Mount Massive, 2018

  • Date: July 14, 2018
  • Partner: none
  • Height: 14,421 feet
  • Range: Sawatch
  • Route: Southwest Slopes (Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 8.0 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,950 feet (TH to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 20
  • 14ers remaining: 33
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: I had read up on the road conditions prior to coming over here and felt they were a bit overstated.  Any good SUV (and certainly a 4WD) can make it to the trailhead.  The last mile has a few dicey spots but nothing major.  If you come during the weekend, you might not find a parking spot.

Wow.  All I can say was that this route was beautiful.  The spring wildflowers are out in all their splendor right now.  Anywhere you look along the trail there are amazing views.

I woke up late and almost decided not to go.  However, the weather report looked clear and dry all day so I went for it.  It was 9:00 am at least before I arrived at the trailhead.  The first mile was an easy stroll through a forest before it broke out into a clearing where I could see the Southwest Slope in the distance.  Once I crossed the clearing and made a turn to the right, then things became much more serious.  The trail began to climb rapidly through a boulder field.  Fortunately, most of this was stable rock.

To me, I felt the most difficult part of this hike was between 11,500′-to-13,500′.  After the boulder field, one bumps and grinds through a broad expanse of grass going up, up, and up.  Eventually, the goal is to gain a ridgeline.  Once on top of the ridge, things flatten out a bit.  I was wearing my Hoka trail running shoes and developed hotspots on my heels, so I had to make a pitstop to slap some Leukotape on top of them.  Problem solved!

Eventually, the trail reached the summit ridge and hung a hard left to head north.  Here is where the East Slopes trail intersected mine and I saw other climbers coming up.  There was a large false summit I had to work around before I finally saw the actual summit about a 0.25 mile away.  I had to hop from boulder to boulder in a few places, but it was smooth sailing to the top.  The views from the summit are an A+; you can see Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake clear as a bell.

All told, I really liked this hike, if for no other reason than the stunning landscapes.  I would give it around a 4 in terms of 14er difficulty.  Are there any negatives?  This mountain is the 2nd highest peak in Colorado at 14,421′.  If you don’t handle altitude well, then be forewarned.  Also, what with a mostly high alpine environment, I would imagine it would be a frightening experience to be up here in an afternoon lightning storm — keep your eye on the sky.  This was a bluebird day, so I saw hikers and climbers all along the way.  This is not a place to go for summer weekend solitude.  That being said, I had the pleasure of meeting a nice, young couple from the Denver area, Ty and Sam, and we walked out together the last ~ 30 minutes 🙂



Ellingwood Point, 2018

  • Date: July 4, 2018
  • Partner: none
  • Height: 14,042 feet
  • Range: Sangre de Cristo
  • Route: North Ridge via South Zapata Creek (Class 3)
  • Overall Distance: 11.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 5,500 feet (TH to summit)
  • 14ers climbed: 19
  • 14ers remaining: 34
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: The dirt road to the South Zapata trailhead is 3.5 miles from CO-150.  Any 2WD car can make it if they take it slow over the rocks and ruts.  There is plenty of parking at the trailhead.

This trip marked my first 14er of 2018.  I had originally meant to backpack several miles up the trail the evening before in order to get a head start the next day.  Alas, on the drive down to Alamosa from Denver, I had to take substantial detours to avoid the 11,000 acre Weston Pass fire.  It was already sunset by the time I pulled into Alamosa, so I decided to car camp instead.

There is a no-frills campground run by the BLM right at the trailhead (Zapata Falls Campground) that is perfectly located to do this hike.  I watched some thunderstorms rolling in off in the distance for a few minutes, quickly pitched my tent, and then settled in for a few hours of sleep.

I hit the trail at dawn, as the Great Sand Dunes were reflecting the first rays of the morning sun.  Pay attention when you are walking out of the trailhead not to take the side trail to Zapata Falls.  Otherwise, it is a brisk 4-mile hike up to South Zapata Lake (3,400 ascent).  The trail is clearly marked and I felt good as the temperature was cool.

When I got to the lake, I decided to head up the C2 couloir to get on top of the headwall.  This is steep Class 3 pitch with no trail.  It was filled with loose talus and scree on top of hard-packed sand.  For every two steps forward, I took one step back.  As this was my first 14er of the season, I was not in the tip-top shape I wanted to be in, so I crawled up to the top of the headwall and was a bit tired.  If you attempt this route, be sure to make a note of where you are so that you don’t inadvertently head down the much more dangerous Crossfire couloir on the way back.

From here, the route to the summit was plainly visible.  However, again no trail was evident.  I headed along the spine of the headwall to the east and picked my way as best as I could through tons of small rocks.  As the headwall rose, it bended to the south.  The sun was up in full force now and I stopped frequently to get water and rest.  When I got to a large prominent outcrop of rock, I tried skirting it to the right and it became dangerously steep.  STAY TO THE LEFT!  I backtracked several hundred yards, and got on top of the spine.  Even though there was massive exposure to the left (a 2,000′ + drop-off), I ignored it since the going was much easier.  Pulling myself up with a few good handholds here and there, I was able to get onto the summit.

From the top, I could see three other 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.  There were several active fires I could see billowing smoke to the southeast and from time-to-time an airplane or helicopter would approach them presumably to drop water.  With the exception of a bighorn sheep, the entire time I had been hiking, I had not had any company until now —  a young couple from the university in Alamosa who had come up a different route.

Coming down entailed backtracking, slowly picking my way through the endless rocks.  Even then, a few times I lost my footing coming down the C2 couloir and took a hard fall.  Had I not had my hiking poles, it would have been miserable.  I was really relieved to make my way back to South Zapata Lake and get back on defined trail.  By now, I had been frequently drinking water to the point where I had to carefully ration out what I had left for the remainder of the hike.  When I got to the car, I guzzled a very warm bottle of water I had tossed in the backseat 🙂

There are a few spots of ascent heading back to the trailhead, so all told, I would put the total ascent on this hike at 6,000 feet.  The Class 3 designation is appropriate.  If you are in great shape and move along, you could probably do this trip in 6 hours.  If you are in reasonable shape and take a few stops for picture and snacks, then it will take you around 9 hours.  I would not recommend this climb to someone who is not in shape nor as a first 14er.  If I had to give it a 14er difficulty rating, I would say somewhere around a 6.5, maybe a 7, would be appropriate.

If you like solitude, adventure, remote country with big mountains, and camping options, then you should try this route.


Costa Rica and Nicaragua, 2017

The last few years, my attention has turned towards travel in Central America.  Given the week off during Thanksgiving, I decided to take advantage of this precious window of free time and head to the countries of Costa Rica (CR) and Nicaragua (NI).  It was a full day of flight to get to San Jose, CR from Denver by way of Atlanta.  I bunked in for the night at a hotel near the airport and then promptly headed off to the small city of Liberia, in the northwest part of the country, early the next morning.  I was in a very small plane for the short one-hour jaunt but enjoyed the 360 views of the vast expanses of hills and lush tropical rainforest.

In Liberia, I stayed at a small hotel on the outskirts of town (Hotel Javy) that was run by a very nice family.  I was treated very nicely and fed a big, homemade breakfast every morning.  The hotel was within walking distance of downtown so I spent a lot of time wandering around the city.  If you are looking to bring America with you on your travels or you like to stay in swanky beach resorts, then Liberia will not be for you.  I appreciated the city’s authenticity and the friendliness of its people.  My favorite part was the park near the town square next to an old Catholic church where many of the locals congregated late into the night.

The first day in Liberia took me south for roughly an hour to Palo Verde National Park to float the Tempisque River.  This was a leisurely float for about 2 hours along the brown waters through a tropical dry forest.  There were many different types of interesting birds along the banks.  Occasionally, crocodiles would slowly rise up out of the water.  A group of white-faced monkeys made a guest appearance at the boat, hoping for a handout of banana.

On Sunday, I went to Rincon de La Vieja National Park for a leisurely day-hike around the area.  This park is home to a couple of volcanos (which I would love to climb one day).  There were a lot of cool geological features such as mud pots and hot springs, much as you would see in Yellowstone National Park, and you could also see and hear howler monkeys in the tree canopy.  If you like hiking, then you will certainly enjoy this park.

As a fitting end to the day, I walked to the stadium in downtown Liberia to attend a soccer match between the team from Liberia and popular rival from San Jose.  If you want to witness true passion, then I encourage you to go see a major soccer match in any country in Central or South America!

The next day brought a visit to a true “cloud forest” called Tenorio Volcano National Park.  The hike was along a wonderfully beautiful, blue river called Rio Celeste.  Being in the rain forest, it was a gloomy day with drizzle but I kept my eyes open hoping to catch sight of a tapir and taking in the sights along the river.  On this day, I also got to see several different types of multicolored frogs, bats, sloths, etc.  On the way back to Liberia, I had a chance to do a small hike to Llanos de Cortez Waterfall, where several people were lounging about and swimming.  Very cool!

On Tuesday, I went to probably what might be one of the most famous landmarks in CR; that is, the active Arenal Volcano.  The driver Eithel and I first stopped at Arenal Hanging Bridges.  If you want to see a wild coatimundi, then this is the place.  This is a park where the trail includes several very long suspension walking bridges strung through the canopy.  Don’t look down if you don’t like heights 🙂  We then went to a stunning 70-meter waterfall called La Fortuna.  It’s a steep, long descent down many stairs to see it but it is completely worth the effort.

Finally, I headed out to NI the next day at 5 AM on a bus with several other tourists.  It was a long, long day but was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.  First, it was two hours to the border and then an hour of checkpoints and waiting to get across.  Once that was out of the way, we made several pitstops along the drive to see Lake Nicaragua and to shop at some local markets, where I loaded up on coffee beans.  The showstopper was a trip to Masaya Volcano National Park, almost near Managua, the capitol of NI.  It is one of those memories that will forever be etched in my mind — gazing across the chasm of the crater, with steam and gas bellowing in a column towards the sky, and lava percolating below.  Awesome.  We then went into the old city of Granada for a short boat ride into Lake Nicaragua and to browse around the city square.  Reversing course, by the time I made it back into Liberia, it was pushing midnight before my head hit the pillow.

Thanksgiving found me back in San Jose eating a dinner of beans, rice, and fried plantains, waiting until the morning to catch my flight to Los Angeles.  I gave thanks for having the time, health, and a few dollars in my pocket to be able to take this most memorable trip.  And more memories are yet to come …


Mount Princeton, 2017

  • Date: August 14, 2017
  • Partner: Xiaoen Ding, Thao Tran, Hieu Nguyen, Ngoc Nguyen
  • Height: 14,197 feet
  • Range: Sawatch
  • Route: East Slopes (Class 2)
  • Overall Distance: 6.5 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,200 feet
  • 14ers climbed: 18
  • 14ers remaining: 35
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: It is an easy drive to the 2WD trailhead out of Nathrop.  From here, things get quite a bit more serious.  First of all, stay to the right as you depart from the 2WD parking lot as it is easy to miss the road continuing up the mountain.  Then, you have a 3-mile slow slog up a steep, rutted single track road to get to the radio towers.  My Jeep Cherokee made it with careful driving and using 4WD.  There are several places to park at the radio towers if you get an early start to beat the crowd.

This hike is a deceptively long hike time-wise, even though it is not a long hike distance-wise.   From the radio towers, you’ll have about 1.5 miles going steadily uphill on a winding forest road.  A trail abruptly cuts off to your right and ascends a grassy hill.  After roughly 0.5 mile, the trail enters into a perpetual talus field.  From here, you have under 1.5 miles to reach the summit.  As it gently ascends up to meet the headwall, the trail can be hard to follow in spots.  The old trail cuts to the right and veers straight towards the summit.  The new trail has been rerouted to cut to the left and switchback up to the headwall.  Once on the headwall, things get more challenging.  The trail meanders along the spine of the headwall and becomes less defined.  You’ll be on the steepest part of the hike and picking your way through a mixture of solid Class 2 boulders and talus.  Stay on the spine all the way to the summit.

As with any 14er in Colorado, you want to keep an eye on the weather and your footing while on Mount Princeton.  People can and do die on this mountain (including one death this year).  A sobering plaque just below the summit memorializes a young woman who died at the spot after being struck by lightning.  Keep moving slowly and consistently up the mountain and then get off.  Save the resting and celebration for after you are safely down.

And now the best news for last … joining me on this hike were my international student friends from Vietnam, Thao Tran and Ngoc Nguyen (their first 14ers).  Congratulations to them on a job well done!  Also joining me was Xiaoen Ding from China (her second 14er).  Way to hang tough, Xiaoen!  Last but not least, joining me was faithful climbing partner Hieu Nguyen from Vietnam (his sixth 14er).  Hieu is becoming quite the seasoned mountaineer.

I should add that I ran into two former students from a Statistics graduate course I taught two years ago (Sam Hagopian and Jodie Daglish).  One of them had since moved to California.  Complete 1-in-1,000,000 random event!  We had a good laugh about this and enjoyed quickly catching up.  Life is full of good surprises like this 🙂


He Ran Across the Sky

It was night time and he was alone, but not lonely. He ran on the top of a very large hill on a trail worn smooth down to reddish dust and with ruts scoured by eons of erosion. The occasional crack of electricity surged across an old powerline, and heat lightning flickered across the sky, a sky that looked like a black curtain pinpricked by thousands of points of starlight. His breathing was more like panting, his throat and the top of lungs were sore from all the hours he had journeyed in the thin air. The trail twisted and turned as it moved up and down along the flow of the land and rocks and tree roots made it necessary to pay attention lest one trip and fall. He forced his pace to be regular, like that of a metronome, because it distracted him from his own tiredness as he ran across the sky.

Clock time had lost its meaning. Occasionally, a feeling of fear or anxiety entered into his mind and filled his heart with panic. Damn it, how much further to go? Damn the miles for loitering. However, he forced himself to let these feelings go for they were feelings, not facts, and to embrace them, to give them large life, meant he would have been consumed by these feelings. Let them come and let them go and don’t let the prisoners run the jail. Fear and anxiety take you out of the present moment and are the killers of dreams. He was thirsty and hungry again so he sipped the remnants of now-warm water from his bottle and he ate a small chunk of banana while he ran. Then he realized how hungry he was and was scared that he would run out of food and not be able to continue to run that night. But you can’t control what might occur any more than control the rising of the sun, so that feeling too was allowed to drift away. More than once, he caught himself training the beam of his flashlight way out in front of him to see what lay ahead but this too was to live in the future so he eventually told himself to train the flashlight only on the ground directly before him as he continued to race across the sky.

As he rhythmically bounced along his mind began to drift back to the past and all that had transpired to get him here. In what seemed like a different universe, there was point in time where he was going to run on a similar journey off in a different land. But he incurred a terrible wound and was fearful he would never run again. In short order, more walls and more hurdles arose. It was all part of the ebb and flow of life and sometimes you need to take a step back in order to take two forward. Out of all of this, he resolved himself back then to train and work as hard as he could to race across the sky, for as long as it took, vowing to never give up. Never, ever give up. Over the months, through the rain and the pain and the sun and the snow, though he stumbled, staggered, faltered, and fell, he always got back up, pressing to run a few seconds faster and a mile longer. There were those who insisted that he wouldn’t be able to run across the sky, those that offered him no support and abandoned him. But he ignored them and prepared to run across the sky anyway and felt internally stronger because of it, because regret, disappointment and bitterness are past-centered feelings that prevent you from living for today and are the killers of dreams.

He was just happy to run and as he ran he told himself “Patience and focus” over and over again like a magic mantra. This kept him focused in the present moment, the only thing over which he had a modicum of control. Realizing that all that we are and all that have is now, with no beginning nor any end. So many things that are outside of you, that are out of your control, did not matter. There were no limits and the only limits that existed were those we set on ourselves. The only thing that mattered was the moment he was living and he loved living and running was a part of his living. He recalled a favorite translated quote from Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching, who said, “If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve.” That is how he ran across the sky … one mile at a time.

Along the way, out of habit, he looked for the front two pointer stars of the Big Dipper in order to find the North Star and sought out Orion in the sky. In his mind, a soothing, stirring verse played over and over again, synchronized perfectly with his pace. Down below in a valley near Turquoise Lake was a collection of shimmering lights known as Mayqueen and it was beautiful. As the minutes passed, he focused on the sounds of his footsteps and breathing. Out in the middle of the night, out in the middle of the Colorado Rockies, he felt a surge of strength and of energy from those that had helped him prepare for the journey because they were metaphysically with him now. At this moment he was filled with gratitude and humility and felt like the luckiest man in the world. Gone was any doubt, gone were any expectations and pressure, gone like the remnant ribbons of the wind rustling through the pine trees. All through the months leading to this moment, he did what anyone would do in that darkest moment before the dawn … he clung to hope. The hope of running across the sky sustained him. Hope is a fuel for perseverance.

It was night time and he was alone, but not lonely. There was comfort in the darkness, in his aloneness, and solace in the salt of his tears. He ran up a climbing, rocky road that entered into the center of the town of Leadville. The houses and and buildings had the appearance of being shuttered up and things were strangely calm and quiet. Finally, off in the distance, he saw a small gathering of people, flashing lights, and heard crys of excitement and joy. Sarah, his unwavering friend and right hand, standing off to the side of the street, was patiently waiting and calling for him. He could stop running now for a little while. All that began long ago came to a temporary end. His run across the sky was complete and his love for himself, his friends, all of the world, and life, still remained, enduring, and refusing to fade away.

— Philip Turk

Mount Lindsey, 2017

  • Date: July 8-9, 2017
  • Partner: Amandeep Vashisht
  • Height: 14,042 feet
  • Range: Sangre de Cristo
  • Route: North Face going up (Class 2+); Northwest Ridge going down (Class 3)
  • Overall Distance: 8.25 miles
  • Elevation Gain: 3,500 feet
  • 14ers climbed: 17
  • 14ers remaining: 36
  • Road Condition to Trailhead: This is a fairly long drive from the main road out of Gardner.  A 2WD car could make it to the lower parking area by the landslide with few problems.  It is another 2 miles to the upper parking lot and unless you know what you are doing, I would recommend 4WD due to big rocks and ditches.     

Aman and I arrived at the trailhead around 5 pm to a light rain.  We each put on our backpacks and set off down the trail.  The first mile of the trail was flat and followed alongside the Huerfano River.  There were a few streams running across the trail that had we had to cross before the trail crossed the river itself.  Here, we had no choice but to take off our shoes and socks and ford the very cold waters of the river.

The trail took a slight turn toward the east and began to climb in earnest through the forest.  Over the next mile, the trail climbed a mountain valley gaining almost 1,500′ of elevation — ouch!  Finally, after a couple of hours, the trail broke out of the trees around 12,000′ and flattened out on a ridgeline overlooking spectacular views on either side.  It was on this ridgeline, that we decided to set up camp in the fading light and get some sleep.  Fortunately, the rain had stopped and we were treated to a nice sunset.

At 5 am the next morning, we arose, ate a light breakfast, and set forth from camp.  The trail dropped into an alpine basin, which we crossed, and rose a bit higher into another basin, which we also crossed, before meeting the headwall.  Switchbacking up onto the headwall, we crested at 13,000′ between the Iron Nipple and Mount Lindsey.  This is where things got serious!

The main spine of the Northwest Ridge came down to the headwall and we veered to the left to begin our ascent of the gully on the North Face.  It looked intimidatingly steep but we slowly picked our way up a mess of sand and scree, taking two steps forward and one step back …  Around 13,700′, we decided to cut to our right in an effort to get on top of the Northwest Ridge and onto firmer ground.  Once there, it was another several hundred feet across talus to a false summit and then an easy stroll of 1/4 mile on top to the summit.  By now, the weather was sunny, around 50 degrees F, with no wind.  In short, it was perfect.  We were treated to wonderful views of Blanca Peak and Ellingwood Point to the west.

Now, on the way down, we decided to take the Northwest Ridge instead of the North Face.  At first, even though it was a more difficult Class 3 route, it was quicker and more secure than slogging through the scree-filled gully we had ascended.  But our route became steeper and steeper until it “cliffed off” at the crux wall.  All of a sudden, we realized we either had to backtrack up towards the summit and go another route or downclimb the crux wall.  Whether it was because we were tired and lazy or because we were stubborn, we chose the later.  There was a large, vertical crack in the center of the wall that required some brief Class 4 rock climbing that we carefully navigated.  Once safely off the crux wall, we continued our steep descent and angled down the scoured east side of the ridge before popping back out onto the headwall.  To be honest, I believe we saved no time on this route compared to if we had simply stuck with the North Face.

From here, it was a simple matter of heading back down to our camp and repacking the tent, sleeping bags, etc.  Happy with our successful summit attempt, we took our time backpacking out to the Jeep.

This was a more difficult 14er climb than I had done in awhile.  I wouldn’t recommend this to someone as their first 14er.  I’d give it a solid 5 or 6 on a scale of difficulty and effort.  In my opinion, Aman did a wonderful job, never complaining, always keeping a smile on her face, and slowly, but unrelentingly, pushing forward.

As an interesting footnote to the trip, no sooner did we start driving home on I-25, then a massive hailstorm hit, pelting us with pea-to-marblesized hail.  There was easily over an inch of the stuff on the road and several cars, including mine, had driven off-road to the sanctuary of a lonely, big cottonwood tree to wait out the storm …



San Luis Peak, 2017

I had whirlwind trip the past few days.  My climbing partner Hieu Nguyen and I took a trip down to southwestern Colorado to the San Juan Mountains to climb San Juan Peak (14,022′).  Of all the 14ers I have done so far, I am most happy to get this one done because it is so remote; even the trailhead is remote.  San Luis Peak sits by itself just off of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in some of the most wild, beautiful country in the lower 48 states.  Necessitating a 14 mile-hike with 3,600′ elevation gain, a climber is well-served to either backpack into the area and split the climb up across two days or camp at the trailhead, get an early start, and try to do the climb in one long day.

Hieu and I arrived at the trailhead at roughly 4:30 pm, donned our backpacks and set off.  The first couple miles were a flat, easy stroll along a 4wd road, which paralleled a stream down in a valley.  The trail then made a big ascent up out of the valley to meet the CDT where San Luis Peak come into full view.  It was beautiful!

We chugged along with our full backpacks across Bondholder Meadow to the east  encountering streams, wildflowers, and occasional patches of snow.  After going up and over a ridge, we entered into another vast, expansive alpine meadow and decided we would set up our camp here for the night.  A fitting reward for the end of the day was about as fine a sunset as one could see.  The temperature dropped with the fading light and we quickly ate our camp dinner and settled into our sleeping bags to try to catch a few hours of sleep.

At 5 am, we arose, quickly ate a light breakfast, and headed off for the mountain summit. We accessed the headwall spine just as the sun was rising.  A wind started to pick up and my hands were cold.  The remainder of the hike was a gradual walk-up ascent over scree and talus, occasionally passing big cairns to mark the trail.  All told from camp, it took us a bit over an hour to get to the summit.  The sky was blue with a few clouds and we paused for a few minutes to take in the 360 views of the wilderness below us.

The remainder of the morning was spent heading  back down to the camp, repacking our backpacks, and then slowly hiking back out to the trailhead.  We were able to get back to the jeep by noon.

If you are looking for a true outdoors adventure in what I can honestly say is one of the prettiest parts of the US I have ever been in, then give San Luis Peak a try.  This was my 16th Colorado 14er so far.  If I am lucky, I still have 37 more to go, but I just know San Luis Peak, and this trip, will retain a special connection with me.


Return to the Mountains

Today marked the first summer climb of 2017, and I’m grateful to report I summited Mount Sherman.  This is my 15th Colorado 14,000′ mountain and I have 38 to go 🙂  My partner joining me was the young and dashing Hieu Nguyen.  We both felt this was a steady, but relatively easy, climb of about 8 + miles and ~ 3,000 vertical feet of ascent.  There were a couple patches of snow and ice that were easily traversed with an ice axe and micro-spikes.

I spent the past month in Beijing and had some terrific experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life.  I saw historical sites I thought I would never see, reconnected with old friends and made new friends, and ate delicious ethnic food every day.  The list goes on and on.  Amidst all this, and as much as I enjoy travel, towards the end of the trip, there was a longing to go back home.  Not my physical home; mind you, the home for my soul … the mountains.

If you have never gone on a hike on the mountains of Colorado in the summer, then you are missing out on a true spectacle of nature.  The landscape comes alive with crystal clear streams, colorful fields of wildflowers, blue skies contrasting with remnant snowfields clinging to the shadowy sides of the mountains.  There is a stillness that swallows you whole.

The truth of the matter is I can be happy living most anywhere and doing most anything.  However, there is an indescribable joy and peace I feel when I am in the mountains.  I enter into this place of rest where I feel free.  The mountains do not care about what you do for a living, they do not judge you for failures from the past, and they don’t worry about what may or may not happen to you in the future.  There is a sense of equanimity about the mountains.  Everyone is equal in their eyes.  Yes, you too can rest …


China, 2017

As was the case last year, I went to China for a month this summer.  Instead of establishing a base out of Changsha, I decided to travel to Beijing.  A main purpose of my visit was to study and practice Chinese with another being to visit friends and attractions in and around the city.  During my time there, I was also able to give a statistics talk at the Chinese Academy of Forestry.

The first big-ticket item I visited was the Great Wall at Jinshanling, 2 hours outside of Beijing, with Xiaoen Ding and her parents.  This was quite a different experience than the first one I had that chilly spring day in 2014 when I visited the Great Wall at Badaling, teeming with people.  The weather was gorgeous, if not a bit hot, and it seemed like we had lots of solitude for periods of time.  A visit to Jinshanling is highly recommended if you want to see and experience the architecture, history, and geography of the Great Wall.

Xiaoen and her parents also took me to see Xiangshan (Fragrant Hill) and the neighboring Beijing Botanical Garden, both just outside of the city.  All told, I would say a trip from the parking lot to the summit of the hill and back might be roughly a 3 hour affair.  It’s longer and steeper than it looks 🙂  If I lived in Beijing, I am quite confident I would be visiting Xiangshan a few times each month because I think it’s really beautiful and provides good exercise.

The biggest “wow” moment was when Xiaoen and I fly to Datong with Qiuchen Li (one of my former MS advisees from several years ago) and her husband Meng Zhang.  Quichen and Meng are great friends so it was a real hoot to get to spend time with them on a weekend adventure.  Datong is about a one-hour flight directly west of Beijing in Shanxi Province.  The city has a pleasant vibe to it and it seems less congested, less dense, than Beijing.  The draw of Datong is to see the scenic spots and historical sites nearby.  The first day took us to Yungang Shiku, which are famous, ancient Chinese Buddhist temple grottoes from the 5th and 6th centuries.  I was blown away by the cave art and the Buddha statues.  The next day, we drove considerably south of Datong and stopped first to see Xuankong Si, a 1,500-year-old hanging temple built into the side of a cliff (see picture at top of page).  Next door, we then climbed Beiyue Hengshan, one of the 5 Sacred Mountains of China.  Immediately from the parking lot, one begins a constant steep ascent on a well-worn path, mostly through the woods, punctuated by lots and lots of stairs.  Along the way, there are vendors, old temples, and scenic views.  If you try this yourself, plan on a 3-to-4 hour roundtrip for this gorgeous hike.

So what did I do when I wasn’t sightseeing and traveling?  Studied Chinese, of course!  I was fortunate enough to have been put in touch with a graduate student (Yao Jiang) from Beijing Language and Culture University, arguably among the best universities in China for studying the language of Chinese.  Most days, I would take the subway from my hotel up to the campus where Yao and I would sit down in a coffee shop for a couple of hours and work on listening to and speaking Chinese.  I learned a lot and gained valuable practice working with this very nice, young lady!

I had the opportunity to check out the 798 Art Zone, courtesy of my friend Lei Wang.  This is an area with some old military buildings that has undergone gentrification and now houses a cool, vibrant artistic community.  Check it out if you ever visit Beijing.

There was also the chance to reconnect with old friends.  Ding Ding and I spent quality time together, including seeing my first Hindi movie subtitled in Chinese (haha!).  I had dinner one night with Yuxiang Wang, who played in a band with me at Colorado State University, and another night with Yongxu Huang, another former MS student.  Thank you for your time!

It might be hard for anyone to understand but I think what I enjoyed most about my time in Beijing was embedding myself into the local culture and doing what some might deem the “small stuff”.  I’ll look back on this trip and I will vividly remember Xiaoen and her parents and I eating a great hotpot dinner at a local restaurant; walking over to a local convenience store every morning to buy some bread for breakfast and speaking with the friendly lady clerks; riding rental bikes with Qiuchen and Meng to a bowling alley; playing guitar with Lei in the middle of a university track field on a moonlit evening; walking around the campus of Tsinghua Daxue; working out and swimming laps at the local health club; and on and on …

Life is all about the experiences!

Please click on any one of the pictures below to enjoy the entire photo album.


What I Learned Traveling in all 50 States

Last Wednesday, I crossed the border heading north into Mississippi on I-55 and, in so doing, officially began my vacation in the 50th state I have visited in the US.  Vacationing in all 50 states was a dream of mine hatched when I was younger, the exact year escaping me at the moment.  Airport visits and drive-throughs were not going to count; I was determined to put in at least one overnight stay with time spent in at least one attraction.  Admittedly, some states required more creativity and planning to pull this off.

I had plenty of time to think on the drive up to Jackson, capitol of Mississippi.  Rather than cobble together a highlight reel of the trip (see the pictures below if you are interested in that), I decided to give here a brief list of what I have learned in my odyssey:

1. You travel to enhance your life, not escape it.  

I don’t hide the fact that when I was much younger, I battled low self-esteem and insecurity.  In an effort to offset this, I traveled in a doomed attempt to find happiness.  The trouble with this strategy is wherever you go, there you are.  If you are unhappy, travel will not solve this and will actually make you feel worse.  Nowadays, while I don’t travel as much, I get so much more out of the experience because I am at a peace with myself and have reached a place of authentic happiness, and from this place of inner strength, I can really enjoy and enrich my life through travel.

2. It’s nice to travel and it’s also nice to come home.

I love to travel but I know that wherever I go, I have a place, a basecamp, a home that I can call my own.  This provides me comfort and security.  Being at home, reading, relaxing, sipping coffee, playing my guitar, reenergizes me and allows me a period of internal dialogue and reflection where I can think about what I learned on the last trip.  In various ways, I thankfully now enjoy my time at home as much as I do traveling.

3. Beauty is everywhere you look.        

Every state has features and places of extraordinary beauty if you open your eyes and heart and will choose to receive it.

4. It is the quality of travel that counts, not the quantity.

I used to travel like a whirling dervish, with every hour of my vacation parsed and accounted for.  Oftentimes, I spent so much time in the car that I wasn’t really seeing all that much and I would arrive back home exhausted.  I now prefer to pick one or two things in any given day, live in the moment, and truly learn about the place and culture I am visiting.

5. Don’t be afraid to travel solo.  

Of course, if you can travel with a great partner or some great friends, then it’s 1 + 1 = 4.  However, if the people you are traveling with don’t somehow make you and the experience better, then, honestly, you are much better off being alone.  Also, in looking back over my life, if had based all my plans contingent on someone else doing it with me, then I would have gotten nothing done.  Traveling solo pushed me forward in ways previously unimaginable to me.  In testing myself and trusting in the Universe, I grew strong, I grew independent, and learned to believe in myself.

6. Live in your element.

Be yourself, and march to your own drummer.  If you don’t like crowds and revelry, then it makes no sense to spend your time in Las Vegas.  Don’t do something or visit someplace because everyone else tells you that you have to do it when you know in advance that you will be out of your element.  Be true to who and what you are.  If you don’t like sitting in a bar down in the French Quarter of New Orleans, then don’t do it.  Go hiking, kayaking, try to find the perfect beignet or whatever it is that constitutes living in your element.

7. Some people don’t like to travel and that’s ok.

I know this is hard to believe, but it’s true 🙂  Really!  People have different personalities and different strengths.  I have personally met some highly intelligent, self-aware people who have optimized their lives right where they are at and are able to continue their mental and spiritual growth in ways that don’t require the external stimulus we know as travel.  I don’t judge people who do not like to travel as somehow being less worldly or not as consciously evolved as those that do like to travel.

8. People share some similar values regardless of where they are from.

It doesn’t matter which state or country you live in; there is a unifying set of core basic human values we all share.  We all want to be listened to, to be respected, to love and be loved, to embrace the hopeful quest for happiness.  You can have different cultures but this does not mean there has to be cultural differences …

9. Experiences are far more precious than possessions.

The greatest gift you will ever have is your time so I think quite carefully about how I am going to spend it.  Going above and beyond money, I choose to spend my time traveling rather than getting caught up in a nuclear arms race to acquire and accrue more “stuff”.  When I look back on my life, the memories I have, the people I met along the way that contributed to those memories, and the effect on my soul, make me one of the wealthiest people on the earth.

10. Travel gave me an intense appreciation of life.

Travel gives me wisdom, and it gives me knowledge.  It breaks chains of ignorance and intolerance.  It has exposed to me, with full clarity, the breadth of life and has blessed me with a better understanding of compassion and gratitude.