Dan and Hannah Hike in Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas, Nevada


RR Map of NevadaI’ve been roughed up of late.  This Maine winter has beaten me down pretty good.

Four weeks ago, Hannah and I took a two week bite out of our January by hiking on the coast of California. Today we begin ten days on parole thanks to the Snow Warden in New England to visit the red rocks of Nevada, the mountain perches of Utah, and the deepest desert in California.

RR route one traffic

Traffic heading to Logan Airport in Boston

Leaving home in York, Maine at 540A for our 855A flight to Vegas from Boston this late February morning, we cruise down I-95 quite blissfully.  Then boom.  We get snarled in the Monday morning commuter traffic of big bad Route One in Danvers and Saugus, Massachusetts.  Crawling along at 15 mph, we finally arrive at Park, Ride, and Fly in Revere where we leave our Hyundai Elantra and get ready to take the shuttle van to Logan Airport.  Unfortunately, delays due to this past weekend’s snow storm mean the shuttle doesn’t arrive for us til after 8A.

RR jet blueWith minutes to spare, we arrive for our Jet Blue flight. Never again will we cut it so closely, as the stress of “will we make it or not” messes with the start of our hiking vacation in the West.  Jet Blue knows how to soothe the beast within the air traveler: an individual TV makes my six hours of non-stop flying, well, fly by.

Once in Vegas, we take two shuttle buses to get to the Fox Rent-a-Car lot; we always rent the cheapest car we can. Today we end up with a Toyota Yaris. It is basic wind-up toy – hand crank windows, no cruise control, side view mirrors that you adjust by hand.  At $226 for ten days, it’s all good.

And by the way, we always tip, be it shuttle drivers or housekeepers at our motels. We are the fortunate ones to share our wealth. Tipping is like praying. Praying changes the one who prays. Tipping changes us for the better.  As Maya Angelou says Giving liberates the soul of the giver.

Welcome to Las Vegas

Welcome to Las Vegas

Can you believe it? It snowed last night in Vegas; on our arrival Monday the temperature never gets above 50 degrees.  Have we brought the curse of the New England winter west?  Let’s pump the brakes.  We are lucky to even be here on a day when 1500 flights are cancelled. It will be -7 degrees tomorrow morning on the coast of Maine.  Fifty degrees is an excellent alternative.

Looking to be as far away from the Vegas Strip as we can, we settle in at the La Quinta Motel in the Summerlin section of the western Las Vegas suburbs. A mere eight miles from our first day hike in Red Rock Canyon, La Quinta has the requisite free breakfast and a Jacuzzi by the pool as a bonus.

RR blackjack tableThough Hannah and I want no part of traditional Las Vegas, I once was a blackjack card counter when we lived in Arizona. I’d take an airline shuttle at 8P from Phoenix, play a minimum of $5 bets through the night, and then be flown home the next morning.  All for $25! Weeks ago, thinking I might recapture some of my blackjack glory, I planned to study the basic strategy for blackjack (this system is online and legit for it gives the player a break-even chance of winning). And yet I couldn’t make myself study and put in the time for the chance to make a little spending cash. The memorizing of the proper blackjack plays was just too much work.

RR 4 map at end of trail CalicoTraveling east to west, we have ourselves a 27 hour day this Monday. By 7P Pacific Time, I can’t stay awake and zonk out.   The bad thing about that is that I awake at 230A the next morning (530A ET). I listen to Hannah breathe as she sleeps and think, Damn I’m lucky to be here just lying in bed, not subfreezing in York.

RR 1A D at RR sign

After yesterday’s high of 49 degrees, 60s with full sun are promised for our hike in Red Rock Canyon.  Heading out Charlestown Avenue, we have our senses blasted by the red rock mountains to the west. Pulling into the lane to pay at the Red Rock Canyon, we learn that the 13 mile one-way Scenic Drive is currently closed due to snow removal.  Really?  The visitor center is open; the Moenkopi Loop and the Calico Hills Trails are ready and waiting for us.

Hannah hiking on the Moenkopi Trail

Hannah hiking on the Moenkopi Trail

The terrain is déjà vu for us one-time Arizona residents. There isn’t a tree within the area. Scrub brush and cacti are our only friends. A lizard checks us out, but on the surface, the landscape has all the earmarks of a barren wasteland.

From yesterday's snow storm

Remnants from yesterday’s snow storm on the Moenkopi Trail

At 3400 feet, the Moenkopi Trail is a 2.5 mile loop that the guidebook says will take 2 hours. Nonsense. It’s, maybe, an hour or so over this mostly level terrain. With the wind whipping, I opt for shorts and Hannah capris.  Sweatshirts are a must as the full sun does balance out the wind and we are rocking along on, as you might imagine one would do on a rocky trail. Much of the time we can walk side by side. Always in sight of the visitor center, we never feel like we could get lost.

Red rocks of the Calico Hills Trail

Red rocks of the Calico Hills Trail

Once at the far end of the Moenkopi Loop we cross over the Scenic Drive to the Calico Hills trail. We meander between the road and the Red Rock cliffs. As a popular hike, we are not alone on what is the beginning of Spring Breaks across the country. The Red Rock cliffs are favorites of rock scramblers and sport climbers.

The Calico Hills Trail

The Calico Hills Trail

The rock scramblers are the ones who are just plain nuts going up vertical cliffs while sport climbers go up and over the boulders set in their way on, say, a dry creek bottom or mountainside. For us the Red Rock Canyon is a great transition from the cold of New England to the warmth of the West.

RR 3D along Calico trailOnce the park’s Scenic Drive opens, there are tourists up the ying yang at both Calico I and Calico II lookout points.  Far below, at times we lose the trail of loose rocks and scramble us some boulders back to the trail. The many loose rocks make for an uneven hike but not a difficult one.

The sport climbers gulch

The sport climbers gulch

First days of our hiking vacation in the West have good energy and all the possibilities lie ahead. The snow?  Forgiven and forgotten.  The Valley of Fire State Park on the Colorado River awaits for Wednesday and Observation Point at Zion National Park on Thursday. We are at home in the Mountain West.


Dan and Hannah Bike the Cabot Trail – Interested?

cabot trail map 3

Does the idea of biking the Cabot Trail intrigue you?  If you are one who thinks that you couldn’t do that, think again.  With the proper planning, it just may be possible.  Here’s what Hannah and I learned about biking the 300 kilometre (~190 miles) loop trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

Have a damn good reason to take on the challenge.  Though doable, this is no walk in the park.  When you get weary in the third, fifth, or seventh hour of biking, you’ve got to have a good reason to stay motivated.

Coastal road skirting French Mountain

The Cabot Trail in Cape Breton HIghlands National Park, Nova Scotia

For me I was taken by the physical challenge of just seeing if I could actually ride 190 miles and hills in faraway Cape Breton.  As those who know Hannah will not surprised, she wanted to push herself beyond her everyday boundaries.

The Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia

The Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia

We are country mice.  Getting away is our “go to” choice.  When we travel, we often choose the mountain West, coastal California away from LA and SF, and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

There is no time like the present.  How much longer will we be able to do such physical challenges?  My Phoenix, Arizona elementary school principal, John Laidlaw, said, Tomorrow never comes.  Chew on that while you carpe your diem.

Let’s be honest.  The cool factor plays into much of the challenges I take on.  It seemed cool to run a marathon so I ran the Fiesta Bowl Marathon in 1981.  It seemed cool to visit all 50 states as a family (49 down with Hawaii to go!).  And it seemed cool to learn how to juggle and now I am hired out for parties (Not really, but I can juggle).  Certainly it being cool is not enough of a reason by itself, but it is cool to say we’ve biked the Cabot Trail.

Lastly this trip gave us an opportunity to stay at B&Bs where we could toast our day’s ride with a glass of Shiraz, interact with some local Cape Bretoners, and have a family home breakfast before we hit the road.

Beginning the assault of North Mountain

Beginning the assault of North Mountain

Fitness.  As over-60 athletes, we have been exercising for 40 some years.  Not uber-exercisers, we just put in the daily work.  The downside of running for 30 years is that our knees have said no mas to any more running.  The upside is that as over-65 athletes we are now “going to the gym” fit.

I did have right knee issues after both the second and third days of biking 7 to 8 hours.  That said, each morning after, I could ride again just fine.  Once the entire ride was done, it was three to four weeks before my right knee felt totally right and six weeks before my energy returned to its pre-ride level.

Mountains.  French and North Mountain in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park are beasts.  They are more than two miles of long, steady 11 to 13% climbs.  We did walk up part of North Mountain with our bikes.  To train for these steep grades, we did not seek out the highest mountains in Maine.  We biked some local hills and left it at that.

Camping or Bed and Breakfasts?

For us, it is B&Bs with a queen bed and breakfast each morning before we hit the road.  We stayed in four B&Bs and the reviews are below.

A4 Baddeck Riverside B&B sign

Baddeck Riverside B&B in Baddeck, Cape Breton – $90 Laverne, the innkeeper, is par excellence; she has personality, spunk, and a sweetness; we felt like old friends right away.  For privacy, it can’t be beat as it is a one room B&B.  There is an additional room, even two, to let, but that’s only if everyone knows each other.  The bathroom is spacious; there’s an expansive bedroom view of the Baddeck River.  This B&B is four miles from the Cabot Trail out a rural road, but well worth the drive.  Bikes can be conveniently stowed in their barn.

We rest after the first day on the Cabot Trail

On the Cabot Trail in Cheticamp, Cape Breton

L’Auberge Doucet Inn, Cheticamp, Cape Breton – $85 + tax – With eleven rooms it is more motel than B&B right on the Cabot Trail.  The private bathroom and spacious interior make it feel luxuorious. Since we were preseason, they upgraded our room to one with a king bed which had room for our bikes.  There is a café rather than a dining room for breakfast; we ordered off a small menu.  With an outside deck that looks across the bay to Cheticamp Island, it was ideal for that evening glass of wine.

Hannah with tomorrow night's dinner in front of the Country Haven B&B in Cape North, Nova Scotia

Hannah at the Country Haven B&B in Cape North, Nova Scotia

Country Haven B&B, Cape North, Cape Breton – $80 – In this family home with two B&B rooms, it is quite private with a modern bathroom and access to their comfortable living room.  Andrea’s Restaurant (4 of 4 stars) on the Cabot Trail itself is conveniently located 100 yards down the hill.  To supplement breakfast these innkeepers had a side table with cereals, especially helpful for the energy demands of bicyclists.  They adjusted the breakfast time when we got up early.

Leaving Pamela's B&B in light rain

Pamela’s B&B on the final morning of our four day ride on the Cabot Trail

Pamela’s B&B, St. Ann’s Cape Breton – $70  – Pamela and Donald are a likeable couple who asked us when we wanted breakfast rather than offering a specific range of breakfast serving times.  With two rooms for guests, the one bathroom needed to be shared.  And the small tub has only a hand held nozzle so getting a good soaking shower after a day on the road was not easy.

Along the Margaree River Valley to the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Along the Margaree River Valley to the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the Cabot Trail

Seasonal Timing. By biking during the first week in June, we took advantage of pre-season rates at the B&Bs.  Since there is far less road traffic at that time, Hannah and I were able to ride side by side for 97% of our ride.  There is a peace and calm to be found on the island of Cape Breton during the preseason.

Hannah rides the Cabot Trail along the seacoast of Cape Breton

Hannah with panniers packed on the Cabot Trail along the seacoast of Cape Breton

Suitable clothing and biking gear.  Temperatures during the first week of June can be mornings in the 40s and daily highs in the 50s.  That said, our first two days on the road were 75F.   We were prepared with sweatshirts, biking tights, jackets, and gloves.  Rain can come at any time so our ponchos were a must.

Crossing the Ingonish River with Cape Smokey Mountain in the background

A good sport and fun-loving

We each took all that would fit into two panniers (bicycle saddle bags).  We wore biking shorts, black biking tights, long sleeve tee shirts, sweatshirt (Hannah two jackets), reflective yellow vest, and Merrill sandals for biking.  I had extra dry-fit Under Armour-type shirts, socks and underwear, open toe sandals and extra shorts for the evening.  Each morning I liberally applied Bag Balm to my thighs.

Biking tools?  We had an Allen wrench for adjustments and spare tires and tools for changing flats. With only one bike shop in Cheticamp, small vehicle repair shops may be able to fix tires as they did for us on Prince Edward Island last year.  If we did break down irreparably, we were going to hitchhike; there were locals with pick-up trucks to transport our bikes and us, if need be.  We never did test this theory.

Find someone compatible to ride with.  For us, the experience was heightened and made legendary by biking with each other.  For me, the ride doesn’t happen without Hannah.

Descending Cape Smokey Mountain

Descending Cape Smokey Mountain in five minutes

Sense of adventure.  If you look to experience what you have no idea that you might experience, this may be the ride for you.  Are you curious and wonder about the people beyond your geographical area?  This may be the ride for you.  Are you resilient and have faith that you will find a way when things don’t go as planned, then this may be the ride for you.

Take four days, five, even six or seven to complete your ride.  Be at one with the road.  More commonly, people drive the Cabot Trail.  Maybe that is your cup of tea.  Our cup had two wheels, each other, and the wind at our backs.

When biking long distances, know thyself and thy limits.  Be prepared.

Dan and Hannah Bike the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia Day 2 of 4

Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Cape Breton Highlands National Park

We don’t sleep well.  With the serious mountains of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park looming, we wake before 5A as dawn streams in around the shades this third of June.  Uncertainty lies before us.  We have no idea what to expect and have little choice but to pedal on into the mountains as our Hyundai Elantra is 60 miles back in Baddeck.  We like to think we are resourceful in the face of such physical challenges.  Well, let’s just see if we can walk the walk?

I slice up pancakes for breakfast while Hannah gets her bacon fix with eggs over hard.  Packed and pedaling down the Cabot Trail through Cheticamp, an Acadian town of 3500, Hannah in her biking tights and two jackets and I in my biking shorts and sweatshirt, see the distant mountains and wonder what lies ahead.

The highlands trail begins

The highlands trail begins

At the visitor center thirty minutes later, we pay $6.80 each as seniors to learn what obstacles we will turn into opportunities.  After the wife of an older couple takes our picture at the park entrance, he says, I was born on this spot.  You got to have a good heart [to bike these roads].  It turns out I find comfort in his words since good hearts are what we have after exercising at the gym all winter long.  Now let’s see how our mountain climbing legs measure up.

Pannier packed, Hannah is ready to rock and roll

Panniers packed, Hannah is ready to rock and roll

Nicely paved, the roads lead us along the rolling coastal hills above the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Told the first climb is the steepest but shortest at a kilometre with a 15% grade, we await its arrival as we pedal on.

Before we know it, we shift to a low gear as I follow Hannah up the steep cliffside.  Head down, aware of every inch of the pavement beneath me, I focus on one pedal at a time.  And voila, we are at the top.  That wasn’t so bad. What’s the big deal? we think.  Of course, that was the baby brother of French and North Mountains.  Still, one down, two to go.

Coastal road skirting French Mountain

Coastal road skirting French Mountain

After cruising down the other side of this first climb, we see the ribbon of highway (thank you Woody Guthrie for that image) ahead of us.  French Mountain is to our right, the sea to our left, but it doesn’t seem overwhelming at first glance.  Are we missing something?

Hannah high above the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Hannah high above the Gulf of St. Lawrence

After fifteen minutes of climbing, we stop to take in the coastline at a parking area vista.  Easily remounting our bikes, we take the S curves on the side of the mountain and think, An eight per cent grade doesn’t seem so bad.

Roadside snow

Roadside snow

A photo op by the snow patch provides us with another break, but we are not yet winded or heavy-legged.  It’s actually kind of cool scaling this mountain on bikes.  Few cars pass us this preseason late spring day; the ones that do, give us a wide berth.

Spotting the French Mountain sign at the top, we are feeling, quite literally, on top of the world having biked for some 50 minutes.  Checking the roadside sign we are stunned to learn that our climb of six kilometres (nearly four miles) with an 8% grade really has been a climb up an 11% grade.  Well, that’s very cool.  Two down, one to go.

It turns out French Mountain was steeper than we thought.

It turns out French Mountain was steeper than we thought.



Hannah atop French Mountain with the flat highlands ahead

Hannah atop French Mountain with the flat highlands ahead

Flat highland biking restores our energy and refreshes our legs.  Taking a break at the overlook to the Gulf of St. Lawrence on MacKenzie Mountain, we fortunately only have to descend this monster of a mountain.

Ready for the descent of MacKenzie Mountain

Ready for the descent of MacKenzie Mountain

At 25-30 mph, we sail down towards Pleasant Bay on dry pavement that has me braking 70% of the time.  A local café waitress cheerfully allows us to fill our water bottles on this day of full sun in the mid 70s.  Having taken four hours of steady biking to go 26 miles, we are not breaking any land speed records at 6.5 mph.  On the plus side, we have just 18 miles to go.  On the flip side, North Mountain stands between us and our B&B in Cape North.

Beginning the assault of North Mountain

Beginning the assault of North Mountain

The advertised picnic area mocks us. It is in the woods down an embankment near a creek that has a summer long mosquito and black fly convention in progress.  Driven away, we finish our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches sitting in the gravel at the side of the road.  Right now food is fuel; it’s energy for our bodily machines.  North Mountain is right there, staring us in the face.  We are at the feet of the monster with our bikes of 21 gears ready to attack.

Hannah giving it her all on the North Mountain climb

There is no prelude, no preamble to North Mountain as the climb begins immediately; we press hard on our pedals to climb the steep esses of the road.  Already, we are in for the battle of our lives.  Going so slowly, we feel like our bikes would fall over or tip backwards at any moment if we go any slower.  I with a tender right knee and Hannah with a surgically repaired left leg push and push the pedals some more with power and conviction and hope.  To maintain her focus, Hannah spells out her grandsons’ names with each pedal stroke – O-W-E-N, M-A-X-W-E-L-L – on her climb to the top.

It's not getting any easier

It’s not getting any easier

At the one kilometre mark, with three kilometres to go, the task is daunting.  We are wavering; doubt creeps into our minds if we can really make it to the top at all.  We continue to pedal so slowly, and the mountain top is nowhere in sight.  And then, we have no more to give!  We dismount, grab the handlebars with the left hand, push on the seat with the right, and plod up the mountain.  We have no choice.  North Mountain is kicking our butts and taking no prisoners.

In five minutes, we remount but pedal for just a few hundred yards before we dismount again. Still unbowed and unbloodied, we press on for the summit.

Again, the climb is steeper than we were told.

Again, the climb is steeper than we were told.

After three kilometres we arrive at a plateau and resaddle our bikes.  This has been the hardest physical test either of us has ever taken.  Arriving at the summit ten minutes later, we learn that the incline has been 13% not the advertised 10%.

Though we have been manhandled by the mountain, we still have 20 kilometres to our B&B in Cape North.

Though Hannah’s left leg is fine, my right knee is tender and cramping.  Pedaling high above the Aspy River, I favor my left leg as the right is aching and just along for the ride.  I have little choice but to pedal on, however painful, for the next hour to Cape North.  The headwind from the north doesn’t make it any easier as the temperature drops 20 degrees to 50F.  Once in tee shirts, we are now bundled with jackets and sweatshirts.

Resting mid-way on the descent of North Mountain

Resting mid-way on the descent of North Mountain

With nothing left to give, I focus on one pedal at a time.  It’s a long slog to the Country Haven B&B, but the innkeepers Kathleen and Alfred take us in; a shower soothes me from top to bottom.  After thirty minutes lying in bed, we uncork the bottle of Pinot Noir we brought over the mountain.  Sitting in their living room in triumph, Hannah repeats three or four times, I can’t believe we did it.  We have slayed the beast.

Feeling well enough to walk the 100 yards down the hill to Angie’s Restaurant for a fantastic 18” veggie pizza, we meet up again with the six women from Saskatoon.  One tells me gleefully that she had no intention of biking up North Mountain and just started walking her bike up.  A maintenance truck approached her and the driver asked how are you doing to which she responded, it’s a struggle.  Are you in distress, he asked?   No, it’s just a struggle.  Well, only if you are in distress, can I take you and your bike to the top of North Mountain.  I am in distress! she agreed and got the ride of her life.

Hannah with tomorrow night's dinner in front of the Country Haven B&B in Cape North, Nova Scotia

Hannah with tomorrow night’s dinner in front of the Country Haven B&B in Cape North, Nova Scotia

Our monster day is in the books and now our big mileage day of 113 kilometres (nearly 70 miles) looms tomorrow. We wonder what the 100 miles of biking over the last two days will mean to these bodies of ours.

After two fantastic days of warm and sunny weather, drizzle is in the forecast.  Still with the monster mountains behind us, it feels like it is all downhill.  We sleep well, but we couldn’t be more wrong about what lies ahead.