into my head and an older sister who saw axe murderers everywhere, (including the lady from down our street who was pushing a baby stroller, fyi: the stroller is where she hid her axe). I am also a nurse, and therefore see the darker sides of humanity when they come through the hospital doors. This has made me abnormally suspicious of strangers. Every person sitting alone in a car in a parking lot is a potential kidnapper, every guy who comes up to talk to you at the bar is a potential serial rapist, and the guy walking his dog in the park? He’s definitely a mugger. I know how ridiculous that is, but how do you break a thought pattern instilled over an entire childhood?

I was tired of always feeling suspicious, always feeling like I had to be on guard to protect those around me (just ask my friends, they call me momma bird). I was sick of always assuming the worst of those around me. For once, I wanted to learn to assume the best of people. I wanted trust in the good of humanity. So I made myself as vulnerable as I could and threw myself into their waiting hands.

And what would you know… People are awesome. Everywhere I went, people went out of their way to help me. Whether it was giving me a ride, connecting me with people going my way, giving me a place to stay or just in general helping me along my journey, total strangers became the best of friends, some of who I even crossed paths with multiple times as I zig zagged across the four eastern provinces.

Mission accomplished. Strangers are now potential friends rather than the stuff of nightmares, hitchhikers on the road are my new travel companions on long road trips. And in the next few posts, I’ll even share how strangers became my saving grace.

Images from the open road

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Medical Diagnosis

Accomodations: Couchsurfing, tenting

Cost: a lot of courage, a lot of patience, and the cost of a good pair of walking shoes.

Story Time

What rookie mistakes did you make the first time you hitchhiked/ backpacked? What are some of your roadside stories? did you have a great experience hitchhiking or a get caught in a rain storm? Do you have any tricks/ safety rituals you practice when hitchhiking?

I’m going on an adventure!

More exciting news for backpacknurse! As you might have already noticed, I never do things the easy way, the slow way or the one at a time way, so after getting accepted into the perioperative nursing program, I decided that a trip was in order. Actually I’m kidding, the trip was already planned, but instead of cancelling because school started a whole two months earlier than I had anticipated, I decided I could handle it. So here I go!

Backpacknurse is hitting the open road. Literally. I might even resort to pounding it with my fists if I get frustrated. I am backpacking across Eastern Canada for two weeks, starting in Halifax and ending it all in Montreal, passing through PEI and Quebec City along the way. I will be taking my classes online the whole time, and even have my first assignment due on Thursday (pause for mild panic attack).

Wish me luck, and see you on the road!

Just Kidding

I know I just posted about how I was planning on separating my travels from my medical work. I created another blog, posted to it for a week, and I already hate it. I keep wanting to come back to this blog and try again to find a way to combine the two. So from now on, I will stop trying to simplify things and just allow them to be beautiful messy chaos. Life is messy, so I don’t know how I thought I could tidy it up into neat little categories. So welcome back to the original backpacknurse, travel, medical work, and all of life’s little messes in between. Thanks for sticking around as I went through my identity crisis!

Back To School I Go

Exciting news in the backpack nurse universe! This nurse is heading back to school!

As an Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) , it is virtually impossible to find work in the international aid medical field. Organizations such as Red Cross and Doctors Beyond Borders simply will not accept LPN, and will only accept Registered Nurses (RN). Up until recently, this made perfect sense as many times in the field, it is only the nurse and a doctor, and sometimes only the nurse themselves. This required that the nurse be well versed in acute trauma care. The LPN course is a two year diploma, where as the RN program is a four year degree. Up until recently, the LPN program simply wasn’t strong enough to prepare LPN’s for the high acuity of care necessary for the field, let alone the Emergency Room.

All of that has changed now. The LPN program has progressed in leaps and bounds and LPN’s everywhere are finding new fields opening up to them in the acute care setting, not the least of which include the E.R and the Operating Room.

And it is in this direction that I am now moving in the hopes of opening doors into the international field for not only myself, but LPN’s everywhere. I have been accepted into the LPN operating room course. In this field I will not only assist anaesthesiologists, but scrub in and assist the surgeon directly as well. It is an exciting field that I am ecstatic to join into, and I know that it might be just the extra push I will need to push open the doors into the international aid community for other LPN’s to follow.

Wish me luck!

Story Time

I would love to hear from other LPN’s/ two-year diploma nurses (every country has different names) on how they found their way into different high acuity fields, particularly if you moved to a different country to do your nursing! What area do you work in? If you went to a different country, what hoops did you have to jump through? what group did you go with? links to websites/ group pages would be much appreciated!

Checking For A Pulse

When I first started this blog, I had intended it to be a collection of writings about medical missions with some travel adventures thrown in. I had hoped that by writing about my journeys into the medical mission field, I would not only inspire others into the field, but help provide some solid tips on how to get into it in the first place, as it is a fairly obscure field.

So far however I have failed miserably in that aspect. The travel aspect I have covered, but I have failed to post even one story about anything medical at all. This has been my first foray into the blogging world and everyone has greeted me so warmly as I stumble my way through some growing pains. I had thought I could create one blog for both travel and medical missions, as both are usually synonymous in my head, but it has proven difficult to keep a straight train of thought when writing. To help simplify everything and make it less chaotic for everybody, I’ve decided to split the two into two seperate blogs. I will keep this one for the medical mission side of my writing and have created a second blog, Itchyfootgypsy for my travel writing. I invite everyone to check it out and hope you will enjoy it, and super appreciate everyone’s support as I figure out this whole blogging thing!

The Great US Roadtrip- Sin City

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20140725-164902.jpgBright and early in the morning me and cat broke camp. By this stage in the game, we had formed habits and quickly fell into the set routine without needing to say a word. Cat folded up the tent in quick practiced moves while I broke down the tent poles in record time. Everything stored in the car and our travel mugs filled with hot coffee, we hit the road settling in for the long six hour drive from Zion to Los Angeles. About an hour into the drive I started going through the receipts looking for the reservation page for our hostel that night. Suddenly my heart skipped a beat.

“Cat, what day is it?”
“Thursday. Why?”

I started to laugh. One thing about being on the road as long as we had and pulling into campsites in the wee hours of the morning was that it sure messed up the days of the week in your head. A day blends into two and one week blends into the other with no weekends or Mondays to distinguish the ending of one and the beginning of the other. And suddenly we were pulling into Los Angeles a whole day ahead of schedule with no place to sleep.

No fear. We are road warriors. After lightning storms, hail and floods, a scheduling issue was no problem. After all, between us and LA was the biggest last minute deal city in the world- Vegas.

Let me just state for the record here that I have a list of places that I never want to travel to. The list is very short, and even most of the places on that list I could be talked into visiting if you give me a good enough reason. I love travel, especially travel to places that no one else wants to go to or would dare dream of going. But there is a list of places I have absolutely no desire to ever see and at the very top of that list is Vegas.

And yet here I was, booking a hotel on the strip, contemplating my failures as a human being and reiterating to myself repeatedly the old adage of “never say never”. Shame welled up in my heart in a way I never thought possible. For though I usually avoid “touristy” destinations like the plague, I would at least give them a cursory glance, snap my picture and then move on to the “locals only” spot with little or no guilt. But Vegas would not allow me that concession. I was in the middle of The Strip, literally in the heart of tourist paradise and everywhere I turned I was bombarded by that fact.

I wish I could say that I gave it the old college try, that I attempted to give Vegas a chance to win me over before I coldly shut her out of my heart forever, but that would be a lie. Vegas lost me within the very first 60 seconds of our tires hitting that 6.8km stretch of pavement. Cat had been to Vegas once before and therefore automatically won the driver’s seat based on previous experience. I gazed out the passenger window taking in all the famous sights. We pulled up to the first red light and suddenly I was staring at 6 scantily clad women making suggestive gestures at me, telling me how much they would enjoy visiting me tonight for some”fun and sexy time”.

The anger that boiled through my blood nearly turned my vision red and I spent the rest of the drive up the strip mumbling expletives under my breath and keeping my eyes straight ahead to avoid searing some poor passerby to the bone with my potentially unwarranted judgemental glare. That might have worked if the girls weren’t on the back of the trucks too promising me hours of late night chats. By the time we got to the hotel, Cat was wisely giving me a wide berth, allowing me time to control my rage by staying silent on the matter knowing that any comment on her part would set me off on a justice seeking rampage.

I feel a disclaimer would be a good thing at this point. I am a very open minded, mellow and happy person who has never been known to be given to fits of rage. Cool, calm and collected are how I usually approach anything I don’t agree with, and I usually seek to understand an issue from all sides, even the sides I don’t personally agree with. Vegas unfortunately had caught me off guard at the worst possible time. Not only had I not been planning on visiting it, therefore having to time to prepare myself mentally for the onslaught, but I had just recently returned from a 6 month missions trip to Australia and Thailand where I had been working with street prostitutes in the former and helping out in a ministry that rescued children from the sex trade and child soldiering in the latter. My emotions were still raw from the horror stories I had heard and witnessed, and here I was in the heart of Sin City, drowning in the whirlpools of a city whose entire existence depended almost solely on the selling of sex.

I also wish I could say that I shut that part out and tried to separate the rest of Vegas from it. And in a way I did, the problem is that I wasn’t overly impressed with the rest of it either. One night in a cloud of smoke, extreme air conditioned dry air and a thick fog of exhaust left me with a screaming headache. Everywhere we went was flashing lights, throbbing music and the shrill ring of slot machines. Outside was sweltering heat, pushy obnoxious salesmen and drunk stumbling idiots yelling obscenities and jeering at anything in a skirt. The whole thing left me with a bad taste in my mouth and the overwhelming urge to put as many miles as possible between my tail lights and the city limit sign.

I feel like I need to end this with some kind of positive to make up for my obvious disgust with this city. Cirque du Soleil was amazing, our waiter at the Hard Rock Cafe was great and the water fountain show at the Bellagio was worth the long walk. If not for the ever present cloud of smoke, I would have enjoyed sunbathing at the pool too. But alas, I didn’t and I couldn’t have been happier then when we were once again on the road and I was surrounded by nothing but desert and Vegas was just a distant memory.

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The Medical Diagnosis

Accomodations: Luxor

Cost: This one is hard to say as it depends on how you book, what deals of the week you can find, when you book, everything is up to timing.

Things to see: Everyone has their own recommendations for this list. Mine include the Bellagio water fountain show, Cirque du Soleil and a meal at the Hard Rock Café.

Story Time

What were your favorite parts of Vegas? What were the things you hated about Vegas?