Day Trip to Asheville

Today was a big day in the city of Knoxville: the University of Tennessee’s homecoming.  And since we have not yet joined the overwhelming crowd of loyal, orange-clad fans, we got out of dodge.  We had heard many good things about the small city of Asheville recently, so we decided to see  it for ourselves.

Asheville is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina, making it just under a two hour drive for us.  The drive alone was really worth the trip for me.  Of course I say this as the passenger, not the driver.  Thanks to the warmer fall temperatures at this southern latitude of ours, the color is hanging on to the trees.  The drive felt as impressive as parts of the GSMNP.  Too bad those interstates don’t have too many stops for scenic overlooks. The drive also represented a homecoming of sorts for Jordan: we passed through the Cherokee National Forest.  We didn’t stop and it didn’t exactly seem like a deep moment.  Yeah, he’s probably only 1/32 Cherokee, but other than England, it represents the only “homeland” either of us have visited.  We’re working on Norway, Sweden, and Germany….

We had a good time in Asheville without accomplishing too much.  We didn’t visit the Biltmore or any museums, since we were just making a day/afternoon trip.  Our main goal (it was an implied goal; we don’t necessarily discuss goals for fun, carefree days out on the town) was simply to get a feel for the downtown area of Asheville.  Having tried the “best” Indian place in Knoxville, I was excited to see so ethnic cuisine around.  We opted for the Kathmandu Cafe, which (no surprise here) specializes in Himalayan foods from Nepal and India.  A splendid buffet, so naturally we felt forced to eat more than we ought to.

Afterward, we wandered.

The city was bustling.  I was impressed with art deco architecture of the historic buildings in the area, the variety of specialty shops, and the constant reminders of the benefits of purchasing local foods and goods.  There were some interesting street musicians, namely a stringy young woman belting Irish ballads. We spent time browsing in a spice, tea, and sugar store (pumpkin powder, rose petals, or black sea salt crystals anyone?) and in the omnipresent (except in Knoxville) Urban Outfitters store.  However, our only purchase for the day was Christmas garland from Ten Thousand Villages.

Asheville is known for its microbreweries, and we felt obligated to try at least one out.  And one microbrewery appeared to be all we could handle today.  After one IPA for me and a seasonal stout for Jordan, we left Jack of the Wood in search of something sweet to balance out the bitter.  I was after ice cream, Jordan after a vanilla latte.  Luckily, we stumbled into a coffee-serving soda shop/art gallery to end the day.

It really was a nice day.  But many things about downtown Asheville reminded us of downtown Knoxville.  (We do have our fair share of street musician/hippies, you know).  Knoxville just needs to continue its current path of downtown revitalization and add a bit of imagination to give it that feel of a bustling urban center.  I look forward to returning to Asheville sometime, but more so to seeing Knoxville tap into its potential over the next few years.

Pati Valley Hike in Chapada Diamantina National Park, Brazil

Ahhh, the Pati (Pah-chee) Valley.

We left for the Chapada Diamantina National Park on an overnight bus from Salvador, Brazil.  Within the park, we planned to spend the majority of our time with Pati Valley.  The “we” in this case is Jordan and I, along with Jordan’s friend Chris.  Though Chris (originally from SoDak) has lived in Brazil for almost two years, the three of us together stuck out.  We all have hair with at least hints of blond, fair complexions, and limited to no language skills when it came to Portuguese.  Without Chris or a guide, this hike would not have been possible.  While waiting in the bus terminal, a friendly Brazilian (who had spent years in the U.S. Midwest) mosied over to strike up a conversation.  He said many things, but ultimately, I came away with one major point: this was going to be the “trek of a lifetime.”  He was genuinely excited for us.  Believe me, I was excited for us too, really, but he seemed even more so.  After the trek was over, I understood why.

I have not decided if an overnight bus ride can actually be comfortable.  But this one did not come close.  In contrast to the rest of Bahia (the state that the National Park and Salvador are in), where air conditioning can seem scarce, the bus was freezing, as its air conditioning system worked overtime.  I had a long-sleeved tee shirt and pants, expecting cooler nights, but nothing that could fight off the AC.  Not long into the ride, I was awoken by large drops of water falling on my head and chest.  That evil AC was dripping.  I switched seats, but never managed to get into a decent REM cycle before we arrived in the city of Palmeiras in the morning.

I remember just a few things about Palmeiras:

  1. Buying cashews, bananas, chocolate, and bottled water at the market
  2. Watching nearly a hundred children wander through the streets toward school in the morning
  3. Waiting and struggling to find a ride to our trailhead.

Eventually, Chris was able to convince a local to drive us Guiné.  As I said above, we clearly stuck out as a gringo group, so we had to settle for a price above what we should have and were not even driven to the actual trailhead, adding maybe a mile onto our first day.

What I have been calling the Pati Valley, the locals refer to as Vale do Pati.  Right there in the middle-ish area of the map.  We hiked, once we got started, within the valley for four days.  That’s right.  We spent four days in that small area on the map.  There’s still so much of the park we didn’t get a chance to see.  (To be fair, we did venture to Lençois from Andaraí afterward and stayed for an extra day).

I think I worked physically harder on this first day than ever before in my life.  No lie.  I know I have never sweat that much either—ew.  Of course, I could have been more in shape (has that statement ever not been true for me?).  The sun was strong and the temperature steady.  After the first flat mile to the trailhead, we began a climb.  It was pretty exhausting.  I should mention that we hauled all we would need for the trek on our backs.  I should also mention that Jordan, being the great guy he is, had a much heavier pack than I did, as some of my stuff managed to find its way into his pack.  When the climb leveled out, we “breaked” underneath the shade of tree, swallowing water and gorging on soda crackers and those bananas and nuts we bought earlier.

From there, we continued on a flat walk, resembling the U.S. Southwest.   Small lizards scattered from the trail when we approached them, and we sidestepped parts of a relatively small, dry river.

This section went on for quite some time (an hour or two, who knows).  Out of nowhere, we saw this:

 

Really, it felt like it was out of nowhere.  It’s one of those drop offs where Roadrunner might find itself during a frightening footrace, barely skidding to a stop after knocking pebbles and rocks down into the valley, while Wiley Coyote doesn’t notice the ledge quite in time and falls to a horrible injury that ultimately only lasts long enough for the bird to get away.  Luckily, no skidding.

It was breathtaking.  And no other human noises could be made out.  Sure, we could see one of the very few houses down in the valley from where we perched, but I felt that we were quite alone.  It was one of those moments when I realize how lucky I am to be exactly where I am.  You know, one of those places that you feel you don’t deserve to see, feel, and experience.  Except in this case, the sweat and exhaustion in your legs remind you that you might deserve it a little. 🙂  In that moment I was reminded that God chose to let nature be a blessing for humankind, and how nature displays his glory.  I would be reminded of this time and time again in the next couple days.  Wow, do we need to embrace conservation efforts for these amazing places in the world!

There were so many highlights to this trek that they really can’t all be described in detail, without this blog post turning into some sort of repetitive mini-memoir or something.  So, I will spare you, and you will get the choppy, glossed-over summary.

Toward the end of the first day’s hiking, I had a spell bordering on heat exhaustion.  I felt dizzy and disoriented.  Jordan forced me to drink water and poured water on my head.  I was able to carry on.  I waded in a river later that evening, while Jordan and Chris’s swim was cut short by tiny biting fish.  At the first banana plantation we spent the night at, we ate more of a delicious, traditional, homemade supper than I thought was possible and afterwards, quickly fell asleep, since there was nothing much that could be done in our simple, concrete rooms with an open roof and no electricity after the sun went down.

The next day started early thanks to an obnoxious rooster and hand-cranked juicer, and ate a large breakfast.  We climbed Castle Mountain; an absurd amount of scratches appeared on our legs due to the narrow trail.  To reach the (almost) top, we climbed through a cave.  Once to the top ledge, Jordan got nervous, and we retreated.  We spent the rest of the day hiking upstream, balancing on rocks and stones, finding our way to three remote waterfalls.

That night passed much like the rest, except after the hiking was over, I indulged with a Coca-Cola that had to be hauled in by mule.  (J & C enjoyed something called a Nova Schin ;)).

On day three, we found ourselves hiking through the valley to the house/banana plantation closest to Andaraí.   This only entailed three hours of hiking, so we stopped at a swimming hole, that I believe might be Jordan’s favorite place on earth (aside from home, of course).  We swam and stayed there for a long time.  At the second plantation, we ate well, but simple, again.  Great chicken, but watch out for critters in your sugar (made for some bitter Brazilian coffee).  Slept through the windy night relatively well and were on our way in the morning.

We climbed uphill again, switchback after switchback, and finally out of the valley, leaving a long, but gradual, downhill walk to Andaraí through sock-monkey-like cacti and lizards and boulders with naturally-eroded bullet holes.

We arrived to town in the late morning, and the noises, colors, and activity came as a shock to our systems after the days in a sort of tranquil FernGully (I swear I saw Crysta buzzing around one night after supper).  You trade the tranquility for convenience, though, and we ended the trek at a small restaurant with a sort of junk food binge, consisting of personal pizzas, cashew ice cream, Fanta, Coca-Cola, bottles of water and Skol for the boys.

So that’s it.  That’s the end of our Pati Valley experience.  I think I found, maybe stretched, my physical limits (which I know could be augmented if I ever made a full-hearted effort).  I think I also stretched my comfort level in respect to cleanliness.  I became so comfortable in my own sweat and the dirt that stuck to it, but will admit that I did enjoy the showers—cold as they were.  The things I glossed over were amazing to see, truly, but I think for me, nothing compares with the moment we first laid eyes on the expanse of the valley in front of us.  Often, we hear talk of the mountaintops and valleys in life, and view the valleys as the horrible lows we wish to avoid.  Those valleys have been short-changed.  I am excited for what life has in store for me, and believe that there is beauty to be seen every valley (whether it be a stretch of unemployment, a bout of homesickness, or any other personal challenge) that I am required to enter, traverse, and leave behind.