Riding The GAP in 2019

This bike ride came together in a hurry.  A group of us, friends from high school, had ridden the  Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and the C&O Canal together in 2016.   It was a 300 mile bike ride from Pittsburgh to the Washington, DC, area over six days.  Earlier this year, there was a documentary about this trail produced by a PBS station in Pittsburgh.  It was called  The Great Ride.  It was quite inspiring, and reminded us of the wonderful time we had had in 2016.  I said that I was prepared to do this ride with the same group once again.  Koushik immediately took me up on the the offer, and proposed that we ride this year, without waiting too long.  The others agreed almost immediately after that.

It took just a few weeks for the plans to come together.  We decided that we were going to do the ride at a more relaxed pace this time.  Instead of covering 300 miles, we would just do the 150 miles of the GAP.  We would spend a day exploring Pittsburgh, and 5 days doing the GAP itself.  This is how it came together.

Arrival in Pittsburgh for Bike Ride
Seeing Pittsburgh by Bicycle and Boat

Riding to Smithton, PA
On to Ohiopyle. PA
A “Rest” Day in Ohiopyle, and then on to Confluence, PA
In the Rain to Meyersdale, PA
Destination Cumberland, MD

This was a special ride. The more relaxed pace of this ride allowed us to enjoy each other’s company much more.  We were not rushed in any way.  And as we rode, I could feel a deeper and simpler level of connection emerge.  Another layer of my inhibitions in the company of friends slipped away.  This ride was especially good for the spirit.

Just as for the previous ride in 2016, not all details of the ride where completely figured out ahead of time.  We did know where we were staying – the towns and the establishments in those towns, but the particulars of the places we would stop at during the day, and what we were going to do at any particular place, or where we were going to get food and water during the day, were fluid.  We were flexible.  It worked out well.  We saw some great things, and ate some great food (there was the one clunker for me, but that’s all I am going to say about that!).  The boat tour of Pittsburgh turned out to be unexpectedly special.

All the establishments we stayed at along the way this time were different from those we stayed at in 2016.  We also stayed at more Bed and Breakfast establishments, and only one motel.  The owners of all of these places were great in their own ways.  They all made us comfortable, and also spent some time with us.  We got to know more about each other.  One of the owners was the mayor of the town!  All of these places had a character of their own.  The experience was not about staying the night at the most luxurious place available, but was about something deeper than that.  We were staying at places that represented the local town in some way, and we were getting to know some of these places better.  We lived in some of the really old buildings that had been renovated.  We met the locals and talked to them. We were getting a flavor of the real America.

One would think that rain would ruin a bike ride.  Not for me!  Even though the rain did change the nature of the experience on the one day that it poured, it brought out a different kind of joyousness.  I became a child once again, riding in the rain.  I could hear the sound of the rain through the trees, and on my poncho.  There was the dirt thrown up by the wet tires.  My glasses were getting wet and my shoes and socks soaked.  But, somehow, all of that did not matter that much as I was riding.  We just rode on through the rain to the next stopping point while others stopped for shelter.  We were able to dry out and warm up nicely finally, at the end of the ride.  The rain gear did help!

Something different this time was that towards the later half of the ride we encountered some people over and over again in different places along the trail.  And we met all of them again at the end of the ride.  We were all people on the same mission.  I do not remember anything like this from 2016.

The nature of the end of our ride in Cumberland was simply awesome.   It could have been anticlimactic – a slow ride to the end line in a plaza in Cumberland in the middle of a hot day.  But, no!  We had a cheering squad awaiting us.  Our families, and even classmate who was visiting from India.   The garlands and the awards were a bonus, but I would have been happy enough simply seeing their smiling faces at the finish line.  That was special, and unique to this particular bike ride.

A few days have passed since the end of the ride, and I have had time to ponder the richness of the experience of the week that we rode our bikes.  It is going to be a hard act to follow.

Destination Cumberland, MD

This particular blog in the series about the bike ride is coming out a little later than usual.  First of all, I want to assure all of you that we completed the ride without any accidents.  In light of what happened to me in 2017 on the last day of that ride, I was especially relieved and happy that I made it without causing any damage to myself.

The blog is late because I am now in the relaxed atmosphere of home,  in a more relaxed state of of mind, not having to worry about the next day’s ride.  Perhaps this blog will also be more coherent as a result.  Perhaps, unfortunately, it will also tend to go on a little longer than usual.  Let me begin to the talk about the events of yesterday without further delay.

To remind readers who are following the blog, we were starting the ride this day at Meyersdale, PA, where we had spent the night at Yoders B&B.

Breakfast at this particular B&B was continental style, the first time it was happening at a B&B during this ride.  I did tuck in more food than I expected despite this fact.  Bike rides tend to make you hungry!

As was my habit during the ride, I did take some pictures outside the house before departure.  The two pictures below are repetitive, but what the heck!  The first picture is of the diner and the small old motel, still in use, in front of the B&B.  The second picture is of the B&B itself.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKoushik had bought everybody new riding jerseys with the GAP logo on them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe ride started with a somewhat steep climb through the town itself to get back to the trail.  Back on the trail, it was back to the regular uphill climb, but with a much reduced angle of attack than what we had experienced in town.

The first landmark we passed was the Bollman truss bridge.  It gets its name because of the design of the truss. This particular bridge was transported from another location in another state to the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next stop was the Keystone Viaduct bridge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe crossed the CSX railroad tracks below us.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Flaugherty Creek flowed below us next to a roadway.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were windmills on the ridge in front of us.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe ride took us up the side of the ridge and on to a flatter and more open area behind it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe crossed the Flaugherty Creek a few times during this section of the ride.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe made a pit-stop at a place called Deal to use the restroom.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trail was surrounded by meadows and wildflowers of different colors.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next milestone was the Eastern Continental divide.  This was the highest point of the bike ride.  It was going to be a downhill ride the rest of the way!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKoushik photo-bombed the picture I was taking of the elevation range of the GAP.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHe always gets great elevation on his jumps.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next stop was at the 3000 foot long Big Savage tunnel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI would not recommend the activity shown in the picture below to anybody!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt almost looked like there was a car approaching us through the tunnel. It was actually the light from two bicycles next to each other.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis picture was taken at the exit of the tunnel.  It is at a slight angle to the rest of the tunnel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is what it looked like from a viewpoint just outside the tunnel.  We could see the entire valley in front of us (click on the picture!).  The Cumberland Narrows that we are heading for can barely be seen in the distance, and is better visible in the picture below this one.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was always the photo opportunity to be taken advantage of.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was at this point that Shankar realized that he had left his riding gloves behind at Deal. Two of us decided to ride back to look for it, while the others pedaled on.  They would wait for us further along the trail.

Shankar and I zipped back to Deal on our bikes to find that the gloves were not there.  As we were returning, we passed a tour group that was traveling in the same direction as we were.  Hoping that the person supporting the tour whom we had talked to at Deal (he was carrying snacks for the group in a van and met up with the group at certain points) had picked up the gloves and taken it on to Cumberland, Shankar talked to person who was actually riding with group.  She confirmed that the gloves had been picked up and taken to Cumberland!  Shankar could pick them up there!

We ended up riding 5 to 6 miles more than the others, and we also experienced the Continental Divide and the Big Savage tunnel thrice in a single day!

Koushik and Ram were waiting for us at the Mason Dixon line.  This forms the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trail was taking us steadily down the side of the ridge.  We picked up a lot of steam going downhill.   We passed the side trail for the town of Frostburg next.  We decided not to take this trail because it required a stiff climb up a hill, and also because we were running late.

The railroad tracks that are used by the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad excursion train going between Cumberland and Frostburg appeared soon after.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trail and the tracks would run next to each other the rest of the way into Cumberland.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom this overlook above the town of Mt. Savage, one could see the ridge that we had just ridden down.  We had some difficulty sighting the entrance to the Big Savage tunnel from this distance.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trail crossed the railroad tracks in many places, from one side of the track to the other.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had been told about a big raspberry patch next to the trail.  We stopped there to pick and eat fruit.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe fruit was quite tasty.  I was picking it off the plant and popping it into my mouth.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARam was collecting the fruit to share with the folks meeting us at Cumberland.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe passed through a tunnel that was shared between the trail and the rail line.  There is a little fence running in-between the two through the tunnel.  As with the Big Savage Tunnel, it felt much cooler riding inside the tunnel than outside it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFinally, we were in the Cumberland Narrows, getting very close to our destination!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe rode slowly into town.  As we crossed the finish line, we were greeted by family and friends.  Ganga, our classmate from high school who was visiting from India, garlanded us.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur spouses were there to meet us.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe received awardsOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand posed in front of the statue that marks the beginning of the C&O canal.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt felt great to have made it, and to have been greeted by our close friend and family at the end.  We had covered 150 miles of trail safely.

It was amazing that we also met many of the people we had encountered in previous days along the trail, starting all the way back in Confluence, at Cumberland.  The little boy, Henry, had also arrived with his dad.  I still cannot get over the fact that a 7 year old rode the 150 miles of trail.

We picked up our luggage after returning our bikes to the place we had rented them from and went to a local restaurant for lunch.  Some of us celebrated with a beer or two even though it was early in the day.

Ram returned home to Pittsburgh soon after, while the other riders came home with us to Gaithersburg.  Exhaustion hit during the drive home and folks took naps in the car. Koushik and Shankar departed town today.

All is quiet at home.  The adventure has ended.

In the Rain to Meyersdale, PA

Our host at the B&B we were staying at in Confluence, Sandy, was already there, busy at work in the kitchen, by the time I went downstairs from my room.   Ram and Koushik were chatting with her.

After having a cup of coffee, I decided to take a walk around town while breakfast was being prepared.

This is the house in which we stayed.  It was really charming, both inside and outside.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe early morning fog was rising over the hills, and behind the community center.  The population of Confluence is about 800.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were people sitting on the benches in the park in the central area in town having an early morning chat.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe breakfast Sandy had prepared was quite grand – with scrambled eggs, chopped up potatoes with fresh vegetable mixed in, tasty sausage links, fruits of different kinds, orange juice, bread, and homemade jam.  It was all fresh and substantial.  Sandy fussed over us as we enjoyed the food, and she helped keep up a steady stream of conversation. We learnt a lot about the place.  By all appearances, Sandy seemed to be a very active member of the community.

The weather forecast was not optimistic.  The chances of getting rained on during the ride were significant.  But we were prepared, and we were determined to press on.

Sandy came out of the house to talk to us, to bid us goodbye and give us last minute directions, as we got our bikes out of the garage and got ready to ride once again.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had to ride a short distance on the main road before we hit the trail once again.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was a steady climb right from the start.  There were places where the river ran well below the trail and the train tracks on the other side.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then it started to rain.  We had to bring out the rain gear.  I had to stow my camera away in my backpack and put on my own poncho.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the approach to the Pinkerton tunnel.  The bridge is over the Casselman river.  It was raining like crazy at this point.  I was in no position to take pictures and enjoy the view from the bridge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stopped at the entrance of the tunnel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe boy in the picture above was riding the trail with his dad.  He must have been less than ten years old.  He was really pounding the pavement and appeared to be enjoying the experience.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe encountered many more riders who had stopped to take shelter within the tunnel while waiting for the storm to pass, but we pressed on.  I was actually enjoying the ride in the rain.

The funny thing was that we encountered many of the same folks that were waiting in the tunnel when we finally got to our destination for the evening at dinner.   And we might encounter some of the same people on the trail on the way to Cumberland today.  There is definitely a kind of fellowship that is generated between people who bike this trail.  I do not remember this from our ride in 2016.

The picture below was taken when we made a short stop for a restroom break.  Koushik and I rode over the bridge to the other side of the river.  It was still raining heavily at that point.  It was difficult to take pictures since I had to first take my poncho off to get to my camera bag underneath it, then extract the camera from the bag in the rain, and only then, finally, take the pictures.  I had to go over the process in reverse after I was done.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe finally arrived at the town of Rockwood as the rain was beginning to subside.  There was a group of cats on the trail.  It felt like they were there to welcome us.  Apparently, they have become rather well known on the trail.  I could not take a picture.

We rode off the trail to a place we had stopped at during our previous ride in 2016 to get some sustenance and warm up a little bit.  There were many other riders of the trail who had stopped there, most likely with the same purpose.

It was a nice atmosphere inside, and a general spirit of camaraderie.   We were all there with the same spirit of purpose.  Many folks seemed to be familiar with the drill.  This was not the first time they were doing the ride.

I had been imagining a turkey sandwich and a cup of hot chocolate during the wet ride.  I got what I wanted!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was back on the trail.  Our rain gear was put away.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABack on the trail, it was back to the steady uphill climb.

We took our time to enjoy the stops that we made.  There were many small waterfalls along the way.  The air was actually cooler as you passed these waterfalls. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were also the waterfalls that were formed just because of the rain that had fallen.

In one section of the trail with walls of earth on both sides, we came across a young deer that was trapped on the trail in front of us.  It kept running ahead of us until it found a place to climb the slope on one side of the trail.   We slowed down for it.

And then the rain started coming down in earnest once again.

It was pouring heavily by the time we got to the long Salisbury viaduct.  We could not afford to stop too long on the viaduct since there was some thunder and lightning action going on around us – and we also happened to be the tallest objects on the viaduct.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI would have loved to have stopped and taken more pictures on the viaduct, but it was not to be.

It was an uphill slog the last couple of miles into town. There was water running down the the trail as we kept our heads down and pedaled as hard as we could. A steady stream of water was picked up by the tires and a line of dirt coated our rain gear.

We kept at it until we arrived at Meyersdale, PA.  We found our way to the place for the night.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first order of business was to clean up the bikes and put them away in the shed that you can see to the right of the above picture.  Then we had to clean ourselves up. There was an incredible amount of dirt all over us.. My shoes and socks had gravel all over them.  (The shoes are still wet this morning.  I will have to ride in my sandals today.)  A hot cup of coffee after a shower brought us back to normal.

This picture was taken from the front of the B&B.  There are only a few places close by to eat at, and this shows two of them.   The Donges Diner and the small motel next to it are very old, and both are still functional.  The Donges has a good reputation.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe went to the Morguen Tool Company for dinner.  There was a nice breeze blowing outside as we chatted.  We were joined by a few of our fellow riders on the trail, including the little boy and his father.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was back to the B&B for some more conversation.  The bottle of Scotch was demolished.  The people that we had stayed with at the B&B in Confluence stopped by to chat.  We headed for bed as late as usual.

We rode about 30 miles yesterday.  We have about the same distance to cover today, into Cumberland.  There is a good downhill stretch towards the end, after we cross the Continental Divide, that could make this a short run.

 

A “Rest” Day in Ohiopyle, and then on to Confluence, PA

My friends had woken up by the time I finished yesterday’s blog at the cafe where I had found the Internet connection.  I went back to the motel room to get ready for the day while they were having their own breakfasts.  I then joined them as the day’s activities began.

This is the little place where I had written the previous blog.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI walked around town by myself for a little bit before going back to the motel room.  The others had gone back to the motel to get ready to check out.

The towns that we are riding past are next to the primary CSX freight line that runs between this part of the east coast and the rest of the country.  There is always a steady train traffic nearby.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a picture of the Low bridge over the Yough in the morning light.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe set out on a hike to Cucumber Falls after I returned to the motel.

The activities on the river had already started.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stepped off the path to go down to a stream to see the natural water slides.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe could not figure out how anybody could actually slide down this stream and stay alive!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were trying to follow the Meadow Run Trail to get to the falls.  We got lost after this stop by the Yough river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had to work our way back to the main road to get to Cucumber Falls.  It was a good climb up a hill.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe falls were spectacular!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is Koushik exploring the falls.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERARam was next.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShankar also walked behind the falls.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe then hiked the Great Gorge trail to get back to town.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere we are at the place where we had stopped for lunch during our ride of the GAP in 2016.  We were nicknamed “The Blues Brothers” for the day.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis picture is from the High bridge over the Yough.  It was taken from the GAP trail at the tail end of the hike.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI thought this was a good day to relax.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stopped here for lunch.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis picture was taken as we were leaving for Confluence.  This is where we had stayed the night.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere we are back on the trail again.  It is good to stretch before doing any exercise!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince we were only riding a short distance, we took some extended stops along the way. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had to climb down to get from the trail to the river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven though it had felt quite hot when we had been walking in the sun earlier in the day, it was very comfortable riding under the trees.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese pictures are from a second stop by the river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then it was back on the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a picture of the confluence of the Youghiogheny and Casselman rivers. It was taken from the trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe went for a walk after arriving in Confluence, putting our bikes away, and cleaning up.  We were staying at the at The Confluence House Bread & Breakfast.

It turns out that Confluence is not just the confluence of the Youghiogheny and Casselman rivers. There is also the Laurel Hill creek that joins up with the two rivers.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe tried to walk to the area of the confluence of the rivers but it was all on private property.

We then proceeded to the Lucky Dog Cafe for dinner.  It was the same place we had eaten at in 2016.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked a little more after dinner.

We crossed over the Yough during this walkOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand ended up at the Youghiogheny dam.  We did not attempt to walk up to the top of the dam to see the lake behind it since there was a “No Trespassing” sign on the pathway leading up.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat was the last stop before we walked back to our place for the night.

We retired for the night after some drinks, music, and conversation.

We walked about 8 miles during the day, and rode over 11 miles.

Today promises to be a rainy day.  We will probably be riding in our rain gear.  The ride is also going to get a little more challenging because the trail is going to get steeper.

 

Riding to Smithton, PA

Here we are getting reading to ride at in the garage at Ram’s place of work.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a view of PIttsburgh as we cross the Hot Metal Bridge and the Monongahela river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was a photo opportunity in Homestead, just outside of Pittsburgh.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were riding near the railroad tracks  for some time.  I believe the place was called Duquesne.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe crossed the Monongahela river into McKeesport.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was a break for a second breakfast for some of us.  Shankar had not had his morning coffee as yet.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis near the confluence of the Youghiogheny and Monongahela rivers.  From now on we will leave the Monongahela, and ride along the Yough.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trail climbed into the woods.  The people who built the GAP left this stretch of railroad tracks standing beside the trail. The GAP is a railtrail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe made a stop at Boston and met a very interesting trail volunteer. We spent a long time chatting with him.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI thought this house by the trail looked interesting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe made many stops to take in the views and chill out.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis waterfall was depositing some white mineral on the rocks.  It could have been either natural or from some old abandoned mine.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe took a break at the Beuna Vista ramp.  We had stopped here to eat teplas when we rode the trail last time in 2016.  We were too full from the late breakfast this time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis section of the trail was built on the right of way of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie railroad.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis waterfall carries iron from the remains of an old mine.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bike must have been dropped in the water.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe saw fallen trees in a few places, but this was the only location where the trail was completely blocked.  We could easily get under the fallen tree.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the West Newton train station that has been converted into a museum and gift shop.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrossing the Yough to go into town at West Newton.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe spent some time in West Newton.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe then got back on the trail after crossing back over the river. Here we are approaching the end of the ride for the day. At this point, we got off the trail and crossed the river once again into Smithton.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe easily found the Bed & Breakfast place where we were staying for the evening. One of the natives knew exactly what we were looking for when he saw four tired people on their bikes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe building is a three story affair that is really old – from the early 20th century.  It belonged to the family of the current owner who now happens to also be the volunteer Mayor of Smithton.  It was used as a boarding house in times past.  There is a lot of history in the place that I have no time to expand on at this point.

The place used to have a working bar.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere used to be a brewery in town.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe spent a delightful and very relaxed evening on the porch chatting. There was not much choice in town for dinner.  We ordered pizza from the only place that was open, and consumed it while enjoying our liquid refreshment in the cool evening breeze as the sun set.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAP7080005-1.jpgOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also took a walk through the town.  It did not take too long to get through it.  It is a really small place. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASmithton is close to the railroad tracks.  You can hear the music of the rails and the whistle of the engines as as the freight trains roar by.  But I did not hear any trains during the night.  I must have slept well.

We rode about 40 miles yesterday.

Heading Home from Peru

We knew the drill very well by now.  If we were with a Gate1 tour, and if we were traveling to another place and another hotel, we would have to put our suitcases outside the door by a predetermined time in the morning for pick up by the bellboys.  This time would be well before we actually left the hotel.   When we returned to the rooms after breakfast, the bags would be gone. The next time we saw them would be at the next hotel room.

We went through the routine for the last time during this trip to Peru.  And then we went down for breakfast.  I should mention that breakfast in this hotel included quinoa juice, something we had not tasted at any of the other places that we had stayed in.  People seemed to like it, but I could not handle the somewhat glutinous consistency of the drink and the way it felt in my mouth.  To each his own.

It was another early start for the day since our flight to Lima was from Juliaca, the town we had passed through on our way by bus to Puno, and the flight was scheduled to depart mid-morning.

Juliaca, uniformly, has a very bad reputation as a city for tourists.  It is generally  recommended that tourists not linger there longer than necessary. The best thing you can do for yourself is to get out of town quickly.   It is apparently a place for smugglers. Street crime seems to be a significant issue.  The city government is not very functional.

Puno is a tourist town because of its location, but Juliaca still has a larger population.  We were told the the airport was in Juliaca and not Puno because of the geography of the area.  Another article mentioned politics as a reason for the location.  In any case, the airport is small, and there are very few flights out of it.  The whole place was almost empty when we showed up for our LATAM flight.

The only commercial airports that are at a higher altitude than the one in Juliaca are in China and Bolivia.  Juliaca also has the longest runway in South America.  This is because of the altitude.

We ended up being joined at the airport by another tour group from Gate1 that was heading back to Lima. (There was a suspicion that these folks were a part of a more expensive tour package, and that they might have stayed in the prison/hotel in Puno.)  Gate1 customers took up a significant number of seats on this flight.

The security process was a little different than I am used to during recent travels.  The security check was in a small space, and the single scanning machine was apparently not very sophisticated.  I had to open up up my computer bag and all of its pockets to show what I had in it.  But they did not create a hassle.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASitting in our aircraft seats prior to departure, we noticed a few sheep being loaded into the cargo compartment.  What fate awaited them in Lima?

The aircraft departed the terminal area without having to to be pushed back. It turned around and headed straight for the runway.  And then the aircraft was rolling down the runway.  And we kept rolling down the runway as if we were going to remain on it for a while.  Finally, after about 40 seconds, the plane gently lifted off the ground.  I know the time because I measured it.  (We had been warned about what to expect ahead of time!)  It all had to do with the thin air at that altitude.

It was an uneventful flight over the Andes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon, we had landed in Lima, and we were back to sea level – breathing in the heavily oxygenated, but perhaps more polluted, air.

By the time we got from the airport to the hotel and had our lunch, there was not much time left for further explorations of Lima. We took a walk along the cliff that ran along the coastline at Miraflores.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It was going to be difficult to get down to the beach itself.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked to a supermarket not too far from our hotel to buy some local goods.  Got some Kiwicha for breakfast and local chocolate bars.

Back at the hotel, we got on a bus and headed out to a restaurant for our final dinner as a group.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe said our goodbyes back at the hotel.  We had made a few friends during the trip.P4270471.jpgOur tour manager was also heading home to be with his family in Cusco.  He would not be seeing us off at the airport.

We had to leave the hotel before well before daybreak in order to catch our early morning flight to Orlando, Florida.  We were accompanied to the airport by a local agent from Gate1.  Everything went smoothly.  I was surprised that the aircraft that we flew out of Peru on was a small one.  It was packed with kids, most probably headed out to see Mickey and friends.

With customs and immigration taken care of after landing in Orlando, we were back on ‘Merican soil.  There was a vague sense of being back in a familiar, and even comfortable, place,  but the sense of adventure and expectation that comes with being in a new place had also come to an end.  You could feel the senses immediately beginning to dull.  The rest of the trip was going to be very predictable – even if there were any issues that cropped up during the rest of the trip home.

We got back home in time for dinner.  There was nothing in the fridge that could be consumed immediately. Our regular standby, California Tortilla being closed, we had to settle for the 24 hour Wendy’s close to home.

And then it was over.

But the memories of this exciting trip will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

The Sillustani Tombs

Lunch was somewhat hurried affair that day in Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  We had only about an hour between tours.  We had gone to one of the restaurants our tour manager had suggested, the one that we had not selected the night before for dinner.  We were recognized as we approached the place – and welcomed!  Unfortunately, there was a delay in the food getting to the table, and I had to leave half of my quinoa soup behind.   Since Pavel, or tour manager, was also at the restaurant, I was a little less concerned about Broz, our local tour guide, leaving without us.  Anyway, we got back to the hotel in time – but barely.

Sillustani is about 45 minutes away from Puno by road.  You travel on the highway to Juliaca for a while, and then take a turnoff towards Sillustani.  The ride on this second road is short.  The road also ends in Sillustani.  We were dropped off at the parking lot for buses, a fair distance away from the ruins we were visiting.  We had to make our way further on foot.  You could see our destination, the hill with the funerary towers of Sillustani, in the distance.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked past a little hamlet.  There was a setup for an open market  on both sides of the street.  Not many of the locals were out selling their stuff at that time. I noticed a few signs for paid restrooms.  Another business opportunity for the locals!

You could see the remains of a hailstorm from the day before beside the road we were walking along.  The funny thing was that we had also been caught in a hailstorm in Chinchero, on our way to the Sacred Valley, a few days earlier. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe hill on which the tombs of Sillustani stand lies on a peninsula that juts out into a lake called Lake Umayo.  The lake is much smaller than Titicaca, and it is not that well known.  We climbed past the edge of the lake as we entered into the area of the park.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou could see signs of human activity along the shore of the lake.  We were told that there were reeds that were harvested from this lake, but that these reeds were not used in the same way as the totora of Lake Titicaca.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The picture below was taken after climbing halfway up the hill.  You can see two kinds of funerary towers in the picture.  Both of these kinds of towers are from pre-Inca times.  The one towards the bottom of the picture below is older, from a period of time called the Tiwanaku epoch. The tower at the top was built by the Aymara, an indigenous people who came later. The Aymara were later overtaken by the Inca during their period of ascendancy.  The funerary towers belonging to the Aymara are called chullpasOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Aymara respected the ways of their predecessors, and this is reflected in their adaptation of the use of vertical towers for tombs.  Their designs seem to be even more sophisticated than that of the Incas.  Unlike the Incas, they cut their rocks to specific sizes to fit in regular patterns.  The outside surfaces of the rock were also flattened perfectly, unlike some of the rock used in Inca constructions.  The difference between the two architectures in the picture above is striking.  We saw tombs of both kinds in Sillustani, mostly in a state of disrepair.

We climbed further up the hill to get a closer view of the first of the chullpas.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis particular chullpa was completely broken on one side.  You can see the smaller chamber within the structure at the bottom.  This is the chamber within which people were buried.  Many people (often from a family) could be buried together in a tower. The bodies were placed in a fetal position.  I got the impression that they were placed sitting up. People were buried with some of their belongings. As an aside, the Inca practiced mummification.  They used to bring out the mummies of their ancestors for big occasions, and also “consult” with them for big decisions. I do not know if the Aymara practiced anything similar.

The chambers were apparently quite short.  A height of five feet was mentioned.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are two other chullpas that have survived on the hill at Sillustani.  We next visited the place where they were located.  In the picture below, you can see that we were prepared for rain during the walk.  The weather had been threatening for some time.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe two chullpas are at the head of the peninsula on which Sillustani is located.  As we crested a rise in the area of the chullpas, the grand vista of Lake Umayo opened up in front of us.  The view was simply amazing, especially with the threatening storm clouds around us.  This was the kind of grand view that one expected to see on the shores of a well-known lake. This looked better than Lake Titicaca!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven though the weather was threatening, we had to take an additional moment or two to celebrate, because, at 12,800 feet, this was highest level to which we had hiked during the entire trip.  It was even higher than Puno!  (It is true that we were at a higher altitude at the Continental Divide, but we did not do any walking of significance when we stopped there.) We had hiked about a little less than a mile at this point, and climbed a couple of 100 feet during this time, and we were feeling fine in spite of the altitude (although I did hear Broz breathing quite heavily in certain sections when we were climbing, when he was trying to get ahead of the rest of us).

The chullpa in the picture below looked completely intact on the outside.  You can see how tiny the opening to the burial space is.  You would have to crawl to get inside.  I read somewhere that these openings point to the east.  It is the direction of the rising sun.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rain started falling about this time.  We could observe the lightning bolts in the distance. Then came the distant thunder.  The storm was approaching.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe started making our way back to the bus.  It was all downhill from there.  We were able to pick up the pace.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were a little wet by the time we got back to the bus, but it was not too bad.

We asked Broz if we could see some llamas and alpacas on the way back – if it was not raining.  He offered to take us to the home of one of the locals if we wanted.  We accepted the offer under the condition that we were not disturbing the occupants of the home.  Little did we realize that the occupants of the home we were about to visit were used to receiving visitors regularly.

There were some animals tied up in front of the compound.  This is a llama.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is an alpaca.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd this is a hybrid of the two animals above.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll of the animals pictured above are members of the camelid family.  There are also other types of camelids in South America.

The arch at the entrance for the compound included the usual two Pucará bulls on it.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were a couple of storage rooms in the compound including this one.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe folks who live here raise the domesticated variety of cuy.  (More about cuy in one of my earlier blogs in this series.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe inside of the living quarters was tiny and crowded with stuff.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey had some food laid out next to their cooking space for the tourists to look at and sample. The lady of the house stuck her hand into one of the still steaming pots in the cooking area and pulled out a few potatoes of different kinds.  Broz cut one of these potatoes and added a paste on top of it. The greenish-grey paste was basically a local clay mixed with water.  He then ate the piece of potato.  A couple of folks from our group also sampled the potato with “mud” on it.  They said the clay was tasteless.  It is supposed to be rich in nutritional value (the picture in the link I have provided may be of the same place that we were at!).

In the picture below, Broz is showing us a bottle of some medicinal concoction that they use that has a snake in it.  It looked somewhat intimidating from closer up.  He is holding the piece of potato that he is eating in his other hand.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is a closer look at the cooking space.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe man of the house was working in front of a separate building, creating items from alpaca wool to sell to the tourists.  There was a display of such items.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe returned to the bus after looking at their wares, after unsuccessfully trying to bargain down the price of a shawl that they were selling.

We headed back to Puno and our hotel after this stop.  We were done with trips for the day. Happy hour was happening at 5:00pm. Pavel, our tour manager, was buying us drinks.  Essentially, since this was our last day of touring, this was an opportunity for us to get together casually as a group, and for Pavel to solicit some feedback about our experiences of the trip.  Pavel also gave us initial instructions to prepare us for our impending departure from Lima – to get back to the USA.  Some in the group were actually departing the next day, immediately after dinner.  We ourselves were going to spend the next night in Lima and depart early in the morning the day after.

Since we had already visited the two restaurants in Puno that had been recommended to us, we had to ask around for suggestions for other places for dinner that night.  A restaurant that was right on the Plaza de Armas was recommended by others in our tour group.  That was where we headed.

Night was falling.  We could get a partial view of the cathedral across the plaza from the  the restaurant where we were having our dinner.  We were on the second floor and next to a window.  Dinner was fine, but we had to wait for about an hour for food to be served.  We would have preferred to have crashed out in bed earlier rather than later after another long day of visiting places.

Our trip home began the next morning.