San José

20. – 24. November
The last five days of my three weeks in Costa Rica became a mellow, sort of homely time. Celine booked all four of us into a hostel she had stayed in earlier, and it was the loveliest hostel (it was called Hostel Urbano los Yoses). The house was beautiful with white walls and open, light spaces. The beds were soft, and every morning we were given pancakes and a cup of mixed fruits. The staff was friendly and funny and helpful. Outside it rained, and inside people cuddled up under blankets in front of a TV with Netflix. We cooked dinners in the kitchen, which was clean and bright and encouraged enthusiasm for pasta with a simple, cheap tomato sauce. We immediately settled in, and Celine said it felt like home, didn’t it?

We ambled about for days. Celine and I went for lunches. We got our ears pierced. We went to the cinema and watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It was so cheap I even bought popcorn, which I never ever do, but I felt like it. It was that, perhaps, more than anything that made the hostel feel like a retreat, having the time to go and watch a movie I had wanted to see since I heard it was coming out. It is such a mundane thing, I think, watching a movie at the theatre, even if I rarely do it. It is not something you find time for when you are travelling, but now we were in this big city with nothing but museums and at a loss at what to do with the time we had in the weather that didn’t seem to change.

One day we rented a car, and this day it actually stopped raining. Celine drove us through narrow streets where google maps told us to go, and it had us taking turn after turn through Costa Rican suburbs. As we climbed higher we got the view of San José and it seemed like the city never stopped. It merged into the other cities, and it was impossible to see where Alajuela began and the capital stopped. There was a haze that was either fog or city dust. We were going to Poás, a dormant volcano with a blue lake at the crater. On our way up the mountain we saw a sloth make its way along one of the electricity cables in that slow, unstressed way that sloths move in. It is a strange thing, to be so slow, to sleep so much, and I wonder if it was happy. I am always moving or thinking about moving, and I never let my shoulders down. Maybe the sloths are on to it.

We could drive almost to the edge of the crater. We only had to walk 400m, and then we could smell the sulphur. Around the edges we could see the clouds, and it felt like the only piece of luck we had had the past week: the unhindered view of the volcano. The water was soft blue, so soft that it was almost white – perhaps because of all the rain the past days. The dirt around the crater was orange in a sharp way, like you expect to see around a volcano, the orange colour that is only present when something is deadly. It was a small achievement to be there, to finally see a volcano. I had this idea before coming to Costa Rica about hiking volcanoes, but in Arenal it was foggy and the rest of them got lost in other places I hadn’t planned on going. But at least I saw this one, even if it didn’t exactly require a hike.

It became a successful excursion. We walked to a lagoon next to the crater, and then drove to a coffee plantation where we just walked around and tasted coffees and watched the beginning of the sunset. They had a butterfly sanctuary and a view of the plantation. We tried to race back to the city, but traffic was heavy. Celine was leaving the next day, so I had to take the car back in the morning. I lost the key to my locker with the key inside it; I woke up at 5AM and remembered that I didn’t have the key, and slept restlessly until the reception opened at 8. We had to dismantle the lock to get it open. I drove the car back to the rental place and walked back. It took me an hour, but I stopped on the way to pick up Harry Potter y la cámara secreta, a frozen yoghurt that made me shiver from cold, and an avocado and tomato to make dinner later.

I was leaving the next morning to Cuba, and I felt anxious. A storm was forecasted, and I desperately wanted to get out of San José and to Cuba where the sun would be warm and the rain would be far away. Costa Rica had started so wonderfully, but with the rain it became this thing I just wanted to escape; a place where I just sat around and waited for things that didn’t end up working. It felt like valuable time and money that I could have done something fun and exciting with, instead I was sitting at a hostel in a city that didn’t interest me at all doing things I could have done at home (blog, read, edit photographs etc.). Cuba promised me a lot of things, and it was what I had waited for for the last ten days. I only had to make it there, it only had to rain a little bit less, or the typhoon had to be a little bit late or a little bit weaker so that my plane could escape to Panama, and then bring me to the bustling, hot streets of Havana.

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Bahía Drake

15. – 19. November
I had made my way south to the Osa peninsula. I was going to Bahía Drake, or Drake bay, where I would do my main Costa Rica activities. I would spend three days doing the PADI Open Water Scuba Diving certificate, and then I would hike into Corcovado national park, a park renowned for it’s thriving, biodiverse wildlife. I had big hopes for otherworldly experiences under the ocean surface (no sharks included), and my fingers had been crossed for a long time to see a puma in the jungle. I therefore uncomplainingly spent a day riding busses, and waking up at 4:00 the following morning to go to Sierpe where boats go to Bahía Drake only twice a day. The remote beach location is mainly for tourists who wish to explore the national park. The boat there took an hour, first winding through a river where crocodiles lazed on the river bank, then out on the open sea where salt water splashed into the boat. In the bay we had to wade the final two metres from the boat to the shore. Our captain jumped into the sea and held the boat steady against the waves, letting us know when we could climb down the small ladder from the boat. You become extremely aware of what fragile an art balance is when you are wading knee deep in water with a all your possessions strapped to your back. Thankfully I made it to (relatively) dry land without submerging anything but my flip-flops. When I found the hostel I was the only one there.

My first day was a quiet day, one for moving slowly and collecting energy. I went to the beach with my camera to look around. I went to the dive centre to ask about my course tomorrow. I handed my clothes in to get laundered. I spent way too much money on a tuna meal, caught fresh that very day, which I ate in stillness while reading Jonathan Safran Foer. There were some other tourists on the island, but in my hostel it was only me. I had a big room for six all to myself. It felt nice, to spread out. To know I’d be here for a few days, to not have to pack up again the next day. I sat in my bed and wrote and watched youtube and gave myself a total time-out.

When I woke the next morning it was raining hard. I had intended a walk to a beach before my diving course began, but immediately put it out of my mind. There was no way I was going out in that rain. The rain kept raining down, it rained for days. It rained energetically,  vigorously  and continuously for days. It rained so much the diving course was cancelled. It rained so much my shorts got soaked by running 30 metres to the grocery store (I only had a rain coat). It rained so much that on my third morning we woke up to a power shortage. A tree had fallen over the power lines. Even then the rain kept coming, so much water that the river took the truck down when they tried bringing it over on the roads to fix the electricity. The boats didn’t go between Sierpe and Drake for two full days, there were too many waves. It rained so hard that tourists who had gone for a day trip to Corcovado, only equipped with a small bottle of water, a packed lunch, wearing only shorts, a t-shirt and perhaps a raincoat got trapped at the ranger station for days, and had to eat only bananas found in the trees around them.

The hostel had filled up a little bit. I was still alone in my room, but in addition to myself was now four other girls and a Costa Rican guy: Elias, who was meant to be my guide for the Corcovado tour. The first dark night we lit candles and drank wine and we all became friends. We weren’t sure what to do, we knew that we could not leave. I was waiting for my tour to Corcovado, one of the girls, Teresa from Portugal, was living in San José and was just here for the weekend, and the other girls (Celine from Belgium, Pia from Germany and Zarah from México) wanted to snorkel or hike. We all waited for the rain to cease, but even when the rain stopped it just came back again right away. I went to run one day, when it had been dry for almost an hour. The rain returned in full force only 2 kilometres away from the hostel, and by then I might as well just accept I’d be wet through and through. Mostly we sat staring at the tops of the trees at the balcony, listening to the drumming of the rain that was beginning to sound like white noise.

The electricity came back the day my Corcovado tour was supposed to have begun, but we had heard the day before that the station was closed. The other girls declared that they were leaving on the first boat, and after some debate I decided I would go with them. I had fallen out with Elias, and I knew that I would not enjoy a minute of the tour with only him and me. He was too Costa Rican, I was too Scandinavian – maybe it was that. But he had this way of saying things, of looking at me, of always being close that left me uncomfortable and frustrated. He threw around him words like corazón and cariña; he had said Costa Ricans were affectionate, and I had said Scandinavians are not. Whatever his intentions, they completely clashed with mine. Another of the guides and I spent a few hours talking at the bar the night before, and when we returned to the hostel him and Elias looked at each other with competition in their eyes. They were silently hostile, they ignored each other, and they pulled me to the side and told me contradiction things. Maybe they spoke the truth as they saw it, maybe they both straight out lied. But neither seemed to get that I was totally uninterested in them both. It was a strange situation and I still feel incredulous today that this really happened. When the other girls declared their departure I gave up all intentions of getting any adventure out of the peninsula, and decided that I did not wish to stay here – alone – with any of these two men. We packed our backpacks and went as a group down to the beach to wait for the boats. Slowly other tourists trickled down to the beach too, and I wondered if any tourists at all were staying on the island. As the boat took us out of sight of the small bay around a small islet I overheard two Germans behind me talk about a second storm heading straight for the bay.

A moral afterthought
This part of my trip was a week where I had massive plans. I had prepared for days to do my diving certificate, already I had paid and completed my theoretical course online. I had left my Canadian friends up in the north to do this, and I had sacrificed volcano hikes in favour of Corcovado. In the end this turned out to cost me a lot of time and money for very little adventure. In fact, the last few days were perhaps some of the strangest I’ve had, with these men competing for my attention when I didn’t want to be attentive to either of them. So this experience became, more than anything, a lesson; that life will never go exactly as planned, even when you’re taking a break from your life, which is often the intention of travelling; that a positive attitude is an extremely valuable thing to nurture, with the time and money spent on these days if is easy to become frustrated and pessimistic, so it’s important to look for the unexpected blessings like the new friends gained. I spent the rest of my stay in Costa Rica with these girls, and in two weeks Celine is coming from Belgium to spend a weekend at my family’s cabin in the mountains. That is something to be grateful for.

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Montezuma

12. November
Tommy and I arrived to Montezuma just as dark fell the day before. It was a long day of travelling, as we missed our first ferry by a few minutes. We encountered a group of Americans studying abroad in Costa Rica, and they were in the same hotel as us. It poured down as the bus slowly made its way through pot holes, heavy tropical rain.

On the morning the 12th we bought some bread and eggs from the supermarket and ate breakfast at the hotel. While we were eating a white faced monkey suddenly appeared in the trees, and it was the first of these iconic monkeys I saw in Costa Rica. Birds also arrived soon, boldly making moves for my bread crumbs. After we’d fed ourselves we went to hike up a river to some waterfalls you can jump off from. The first waterfall was pretty high, and Tommy knew from his sister that this was the kind of waterfall the locals only jumped off. We looked around, and it didn’t seem like many people were heading up to the second waterfalls. We didn’t even really see any trails. But I did see two guys follow the trail we had been on earlier, it wasn’t a proper trail really, but we decided to follow them. I came upon them a little later; they were from San Jose, and for a while I actually did pretty well communicating in Spanish. They came up to the swimming holes with us, and Elias, the one of the two who spoke English too, jumped off it first. Then Tommy went a couple of times while I got pictures, then it was my turn.

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Standing on the edge I felt a lot more anxious and hesitant than when I bungee jumped. For some reason I trusted the man-made elastic from the bungee a lot more than I trusted myself to jump into a pool and survive the impact of the fall. I felt myself shake, and I knew I had to jump before I had time to think it over too much. I don’t remember it, it’s like the moment was too fast to grasp, but I remember flailing my legs and trying my best to pull them together so I would hit the water with my legs together. As I hit the water I had my knees bent a little, so I felt the impact on my bum too, and it hurt. The water was so muddy I couldn’t see through it, and I always panic for a moment when I don’t know how deep I am. That I won’t make it up before I need to breath, and I can only hold my breath for half a minute. But then I broke the surface and I gasped, and I shook, and my bum really, really hurt. I felt weak as I swam to shore and the pain felt like it wouldn’t ever diminish, but it passed almost as soon as I climbed out of the water.

A group of people came with a local guide. A beautiful man who did not look Costa Rican at all, but who were from here and apparently jumped the tall waterfall all the time. Tommy decided he would do it too. So they jumped the shorter one, swam to where the tall started and then climbed to the left of it out of my sight. I was talking with Elias and Bryan, and I kept saying ‘if he dies it will ruin my vacation’. And for a moment I thought about that; I don’t even know him at all really, but if he died I would be the closest to a friend or family he would, and that felt incredibly strange. How would that have affected me beyond just the hardship of someone you know dying? Would I need to talk with the police? It is also one of those things about travelling that will never cease to amaze me, that trust or even dependence you put in a person that you hardly know. I went over to a few people who had seen them jump, and they told me both of them were okay, but that Tommy had looked a bit askew and he was probably hurt. When he returned he was a little shaken and said he had chipped his tooth and almost hit the rocks. He almost had injured himself severely jumping off it. I felt a little mad at his irresponsibility, if he had hurt himself he wouldn’t just have done it to himself but also to me.

The Americans came up in a bit, and they had all seen him jump. They also all thought he was crazy. We stayed for a while while the guys jumped a couple of times. The whole day I was the only girl to jump. After a while we went up these stairs a short hike to where an abandoned canopy park lay, and we climbed a platform for a nice view. Then we hiked down, and found that there were some stairs that were so much easier than the route we had taken.

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13. November
We had to check out from the hotel, and I went to a hostel across the street where I probably could have stayed the whole time. There were a few different hostels in Montezuma, but only one of them were online. I left my bag there and went to see what Tommy was doing, since he was checking out the hotel where Marko and Olivier had booked in. They were arriving later in the day. He got a room there, fully equipped with kitchen and two rooms. After that we just sat at the beach for a time, and I went for a few swims. The waves were strong, and as I swam back to shore I understood fully for the first time in my life how strong the riptide can be. I had to make an effort to get back in to shore. It wasn’t scary, it wasn’t that strong, but I felt it. We went for a smoothie, and then for a walk on the beach. The light grew low as we walked, and shone onto the beach in a haze.

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Marko and Olivier arrived at 5 – 6 ish, and we had pizza again. Then we went to Tommy’s palace and drank for the rest of the evening. It was our final night together, for me, at least. They would continue up north together, while I was heading South to do my Scuba Diving and Corcovado tour. It felt bittersweet, these guys have been such great company for the past ten days. Yet a part of me is also looking forward, a little, to being totally independent again. To focus on my diving course during the day, and read or write or simply sleep in the evenings. I left them at 11, when the rum was gone and the city was dead and the beach was totally empty. It was supposed to be the biggest and brightest moon in 68 years that night, but we saw it far off as just another regular full moon. At the floor in the hostel I almost stepped on a cockroach that had turned on it’s back and was struggling to get up. I left it there, not wanting to touch it.

Death Valley pt 2

19. October 2016
Today was a big one. We woke up again for sunrise and this time we drove to Dante’s View. It was up in one of the mountains and we made it just in time. It was very cold, but the views were stunning; on one side we saw the sun slowly rise up over the mountains, and on the other side was the view over the Badwater Basin. It was all white and blue and pink, just like yesterday, but almost softer this time because of our hight and because there was a small haze this morning. Maybe because the winds were so strong that night and it swirled up the dust?

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As the sun came a little higher we went for a small hike through the Golden Canyons. It was more like the sand-coloured canyon, because the walls were lightly coloured dirt the colour of sand. But it was still pretty nice, and at the end was a red-ish coloured rock formations with tiny spirals sticking out from it like the Capitol Reefs in Utah, just smaller. It was cool, but the hills around made it hard to get a good vantage point and all over there were signs saying ‘stay off the path’ and this wasn’t a picture I wanted so much as to break the rules, because I know how important it is to preserve these places and how little most people care. We did the Artist’s Drive again, and this time we stopped in the right spot.

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Then we drove to Nevada. There are all these abandoned cities around the park, where there had been mining operations. I don’t remember why they all were abandoned, but I know one of them simpy went bankrupt. But the one we went to see just across the border to Nevada was called Rhyolite (sounds very industrial) and was the biggest ghost town. It had had a population of over 10.000 people, and they even had an opera back in the days. But what we saw was just a few shaken down buildings, and it looked more like a scattering of houses than an abandoned city. We didn’t even bother to get out of the car. The only cool house was fenced in and it was nothing to photograph with the fence there, so we just drove off again.

The real purpose of the Nevada visit was a off road track through a canyon (the Titus canyon) that the ranger had recommended to us. She said it was awesome, so we went to do it. She was right. First we just drove on a dirt track, and I tried to get some shots of the car kicking up dust but we didn’t get it going fast enough for the photo to look anything like what I had in mind so we gave it up. For a long time the road was just flat through the desert, but then slowly we started driving upwards. We went through red-ish mountains with the dotted shrubbery, and then we went down into a little valley, then up again. It was cool. The road was uneven and it threw us around in the car a little bit.

Then suddenly came the real cool part, and we were totally unprepared for it. We came over another hill, and drove down again into another valley, and around the mountains were all kinds of colours. Not like in the Artist’s drive, because they weren’t quite like the splashing of colours, but it was red and blue and green and purple all the same. It was rugged and the sky was blue and we decided this was a highlight.

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The drive took us out of the canyon around three, which meant we were doing really well with time. Too well, actually. The paved road felt incredibly smooth after two hours of shaking around in our seats. We drove to the Mosaic Canyon and ate bagels. Then we hiked a little bit, and it was quite nice because the canon walls were at some parts smooth, sandy marble. But it was hot, and then the marble disappeared and we were also a little tired, perhaps, so we just went back to the car. In the car park we saw the license plates of Idaho (Famous Potatoes) and of Georgia (Peach State) so I could add those to my list.

Next we went to the Mesquite Sand Dunes. This I had been excited for, because I have never seen sand dunes before. It was not a very big area, but large enough to walk through for a while so we slowly walked around it waiting for the sun to set. The sand flowed into my shoes and made my steps heavy, and it was weird to feel the tips of my feet dragging me down and my heels sink as the ground gave out under them. It was strange too see the smooth curves of the dunes, and to think that all this (semi) solid stuff was just massive piles of finely ground sand. It was hard against my feet when I ran down the dunes, and it surprised me because sand is so soft but there it was hard. It was nice to get there late, even if there were lot of footprints everywhere, but the shadows were long so they emphasised the curves of the dune ridges. We took photographs and slowly the sun was setting.

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After sunset we went to make soup and wait for the darkness. I was going to shoot some star pictures, because the nights get so dark there. I used my toiletry bag as a tripod, and it actually worked pretty well. The only thing was I couldn’t see the stars from through the camera so I had to guess at the focus point. But eventually I got some that looked nice, and the milky way was clear in it. It was quite exciting, I’ve never shot the night sky before, and I hadn’t expected it to turn out this well.

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20. december 2016
We woke up, packed the tent and we drove to Zabriskie point. It was full of people with tripods. My camera died just after we arrived, which was kind of frustrating since we’d gotten up early to see it. But since we had already been there for sunset I didn’t really mind it too much, and my phone takes pretty nice photographs. It was really beautiful and a nice way to end our Death Valley stay, and indeed our road trip. Most of the day went to driving back; some parts through the mountains, some through desertlike, industrial places that looked disheartening to live. We stopped at In-N-Out for food, and I ordered a milkshake which tasted great after 10 weeks on the road. Even though we drove for 7 – 8 hours it felt like it didn’t take so long, because we started so early.

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Death Valley pt 1

17. October 2016
I put all the wood on the fire the next morning. It was by far the coldest, and it was a silver lining to know we were headed south and to lower elevations. While taking the tent down we discovered a nasty insect. It looked like an enlarged ant mixed with a wasp, and it was all pale in colour. It also made us glad we were evacuating the site after some oatmeal and tea. (We later found out it was called a potato bug – it was really nasty).

The drive took us to Death Valley just in time for sunset. We happened upon Zabriskie point at just the right time, and we stood gasping at the weirdness that is Death Valley. The hills were not unlike those on the drive down to King’s Canyon in shape; all soft curves, all triangular. But these were strange mixtures of beige and darker brown. It looked almost like chocolate vanilla swirly cake, and nothing I’ve ever seen remotely reminded me of this. The whole ride into the park we had stared at the side of the road saying: what is this, where did we take a wrong turn and why are we on Venus? Zabriskie point enhanced this my far, and the crowd that gathered for sunset echoed our own thoughts.

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The dark descended in a slow but steady pace, and the final light was out before we found a campsite. We opted with one that came with pool access and wifi. It was great: the campground was located maybe a 300 metre from the registration office, yet the wifi worked on the campsite. We were amazed, and for some time deeply distracted. Perhaps me more so than Kelsey. We had bought chicken to cook fajitas on the stove – we needed no fires in Death Valley. It was nice to make a proper meal, instead of following up with soups and noodles. I think our three neighbours from Seqouia inspired us to do something a little more sophisticated, even if that stretched no further than to cook meat. It tasted nice, however, and prepared us for a good night’s sleep.

We had set the tent up without the canvas, so it was nice and breezy while also keeping potential visitors such as rattlesnakes, black widows and scorpions outside. I went to bed wearing short and a t-shirt, and left my sleeping bag unzipped. The ground was gravel, which felt a little uncomfortable, but compared to freezing at night we did not complain about it for long. Even the winds that came later were welcomed. Above us an almost full moon shone plenty of light, and nothing dangerous seemed to lurch in the shadows – it was a good night for sleeping.

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18. October 2016
We woke bright and really, really early. We decided, or rather I decided, to be real explorers, real livsnytere (this is a great Norwegian word, means ‘enjoyers of life’) and, more importantly, get those sunrise shots. So we were up and driving to the lowest point in the USA for sunrise at 7. Not that early, really, since it was sunrise, but anything before 9AM is early enough.

We arrived as one of three cars. Badwater Basin is 86 metres below sea level, and is aptly named for a lake with salty and bad water. In fall it dries up almost completely, leaving a salt plane that we walked onto. What’s fascinating about Badwater Basin is that on both sides there are towering mountains, and some of the mountains to the west reach over 3000m. It didn’t look that high at all, but it was strange to think that these massive mountains lay so close to the lowest point in the US. The salt itself was almost like walking on very fine sand right after a cold winter morning. It crackled here and there into little shapes that once used to be hexagonal, but now seemed arbitrary. This disappointed me a little, since I had looked forward to the hexagons, but the sunrise was so nice I didn’t mind all that much. The sunrise was more about watching the light slowly colour the sky pink, and then eventually the first light on the mountains, more than it was watching the sun actually come out. It offered an exquisite colour palette of pastel pink, blue and a white with a touch of silver. The sun rose beyond the eastern mountains, and it took a great deal of time for the sun to actually dip over the peaks. By then the sky was solid blue and the mountains all lit up. The moon also hung high in the sky still.

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Satisfied with the experience, and still not to the point where we felt tired yet, we decided to get some of the stuff out of the way. On our way back to camp and breakfast we checked off ‘Devil’s Golf Court’, which usually is this weird crystallised salt pinnacles that covers the ground, but now was just a crumbled mud, and ‘Nature bridge’, a spot in one of the park’s many canyons where a sort of bridge structure has formed naturally into a bridge over the canyon. It took us through a short hike, so it was close to 9AM by the time we were back on camp to cook pancakes for breakfast. By then I was significantly hungry, and the temperature was significantly higher. I began to feel really, really warm.

We went to the Visitor Centre and made a plan for the next few days. We realised we were in no rush, so we had time to go to the pool. And (and this is an important side note) we had time to shower. So we brought our books and went to the pool. Already we were feeling that the campground of our choice was the best option, and two hours by the pool confirmed that. The water was warm, but refreshing. There were beach beds there which felt amazingly comfortable after a night on gravel. I read two chapters and had a nap. After some relaxation and a wash, we felt much better, even though the temperature was still way too warm for my comfort level.

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We cooked veggie burgers for dinner, and made it real nice with toasted buns, spinach, tomatoes, caramelised onion and sauces we had brought from Jack in the Box.

As sunrise approached we drove to the Artist’s Drive, a paved road that takes you through a few kilometres of mountains and canyons where the dirt is coloured purple and green and blue and scarlet. This is caused by volcanic eruptions a really long time ago, and different minerals left in the dirt that gives them this colour palette. There is one specific point on this drive called the Artist’s palette, due to all the different hues. Almost at the very beginning of the drive we found a point where a lot of people were hanging around, and we assumed that was it. We got out of the car and took our pictures as the sun set. It was recommended to see in the afternoon light, because of how the sun reflects the colouring. And it was pretty amazing. To me it looked like a toddler’s drawing, a combination of different coloured splashed onto these weird hills of Death Valley. When the sun dipped beyond the mountains we drove onwards, and came to another point where the colours were even more varied and even more strange. We realised this was the real Artist’s Palette, and the sun had already gone down. I grumbled a bit, took some pictures but felt unsatisfied by our experience. We decided to come back again the next day.

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As we’d already eaten our dinner, we had some bagels with cream cheese and I sat down to write my journal. As the dark fully descended on us little nats came swarming towards the light and we gave up and went to bed.

Sequoia National Park

15. october 2016
We moved an hour’s drive south to Sequoia national park. When we entered the campsite we realised it was Saturday, because the campsite was almost full. We were able to find a nice spot in the sunlight, and had our tent set up by 11AM. We drove to the Giant Forest, where the General Sherman Tree is – the largest tree in the world. Gazing up at it I had almost already forgotten how big the Grant tree was, or I was still unable to comprehend that trees could grow this tall, this wide. That trees could grow that large at such a high altitude. Our camp lay around 2000m, the hight of most of the mountains I hiked back in Norway the past two months. Those mountains were barren piles of rocks, while here were trees taller than most buildings in Oslo, thriving in the thinner air.

We walked around the Giant Forest, and I was chasing a photograph. Since I first heard about the Sequoia trees I have this photograph in my head, of a tiny person walking amongst gigantic trees. But they were too widely spaced, and other trees grew between. I made Kelsey run around, I ran around, I swapped angles, I tried to cheat. I finally got one that kind of almost worked and I decided it was good enough. It was nice with some green grass, a trodden trail instead of the paved path. So we left, and we drove on. We drove under a tunnel made through a fallen Sequoia. We turned a bend and there was my perfect group of Sequoias. They were big, just far enough apart to not block each other in a frame, yet close enough to all fit in. We stopped the car and I took the picture with Kelsey looking tiny next to the massive trees. (The trees were the Parker Group, on the road to Moro Rock). I felt an anxiety let go of me now that I had my shot.

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We climbed 600 steps up Moro Rock for a closer view of the High Sierras. I studied a map of the park and concluded that we didn’t see Mt. Whitney, nor did we see Alta Peak. Alta Peak was my chosen destination for the morrow; a hike that ended at a summit 1000m higher than I had ever hiked before; a hike that would bring me into the Sierras, up into the clouds. We gathered fire wood by the road side and made our way back to the camp site, still early. We watched the ranger sort out squabbles where people had double booked campsites, we watched them roam through bear lockers to make sure rules on food storage was upheld, we watched them clean out a picnic table and put out a fire and leave a green note that made the campers look anxious and frustrated when they returned.

Our neighbours, three men on their annual camping retreat, invited us over for salmon cooked on the fire and cocktails. We were going to eat pasta, and they laughed and said they had 1.5 pounds of fish so we’d do them a favour. We brought some fire wood over, and we spent the night speaking about the parks, of books, of politics, and more. The Manhattan was perfectly strong, but it went down smoothly and warmed my throat in a nice way. The salmon tasted a million times better than pasta. There is also something special about the brief friendship with kind strangers. The simplicity of asking two young girls to share a meal, the warmth and thankfulness of being served a full, satisfying meal, and the reminder that it only takes a moment to say hello. We went to bed full of food, warm from drinks, with an invitation for eggs and bacon and coffee in the morning.

16. october 2016
They served us scrambled eggs with wild chantarell and peppers, bacon and my first cup of coffee in a week. By this point my shell jacket was blackened around the sleeves from poking in the fire, and I felt a strong odour of campfire from my clothes, my skin, my hair. I almost wondered if I was experiencing a slight Co2 poisoning, because it made me feel weirdly lightheaded when I caught a strong whiff. Regardless, no breakfast is better than one cooked on a camp fire. I ate a lot more than I should have, and for a lot longer than I should have. My goal of hitting the trail at 9 withered at the prospect of this breakfast we so kindly had been offered. It also felt like a tiny loss to leave while they were still there; they would drive home that afternoon, and once I hit the trail we would never meet again. I always feel these losses so strongly, although breifly, perhaps because these moments of interaction with strangers are my favourite parts of travelling. Always I decide to be more open, more inviting, to be on the giving end of these exchanges next time, not the receiving. But I always regress to shyness and timidity.

I hit the trail an hour late, but with a full belly. The hike was amazing. I walked through a thick forest almost the entire way up, but it was not the enclosing thickness, it was still open and spacious, it was simply thick enough to feel the depth of it. It was all so green, that deep green of trees that large, except for the occasional autumn yellow on leaves growing along the side of the trail. It went steadily upwards, and it was good to know that I wouldn’t get the whole elevation at the end of my hike. For most of it I walked alone. For the first part I imagined mountain lions watching me from boulders above me, getting into that crouch that meant they were ready to pounce. I tried not to think about that. I told myself that I was going to do this hike regardless, so I might as well enjoy it rather than worry. At first it didn’t help, but then my thoughts drifted off and I forgot about animals that could easily kill me.

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I walked along a ridge with amazing views, and I thought I’m already so high up and I’m going even higher. I walked back into the woods again, and as I put kilometres behind me and land below me they were still so big and tall, and I was definitely approaching 3000m. There were also meadows, all orange and yellow from the fall, but they were still meadows at 3000m. And then, the mountain, I didn’t see it until I was almost there. It was just like the other Sierras, rugged and sharp. Amazingly, as I followed the trail I went back into the woods and walked through trees for at least another half hour. Then, finally, came the familiar tree-line of the alpine and the cool winds of the approaching summit. I was breathing hard. I felt the altitude in my head, but I couldn’t really tell if it was placebo or not. I could still breath, and I did. I took deep breaths and slowed my heart rate, and then I kept going.

It is always the case that the mountain is higher than you first think, and Alta Peak was no exception. When I finally accepted that I did not know how far I had left to hike I seemed to lose the trail. I looked around, the fog thick so I couldn’t see if there was more mountain above. I stood at an edge to my left, and to my right were solid rock rather than the gravel I had been hiking on for the past hour. I went up the rocks, and that was it. Only a few steps and I met a cliff and a tin box with a notebook where I could write my name and the date. I was 3415 metre above sea level, and while I felt very small I also felt like Mount Everest wasn’t all that far above me anymore. There were no views, and it was cold, so I quickly turned around to go back. While I had been at the summit the fog had rolled all the way in, and the whole way back I walked in this small bubble of fresh colours and ghostly outlines of trees. It was beautiful, but it was cold. We made a large fire that night, and when we woke up the next morning rain had fallen on the tent during the night and frozen to the tent canvas.

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King’s Canyon National Park

Day 5 – 13. october 2016
Yosemite delivered yet another cold morning. I made a fire, and as we packed away the tent, every now and then I would go to it to heat my fingers up. They would burn for a moment, so cold that the fire felt alien to them. It was a relief to get into the car. We have added another layer every night, and I was wearing a t-shirt, a wool layer, a fleece layer, a cotton layer and eventually my shell jacket. I felt big and bulky and clumsy as I began to take them off in the car. But at least we stayed somewhat warm during the night.

On the little drive from the campsite to the road (3 miles/5km) we saw a deer, stopped for some car pictures, and I took a time-lapse of the drive there. It is such a beautiful drive, with the big, green trees spaced out to let the sunlight through. It’s such a chaos with the fallen trunks and the dry twigs, but it looks so warm and open and lovely. A cayote watches us for a second from a little boulder by the road, but just as we see it it flees. I never saw a cayote before, and it was gone so quickly I hardly remember what it looked like. I remember it was small, and looked almost like a fox-sized woolf.

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Then we drove, down to the valley, out of the valley. It was strange how quickly the landscape went from impressive mountains walls to desertlike flats. We stopped for pizza and gas at Costco, and Target for food. We arrived in King’s Canyon a few hours before sunset, which gave us time to set up camp and do a little bit of hiking before dark. The campsite was nice and big; each site had a picnic table and a fire pit; each campsite had a large area for themselves. We found one next to the edge of the site, and we could sit and watch down a little hill of trees much taller than pine trees should be. The grown was covered in needles and it smelled faintly of pines until the odor of campfires took over.

We walked along road with occational views to the canyon and the Sierra on one side, and the descending mountains on the other side. The trail was called the panoramic trail, but most of it went through trees and we didn’t see much. But it was quiet, and looked like it could be the site of a fairytale. The whole park, both King’s and Sequoia, looked like fairytales. The High Sierra took my breath away. It was so unexpected to see them there in the distance, and they were so rugged and sharp. Like the type of rocks the Indians used for their spearheads, that sort of rugged edge. And they are all so tall, so much taller than is possible to comprehend from such a distance.

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After the walk we went to see the General Grant tree, which is the 3rd largest tree in the world, and I saw my first Sequoias. Now that is a tree. It is impossible to understand just how small you are, or maybe how big they are, because you cannot see it all in one glance. First you have to take in the width of the trunk, which is also a little hard since you only see it from one side. You can walk around it and count how many steps it will take you to circle it, and then think about how long that would be if you walked in a straight line. Then you must bend your neck and look up, and it hurts a little while you stare at the crown of it because it takes a while to really, really look. We learned about how the Sequoias are dependent on fire; how they are fire resistant due to chemicals in their bark; how the fires open up little pockets of seed to let the saplings begin to grown; how the fires clean the undergrowth so the saplings have space to grow; how it takes hundreds of years for a Sequoia to become one of the biggest trees in the world. General Grant was around 1.700 years old.

Day 6 – 14. october 2016
I woke up and realised that I had been warm the whole night. That I had had a good night’s sleep. It is easy to take warmth and comfort for granted, and it is something precious to find when camping. I still love to camp, there is something about the fire going late into night, about eating canned soup and about waking up to the bird chatter (or squirrel chatter) and smell the forest. But it is easy to forget all of that when your toes fell like they’re falling off and the air freezes in your nose.

We were hiking to Mist Falls, an easy but moderately long hike that would give us the faintest of tastes of the High Sierra. We drove to where the road ended, and it was like we had suddenly ended up in a different planet. As we drove down into the canyon the land went dry and yellow, and small shrubbery dotted the hills like polkas. The mountains were all smooth curves and triangular shapes, but it was so dry and the backdrop was the rugged Sierra. It looked menacing, like the landscape was daring the car to fail us and we’d have to walk to Mordor and destroy the ring before we would be able to return to our homes. And as suddenly it changed again, and we entered a flourished valley filled with green and a river running parallel to the road. As our hike began it looked more and more like Yosemite, with granite grey mountains on each side – yet they were more rugged.

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The canyon floor turned into a lush landscape that bustled with squirrels and chipmunks. I spent five minutes jumping at all sounds, expecting bears and mountain lions and rattlesnakes to plunge for us. But it was always a chipmunk; always a squirrel. The forest closed around us, but always it felt open, always it felt warming, always it felt like taken out of a book about faeries. We met no bears, no mountain lions, no snakes. No faeries either. We returned to the campsite before dark and cooked smores on the fire as the last light shone golden rays on the tree crowns.

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