McMurdo Station, Antarctica – Season 2

Back on the Ice. I’m now a (maybe not-so) seasoned veteran and returning here on October 1st, less than 5 weeks ago, to my surprise felt like coming home. I quickly got settled into my dorm room that I would be sharing with Dylan when he arrived in what turned out to be a week, as his flight from Christchurch, New Zealand got delayed day after day due to bad weather. Building 201, room 213: home for the next five months. I got to work rearranging and dismantling furniture, putting up old posters we found in my parents’ basement, unpacking my box of things that I stashed here over the winter and scrounging SKUA, the free stuff exchange, for anything that might make our little room more comfortable. Top find: a big ziploc bag of about 40 crawfish magnets. Our doors, desk and sides of our little fridge are metal – shrimp for days!!!

The friends and acquaintances which made last year amazing are still multiplying in numbers with each new flight that arrives on the continent. I stayed in touch with very few people in between seasons, so each familiar face I see is like an unexpected gift. I’ve hugged so many people in delighted surprise, and excitement for the season to come in the past few weeks. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by these vibrant people and back in this cold, bizarre industrial compound at the end of the earth.

I am working as a “communications operator” this year in MacOps.  That stands for McMurdo Operations.  We communicate via HF radio, VHF radio, Iridium satellite phone and radio phones with the field camps, other international research stations and parties traveling anywhere off the established road system around McMurdo.  It’s a great job, I work with amazing people and I am learning SO much about communications and about all of the field work and science that are going on all over the continent!  Fascinating!

McMurdo itself hasn’t changed a bit. There was more snow than last year when I arrived and that’s about it. We had weeks of storms, wind, poor visibility and limited travel on and off the continent and even regionally. I started working out in the gym, something I normally loathe, as outdoor recreation was more combative than recreational during those few weeks. Happily, the sun started shining again last week and every time I look out of the window or look up from the volcanic fine-sprinkled icy road I’m walking on, I am blasted with the beauty of where I am. The spring equinox was September 23rd and the sun won’t set again until February 20th, 2015 in McMurdo.

Here are some pictures of the first five weeks of the 2014 – 2015 summer season…

Plane ride from Christchurch, New Zealand to McMurdo. My first time on a C-17!

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My first day on the job!Sage 1

Scenes around and above McMurdo

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Last year’s waste, waiting to be loaded on the resupply vessel in February.

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Ice pier being rebuilt after a storm destroyed last year’s. In February, after the ice breaker comes, all that flat white will be open water

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McMurdo and Ob Hill. Scott Base (New Zealand) is on the other side of the pass

Golf balls
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Building 165 where I work in MacOps!

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I love this building
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Green buildings at Scott Base – New Zealand’s research station a couple miles down the road
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My dorm 
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View from our room
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3am inside

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The galley

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The Coffee House

Dylan and I have been playing scrabble

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Scrabble buffs – notice anything that doesn’t belong?

Biking on the ice road to the ice runway

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Yesterday

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At the ice shelf transition early last week at the tail-end of our bad weather

My head out and about
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Pouygarin

I have spent the last two and a half weeks here at Pouygarin volunteering; tending to the two big vegetable gardens, cooking meals for the pottery students, the big awesome family and friends, cleaning, organizing, preserving the fruit and vegetables ripening too fast to harvest, milking the goats and enjoying country life. It is amazing here.

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Les Alpes Français

It’s the 11th of August and I’ve been back in France for almost a month and a half.  

On June 28th I took a two day ferry from Tangier, Morocco to Sete, France in order to continue my very indirect route east towards my cross-continental destination of Bucharest, Romania.

Immediately after stepping off the boat and back into France I remembered how much I love it here.  

From Sete I rode my bike northeast towards the French Alps where I intended on leaving my bike to hike around for a few days to a couple weeks.  I pedaled through fields of lavender in Provence and through vineyard upon vineyard in the Rhone Valley.  I picked fresh cherries and figs and plums from trees and communicated in frustratingly halting baby French with people along the way.  I consulted my dictionary constantly, I listened to my French language “tapes” and I contemplated staying in France and learning French.  How romantic would it be to volunteer on a farm and learn how to make cheese and grow organic veggies in the shadow of the Alps?!  The wild Carpathians and unknown rustic splendors of Romania (and everything in between here and there) were still a draw, but after a couple weeks in challenging Morocco and almost 5 months of near constant travel after leaving Antarctica, I was tired.  I had decided that I wasn’t in the mood to tackle Romania alone, if at all.  

My first stop in the French Alps was Parc national des Ecrins.  I hiked hut to hut for a few days among the impressive contrasts of glaciated hanging valleys, towering spiny peaks and glowing green pastures.  I appeared to be the only non-French person in the valley and at the rustic mountain huts I was forced to awkwardly communicate with French hikers and mountaineers – each of us interested to hear about the other’s routes and adventures.  I had an amazing time and would have stayed longer but unending rain and storms were in the forecast.  

I pedaled my bike northwest to Grenoble where my good friend Shane, who I had met working on The Ice, had just arrived to study French for the next 6 months!  The timing couldn’t have been better.  I waited out the rain in Grenoble for 5 days and explored the city on foot.  I relished cooking in a kitchen once again and enjoyed great conversations in attempted French, and mostly English, with Shane’s French roommate, Fred.  Shane would come home from class each day having learned something new and exciting about French and I was inspired to look into taking a French course in the Alps.  

So that’s what I did!  I found a language teacher in the legendary mountain town of Chamonix, a place I had always dreamed of skiing in the winter but I would settle for visiting the summer.  When the rains cleared I rode my bike there over a day and a half and as the mountains grew around me, I fell more and more in love.  I had arranged to camp on the lawn of a house of cyclists I found on warmshowers.org and when I showed up at their house I was armed with a bottle of wine and prepared to cook a simple dinner of lentils, chorizo and rice for the household as a thanks.  I was greeted instead with a dinner of amazing pork belly stuffed with apricots, fresh fennel from the garden and cashews that Marty, had put in the oven just before I arrived.  Iris,  who I had been communicating with regarding the lodging, arrived home with Hugh after rock-climbing post-work.  She popped open her experimental jar of homemade ginger kimchee and we dug into amazing food, easy conversation and hearty laughs.  Charlotte got home later that night after her job waiting tables at a hopping restaurant downtown and the household was complete.  I couldn’t believe my luck to have found such awesome people immediately upon arriving in Cham.  What a great intro to my new hometown for the next month or so!  

I spent the next few days getting oriented, riding my bike up and down the valley, studying a bit of French and looking for a place to live.  I was introduced to Myriam, a French teacher originally from Lille in the north of France, at a bonfire/ BBQ one night and the next day she found me outside my tent and asked if I would be interested in staying with her while I was in town.  YES!!!  I moved into her cute two bedroom flat a five-minute walk from the famous Aiguille du Midi tram the next day and started my French lessons with my incredible teacher, Karine, two days after that.  Let the learning begin!  

I had grand aspirations of hiking every day and rock-climbing and riding my bike to Italy and Switzerland over the weekends, but time flew and July had a record number of rainy days.  I did go on some amazing hikes, picked wild strawberries, raspberries and chantrelles, attended concerts in the high valleys overlooking glaciers during the annual jazz festival, rode my bike to neighboring villages to have picnics while reviewing my conjugations and I continued to meet really great people.  Living with Myriam and her crazy dog Bamboo was so fun and grounding.  I cooked and studied French more than anything else during the many rainy afternoons and I relished my downtime.  

With the end of my three weeks of lessons nearing I had to decide what to do next.  I was loving Chamonix but also not speaking as much French as I would have liked.  It often seemed that English was the first language there rather than French, which was easy and fun, but not going to get me to where I wanted to be with French over the short period of time I had left to learn.  I started looking into volunteering at farms around France – my original idea revisited – and found a spot in the midi-Pyrenees.  A pottery retreat/ goat farm/ veggie farm where I’ll be cooking, cleaning, milking goats and tending the garden in my few remaining weeks before heading back to Alaska. En route I stopped back in Parc national des Ecrins and hiked with Shane for a few days into the mountains of Val d’Oisans, then returned to Grenoble, where I am writing this from. Continuing southwest tomorrow!

!!Pictures are horribly out of order – excuse the mess, enjoy the visuals!!

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Provence

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Le Sirac, Parc des Ecrins.

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Corps at night. In between Parc des Ecrins and Grenoble

 

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My first home in Chamonix. Mont Blanc in the background.

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Me and Shane hiking down from an awesome concert at the end of a dam at 2400m in Switzerland.

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Ibex

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Myriam, my roomie, on the right, and her friend Caroline visiting from Lille in front of chez nous.

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Concert at Montenvers over-looking le Mer de Glace/ Vallée Blanche

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SUSHI!!!

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Looking up at Mont Blanc from La Jonction, 2589m, on the historic route of the first ascent of Mont Blanc.

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La Berarde, Val d’Oisans on the edge of Parc des Ecrins – round two!

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Shane at Refuge La Pilatte, 2577m.

P1060775Take off your nasty hiking boots and slide these comfy puppies on your tired feet! Compliments of Club Alpin Francais.

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I’m crrrrrrayzay for Glacier du Vallon de la Pilatte!

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Bol du café

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Not posing.

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Just taking it all in. Casually.

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Base of Le Sirac and the old refuge.

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Morocco in Pictures

Tangier

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Fes

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Marrakech

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High Atlas Mountains

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Meknés

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Ferry from Tangier, Morocco to Sete, France

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Morocco

Ten days ago my mom and I landed in Tangier, Morocco after a short ferry ride across the choppy Straight of Gibralter. On the way from the train station in Algeciras, Spain to the ferry terminal we got a little preview of what was to come in Morocco. One man, then 2, then 3 all telling us – loudly and enthusiastically insisting and gesturing actually – that the ticket offices were closed and we had to get tickets back on the other side of the street. Well… we kept on walking and they weren’t closed, of course. I have subsequently heard “It’s closed! Closed! Square [palace, market, substitute whatever tourist destination] other way!” more times than I can count. Young dudes are hanging all around the ancient walled cities – called medinas – trying to get tourists to think they’re lost (half the time we are, but when you have nowhere to be, it’s hard to get lost!) and then guide them to a destination and demand a hefty tip. Walk by any store or restaurant and someone greets you in French or English or Spanish trying to tempt you into their lair. It’s pretty much a given that you’re getting charged way too much for everything and bargaining for something usually brings the price down at least half or more from the original price. And being without a man definitely doesn’t help as far as attention and shout outs go. Ahhh to be a tourist in Morocco! Onto the good stuff…

Morocco is absolutely captivating. It is very Muslim, yet diverse, and quite traditional as far as people’s dress goes, even in the three big cities we have visited – Tangier, Fes & Mareakech. Multiple times a day I am taken aback by how exotic it is here. I often feel as though I could be walking through an ancient archway today or two hundred years ago and it wouldn’t be so different. The sounds of Arabic and Berber fill the streets. French is taught to everyone in schools and widely understood, though not commonly spoken everyday between natives. Music with a melodious and nasally flute, hollow lolling drums and rhythmic singing floats effortlessly amongst the chatter of life and commerce. The food is delicious. Cumin, cous cous, slow-braised lamb and chicken, flatbreads, olives and preserved lemon are recurring themes in both street stands and upper end restaurants. Shops selling mounds of decadent honey-soaked sesame and filo dough sweets dot the market streets. Fresh fruit is gorgeous, plentiful and cheap. Booze is hard to find and pricey to buy when the search is successful. The architecture is old. Crenelated towers and minarets dot the skyline and ancient walls and layers of multi-storied buildings with smooth mud façades are an understated yet powerful backdrop; a constant reminder of the long histories that have played out here. The palaces are grand; the tilework, and painted wood carving mindbogglingly intricate and colorful. The mazes of cobblestone streets inside the desert-colored stone walls of the medinas and old souks (markets) are barely wide enough for shoppers to negotiate during the busy evening time around sunset. Yet donkeys, bicycles, motorbikes, shopkeepers, pedestrians and all the wares being presented and carried to and fro somehow all find their way to their destination. The smells are everchanging and transporting. From eucalyptus being carved into furniture to red peppers roasting for the midday meal to wood fires being stoked to bake bread to fresh figs being sold from a cart passing by; from subtle to arrestingly strong, the smells of the streets are a constant sensory delight. Colors are bright and bold, set to a sand-colored background.

Just outside the medina walls life speeds up a bit more. The streets widen to allow for cars and trucks to zoom by. Scooters weave in between taxis loading passengers, mothers holding their children’s hands as they cross the busy streets and men pedaling old bicycles laden with awkwards bags filled with who knows what. The sidewalks outside the medina walls are sprinkled with beggars, fruit and sunglass sellers and women selling freshbaked flat round breads sprinkled with cornmeal. Cafes are open to the streets and filled with men drinking espresso and sweet mint tea, discussing life and watching the scenes of life pass by.

We’ve spent the majority of our time in and around the old cities, opting to avoid largely the “Ville Nouvelle” section of the cities, so mine is a biased account to be sure. I live in a monde nouvelle though. No need to visit the new world here.

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Granada

From the comfort of Laura’s abode in Aigües I headed southwest towards Granada where I would be meeting mom who was flying in from Alaska. We would then boat across the Straight of Gibralter to Morocco!
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My first day riding lead me up up up into the mountains and past marble quarries and everything marble related. Here, mountains of fine marble powder – used much like cement in building.

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My second day of riding was brutal. Hot hot sun, constant strong and gusting head and sidewinds, near constant uphills, and the brief downhills frustratingly unrewarding with the strong winds forcing me to continue pedaling to gain any momentum. And it wasn’t the most scenic part of my trip either. This was the visual highlight of my day.

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That evening, after riding a hard-earned 95 km, faced with yet another long uphill, the everpresent scorching sun, non-stop headwinds and decreasing physical and mental reserves, I ducked into the only shade and wind block in sight – under the highway. I decided to stay the night. It was perfect.

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The next two days I rode through hundreds of olive and almond groves, by houses and entire towns carved into caves and towards the Sierra Nevada mountain range and Granada.

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I arrived into Granada a few days before my mom. I posted up at a hostel right in the middle of it all (my first hostel of my euro trip!).
View of the Alahmbra from the top floor of the hostel. Not bad for budget accommodation!

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I wandered around, ate free tapas and got lost the streets of Granada. One night a hostel buddy and I were drinking a bottle of wine on a plaza turned parking lot (with a view if the Alahmbra across the way, of course!). A guitarist sat near us and started rolling a spliff. We offered him wine and fruit, he offered us weed. He played flamenco guitar and sang soulful Andalucian melodies while the sun set across the city. We exchanged intermittent stories and laughs and at some point after night had set in (probably when the wine ran out!) we sauntered away from the plaza and that perfect little shared moment in time. Ahhhhh Granada!
Sunset over the cathedral

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Grafitti and the catedral

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Grafitti, a cute street and the Sierra Nevada in the distance

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Free paella with my cañita (that means little beer)

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Outside the city walls lies Sacramonte, an area of cave dwellings built into the dry hillsides where many of the “bohemians” of Granada reside.
View of the Alahmbra from the other side of the wall

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Las cuevas

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I ate this ridiculous giant pastry one evening. A palmera cookie with essentially a thin layer of creme brulee on the top. Dessert for dinner!

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In hopes of getting a pair of baggy, non-provocative pants (I only had shorts, no pants along with me up to this point) to wear in Muslim Morocco, I hunted out the second hand/vintage clothing sector. Knowing I was meeting up with mom who could carry all of my purchases back home for me when we parted ways, I ended up going on an unintentional shopping spree. I went a little crazy with the puffy shirts and ruffles.
Mom arrived on a Wednesday afternoon after days of traveling and without her luggage (it thankfully arrived that evening!). We spent a perfect evening doing the same thing I’d been doing for the past few days. Wandering and eating and drinking and enjoying the little surprises tucked into the corners of Granada.
Eating our first lunch of many together at a great cafe on a quiet corner in Granada.

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Wine on some old steps outside a funky vegetarian restaurant. My attempt at looking cool and disinterested. My mom joked that I had that bored teenager look. And the mom-daughter trip begins!!

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The next day we jumped on a train, headed to Algeciras and ferried it over to Africa. Bike beside me all the way!

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Eating it up in Aigües!

Too much amazing food and too many good times to recount it all…

I’m in Aigües de Busot in the arid hills above sprawling Alicante right now. My mom’s friend for the past 50 years lives here in this quaint little town and it has been a true vacation from a vacation staying here this past week. I’ve been cooking, eating a ton, reading fashion magazines, which she has a ton of, relaxing and enjoying Laura’s awesome company. She is espadrillesetc.com and some days when the said activities aren’t enough, I just stroll the isles of her little warehouse in a house down the street from her house and try on shoes.

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Some pics from my journey from the mountains here

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On my way from Huesca south a storm was approaching. Searching for a haven for the night I saw this old place along the side of the highway. Perfect! This is taken the next day. The storm never hit, luckily!

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Me inside cooking my dinner

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Views from the road on the way from the coast into the hills

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SO happy to be in Aigües. It was one of the steepest and hilliest days I’ve ever ridden. I ordered a beer when i got into town and it arrived with freshly sliced jamón. Perfecto.

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The view from Laura’s dining room

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A good palmera has to be one of the finer things in life. Especially on a pink polka dot plate.

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Fried egg sandwich I made and a beer for lunch. VACATION

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A candlelit dinner I made the other night from foods Laura had on hand (which isn’t much because she doesn’t cook!) – I had so much fun getting creative.

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Last night we went out for tapas. Cabrón, que comida!!

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We went to Laura’s friend’s house for lunch today. Amazing food, amazing wine, amazing company. Summer also arrived today and it was hot. Carmen and Juan have a pool. We swam after lunch, then all 4 of us fell asleep in the sun afterwards.

Tomorrow I leave Laura and her incredible everything for Granada where I’m meeting up with my mom and we’re going to Morocco!! Last minute trip that was not at all in the plans. I’M SO EXCITED!

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4 days in the Pyrenees

Leaving Plateau d’Lhers 4 days ago

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Top of the pass between Val d’Aspe and Val d’ Ossau. There were a ton of Spanish road cyclists at the top – at least 15 – 20 in the time I was there, training for a big race coming up. This isn’t the highest pass, but one guy said it’s one of the steepest in the area. I asked him about the passes to the east (which ended up being closed) and he said if you can do this, those are no problem. Yes!

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Camped in a trashy trailer park/campground in Laruns with beautiful views of mountains in every direction

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French fast food to go with my trailer park!

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The next day I biked UP a very steep 4km from the highway to a lake, packed a backpack, hid my bike and hiked to Refuge d’ Ayous. Still closed for the season, as I knew they would be, I slept in the winter room. WOW!

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Biking up into the storm yesterday. Heading back south towards Spain over the Col du Portalet: 1972 m

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My feelings when the rain first started. It got a lot worse. Cold headwind and pelting rain. This is me working through it

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Gorgeous even in bad weather

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And here’s Spain! Beautiful!

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Leaving a parking lot at Formigal, Spain’s (arguably) biggest ski resort

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About 10 km from the border is Sallent de Gallego. A beautiful little Spanish mountain town. I almost passed it by, but there was a sign for municipal camping (the best, because it’s usually cheap, in a park setting and not overrun with caravans, like most campgrounds in Europe), plus, at the top of Col du Portalet, I stopped at a lovely historic hotel for a coffee and the woman recommended I check out the town. I SCORED on muni camping. Free and right behind the town sports complex. 2€ for a shower and they even had wifi I could use! Plus, the guy in charge, Angel, is a cycle tourist! Ha! I couldn’t choose the best angle for a photo of my camp spot…

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Passing through Sabiñago on my way to Huesca today, I spotted this! I unintentionally did all except for Hoz

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I made up for that, however (and 10m +!!) by summitting this beast between Sabiñago and Huesca. No idea this existed due to shitty, free tourist info maps that I’m using. This was one long climb. I think it took me at least two hours. Raining the whole time. Then fog. So not fun. I screamed in frustration a couple times. Then laughed at myself

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On the other side of the pass the storm really happened. Thunder and lightening and driving rain, and about 15 km from here, a crazy hailstorm. I rode my bike as fast as I could to the nearest shelter, which turned out to be a flimsy piece of shade netting covering a driveway – it barely held!Hail the size of pennies came flying from every direction for a solid 5 – 10 minutes. I stood, dripping wet and freezing cold, glad I was wearing a helmet, and waited it out. Then I rode the last wet wet wet 15km here in less than a half hour. That storm also provided an awesome tailwind. Now I’m in Huesca, staying in a simple pensión, with great retro furnishings and a color television set, for 20€ a night. I have my own room and my saturated belongings are strewn across the room drying. Thunderstorms are predicted for tomorrow too. Maybe I’ll stay here another night and catch up on my Spanish telenovelas…

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Pamplona y Les Pyrénées Occidentales

I’m about to ride down a long winding hill that I rode up two days ago. Out of this amazing alpine valley and Plateau de Lhers where I have been camping for two nights at a perfect campground at the end of the road, and where I happened upon the amazing Pic de Labigouer yesterday.
The Summit

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Me at the summit and my new backpack that I made out of a big stuff sack with neckties for straps.

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On the way down

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I lost my hat somewhere on the road heading back to the village and rode up to find it in the evening. Found it in the middle of the road, and then this dude found me, while taking pictures of the herd and the illuminated mountains in the distance

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I woke up to frost on the ground the last two mornings. Yesterday I had breakfast in bed

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30 km ride, all uphill from Jaca, Spain to the pass of Somport and the border between France and Spain the day before yesterday

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The top! At the old border station pre- European Union

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Between Donosti and Jaca I stopped for a day in Pamlona and stayed at a pilgrim’s hostel, for those hiking the Camino de Santiago. I followed the route backwards to the aforementioned pass. Pamplona is an awesome spot to eat and drink.

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Pilgrims in the morning about to head out.

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Just like me! Off to ride down to the main road, then over the Col de Marie Blanque into the next valley!!!

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Donosti!

Upon arriving in Donosti, I found internet and called my friend Asier through Skype. We arranged to meet outside the ayuntamiento 20 minutes later. Asier and I lived together in the Pyrenees last winter and had so much fun. It was like no time had passed seeing him again. We strolled about and made our way back to his house where his brother was preparing to play a soccer game. We decided to go watch him. While sipping on our beers waiting for the match to start, his brother rushes up to Asier saying they don’t have a goalie and Asier has to play. Not a soccer player at all, he’s all for it! Vamos!!

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My first day here Asier and I went out in the afternoon for Pintxos. Perfect way to eat. Composed beautiful small eats, you pick what you want, eat, drink a beer or cider or glass of wine with it, move onto the next place.

This joint is new and fancy.

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We ate amazing foie gras here

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This was our third and final stop for pinxos that day

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Slightly buzzed and very full we decided to walk it off. We took a stroll along the waterfront and on the way back the ocean beckoned us. We spontaneously decided to go for a swim in the frigid sea. So fun. That night, after a solid siesta, we ate Turkish food and played Jenga with Asier’s hermanos and their significant others, while the grandparents took the sobrinos out to celebrate the triplets’ 5th birthday.

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Asier has 5 siblings and they have 6 kids between them. Asier lives at his parents’ house which is the center of family activity and always bustling and alive. Coming from a tiny immediate family of 3, this is different for me!

Yesterday we took the train to France to celebrate the birthday of Cristina, a friend of Asier’s. BBQ, lots of booze (cider her dad made, patxaran her boyfriend made) and amazing people. We ended up staying the night. 24 hours in France!

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We woke up this morning, came back to Donosti and prepared for the birthday party for the triplets and the one year old whose birthday is tomorrow. This was an awesome family gathering. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews – everyone! We ate montadillos, small sandwiches, drank cider and beer and wine, cake for dessert, the works. Pay no attention to me with my face hideously stuffed with food back there…

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Following, a fútbol match between Donosti and Bilbao – regional rivals – was going on. We made our way to a crowded and noisy and crazy bar to watch the game. Tied at 1-1. After a walk and some fresh air, we met up with the family outside the same bar and hung out for a bit before returning home.

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And tonight for din, Asier’s mom made fried egg sammies – my fave. So happy!

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It has been an amazing few days here and I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to get to spend the short time that I have with Asier’s amazing family and friends in this awesome city. Tomorrow I’m back on the move, towards Alicante, to visit Laura, one of my mom’s oldest friends! Wahoo!!!

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