The Gunks

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The weather cools down and the leaves crisp up, signaling that autumn is moving in with a vengeance. This time of year is a melange of outdoor senses, an awakening of newness despite the cycle of death urged on by winter’s approach.

It’s also prime climbing season.

With a friend who knows how to fly, escaping to a top-notch rock climbing destination couldn’t be easier. And so that is how I found myself at the base of a climb in the Shawangunks – an immense bedrock ridge within the great state of New York. The rainy morning set things back, but before long the sun came up signaling that it was time to ascend.

 

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Only 2 more pitches to go!

 

I climbed steadily, placing tiny pieces of metal into cracks and crevices, hoping that they would catch me in the off-chance that I fell. It was easy movement, and delightful views. I didn’t have to remind myself to stop and take in the scenery – once I escaped the tree line, I couldn’t help but pause regularly to appreciate the exposure. Things not only look different from up high, they smell and feel different as well. High places are a remedy for the suburban blues and an excellent way to reset one’s mental capacity.

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A tiny cam

Despite the energy needed to climb upwards, I am consistently surprised at the respite I find during my favorite outdoor hobby. There is peace in the natural world, one that never ceases to amaze me. Climbing allows me to access a whole new position and perspective in this natural world.

Before all the leaves drop and before the winter winds lay claim to the land, find a place to go that will reset and invigorate your spirit. Even if the mountains aren’t calling you, you can still go.

It’s worth it.

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Taking a moment to celebrate.

 

 

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Outdoor Discovery: A Poem and a Scene

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A teacher lies in a field.

A host of colorful rain jackets litter the grass like petals.

Students join the adventure,

Backs to dirt, watching raindrops cascade down from a gray sky.

 

I enjoy being an educator, but there are some days where I simply love my job and the opportunities it affords to explore outside. Muddy Mondays are a regular occurrence at my school, but this past one takes the cake when it comes to the downright fun-factor.

The blurry edge of the Hurricane Florence system meant that there had been a steady on-an-off again drizzle of rain throughout the day. Us teachers were not deterred – our regular outdoor education plans would take a backseat as we simply moved on to Plan B and led our young charges in discovery play. I geared up, eager to be outside and to model how to interact with the outdoor environment during seemingly “icky” weather.

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The trust was evident as the kiddos trailed me out into our field and joined me in our opening activity. Traditionally referred to as “sit spots”, I chose to lay down and face the rain. The others followed suit.

“Look at all the different shades in the sky,” one student pointed out.

“This rain feels really misty, not like it normally does,” another student quipped.

One girl rolled on to her belly to watch the effect the rain had as it hit the thick and sturdy crag grass. These students and I sat in silence (or quietness) for almost 10 minutes. We watched, we questioned, we got wet, and we definitely got muddy. It was peaceful, it was invigorating, it was a fabulous outdoor education lesson wherein I let nature speak for itself.

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The rest of the afternoon was a whirlwind of fun activities. I accompanied of a group to the water run-off on our property, noting how the plants in that area were “hardy” (a students’ words, not mine) and used to dealing with lots of water. Kids took turns jumping over the mini-stream and moving rocks to temporarily stop it’s flow. I took a break and helped a pair of students prop a big stick onto a tree to create the framework of a budding fort. On the far side of the yard, another group eagerly began mixing mud concoctions, trying to find the “just-right consistency” for their imaginative pretend-edible creations.

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We explored until the end of the day before heading inside to gather our things. Mud was streaked on stairwells, doorknobs, and faces. My shirt was soaked through, and many students joyfully commented on my drowned appearance due to flat, damp hair.

Critics may emphasize the fact that there was no formal lesson. For those of us who were there, the depth of learning was so very evident. Underneath the exuberant play, was a rich layer of deep thinking. There was risk-taking, hands-on discovery, and lots of wondering.

Perhaps it should rain some more on Mondays.

 

Rewilding the American Child

I was in the checkout line at REI, waiting to purchase some (much-needed?) gear when I spotted the most recent Outside magazine.

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The title alone captured my interest, so I grabbed a copy and began reading it at stop lights on the ride home. The aforementioned article – a collection of thought-provoking essays – was not necessarily new information for me, but I found it both timely and challenging. The more I read, the more I was encouraged that an exceptional magazine would dedicate so many pages to this growing problem of indoor kids. And while I have been well-acquainted with this situation for quite some time, it has only recently begun to be addressed by the general American public.

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The bottom line? Kids need to get outside more. Kids need the freedom to roam, to play, to get messy, to sometimes fall, and to fall in love with nature. As a teacher, outdoor education is near and dear to my heart; I consider myself blessed to work at a school that promotes outside learning as well as unstructured play. In a country where the average kid spends 4-7 minutes a day engaged in outdoor free-choice leisure, it’s time that all adults begin considering how to address this growing widespread problem.

And it is a problem. Research shows that being out-of-doors has many positive impacts on both or physical and mental health. Conversely, being inside all of the time has been linked to greater stress, anxiety, obesity, and shorter attention spans.

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It’s part of our nature to be in a natural environment, and it’s up to us (the adults) to show the next generation what a healthy connection to the outside world looks like. Yes, there are many programs and non-profits that are doing an excellent job getting kids in nature, but for this big chance to happen, it’ll take a shift within our Western culture and a conscious effort from all of us. As Outside magazine so eloquently writes: “It’s time to make childhood an adventure again.” Let’s make it happen!

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“Kids deserve the chance to explore nature without an agenda or chaperone, to take risks and learn to get themselves out of trouble, to fall in love with nature so they become stewards of the earth.” – Outside September 2018

Want more info?

Last Child in the Woods book

Washington Post article

Guatemala Recap

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Length of Stay:

  • 4 days, 5 nights

Itinerary

  • Day 1:
    • Exploring Antigua
    • Visiting the Chocolate Museum
    • Trying out some new cuisine
  • Day 2:
  • Day 3:
  • Day 4:
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Beautiful ruins in the middle of Antigua (thanks @GPSMyCity)

Highs:

  • Volcanoes… so many volcanoes
  • The friendly locals

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Low:

  •  An inordinate amount of trash seems to gather around otherwise beautiful outdoor places (it makes me sad)

Favorite Hike:

  • The favorite hike that did was probably Pacaya Volcano, even though the altitude gave me a run for my money. I heard that the Indian’s Nose hike at the Lake is stupendous for sunrises, but, sadly, I didn’t have enough time to do this one.

Favorite Treat:

  • Luna de Miel in Antigua makes crêpes. Although this particular cuisine is not distinctive to Latin America, the savory Pepina option combines a French delicacy with a Guatemalan staple. Yum.
  • Traditional Guatemalan breakfast: scrambled eggs with tomatoes and onions, sweet plantains, a wedge of queso, some fruit, and coffee. Random, but filling and healthy.

 

From Seed to Cup: My Visit to a Coffee Farm

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Straight rows of tiny well-cared-for plants.

Tall trees generous with sharing their shade.

Gorgeous mountains surrounding it all.

As an avid coffee drinker, visiting a coffee farm or roasting plant has been on my bucket list for a quite a few years. You can imagine my surprise (and delight) when I found this little gem tucked into the volcanic footholds of Guatemala: Filadelfia. While it’s name sounds similar to the City of Brotherly Love, this farm/”resort” is a family owned and operated business that had been passed down throughout multiple generations.

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At times, it felt more like a jungle and less like a farm!

First of all, the grounds (pun intended) were gorgeous! Some lucky visitors get to stay in the lodgings just a stone throw’s away from where the coffee is grown and processed. Can you imagine waking up to the smell of thousands of pounds of beans being roasted? Or looking out your window and seeing the beautiful coffee beans being carefully raked as they dried in the sun?

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A glimpse of the resort, with the drying patio in the foreground.

The tour I took was top-notch. Carlos explained everything from the nursery to the cup. I got to practice picking some bright red berries, and tasting the mellow sweetness of the mesocarp. A Unimog truck toted me around the fields, and I lavished the joy of being outside in such an interesting place. Even when I was indoors, witnessing the complex coffee-berry-washing system, I relished the experience of seeing such a tiny little plant turned into yummy high octane fuel.

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Ready to pick!

Lastly, the coffee was delicious. I enjoyed a cup while I walked around the farm and looked more closely at the birds and plants surrounding the main production facility. It was a fun morning, and this particular pilgrimage is definitely one that I’ll remember for a long time to come.

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If You Decide to Go:

  • Depending on the time of year, you may get to see more or less of the entire coffee-producing process. Apparently during the harvest months (November and December), it’s possible to witness more “action” in regards to the picking and roasting. I went during a national holiday, so it was very peaceful and quiet, but I didn’t actually see every part of the elaborate operation in play.
  • There are many other coffee farms around this portion of Guatemala. Filadelfia is one of the largest and most known; it caters towards tourists, meaning it’s slightly more commercialized than some of the others. If you’re looking to get off the beaten path, do some research! Filadelfia was easily accessible (with free transport) from Antigua, so that’s why I decided to make the quick trip here.
  • There are many other activities offered at Filadelfia if you want to make your visit longer: bird watching, camping, and mountain biking – just to name a few.

 

Real Time (Between the Waters at Lake Atitlan)

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There’s always that moment when you see or experience something in real life that  you previously had only glimpsed in photos.

That sense of comparison.

Of disappointment or surprise.

Of noticing things that even the most expensive of camera lens wouldn’t be able to capture.

After I impulsively decided to fly to Guatemala during my last full week of summer vacation, the internet told me that Lake Atitlan was one of the most highly suggested sites to visit within this beautiful Central American country. The pictures were fantastic, and I held in my mind this image of where I was going and precisely what it looked like.

And so, as the shuttle bounced along the pot-hole roads, and took curves at an alarming speed, I perched on the edge of my seat ready to see The Lake.

Because that’s what the locals call it – simply The Lake.

Granted, it’s for a good reason – Lake Atitlan is a massive body of water cradled nicely within a former super volcano’s crater (also called a caldera). Surrounding the lake, are numerous Mayan villages, stunning hills and highlands, and a couple other “smaller” volcanoes just to make things interesting.

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I began to see snippets of blue – azul – through the fast-moving cars. It was hard to place whether I was looking at the horizon or a body of water. My driver, who spoke very little English, proudly announced one word: soon. Moments later I saw him smile in the rear view mirror as he slowed down after yet another break-neck curve.

There was The Lake: A picturesque natural phenomenon littered with man-made buildings and boats both across and around its perimeter. It was dazzling in the early morning sunlight, and I couldn’t wait to get closer.

Down the hill we went, and that’s when I began noticing and collecting images that are more valuable (and last longer) than the tchotchkes available at tourist markets.

  • The way the boats bobbed in the calmness of the harbor, rising up only when an arrival or departure stirred the water
  • The ominous rise of the sharpened peak of San Pedro volcano, reflected on The Lake
  • The vast incline of the surrounding land, making walks into local villages an exhilarating challenge
  • The perfect blend of sky, water, volcanoes, hills, rock, and local people that made this place better than any postcard or online picture

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Perhaps this is what it comes down to: nothing can replace personal experiences. Photos on computer desktops might be serene and interesting (thanks Windows 10), but seeing those places for myself is a fantastic rush. Personally witnessing a wild and natural space increases my happiness levels ten-fold.

My challenge to you, dear reader, is to find a picturesque place and go.  Make it happen. Life is too short to look at two-dimensional photos of sought-after outside worlds.

See and experience real life.

You can do it. 🙂

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San Pedro volcano and its reflection

I’m going to start adding some helpful tips to the end of my blog posts. If You Decide to Go will provide specific information for those who may take a similar trip. Stay tuned for more upcoming changes to the site!

If You Decide to Go:

  • You can hire a guide for the day (bilingual if necessary), or you can just pay one of the boat operators to take you to the surrounding villages. Be sure to agree on a price beforehand! Typically a day will cost you anywhere from $10-$50.
  • Be sure to check out San Juan, my favorite village. I watched a chocolatier make authentic Mayan chocolate, and a local woman hand dye cotton thread for their brightly-hued clothing.
  • Wear sunscreen and sun protection! The high elevation and proximity to the equator means a high UV index.
  • I wasn’t able to do the Indian Nose hike, but I’ve heard that it’s incredible. Check it out and let me know what you think!
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Chocolate-making! It tasted yummy (though much softer than the type of slabs I’m used to).

High (Slightly Dangerous) Places

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It was slow-going. For each step that I took, I slid down half of a pace. The loose rubble crunched under my hiking boots, and I was glad that I had worn such sturdy shoes to traipse across the rugged, winding terrain. I felt the heat acutely, both from the sun shining down overhead and the steam coming from the black piles of rock in front of me. Every time I looked up, I was in awe.

I was hiking an active volcano.

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On the way up: two other volcanoes (Fuego and Acatenango) in the distance.

No, I’m not crazy – this is a popular activity in Guatemala, as the country has over 37 volcanoes, three of which have erupted in the past couple of years. I was told that the hike would be 5ish miles there and back. Piece of cake, right? Perhaps, except I didn’t take into account that I would be at elevation. Pacaya Volcano stands at over 8,000 feet above sea level. I was huffing and puffing, my pulse beating rapidly with each step I took. Edwin, the guide-slash-park-rancher, practically skipped upwards, looking back with a flashy grin every so often to check on the slow American.

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Partway up!

I was glad that the scenery was absolutely gorgeous; it gave me an excuse to regularly stop and snap photos. The luscious green of the surrounding countryside juxtaposed nicely with the black ashy volcanic rock. I’m not quite sure what came to mind when I envisioned Guatemala before this trip, but I was overwhelmingly surprised at all of the mountainous landscape, covered with immaculate shades of green.

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A couple of wild dogs trailed me the whole way up, hoping for a handout. One bounded ahead, and I realized that I had arrived – or at least as far up as I could safely go.

It was incredible.

The steam from the volcano came at regular intervals, and the whole eastern side was on fire. I expected a viscous lava flow, like Hollywood has taught me to believe, yet it was more like a huge scree field of campfire coals. As rocks tumbled – small and large – glimpses of red could be spotted. In fact, there was a rock pile right close to me that looked like the remnants of an epic bonfire.

And then marshmallows started to get passed around.

I was literally toasting fluffy sugar balls on top of an active volcano. The weariness of the hike behind, I rested and enjoyed this unique experience. The sky was blue, fluffy white clouds mixing with steam from within Earth’s crust. The breeze helped cool down my over-heated body, and my muscles relaxed with each breath of smokey air. I was happy to be exploring a wild place so out of the norm from anything I’ve done before.

My marshmallow caught on fire, and I didn’t even care.

It still tasted delicious.

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