Wrapping Up:  Reflections on Our Gap Year for Grown-ups

E5F2CDE1-79CD-4CDD-AE96-85F377EAE3C0As 2017 came to a close, Lee & I spent the weekend at our cabin in Rangeley, one of our favorite places in the world and a fitting place to close the year – particularly given that’s where we started it!

And while the arctic weather (-17F this morning!) managed to keep us inside a little more than usual, it also give us a chance to reflect on this amazing year and come up with a set of lessons learned – ideas that we both wanted to share and have pledged to keep in our own minds as we plan for our return to “normal” life, and of course, for our next adventures (there’s always a plan!):

  1. Whenever possible, try not to be a tourist: As we approached the planning for our year, I spent a lot of time thinking about how we could avoid being “just a tourist” on our trips, wanting both to avoid crowds and hoping to do more than just “look in from the outside”.   We did pretty well at the former (hint: avoid places with large parking lots – or parking lots at all, for that matter!), and somewhat well at the latter.  One key lesson was finding ways to engage in the culture and/or to connect with people in a place.  Our trip to Cuba was a great example: joining the MEDICC trip to learn about their health care system brought us in contact daily with a fascinating group of people in a wide range of health care settings…

… and our one-week bike tour with a Cuban bike guide, Arley, gave us endless opportunities to ask questions about daily Cuban life, culture, and politics – letting us learn about the country in way I can’t imagine we otherwise would have had.

2.   Make it fun: While this one hardly needs saying (what’s more fun than having a year off?!), we thought it was important to acknowledge that in the span of a years’ travels, there were definitely times when things that dldn’t go exactly as planned (rhymes with “rain”!).  While I’ll admit that there were occasions when we may have given in to the natural urge to get grumpy, we learned it’s far better to go with the flow and make the best of the situation – especially since there’s no changing it!

3. When in Rome… (aka, the answer is always yes): It didn’t take long to recognize that most of our stops along way during the year could well be the one and only time we would be there – i.e. while each spot was wonderful, we realized that there’s so much more of the world to see that we may well not be back.   That realization did a lot to drive us to “do it now”, whether that was going for the crazy mountain bike ride in the mud along the Queen Charlotte Track, swimming with dolphins, jumping into the rapids in Grand Canyon, floating through the glow worm caves, or (you guessed it), enjoying the free fall from 13,000 ft. over Fox Glacier.

  1. The world is a big and fascinating place (though also small): An obvious benefit of traveling to so many places was to break out of small-town Maine and see this great big world of ours from many perspectives – from above, on, and even under the ground!

Getting away helped us get a new perspective on so many of our local concerns – be they work, local, or national political challenges – that can get us bogged down – especially this past year!  And while we were frequently awed at the wide array of landscapes, cultures, and perspectives across the globe, we were also amazed at the number of times that the world “shrank” – usually through the connection of meeting people from Maine, people who knew friends, etc.

  1. There’s a lot to learn from other countries: And along the line of new perspectives, we were frequently struck by how much we as Americans could learn from other countries.  Whether the amazing ability of Cubans to create an equitable culture with access to free education and health care for all (aka, a country where no one has much, but everyone has enough!)…

…or the thriving middle class and small business, and commitment to culture and slowing down the pace in Germany…

… or the energy and efficiency of the Nordic culture in Oso…

… we realized we clearly have a lot to learn – if we’re willing to look!

  1. People are friendly, especially when you’re open to it: We were repeatedly struck by how incredibly friendly and open people were during our travels, and how much more we enjoyed our trips when we were willing to engage with them.  Whether hanging out with old friends…

…or with new friends in Villcabamba, Ecuador…

… our fellow shipmates on the Beluga in the Galapagos…

… or friends we met along the West Highland Way…

…we were delighted and amazed by how much those conversations and friendships added to our trip.

7. Time is a gift (and sleep is a bonus!): Given the hectic nature of life before our trip, I’ll admit that my that my goals for having more time during Gap Year were pretty low (something along the lines of no longer brushing my teeth while in the shower).  I’m happy to report that having the gift of time was even greater than we anticipated, and – while clearly not at the top of the “exciting” list – was truly one of the best gifts of the year.  We didn’t realize it last January, but we definitely came to appreciate the joys of not having to rush from place to place, going to bed when we were tired (vs. staying up to answer that extended list of overdue e-mails), and – perhaps the best – getting up without an alarm clock.  Getting the “recommended” 8 hours of sleep nightly was also an amazing revelation and a definite goal to carry into our post-Gap Year life.IMG_2676

8. Love the place you live – i.e. Maine is a great destination: We were incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to see a phenomenal number of beautiful places around the globe over the past 12 months, though also realized each time we came back from a trip that we are tremendously fortunate to live in a beautiful place.  Whether enjoying the beautiful views of Back Cove or Casco Bay just a few blocks from our home on Munjoy Hill..IMG_1990

… the peaceful vistas of Saddleback Lake and mountains from our cabin in Rangeley…

…or one of the many other beautiful spots elsewhere in Maine…

… we realized that traveling is great, but coming back home is also pretty darned good.  We encourage our fellow Mainers to get out and enjoy this beautiful state of ours that is so often a destination from many others from around the world.  And for all you non-Mainers, please book your visit with us ASAP! (though you might want to wait for it to warm up a bit… July is even more lovely!).

9. Be grateful – and appreciate everyone: Given the incredible wealth of scenery, adventures, and friendships that we were privileged to experience through the year, it wasn’t hard to remember the lesson of gratitude over these past 12 months.  In addition to a general sense of gratitude, we also realized how important it is to be specifically grateful for (and to!) the people we met along the way, from our amazing guides on trips such as our Cuba bike trip, Galapagos island tour, and Inca Trail hike…

… to the unnamed but just as important people who helped us at every step along the way – e.g. the numerous airline staff and luggage handlers that helped make every flight possible; the restaurant kitchen and wait staff who served all those meals; the countless hotel staff, taxi and bus drivers; and the innumerable others who supported us in visible and invisible ways along our travels.  Given my unfortunate tendency towards impatience (shocking, I know!), I’m committed to carrying forward that lesson of individual gratitude into the new year, and trying to remember the importance of a smile and a thank you – every day.

10. Just do it: As many of our friends know (i.e. the ones who have heard my endless litany of “20 good years left…”!), one of the key drivers of our decision to take this Gap Year was to have physical adventures while we still can.  We recognize that we are incredibly fortunate to have had both the resources and good health to have done just that, and were saddened to learn over the course of the year about at least three friends who died unexpectedly.  So with hopes that our adventures may have inspired you and/or trigged some latent wanderlust, our last bit of advice, of course, is to find a way to create your own adventures – whether for a week, a month, a year, or otherwise.   It’s time – just do it!IMG_4632

And with thanks again to all our faithful friends that have followed our travels over the past year, I’ll let you know as I sign off that I’m working on one last blog post – 10 Tips for Planning Your Own Gap Year.  So stay tuned – it might just help you get started with #10! (did I mention?  Just do it!)

Exploring Norway: Adventuring in the Land of the Long Shadows

I got a lot of funny looks when I told friends that I was heading to Norway in December for my last big trip of Gap Year – but I had never been to Scandinavia and it was definitely “on the list”.  So when my long-time friend, Audrey, offered last July to join me for a trip there before the end of the year (knowing Lee would be back at work by then), it seemed like a great idea at the time – and as it turns out, it was!  We set a plan to do some cross-country skiing, explore Oslo, and with some luck, see the Northern Lights – and while Mother Nature didn’t cooperate on the last one, we had a fantastic time doing the first two!

After meeting up with Audrey in the Franfurt aiport, we flew to Oslo, caught a train to Lillehammer (site of the 1994 Winter Olympics, for those of us old enough to remember!), and got a ride up some incredibly icy roads through the tiny town of Oyer to the Hotel Hornsjo, a lovely old rambling “Mountain Hotell” overlooking a gorgeous snowy landscape and dating back to the 1870s.

As a long-time survivor of changing times, Hornsjo has evolved from its early days as one of many mountain farming communities in the area, to TB sanitarium, to boarding house, to its current iteration as hotel and international learning community for young people from all over the world – making it a perfect home base for three day of X-C skiing.   Thankful for the beautiful, expansive views and easily three feet of blanketing snow, we easily slipped into a comfortable rhythm of watching the sunrise (9:30AM!) over morning coffee and a leisurely breakfast, before stepping into our skiis and heading off on an incredible network of beautifully groomed X-C trails for a day of skiing.  While the sun never got above what would be a ~”10:00AM” position for us here in the northeast, it provided plenty of light, and gave us the pleasure of  enjoying the beautiful scenery draped with long shadows.

With a full 6-7 hours of daylight (the sun set at ~3:30PM), and an unbelievable series of perfectly groomed trails (the X-C trail system apparently was used for the 1994 Olympics, and continues to be used for training and even the World Cup races), we got to enjoy the countryside in both sunshine…

… and with clouds and fog, making for a gorgeous range of grays.

Luckily, the Hornsjo offered a wonderful spot to relax at the end of the day as well, always ready for us with hot tea, the infamous Norwegian sauna, crackling fireplace, and wonderfully warm and welcoming staff – a great place to relax and catch up (Audrey and I became friends in 1977 while we were summer students at the Jackson Lab, so never any shortage of things to talk about!).

After three wonderful days at Hornsjo, we headed back to Lillehammer and Oslo (taking advantage of the wonderful Norwegian train system) to spend a few days exploring there.  Even with my experience of growing up in the snowy cold of Maine, I was struck by the vitality and energy of the city in the midst of winter, with everyone – from young to old! – appropriately bundled up and enjoying the outdoors, particularly the abundant “Jul Markets” (outdoor Christmas Markets).

We of course got to enjoy our own share of the now-famed Scandinavian concept of “hygge” (basically, an excuse to drink hot chocolate with friends in blankets, I’m pretty sure)…

… between visits to the Viking ship museum (still cannot believe they took those ships out onto the North Sea way back in the 800’s!)…

… the Norwegian Folk Museum, complete with reconstructed wooden stave church…

… and the Nobel Peace Prize Museum (and of course, couldn’t resist taking a photo of my favorite recent recipient!).

We also were able to make a visit to Fredrikstadt, a traditional Norwegian town reached via train ride down the east side of the Oslofjord and a short ferry hop, complete with antique shops and of course, more hygge.  We also saw a reference there to the North Sea Bike Route, a ~6000km route that relies on several ferries to circle the coast of England, Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands – sure sounds like a good target for a future Gap Year!

We enjoyed our last night in Oslo taking in more of the magical sights of a city that knows how to do winter (and apparently, just about everything else – I’ve been reading the book, “Nordic Theory of Everything” during the trip – have to say we could learn a thing or two from those Scandinavians!).

So with gratitude once again for another opportunity to see and experience new places, enjoy physical adventures in an amazingly beautiful setting, and share time with a good friend (thanks again Aud!), I headed back to Maine to enjoy the holidays with my family, reflect on this amazing year, and close our Gap Year where we started it – while of course thinking ahead to how to keep the adventures going!

Winding Down: Enjoying Fall in Maine

I knew from the beginning  of our Gap Year that we’d start winding down our adventures by the fall and begin the process of making our re-entry back into the “real world”.   As I ambitiously planned out our series of adventures last January, Lee cautioned from the start that he would probably be ready to “settle down again” by October, and would need to start the serious business of getting back to work; additionally, his old job left behind the enticing lure of letting him retain the seniority and benefits earned from his 12-year position if he got a job within the same health system within 12 months of his departure (i.e. before the end of December) – creating a compelling argument to find a new position and get back to work before the end of the year.

The practical translation of that meant that the capstone of our fantastic trip to Scotland and Ireland included him completing online applications for his new ED job on planes, trains, and automobiles (well, OK, will admit I may have completed at least one of them!), and getting interviews scheduled for three ED RN positions by the time we landed back in the US.  While the next few weeks filled up quickly with interviews, offers, job shadowing, and comparing the pluses and minuses of his three offers (of course he got offers at all three, ED RN superstar that he is!), I reminded him that Gap Year was not over, and got his agreement to squeeze in at least a set of small-scale adventures closer to home over the next few months – while also starting some of my own networking to take the first step on my plans to go back to work in health care improvement as an independent contractor.

Luckily, fall in Maine brings some of the most consistently beautiful weather of the year, and we enjoyed some great times, from watching Sam run his first marathon the day after we got home from Ireland…

…to spending a week biking and hiking in Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island.

While things got busy pretty quickly with exploring re-entry into the working world, we still were able to enjoy having free time to visit with friends, including two visits to Providence, celebrating a 60th birthday celebration with my friend Barbara in Providence and getting to spend time with her almost-92 year old mother, Sylvia…

and a second visit with longtime friend Anne completing our Dartmouth Med trio.

Free time also meant time for a fall dinner with my paddling friends…9458E1FF-329C-4F3B-AFF2-AEBC533745DD

… joining Sam & Erica for a wedding of an old family friend…

… and even an oddly balmy fall weekend visit to Peaks Island with long-time friends Dave & Ellen.BC224FAC-B30F-44D5-88DF-01CE7F07F90CThe clear fall days also brought us to one of my favorite White Mtn hikes, Franconia Ridge (up Haystack, over the Ridge & over Liberty, and down Lafayette), bringing an early taste of colder months to come, and some extraordinary 360 degree views of the Whites.

Luckily, the early frost of the Whites prepared us for the rapid descent into near-winter during a weekend visit to Rangeley…

… where we got to make like the kids and celebrate our own ‘Friendsgiving” with Saddleback Lake buddies Janet, Julie, Neil & Kate.

Which, it turned out, was good practice for “real” Thanksgiving, when we had the pleasure of hosting the extended Letourneau clan of 25, including all 10 cousins and even a few “plus-ones” (aka: Matt & Erica – always very welcomed additions!).  Luckily, since our Portland house can barely accomodate dinner for 6, we got to host the weekend at a lovely rented house on the Pineland campus (thank you Betty Noyce!)

And while Mr. No-Fun himself (OK, I might be exaggerating that one) started back at work in mid-November (MMC ED being the lucky winner of our ED RN extraordinaire!), I managed to sneak in a girls weekend in Chicago with Abby to visit my sister, Kathy…5B261203-8F0A-41D0-98AE-F08DB7CC02C2
…followed by a quick trip to Boston for a “Young People’s Dinner” with the crowd of cousins living there – a real treat!

And of course, because 11 months does not a (Gap) year make…  I was determined to get in one last trip: a visit to Norway with my (Maine-turned-German) friend Audrey – because who doesn’t want to visit a Scandinavian country in December?

So… I’ll happily admit that I’m writing this as I sit on the plane headed to meet Audrey in Frankfurt, en route to Oslo where I’ve enlisted her help to get in one more big adventure – hoping to X-country ski (even if by headlight), explore Oslo, and if we’re lucky, maybe even see the Northern Lights.  Because, as I like to remind that hard-working husband of mine (somebody’s got to get the health insurance…!), I’m not done yet!

Biking in Galway: Exploring Ireland

While we had enjoyed a glorious week hiking in Scotland, Lee and I were excited to use a different set of muscles for a while, and flew across the Irish Sea to Shannon where we picked up our rental bikes for a week of cycling in Ireland.  When we were planning our year, I had been eager to explore the Irish countryside on bikes, but was (appropriately!) nervous about biking on the small and windy roads.  Luckily, on the advice of friends I met in the Grand Canyon (thank you Mary Louise & Bill!), we connected with a terrific  Ireland-based company, Iron Donkey, who helped us plan a route on a series of less-traveled roads, and largely along the famed Wild Atlantic Way, traveling through small towns in the beautiful Counties Galway and Mayo in western Ireland.

We found Ireland to be beautiful, friendly, historically fascinating, and consistently charming.  Again blessed with amazingly good weather (we’re starting to think all those warnings about rain in Scotland & Ireland are over-stated!), we were struck from the outset by the region’s incredible light and rapidly changing cloudscapes dancing in and out of the sunlight – a sight we saw repeated numerous times over the week.

We started from the town of Oughterard, and after getting out our maps and heading onto the smaller local roads, we enjoyed some beautiful riding through landscapes that varied from the inland rolling hills, endless numbers of streams and bogs…

…to seaweed-strewn coastal inlets and fishing villages…

… to sweeping coastlines, dramatic cliffs, and stretching white sandy beaches.

As we rode through a series of small towns (Clifden, Leenane, Westport), we were intrigued with many aspects of Irish life and culture, starting with miles and miles of stone walls, built by hard-working Irish farmers over the past many centuries both to clear the stony land, and to mark their fields and enclose their herds.

The sheep, of course, were everywhere.  While we actively dodging them on the roads…

… we noticed that each flock was marked with distinctive patterns of colored paint to identify their owner.  We had seen sheep painted with markings in other countries such as New Zealand, where we had been told the markings were used to indicate different “housekeeping” issues like which sheep had been immunized, dipped in pesticide, etc; but here in Ireland, the sheep in each flock were painted with distinctive colors and markings, much like the distinctive markings of the lobster buoys on the Maine coast.

And speaking of Maine… we had a striking number of “small world” events in Ireland, from learning that the first couple we met (Jim & Tiger) in our first B&B in the small town of Oughterard were from the nearby town of Saco…

…to the next day when we met a friendly stranger in a bar in the tiny town of Cashel who immediately asked where we were from, and when learning it was Portland, ME, eagerly asked if we knew Michael Connelly – a friend and neighbor of ours on Munjoy Hill!  A few days later, while watching a parade in the town of Clifden, we struck up a conversation with another couple (Paul & Judy) who live part-time in Ireland, and part-time in South Bristol, ME.  Clearly there are many Maine-Ireland connections, and we were pleased to run across several of them!

We were interested to see signs of local Irish industriousness and entrepreneurial spirit, including the age-old practice of harvesting peat in the marshy bogs to create peat “bricks” that are used for heating homes – a process still done by hand in the small western towns where we were riding. The work includes the back-breaking task of cutting the peat into small bricks using a spade, stacking them into small “stools”, then larger piles to dry, then bagging them for later pick-up and delivery.

We also saw signs of a thriving aquaculture, particularly in the beautiful Killary Ford, with long lines strung for mussel farming, and pens for salmon and trout farming, as well as workers harvesting seaweed along the shores.

We were fascinated with the number of old stone buildings, most of which, we learned,     were originally built as small homes for farmers and families as far back as the 1700-1800’s, and some clearly built to include pens for animals as well.

While some of these old stone structures have been converted into animal sheds and shelters, and some preserved as homes, many more dot the Irish countryside as ruins, reminders again to the long and often hard history of the place.

And we were sobered by the tributes to the Great Famine, the devastating period in the mid-1800’s when millions of Irish people starved and/or immigrated to the US, resulting in a loss of nearly half the population.  We read about the tragic fate of hundreds of starving families from Louisburgh, who were turned down for aid and told they needed to walk to Dephi, 12 miles away, to talk with British officials (who ultimately denied them aid as well).  This memorial marks their walk to Delphi through the Doo Lough pass, where many died along the way.

We also saw the haunting “Coffin Ship” memorial in Murrisk, a tribute to the thousands of Irish who attempted to escape the famine by emigrating across the Atlantic, but many of whom sadly perished from disease and starvation on board the ships.IMG_7119

We noticed frequent signs for cemeteries, many of which were centuries-old, and, interestingly, frequently perched on the edge of the shore.

We enjoyed exploring the small towns along the way, and took in our share of surprisingly-good Irish pub food, as well as the daily mid-morning snacks (all that riding, and all…!).

Through some luck of timing, we were fortunate to catch the Clifden Arts Festival during our stay in that town, an annual week-long event featuring not only a range of Irish music, but dramatic street acrobatics, a colorful evening parade, and even a “Johnny Cash” concert (to which the whole audience seemed to know all the words – another sign of what seemed to be a remarkable fascination with American music!).

Along the roads, we enjoyed the range of flowers that were still in bloom in late September thanks to the region’s moderate climate, including miles of wild fuschia shrubs, montebretia, late-blooming rhododendrons, roses, and hydrangeas.

From the climbs and the flats, around the curves and through the straightaways, we soaked in the views and the vistas and thoroughly enjoyed our time in this charming country.  And most of all, we enjoyed the ride!

Hiking the West Highland Way – Scotland

From the start of planning for our Gap Year, we asked friends for suggestions and gave a lot of thought about which places we would visit.  With the list of potential places quickly growing far longer than we could possibly visit  in one year, we decided to focus on places that would meet our key goal for the year – i.e. “doing physical adventures while we still can” (and yes, for those who know me – that comes right before my line about “lucky to have 20 good years left!”).

With that goal in mind, and thanks to the suggestion of several friends (thank you Poppy & Jill!), we focused our Scotland travels on doing a week-long walk of the West Highland Way.  The walk travels along a 96-mile path through a range of remote and rugged landscapes in southwest Scotland, walking north from the small town of Milngavie, just outside of Glasgow, to Fort William.  While we appreciate the wide range of attractions in Scottish cities, towns, islands, museums, etc, we were drawn by the simple appeal of walking and immersing ourselves in the countryside in a way we couldn’t otherwise experience (and we figure we can always do that car/bus tour when we’re too old to walk!).

The West Highland Way (WHW) is one of several long-distance walks in Scotland (another country of “walkers”!), and while relatively new, being formally opened in 1980, it was built on several old paths, including those of cattle “drovers” who brought their cattle from the north to sell in Glasgow at better prices, as well as several old military roads.  As with many of our other adventures to date this year, we set out hoping to see the countryside “up close”, learn more about the local culture, and meet people along the way – and we weren’t disappointed.

In exchange for some admittedly sore feet along the way, we were rewarded with weather that was uncharacteristically rain-free (and even included several sunny days – a rarity in the Scottish highlands!), beautiful and daily changing scenery, great food, and extraordinarily friendly people -both locals and fellow hikers. References say that somewhere between 15 -30,000 people hike the WHW each year, and while October may have been a lighter month than some (May apparently is the most popular month), the path was far from crowded and we were delighted to quickly start to recognize a set of 10-20 fellow hikers that we variable met, walked with, “leapfrogged” along the trail, and/or otherwise got to know during the walk, including Scots, Australians, Brits, Germans, and even a few Americans.

Since this was the longest continuous walking trip that Lee & I had ever attempted, we weren’t shy about signing up for a luggage service to transport our bags each night (best £40 we ever spent!), and arranged to stay at small inns along the way (we might have 20 good years left, but already feel too old for that camping stuff).  With those details in place, we laced up our hiking books, strapped on our day packs, and started out from the small town of Milngavie for the first 12 miles of the walk.  Luckily, the first day was an easy walk, wandering through the outskirts of Milngavie, and into the opening Scottish countryside…

…including the occasional “Honesty Box” where we hungry walkers could buy water & locally made snacks, and even some unique characters in traditional Scottish hiking garb!

The day’s hike was rewarded with a wonderful lunch (and dinner) at the Clachan Inn, Scotland’s oldest pub, in the charming town of Drymen before settling in at our first B&B for the night.

Along the way, we were struck by occasional signs (quite literally) reflecting the British command of the language and/or their classic dry sense of humor (and just in case you were wondering, “subsidence” apparently means ground that is settling).

Days 2 & 3 brought us up Conic Hill, the first sizable climb of the walk, and our first views of Loch Lomond, stretching long into the distance.

After a stay in a beautiful and surprisingly comfortable youth hostel in Rowardennan, perched on the shore of Loch Lomond,

… we continued through the Trossachs National Park to the lakefront town of Balmaha (with requisite mid-day stop for coffee and cake!)…

… and continued by maneuvering over the rocky lakeside path (including the cave of Scottish outlaw legend Rob Roy), through conifer forests and past one of the famed “bothys” (rough stone cottages available for shelter)…

… to the tiny town of Inverarnan and the classic Drovers Inn.

From Inverarnan, the countryside continued to open as we headed through rolling hills, over streams, and past ancient stone walls.

… reaching the small town of Tyndrum.

Day 5 brought our longest day of hiking (18 miles!).  Miraculously, the weather continued to hold out, giving us beautiful views crossing streams, heather-filled meadows, and crossing the Bridge of Orchy…

 

…  leading into Rannoch Moor, with wide open views of the highlands rising up in Glencoe…

… including a set of paragliders taking advantage of the unusually good weather to ride the thermals.

With limited options for accommodations in this remote area, we were lucky to secure a spot at the Glencoe Mtn Resort (OK, the “resort” part might be pushing it a bit), spending the night and resting our sore feet in a cozy “microlodge” there.IMG_6746

D6 dawned again with sunshine, and included another good climb up Devil’s Staircase, leading us up and over the countryside into the tiny town of Kinlochleven (on the banks of Loch Leven, of course!), including a stunning sunset.

As with many of our walks, we were pleased to catch sight of the local fauna (including a few wild long-horned goats!)…

and fauna, including heather, foxglove, and the classic thistle flowers that mark the WHW signs along the way.

Our final day brought even more sunshine (we may officially have broken a Scottish record on this one!) with views of Ben Nevis…

… leading back out of the highlands…

…and, finally, the walk down into the town of Fort William, to the famed “Sore Feet” statue that marks the end of the West Highland Way (and of course more ice cream) .

After a week of steady walking in this extraordinary place, we celebrated over dinner with six of our fellow hikers, an inspiring Australian couple (Chris and Pete) who have done walking adventures all over the world, as well as the Shindells, an amazing American family of four who have decided to there is no better way to learn about the world than to travel it (see their incredible story at https://shindellsfourtogo.com/).  IMG_6875

The dinner conversation was so interesting that I unfortunately forgot to capture a photo that night, but once again, we were left with overwhelming gratitude for the opportunity to have had this adventure, and competing memories of wonderful people and places – not soon to be forgotten!

But for now… it’s time to trade in our hiking poles for bicycles – off to Ireland for a week of biking!

Biking the Cabot Trail

After two weeks of rest and relaxation in Rangeley (with admittedly a little biking), Lee and I were ready to head out to the Canadian maritimes to bike the Cabot Trail, a 185-mile loop around Cape Breton, Nova Scotia known for its mix of Acadian towns, fishing villages, Celtic music, spectacular coastal scenery, and rumors of just a few small hills (!).  (For faithful blog readers, we ended up changing our original plan to hike in the Canadian Rockies – swapping west for east, and hiking for biking!).  We planned the route with a few side trips to make up a six-day, 275-mile tour, staying in small inns along the way, and mercifully, with a local taxi service we found to haul our luggage from place to place (a decision & luxury we went on to appreciate once we hit the hills!).

After a peaceful 700+ mile drive through the rolling hills and blueberry fields of downeast Maine and into New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, we started cycling the next morning just outside of the town of Baddeck.   We enjoyed a quiet ride through the Margaree Valley, a beautiful river valley known for its salmon fishing, with a stop along the peaceful Lake O’Law…

 

…before we it our first night’s stop (and wonderful dinner) at the Normaway Inn, a regional classic complete with an initial taste of Cape Breton music.

Encouraged by the next morning by the relatively flat terrain and clearing skies, we made our way to the coast and to Cheticamp, a small fishing town just south of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.  The town is one of the few French-speaking towns on Cape Breton, having been a returning haven for French Acadians who were exiled from their homes in the Canadian maritimes by the British in the mid-1700s during the struggle for control of the area.

With a relatively early finish, I had time that day to join a local whale-watching cruise out of the harbor (remember, Lee doesn’t like the water!), catching sights of Pilot whales surfacing close to the boat, and enjoying a beautiful sunset – as well as views of the “highlands” that lay ahead for the next day’s ride!

After a quick detour to at the famed “Aucoin Bakery” leaving Cheticamp for the requiste donut stop, the climbing started in earnest early the next day as we entered the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Luckily, climbing the Rangeley hills had provided some training, and we were able to enjoy both the ride and the spectacular views of the coast, including a stop for a short hike along the famed “Skyline” trail with dramatic views of showers on the horizon (which happily, mostly kept to the distance!).

After tackling the initial climbs up French Mtn and MacKenzie Mtn, we were grateful for a lunch and rest in Pleasant Bay before taking on the challenge of North Mtn – definitely the biggest challenge to date with up to 13% grade for the 2.5 mile climb. From there we were ready for the mostly downhill ride across the tip of the island to Dingwall, a lovely fishing village with gorgeous views of Aspy Bay.

We were grateful for our plans for a two-night stay at the Markland Cottages, perched at the tip of the peninsula, with beautiful views of the Highland cliffs, sandy beach, and a great dining room.

We had booked two nights at this mid-way point in case we needed a “rest day” (the quotes are purposeful!), but with another gorgeous day dawning the next morning, “we” (same) decided there was no resisting the opportunity to bike out to Meat Cove, a tiny isolated fishing community at the very tip of Cape Breton.  The ride offered yet more amazing views of the Bay of St. Lawrence as reward for a 20-mile trek up a few additional hills (the last 5 miles of which admittedly were dirt road – but what’s life without a challenge?).

Luckily one of the few businesses in Meat Cove, the Chowder House, was open for business, giving us more reward for the ride out.

After another evening in Dingwall, we headed south towards Ingonish and St. Ann’s Bay, encountering another spectacular set of coastal views

We were also interested to see the both the landscape and cultural influences shift from the east side of the island, moving from the black to pink granite, and from the French-Canadian to the Gaelic-Scottish presence on the west side (as evidenced by the local road signs!).

The day brought us closer to the end of the highlands, past the Ingonish River (with bald eagle sighting!) and up the start up the last big climb, Cape Smoky, to our stay at the Castle Rock Inn, a charming spot high up on the bluff just south of Ingonish.

After dealing with our sole flat tire of the trip (mine!), and the remaining climb up Cape Smoky, the last day brought more amazing views of St. Ann’s Bay and an endless eastward view across the Atlantic… (think we could see Iceland!)

… before the remaining (and welcomed) descent back to the flat ground of the south island.  We opted for catching the short ride across the ferry to Englishtown (literally a 100′ crossing!),  before cruising back into Baddeck, our starting point.

It didn’t take much to justify a round of celebratory ice cream sundaes (all those hills!) before one last night, and a sunrise departure the next day for our return ride back to Maine.  With gratitude for a safe and beautiful ride, we closed another great chapter with more Gap Year memories!

Saddleback Lake Lodge

Having spent much of the first seven months of our Gap Year traveling across the globe, Lee and I looked forward to returning to Maine and our annual two-week vacation at Saddleback Lake Lodge (SLL), just outside of Rangeley in western Maine. SLL is a small community of cabins on the shores of Saddleback Lake, and while the “lodge” is standing no longer, the community continues as part of Maine’s long history of remote hunting and fishing camps, with families coming each year to trade in city life for quiet days and star-filled nights.  We found the place fortuitously over 20 years ago, idyllically situated at the end of a dirt road and feeling like it had been frozen in time from another era.  We immediately fell in love, and it became a regular and much-anticipated vacation spot for our family every summer, where we can unwind with few distractions other than the striking lake views and echoing sound of loons calling from the shore.

We often mark our arrival to the area with a stop at the “Rangeley Lookout”, a spot just coming into town that boasts stunning views of Rangeley Lake and Bald Mountain that have tempted artists for decades with their changing skies.

This year, as always, we quickly slipped into the daily routine, starting with blueberry muffins, “the morning walk” (8:30A sharp, by the tennis courts!), kayaking, reading, and hanging out at the beach – a welcome respite from airports and schedules (at least for a few weeks!).  And for Lee, lots (and lots) of blueberry picking – his favorite sport.

We were fortunate in our early years to meet a fantastic group of other families who came the same two weeks in August, whose children grew up alongside ours and have become long-time friends.  As always, we enjoyed another year of catching up, hanging out at the beach, potluck dinners – and even a special night out at Bald Mountain Camps.

We were also thrilled this year to welcome some of the younger crowd to SLL for the first time – long-time friends Scott and Julie, and their sons Eliot and Gus.  The boys kept us on our toes for the annual hike up Bald Mtn, and gave us another good excuse for visiting Pine Tree Frosty, in the fine the post-hike tradition.

We also continued the annual tradition of the group hike up Saddleback Mtn, setting out from the Appalachian Trail to Piazza Rock and up and over the summit for some dramatic views.

And most of all, we enjoyed an annual renewal in this magical place of peace, quiet, and amazing beauty – only 2 hours from home! (don’t tell Lee – we head out again soon!)

(and many thanks to Neil Levine Photography for the extra photos!)

Iceland Adventures

After biking in Germany and hiking in Austria, we decided to see what all the “Iceland buzz” was about and do our own exploration of the island (taking advantage of IcelandAir’s “Stopover” offer to break up our flight back from Europe with a 5d visit).   After making our way through hordes of other travelers at Keflavik Airport who clearly had the same idea (!),  we made our way into the countryside and quickly found ourselves treated to the stark beauty,  wide open spaces, and dramatic landscapes that define this remote place.

Since most of the country’s ~330,000 population live in and around the capital of Reykjavik, it doesn’t take long to escape the crowds.  We wanted to spend more of our time exploring than driving (always about the physical adventures!), so had decided to focus our visit on the southern part of the island and headed to the town of Hella where we had booked an AirBnB for the duration of our trip.  The landscapes along the way varied from stark coastlines to dramatic expanses of black and gray lava, to rolling green fields punctuated with widely spread farmhouse and Icelandic horses (lots of horses!), to striking waterfalls tumbling off of high cliffs.

We found our place on a typical Icelandic farm, situated on expansive fields under a wide open sky, and wonderfully quiet, being 12 miles down a dirt road!

Iceland has a long and stormy past, tracing its roots back to a series of explorers, invaders, and adventurers, from Irish monks as far back as 700-800 AD, to Norwegian Vikings, to the Danes.  Traveling through the stark and dramatic landscapes, one quickly gets a keen appreciation of what its settlers must have endured with extremes of cold, wind, and isolation – never mind the periodic volcanic eruptions! (on average, Iceland has had at least one eruption every five years, including the most famous eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in April 2010, the fame of which actually helped launch the current explosion in tourism!).

Not being quite so hearty (!), we decided to stick to day hikes, and headed to Skaftafell National Park, part of the enormous Vatnajokull National Park which includes the dramatic Svartifoss waterfall, multiple volcanoes and glaciers and covers more than 14% of the entire landmass in Iceland, including the largest glacier outside of the Arctic.  We were lucky to have several days of clear sunny weather, and enjoyed fantastic views of Svartifoss, the surrounding peaks, and glaciers.

The hike down gave us views of dramatic glacial run-off streams, and of course warranted a post-hike treat of Icelandic apple pie (being compelled to sample cafe treats in every country).

We took advantage of the long Icelandic daylight to continue our trek up the south coast past more dramatic glaciers to Jokulsarlon and its beautiful iceberg lagoon, where dramatic blue ice icebergs float in a small glacial lake just off the Ring Road…

… and on the drive, were treated to even more dramatic views of pristine snowy glaciers that advance nearly to the edge of the highway.

The next day we decided to venture further inland to explore the Thorsmork area, hopping one of the high-suspension explorer buses built to ford the rushing glacial streams (yes, that’s water we’re crossing in the bus – making us very glad we heeded the tourist warnings and didn’t take our own car!).

We appreciated another clear day to hike the Valahnukur Circle, giving amazing views of the surrounding glaciers, glacial canyons, and valleys.

While our good weather luck ended shortly after that, the rain didn’t stop us from enjoying a ride around the “Golden Circle”, a ~140 mile loop that includes some of the most popular natural attractions in the country.  We started with a soak in one of the famed Iceland hot springs, Gamla Laugin (“Hidden Lagoon”), and continuing on to Geysir (from which all others are named), the spectacular Gulfoss waterfall, and Pingvellir National Park, home of Iceland’s first (outdoor!) legislature, dating back to the 10th century.

While it was admittedly a short trip, we greatly enjoyed the visit and appreciated the opportunity to get at least a taste of Iceland’s dramatic beauty before heading back home to enjoy summer in Maine – always a welcome destination for yet more adventures!

An Alpine Adventure

Having finished our fantastic week of biking along the Danube River in Germany, we bid farewell to our friends and faithful biking companions, Vicki & Drew, and headed out with Audrey & Paul for our next adventure: hiking from hut to hut in the Stubai region of the Austrian Alps.  The drive was beautiful, going from Frankfurt through Bavaria and past Munich to the Stubai region of Austria, just south of Innsbruck.  We caught a gondola up into the mountains and started trekking…

…heading towards the Starkenburger Hutte, the first of a series of beautiful old Alpine huts high up (in “Heidi” country, for those of us old enough to remember those movies!), typically run by couples or families that spend the season welcoming hikers of all ages, and from all over Europe (with the occasional American!).

We spent the next several days enjoying the spectacular scenery, some glorious hiking, plenty of fresh mountain air, and – of course – periodic stops for lunch in some well-placed alms (mountainside farmhouses).

The hiking (~2000 – 2300 meters) was challenging but doable, and brought us through several different landscapes, moving from paths along sheep-dotted mountainsides…

… to boulder-strewn paths and high-mountain ponds…

… to even some high-mountain snow fields (that were just crying for snow angels!).

And always, we were grateful for the warm huts (Franz-Senn & Neue Regensburger being the next two), good food, and comfortable bunks at the end of each day.

While our last day brought some rain and fog that made the planned last stretch a little less appealing (something about crossing a glacier in the fog, and without ice axes)…