Posts Tagged With: Trek

Through Ups And Downs, Walking Shoes Come Undone

Got flip flops, now how about  new walking shoes?

Got flip flops, now how about new walking shoes?

Things fall apart – or are lost – or are simply intentionally left behind.

I’ve lost many items along the way, some through theft, others through carelessness, but the bulk of it all I happily gave away to someone in need. Traveling for a long time you shed things but you also somehow gain things. The trick is to carry just what you need. Your spinal column and aching shoulders sure appreciate it.

Among the things that have mysteriously vanished or I’ve had to let go: a laptop that was nothing but trouble from Day One; two cell phones; a beloved Swiss Army knife; items of clothing for all sorts of climates; shoulder bags and backpacks for day trips; and on and on. Some I’ve replaced. Some, such as the laptop, I still need to replace. And now, one of the few items that has been with me from the first day of this long journey – my trusted walking shoes – must be retired.

It’s been a good run for my New Balance MW955’s. They weren’t built for running, but I ran in them hundreds of times trying to catch some bus or train or boat or plane. Or just trying to catch up and keep up on some uphill trail or jagged mountain slope. In them I’ve sloshed across rivers and streams, their Gore-Tex technology effectively keeping my feet dry. For more than three years, they served me well on rocky trails and city streets. And they even showed their nimbleness on a few dance floors :). In rain or snow, from the beaches of Tayrona in Colombia, to the salt flats of Uyuni in Bolivia, to the high reaches of the Andes in Argentina, these shoes have seen it all. In a deep freeze or extreme heat, they’ve  done their job with magnificent comfort. (Wow, do I sound like an advert or what? 🙂

Over desert sand and mountain snow; these shoes have covered some serious ground

Over desert sand and mountain snow; these shoes have covered some serious ground

But seriously, shoes, any season traveler will tell you, are probably the most important purchase you will make toward fulfilling your travel goals. If your shoes are uncomfortable,  so will your trip, plain and simple. So it was important to me to have the proper shoes for a journey that would involved every conceivable type of terrain and weather condition. A shoe that would hold up over time to overuse and overexposure even to things one could not have imagined. Oil spill? Yeah, I saw that coming! Raw sewage all over the ground? Ah ha. Ice and snow on the desert sand? Very funny, Mother Nature!

I went to an REI store in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A., in anticipation of this journey.The store clerk said these shoes would stand up to any harsh environment and golly gee, they did. But nothing lasts forever. They’ve now started to crumble at the soles and comp apart at the seams. As I set out on a short hike recently in Lagos, Portugal, I felt a dampness at the bottom of my feet and at that point realized the shoes were disintegrating. Now they must go – or risk grave injury to my dear ol’ feet. We can’t have that, now, can we?

For those curious or with a deep interest in shoes, a bit more specifics about the walking shoes I chose, as described here on Amazon.com:

  • Leather and mesh
  • Rubber sole
  • ABZORB provides a superior blend of cushioning and compression set features with Dupont Engage and Isoprene rubber for the ultimate ride
  • C-CAP is a compression-molded EVA for superior midsole cushioning and flexibility
  • Gore-Tex
  • ROLLBAR TPU posting system minimizes rear-foot movement that, when combined with TS2 system, achieves the ultimate in motion control
  • 3/4 ROCK STOP plate utilizes a flexible protective layer that protects feet from rocks and shock, minimizing pressure, and dispersing shock energy

Now doesn’t all that sound badass?

A hole in my sole

A hole in my sole

This week I am off to a outdoor store to find a new pair of proper walking shoes. It won’t be easy – shopping for shoes outside of the United States has never been easy for me – because I have big feet, size 13’s to be exact. For years I had been squeezing my feet uncomfortably into size 12’s or even 11 and a halves depending on the cut, in denial that I have big feet. But in the REI store in Portland, the sales clerk was not shy about dishing out a huge dose of reality: “You are size 13,” she said. “Buy size 13 or your extended trip won’t last beyond the airport departure gate.” When I slipped on the shoes I was wowed by that new feeling of shoe comfort, after years of torturing my feet. Heck, I trip over them often enough, how could I possibly deny them?

Just last week here in Portugal, I was shopping for flip flops at the local surf shop where they had hundreds of them on display. But only one pair in my size. One pair! If I didn’t jump on them, I would be out of luck if another guy with oversize feet walked in to buy them. That’s been my challenge with shoes traveling abroad. Big American feet don’t get a break. And Europe isn’t half as bad as South America! I once tried to buy dress shoes in Chile for a special occasion and it became a shopping expedition that lasted weeks through several stores. I finally settled on the largest size one store had buried deep in the stock room – size 12’s – with the sales clerk assuring me that they would stretch after several wears. Yeah, right. After I squeezed my feet into them, not without discomfort, I was out of them before the evening was through, dancing in my socks at one point instead. Everywhere I went I was told there isn’t much of a demand for size 13’s in much of South America where much of the population is indigenous, small in stature, and have small feet. Even South Americans of European descent as a whole can’t touch size 13. Nevertheless, off we will go in Portugal to shop for new walking shoes. I can’t travel the world shoeless, can I? Hmmmm….

Thanks for the amazing treks!

Size 13’s, anyone?

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Riding, Slipping And Sliding Down An Andean Volcano

The very chilled Cotopaxi volcano

I took one last glance at the peak of the 19,347-foot snowcapped volcano, wrapped my gloved hands around the handlebar of the gold Trek mountain bicycle, placed both feet on the pedals, and flying down the peak’s jagged slopes I went, taking the first curve extremely fast, the rear wheel sliding to the right and then to the left as I pumped the brakes to slow down. Not a smooth start to this bike ride down Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s highest active volcano and second highest peak.

Thats me, coming round the mountain

I managed to stop the bike without falling. It wasn’t a pretty stop, but it was stop. There at that curve that came so suddenly and so soon, I listened to Diego, our guide on this bike tour of this beautiful and yet potentially deadly mountain that has logged more than 50 eruptions over centuries. Quito, Ecuador‘s capital, could face a major disaster if Cotopaxi were to explode. Similarly, other towns in the valley near the volcano could be wiped out by mudflows. Cotopaxi, scientists predict, will one day blow its top to disastrous consequences. But none of the people who see the volcano every day ever really think about that. What they think of is its beauty, it’s place among peaks in the Andes mountain range, and they appreciate Cotopaxi for what it is – a natural wonder.

Diego, a tall and lanky Ecuadorian, leads these bike tours of Cotopaxi and other peaks in the Andes several times a week. He works for a tour company named The Biking Dutchman. The company’s owner is dutch.

The Bike Beast - Crossing the waters of a swollen mountain lake

I don’t know where Diego gets the strength to ride these peaks as a job. It’s not exactly office work. It’s extremely physical and even dangerous: rain-soaked and bumpy dirt roads and uneven paths covered with volcanic ash, loose gravel, protruding rocks, rain-filled potholes, cars, trucks and wild horses – yes, wild horses – on the road, and those sharp curves, all make for a great challenge. Miscalculate and you just might wipe out – or be wiped out. But what is adventure with no risks?

At that first hard curve Diego stopped to point out the terrain, below the peak, a valley formed millions of years ago by Cotopaxi’s eruptions. He said maybe we would be able to see the wild horses that roam the valley. Spanish conquistadors brought horses here and these wild horses are of that lineage of horses left behind by the Spaniards. Indeed we saw several of those horses further down the mountain, trotting across the roadway, as we sped on our bikes toward them. On this trek, not counting Diego and a driver, there were five of us: a couple from Canada and another couple from Scotland that now lives in London. We were all going to test our mettle on this trip down the mountain, which involved some challenging climbs, especially given the thin mountain air.

Wild horses run across the valley at the foot of Cotopaxi

We started this tour at 7 a.m., meeting up at the Magic Bean hostel and cafe. After I loaded up on coffee and a cream cheese bagel, we hopped in the Biking Dutchman four-wheeler that would take us more than 14,000 feet up the mountain. From there, we would ride down, mostly down a steep and curvy road, but as I earlier said, there were a few uphill battles which some of us – myself included – lost: we walked our bikes. On one of these walks up the climb, here goes Diego pedaling along: “Hey Michael! This is the last one, it’s all down from here, come on, join me!” Yeah, superman. I’m right with you. 🙂

We made it!

On the way down, I was going so fast it was as if I was flying. At this point it was raining and my face was being pelted by the rain, dirt and gravel that somehow mysteriously was airborne. Churned up by cars and riders ahead of me, perhaps?

After a few minutes on the bike I had shed any fear and relish the speed down the volcano. I had done plenty of road cycling, but not much mountain biking, so there was somewhat of a learning curve (hahaaha, no pun intended 🙂 I figured out when to grip the handlebar tighter and when to loosen my grip; when to raise my butt off the seat and stand on the pedals; when to brake and when to simply just let go. I must have hit speeds of up to 40 mph (conservative estimate) going down the mountain’s slopes and even on some of the curves, feeling the bike slip and slide, but always trying to stay in control. That’s key, maintaining control even if you are going fast. Also extremely crucial, losing all fear. If you are afraid, you will get hurt. If you are too cautious, you will have no fun, and then what was the point of going up the mountain? You may as well have stayed in the city, sipping a mocha.

This kid was too funny!

So down and round and down and round I go, fast, all I hear is the buzz of the wind at my ears, wet, cold and warm all at once. I unzip my jacket to cool off then I’m too cold. Zip it back up, one hand on the handlebar – steady! The rain has clouded and the cold have clouded my Oakleys – my sporty sunglasses – which I then question why am I even wearing them, there’s no sun. I continue on, flying down the mountain, then come to a canal. I stop to take a photo. Here comes Diego: “Michael, you passed the first stop! You have to go back up. It’s a little bit of a climb.” Yeah, superman. A little big of a climb my…. I just came flying down that hill. That’s a nice climb.

Earlier, on the way up the volcano, Diego had pointed out a spot where we all should stop and meet. The idea was for all of us to ride at our pace, fast or slow, but that we should meet at the specified location to continue on the second part of the trek, which turned out to be a dirt path that circled back to the very canal where I had stopped. Nevertheless, I peddled up and up and up and up and up until I reached my fellow mountain bikers. They were waiting for me. The couple from Scotland said they were calling out my name, trying to get me to stop when they noticed I had gone beyond the meet up spot. I heard nothing but the wind.  For that, I got an extra helping of climbing.

Making coca tea, which helps altitude sickness, many swear

We broke for lunch around a warm chimney fire inside a store and coffee shop lower on the mountain. Pasta, some sort of spinach Quiche, ginger tea and brownies were provided. It was there I had my first drink of coca tea. They say it helps altitude sickness, but not that I was having any of that, I just wanted to try coca tea. Two indigenous women prepared it – it cost $1. To me coca tea tastes simply as an herbal tea. And no, I did not get high from it. The coca leaf is just a plant. Cocaine is a derivative of that plant. But it’s quite a bit of steps to get from the plain natural coca plant to manmade cocaine. After my tea, we suited up and down the mountain we continued, the handlebar feeling more like a jackhammer set on high.

I made it all the way down from more than 14,000 feet, without injury and exhilarated. It was a great tour. And great to be on the mountain. Now I’m sore – your body does take a pounding – but it’s a good sore.  Now, on to my next adventure.

Con "El Man Superman" Diego, after the journey

MORE PHOTOS OF THE COTOPAXI PEDAL

 


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