Road Trippin’ Down Under: Cowabunga Kalamunda

Morning came much too early for me on Tuesday. Having slept far less than the Jarhead had over the last several days I gratefully would have slept for several hours after he had gotten out of bed. And while I haven’t sat down to do the math, I suspect I could have slept until noon and not even come close to tying—much less breaking—his record for the total number of hours spent sleeping by an American in Australia. Still, I would have given it a shot if Mr. Sunshine hadn’t opened the blinds and turned on the news after hopping out of the shower and brewing up a mini pot of coffee.

That option discarded, I dragged myself out of bed and left him to plan our day once again. He hadn’t done a bad job the day before, after all, and I didn’t have the brainpower to contribute to a discussion even if we had tried to have one at that point. That plus the fact that I’m in charge of nearly every aspect of life back in North America made it easy for me to let him be the boss Down Under.

Once I had showered my energy level out of the negative numbers and caffeine-d my way into the positives, I offered to let him be in charge for the rest of our stay, and every time we visit Australia in the future. He liked that idea so much—as evidenced by the fact that he nodded absently without looking up from the map—that I then suggested that we divvy up the various potential travel destinations in advance so we will know who will be responsible for organizing the itineraries and activities for all our future vacations. He paid as much attention to that as my previous suggestion, which is why he also gets to plan any vacation we take to Europe, Asia, Africa or South America, and I’m responsible for planning all our trips to Antarctica.

I know. How magnanimous of me, right?

That decided, we packed up and headed over to Salted Board. We had been there so many times by that point that I wondered briefly if we should go somewhere else for once. We didn’t want Chrissy to think we were crazy stalkers, after all, and it probably wouldn’t have hurt us to try something new. But then again, why risk it? So, another delicious breakfast later, we were on our way to Kalamunda National Park.

I’ll say this for the Aussies: they take their parks, wildlife, and conservation in general very seriously. And yet, in typical Aussie fashion, they seem to take them seriously without seeming to take them seriously. It seems almost assumed—a given—if you will, that the environment is a priority, and that the people who live on Earth are its stewards. Unlike in the US where you have some very passionate people striving to understand, appreciate, and protect the environment from those who want to rape, pillage, plunder and profit from it (while the rest of us are left wondering what to do and whether it will even matter so we almost nothing) in Australia conservation appears to be a way of life. Full stop. No drama. No debate. Just effing do it.

And the evidence was everywhere—at least in Western Australia. From the signs guiding you (if not literally inviting you) to all the local natural attractions, to the ubiquitous and well-maintained trash bins that were almost too clean and attractive to be trash bins, to the utter lack of litter or neglect anywhere, the place was seriously pristine.

And yet, as tidy as everything looked, it never seemed deliberate, groomed, or staged. There were no mower lines on the grass, or anything to indicate that the trees and other greenery had been purposefully planted, preened, or perfected.

One might be tempted to conclude that this was evidence of a lack of visitors, but this was clearly not the case. In literally every park, preserve, beach and boardwalk we visited there were people walking, hiking, biking, picnicking, backpacking, and snacking. And yet, there was no trash. Anywhere. No wayward candy wrappers. No discarded bottles, cans, or plastic bags.

Nor was anything broken or missing. In the restrooms, all the stalls were clean, and everything in them—including the door locks and latches—were fully functional. The trash bins were never overflowing and there was always tissue in the dispensers. It was like a neat freak’s version of paradise. Or Oceania’s version of Canada.

Which was mostly awesome but also a bit disconcerting in a Wrinkle in Time meets Stepford Wives meets Supernatural kind of way. Because we never saw even one groundskeeper, nor any grounds-keeping equipment. And yet we KNEW they had to have groundskeepers, who in turn had to have equipment. Somebody is emptying the trash cans and filling the tissue dispensers, after all, and even the most conscientious traveler drops a tissue now and then. And I doubt very much that the visitors are cleaning up after themselves—even the Canadians.

Which made me wonder if perhaps the Department of Parks and Wildlife was deploying nature ninjas to swoop in and sweep up when no one is looking. Or maybe they show up after dark decked out in optoelectronic devices to mow the lawns and collect the trash by starlight. The more likely explanation, I suppose, is that the park employees get up a little bit earlier than the average bear, and take care of business while the rest of us are having coffee. But doesn’t that sound boring? (More likely, yes. But definitely less interesting.)

Anyway, although we’d been in the car for over thirty minutes, our excursion officially began when we arrived at the Perth Hills Visitor Centre and Zig Zag Cultural Centre in the town of Kalamunda. Located between the Kalamunda History Village and the Kalamunda library (in what their website proudly calls the ‘Kalamunda Cultural Precinct’) the center offers a wealth of information relating to the historical, cultural, and recreational options to be found in and around Kalamunda and Kalamunda National Park.

After studying the map and our hiking options, we got back in the car and headed for the hills. Okay, one hill. Gooseberry Hill Recreation Reserve to be perfectly honest. Here we would find a trail that would suit not only our age and fitness level, but also our footwear. Turns out some of the trails are a bit jagged and loose, and since we weren’t properly equipped for anything too treacherous we had to settle for one of the easier routes.

By the time we parked the car at the entrance to the reserve (which, oddly enough, was at the terminus of Hill Street right smack in the suburbs of Perth) I was pretty fired up. I had brought my walking poles and brand-new hiking boots, and my almost brand-new knees. I had plenty of water, eyewear, and sun protection, and although we weren’t exactly about to hike the Aussie equivalent of Appalachian Trail, I was fully psyched. I had survived the hike the day before without encountering one snake, spider, or crocodile, so I knew it could be done. I was feeling bold. Brave. Confident. I was going to hike that trail and I was going to crush it!

And then I got out of the car.

Instantly, I heard it: the sound of bees buzzing all around me. And I mean literally ALL around me. You couldn’t see even one single bee. But you could hear them—thousands of them.

To be honest, I’m not allergic to bees. And I’m not really afraid of bees as much as I am terrified of them. No lie. As a kid, the sound of a bee (or wasp or hornet or anything resembling a bee—including but not limited to dragonflies, horseflies, and houseflies) would leave me quivering in terror. Outwardly, I would either freeze and nearly wet my pants, or run around in nonconcentric circles with my arms, legs, and head flailing in all directions like I was having a seizure, while internally screaming and hyperventilating at the same time.

Like other disabilities, this crippling fear made outdoor activities a bit more challenging for me, but thanks to my dad and his abject lack of patience and sympathy, I managed to overcome it. Mostly. I no longer freeze or have a seizure when a bee buzzes by me in the garden or my phone vibrates on the table. Inside I still scream a little and sometimes need to be reminded to breathe, but I don’t have a full-blown panic attack. Usually.

But there at the entrance to the preserve, I admit I had a mild relapse. The buzzing was so loud, and it seemed to grow louder with every passing second. It was like some of the bees had noticed my arrival, and word was spreading among the other bees that I was there. And they were all plotting how they would attack, and in what order, at what speed, and in which formation.

Standing there, just steps away from the edge of a suburban cul-de-sac with my new Keens and fancy hiking poles, I felt like a dog faced with the choice of staying with the kid who found me when I was lost and the kid I knew and loved until fate separated us. Do I conquer my fears and crush that trail full of bees, or do I go back to the car a failure, foiled by her apiphobia?

It didn’t help that I had just read an article that said tourists are more likely to die from a bee sting in Australia than from a spider bite or snakebite. Because bees are more numerous and less afraid of people than snakes and spiders, tourists are more likely to encounter a bee than they are a snake or a spider, and because tourists typically haven’t been exposed to Australian bees, they are more sensitive to their venom than native Australians are. Fan-tabulous.

Knowing that the Jarhead would not take that hike without me, it came down to this: would I rather make his day and die by a thousand bee stings or would I rather ruin his day and live to tell the tale? The more I thought about it, the harder the decision got. Especially since the Jarhead was not standing next to me awaiting the outcome of my internal struggle. Instead, he was striding eagerly toward the entrance to the trail. With or without me. In other words, my choice wasn’t whether to hike and die or leave and live; it was to either hike and die with him, or sit in the car and die alone.

How’s that for a plot twist?

Well I wasn’t about to sit in the car waiting for the Jarhead to come back from a bushwalk, I’ll tell you that much. It could take hours for me to find someone to drive me back to the hotel if he didn’t come back, and years to find someone who likes my cooking enough to put up with my crap. Nuts to that.

So, bees or no bees, I was staying with the Jarhead.

Which is fortunate, because just a few yards down the trail—as the Jarhead was checking the treetops for koalas and I was distracting myself from the bees by scanning the ground for the shier, less dangerous snakes—I looked up momentarily and came nearly face to face with two kangaroos. They were both adults this time and instead of lounging around in the shade ignoring us, they were both standing upright looking directly at me. Not wanting to alarm them or the Jarhead, I stayed perfectly still and whispered out of the side of my mouth. “Psst! Kangaroos at your four o’clock.” Slowly, he lowered his head and turned to his right. “Oh, wow,” he whispered back. They’re pretty close.”

They were definitely close, but they were also behind a fairly tall and sturdy fence. Still, we didn’t want to spook them, so I left my phone in my back pocket and let the Jarhead take all the pictures and a few short videos. Which is why I don’t have any evidence of this encounter to offer you today. It’s all on one of his many SD cards, which got all mixed together during our recent move. But if and when we find them, I’ll be sure to share them.

Meanwhile, content yourself with the knowledge that we both survived the hike through the reserve and went on to enjoy a walk on the beach and a nice leisurely dinner back at the hotel.

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Another day down and only one more to go. I was already beginning to miss Australia.


Road Trippin’ 2015: A Glacial Pace

Now and again, I come face to face with the fact that I don’t have all the facts. The most recent example of this occurred yesterday, when I learned that the glacier to which we tried to hike the day after arriving in Anchorage was NOT Portage Glacier. Apparently one can attempt to ascend Portage Glacier, but not from where we were.

It was a reasonable mistake given other facts at my disposal. For example, just prior to our hike we had spent some considerable time at Begich-Boggs Visitor Center, where various sources discussed and described the retreat of Portage Glacier and all the changes resulting therefrom. Adding to my confusion was the fact that Begich-Boggs Visitor Center overlooks Portage Lake, which was created from the meltwater running off Portage Glacier.

So, it wasn’t a big leap for me to assume that the glacier we were hiking up to was in fact Portage Glacier. Okay, I suppose I could have asked someone where we were going. And I guess I could have read the lovely sign the park service had placed at the entrance to the trail. But we were so busy chatting—about the weather, the size of the icebergs dotting the lake, et cetera—that I didn’t have the opportunity to inquire as to where we were going, much less to stop and read the sign as we passed it.

And when we weren’t chatting, I was focused on other matters, such as: How would I fare on my first real hike with my new knees? Would my new boots provide the grip I would need to avoid slipping and falling down the rocky hillside? If the boots or my knees should fail me, would the Jarhead have the wherewithal to help me back to the car? Or would he need assistance from LaVon and/or her husband, Tom? If I were I unable to put weight on either leg, would the three of them be willing to carry me back to the car, or would they drag me to an isolated area just off the trail and leave me die of exposure?

I’m kidding of course. It was warmer in Anchorage then than it was in Wisconsin that day, so I was less likely to freeze to death than be mauled and eaten by a bear. Plus, these folks have all known me long enough to know how loud I can scream and for how long. Which means they know that leaving me behind would require at least a gag and a blow to the head—if not a knife, a gun, or a crossbow—which would greatly reduce if not entirely remove any chance they had of convincing the authorities that my death was just an unfortunate accident.

And so, light of heart—if not fleet of foot—I picked my way up the trail behind my three companions. Every now and then the Jarhead would turn to check that I was still upbeat and upright, or to allow me to catch up to him. And every now and then he would offer me a hand so I could scramble over rocks, or up and over a particularly steep section of ground.

Along the way we passed several other hikers of varying ages, sizes, and ethnicities. The sight of these people made me so happy—not only because their presence improved my chances of survival, but also because they all seemed so cheerful. Well, all except for one family, who evidently had been forced to go up a second time to retrieve a pair of children’s shoes only to find them not where the child thought she’d left them. For her sake, I hoped someone had found them and brought them back down the trail and set them down for the owners to find, or the ride to their next stop was going to be a lo-n-g one.

Apart from them, everyone we passed was the picture of happiness. Oh, I suppose what looked like happiness may have been relief—either at having finished the climb or because they would soon be able to sit, eat, or use the restroom. But seeing them all coming back from the trek with what looked to be smiles on their faces bolstered my confidence that I, too, would return fit and happy from the journey. And so I smiled at everyone we passed, and nearly wore out my vocal chords verbally greeting those who returned my smile.

Eventually we made it as far as we dared up the path toward what I now know was Byron Glacier. Like Portage Glacier, Byron Glacier is retreating, and in order to get to it, one must ascend a sizeable pile of boulders that sit amid the rivulets of meltwater that combine to form Byron Creek.  Without hiking poles, an all-terrain vehicle, and/or a skilled Sherpa, I knew I wasn’t up to the challenge. But the Jarhead was game to touch the ice, so LaVon, Tom, and I decided to watch him go and wait for him to come back.

Not to sound like a Pollyanna, but it was a gorgeous wait. The warm sun and the cool breeze made for the perfect weather to be outside, and all around us were the sight and sounds of nature—water tumbling over rocks, sun glistening off the ice, grasses and trees rustling in the wind. And along with the sights and sounds of nature were the sights and sounds of people enjoying it. No one was whining, crying, or fighting. Everyone was smiling, holding hands with or hugging someone, gazing up at the sky or the mountains, or looking down at the water and rocks. It made me wonder if people behave more lovingly when they experience nature, or if people who pursue nature are more loving.

Either way, it was an amazingly lovely day. And it was made even better when the Jarhead returned from his quest unscathed. Although he did not succeed in touching the glacier—he decided to turn back rather than brave the terrain without the proper gear—he was glad for having tried, and for not having fallen into the creek in the process.

I must admit to being somewhat surprised that he came back when he did. Not because I expected or wanted him to get wet or cold, but because our plans for the evening included going to a high school football game, and about the only thing the Jarhead dislikes as much as getting wet or cold is football. But he chose to be a good *ahem* sport, and join us back on the main trail rather than hide out among the boulders until he was sure we’d missed most of the game.

And so, after a quick dinner of bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers, we headed for the field to watch LaVon’s son’s football game—or, more accurately, to watch several other people watch LaVon’s son’s football game.

Road Trippin’ V: Rocky Mountains–Hi!

Banff National Park was everything people said it would be and more. And yet, somehow, Kootenay National Park was better. Maybe it just seems that way because no one talked Kootenay up before we left and so our expectations for it were not that high. Or maybe Kootenay really is better, but nobody knows that because fewer people go there. Or maybe folks are bragging up Banff over Kootenay the way early explorers did Greenland—so everyone will go there instead of Iceland.


Among the many wonders in Kootenay, our favorite was Marble Canyon. Situated between Lillooet and Cache Creek, the canyon is what the experts call a collapsed Karst formation, which basically means it’s a cave whose top has washed or worn away. The word ‘marble’ in the title apparently refers to the color and texture of the rock forming the canyon walls rather than the type of rock itself, which is not marble but limestone—and which explains why it’s washing/wearing away.


Before we headed up the trail that runs along the canyon, I was just another curious tourist wondering what there was to be seen further up the hill. Well that’s not strictly true. I was also—and still am—a victim of osteoarthritis, which is why about halfway up the trail I was wondering if I really cared what there was to be seen further up the hill.


It was at about this point that we encountered another 40-ish couple making their way back down. “Don’t give up now,” taunted one of the sadists as I paused to rest my knees. “You don’t want to miss the falls.” Hoping she meant the naturally occurring geographical feature in which large volumes of water flow rapidly over rock formations as they make their way downhill and not the naturally occurring gravitational event in which middle-aged arthritis victims roll rapidly over rock formations after losing their balance, I decided to push on.

I probably would have done so even without the promise of the falls since I knew the Jarhead wouldn’t have continued up the trail without me, and I wouldn’t have wanted to deprive him of the experience of seeing the entire canyon. Nevertheless, her words were the boost I needed to get me moving again, and soon I was back on my feet, gritting my teeth, and praying I had enough cartilage to make it back down.


In the end, the view was definitely worth the walk, as well as the cortisone flare I experienced a few weeks later after my first consultation with an orthopedic surgeon—but more on that later. The falls were beautiful, and thanks to the brilliant engineers who work for the Canadian park service, you can stand close enough to the water to feel its misty kisses on your face. It was truly awesome.


After seeing the falls and the canyon, plus several other natural wonders in our path, we headed south toward Idaho. Then, after a brief stop at the duty-free shop (where we picked up a t-shirt and some cigars for the Princess, and a scarf and maple syrup lollipops for El Noble—I’m kidding, of course; but wouldn’t it be funny if I wasn’t?) we crossed the border at Kingsgate and officially checked the 50th state off the Jarhead’s list.

That evening, we decided to make camp at Bonner’s Ferry, ID. I use the phrase “make camp” a bit loosely since we actually stayed at the Kootenai River Casino & Spa Best Western. I will remember this visit for several reasons, not the least of which was the two mile distance between our room and virtually any of the facility’s fine amenities.

It bears mention here that the hallways in this section of the facility were not air conditioned. This is significant because despite the shower and the other heroic measures I took toward making myself presentable every time I left the room I couldn’t make it halfway to my destination without breaking into a sweat and leaving my fellow patrons to wonder if I had been walking in the rain or showered in my clothes. Thank goodness we were only there for a night. If we had stayed any longer, I may have been forced to wear my swimsuit to play the slots.

That’s all we really saw of Idaho since after a big dinner and several drinks, we hit the casino. The jackpots eluded us, but it took me two whole hours to lose the twenty bucks I started with, and the Jarhead came out sixty bucks ahead, so we went to bed happy—and looking forward to spending Saturday in Montana.