Walking the Cape Cod Rail Trail

Cape Cod Rail Trail

Cape Cod Rail Trail

Shortly after dawn on Sunday, Daniel Dejean and I set out to walk the Cape Cod Rail Trail (CCRT), not just to walk on the trail, but to go the entire 22.3 miles.

I like to walk long distances at a brisk pace, but I was worried about going with an accomplished marathoner, one who would probably be bored with my pedestrian pace. But Daniel seemed quite happy to walk instead of run.

In the beginning we had the trail to ourselves. Perhaps others were deterred by the hour or the temperature just below freezing? In any case, it was heavenly. We enjoyed the exercise, the views, and the conversation. For equipment, we took along one not-smart phone and a fancy watch that didn’t work.

Taccuino Sanitatis

Taccuino Sanitatis

For six hours, we saw a side of Cape Cod that you miss completely if all you know is Route 6, the beaches, or the residential streets. Since the trail is elevated, it offers a better view than that afforded by many forest trails. We saw natural wetlands and cranberry bogs, salt marshes, meadows, forest, creeks, the bay, and the back sides of houses, churches, and businesses. There’s a winery that I didn’t know about.

We talked about what we each liked and didn’t like about life on Cape Cod, music, art, movies, growing up, religion, Borges, Deleuze, Piaget, and OULIPO. We also had good stretches of silence, just listening to the birds and the wind, or walking without listening at all. Amazingly, we avoided the political discussions that seem to dominate the ordinary day.

A long walk imbues your body with a rhythm that offers peace and balance. We joked about Daniel’s fancy electronic watch, which told us all kinds of things, but seemed incapable of  communicating the time of day. We saw it as very postmodern, or perhaps Buddhist, in its rejection of our chopped up daily lives.

Setting out

Setting out

Our overall pace was 3.6 mph. That’s faster than Google walks, but still fairly relaxed. Around 17 miles we each began to feel the stress on our bodies. Daniel revealed that he feels the stress at the same point when running a marathon. It’s interesting that it occurs at the same distance, but of course half the time when running.

As the sun rose, we began to see more people. There were people walking their four-legged masters, babies in strollers, people in wheelchairs, couples, groups, and solitary walkers. Each of them were experiencing a slice of Cape Cod that is hard to find in any other way.

I don’t know that any of them planned to walk the entire route as we did, but I’m sure they each felt some degree of balance as articulated by Taccuino Sanitatis. This is an 11C Arab medical treatise by Ibn Butlan of Baghdad which sets forth the essential elements for well-being, including balance of activity and rest, food, fresh air, and state of mind. Daniel pointed me to that.

Before the railroad came, Cape Cod was accessible only by boat or stagecoach. Passenger rail service from Boston to Provincetown started in 1873 and became a major factor in the Cape’s growth as a summer resort area. But when the car bridge over Cape Cod Canal opened in 1935, passenger rail service soon came to an end. The cars were a boon for tourists and tourist services, but they also began to destroy much of what makes the Cape so special. Residents and visitors who see the Cape mostly from their cars or selected recreational areas miss a lot.

The rail corridor was purchased by the Commonwealth in 1976. A portion of that was converted to a rail trail, which now runs from South Dennis to Wellfleet with side trails going off to Chatham and other areas. Daniel’s uncommunicative watch told us that the trail on the rail bed was a way to step back in time, to connect to some of that earlier Cape Cod life, and to experience a more balanced way of life.

Urdaibai Bird Center

The Urdaibai Bird Center is a nature museum for enjoying the world of birds. It offers a unique observatory of marshland in the heart of Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve in Euskadi in northern Spain.

The Center is called a “living” museum because what it has to show depends on the life of the marshland and the birds who choose to visit. You can see some of that in the webcam below.

As the Northern Hemisphere winter approaches, food supplies for birds dwindle and most begin to migrate south. Coming from as far west as Greenland and as far east as Russia, they head towards western Europe, then down towards the border between France and Spain. With the Pyrenees blocking their path to the east and the Bay of Biscay a barrier to the west, they funnel through a narrow path that takes them through Euskadi, the Basque country of Spain.

Education programs linking children throughout the world

Education programs linking children throughout the world

This is the East Atlantic Flyway, a bird migration system linking breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra with wintering grounds in Mauritania, and stretching from northern Russia to southern Africa.

The Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve preserves an age-old oasis for these birds. From here, they head south through Spain, many going to the Doñana National Park in Andalusia, across the Mediterranean to Morocco, then down the west coast of Africa to wintering grounds in the Senegal and Niger deltas, with some going as far as South Africa.

The constructed marshland

The constructed marshland

The Urdaibai Bird Center has exhibits, AV shows, interpreters, and more to explain all of this. In addition, they have observatories from which you can see the birds who are there on a given day (as in the webcam).

The birds are wonderful to see and their stories are often amazing. The migration routes sometimes extend thousands of miles. One especially interesting case is the red-backed shrike.

Red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio)

Red-backed shrike (Lanius collurio)

Like other birds this shrike heads south from northern Europe, stops over at Urdaibai, and then goes to southern Spain. But instead of heading directly south to the west coast of Africa, it turns east to Italy, or even Greece, then turns south through central Africa. Further breaking the mold, it returns by a different route. It goes further east, through the horn of Africa, Arabia, and Turkey, before turning west.

After exploring a bit in some ornithology journals, I learned that individual red-backed shrikes break the pattern even more, often following idiosyncratic paths and ending up hundreds of miles apart in South Africa.

It’s behavior like this that makes the work of a bird center like Urdaibai both challenging and wonderful.

Not a lonely park

p1090537

NagiGumba

The map/brochure for Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park describes it as

a lonely park to represent mid-hill ecosystem of Nepal. It is famous for globally threatened wildlife, birds, and butterflies.

I suspect a misprint, and that the text should read “a lovely park…”, which it certainly is.

There may well be lonely parts, since the park covers 159 sq km (61 sq mi), and most visitors follow one of the popular routes as I did yesterday in the Nagarjun portion of the park. What i’d say instead is that it offers a perfect blend of solitude and connection with nature interspersed with chances to interact with nice people.

(I can’t say whether people who go on these mini-treks are nicer to begin with, or just become so when they’re away from the stresses of city life, but either way they’re fun to visit with.)

Arjun and Vibatshu

Arjun and Vibatshu

Although I did see several people, especially at NagiGumba (Buddhist monastery), I was disappointed not to see any leopards, bears, thars, boars, deer, or monkeys, which reside there. I did see many birds and butterflies, mushrooms, and all sorts of subtropical  plant life. I even saw the Asian bittersweet that is so well loved on Cape Cod.

The walk up to NagiGumba is done by people of all ages, school groups, couples, and pilgrims. It’s an easy to follow trail, with steps for all the steep portions. Nevertheless, by the end of the day my knees were rubbery, my shirt was soaking wet. and I had resolved to get myself in better shape.

It was some consolation that my fitness tracker registered well over 200 floors (~3000 steps). The steps were good ones, too, with treads and risers that matched my legs. I wonder how some of the smaller children could manage it.

p1090535Along the way, I met a man who had been a mountain guide. He was walking with his 15 yo son. He gave me some good tips for hill walking. I talked with the military guards (the park is adjacent to a military camp), a couple of groups of schoolchildren, some “+2” students, and people at NagiGumba hanging prayer flags.

When I arrived at the top, I learned that there was some kind of ceremony about snakes (which I also failed to see on the trail). A monk served me slices of apples, oranges, and some pear-like fruit, which were hugely welcome after the climb.

Shivapuri Park is new (2002) and the Nagarjun portion was added just in 2009. It makes me happy to know that Nepal is able to establish these parks making possible mini-trekking in the urban area and preserving biodiversity.

oa

Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park

p1090435
I had a wonderful walk in Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park today, seeing both more and less than I’d planned.

My first mistake was going by taxi without clear directions for a non-English speaking driver. Rather than arriving at the Parimuhan entrance, we somehow ended up somewhat west at Tokha. There were a couple of good effects of this. One was that I got a good view of the army camp sprawled over that area. The other was that by starting there I had the trail to myself, since most people sensibly enter through the main gate,

p1090448The day and the trail were beautiful, I took a side trip up to the Banduspati River. There were over 200 constructed steps and a lot of unconsturcted uphill. But it was well worth it to see the cascades and sylvan setting.

One part of the trail greeted me with mica sparkling in the midday sun. I was once again reminded about how much more one can see by going slowly.

p1090458I saw a profusion of wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies, birds, and more. Since I was alone and had neither guide nor guidebook, I had the luxury of naming each thing myself. For example, I saw many versions of small-brown-butterfly-that-never-alights-long-enough-for-me-to-take-a-photo. That’s now its technical name.

p1090429I did see a few people-some mountain bikers, some women cutting fodder, a couple of guys working on the trail.

At the base of the trail to Shivapuri Peak, I met a group of students and faculty from St. Lawrence College. They invited me join them on the walk up.

The climb totally destroyed my conceit about being able to keep up with young ones on a climb. Several times I had to pause, and eventually I decided to let them go on because I was holding them back. Could it be that Nepali youth are healthier than those in the US?

In the end, I walked back down to Budhanilakantha and got a ride back to the area of my apartment. Yes, a bit tired, but it was a beautiful day, and wonderful resource so close to the capital city.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Time travel in west Texas

p1080726

Sunrise out of the cabin

Ever since reading The Time Machine as a teenager, I, like most people, have wondered about time travel. And despite annoying naysaying from logicians and physicists, it still seems like an intriguing idea.

Wolf spider

Wolf spider

Susan and I just spent a week in far west Texas, where we experienced something like time travel. We stayed in a cabin in a caldera near Fort Davis. Other than a barbed wire fence, a single electric line, and a narrow, rutted dirt road there were no signs of human habitation––no other buildings, no cell service, no flights overhead.

An astute rancher might have pointed out that the male cattle were steers, not bulls, and that the cattle and many turkeys around were probably being raised for market. Closer inspection would reveal that there were some planted trees, both for shade and for pecans, but on the whole the impression was of desert isolation.

In this land the people are hard to find, but we could see yucca, sotol, ocotillo, prickly pear, sagebrush, mesquite, live oak, and uncountable wildflowers. We saw buzzards, mockingbirds, huge spiders, whitetail and mule deer. These living friends were framed by gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, and unbelievable cloud formations.

(Reconstructed) Fort Davis from 1854

1854 Fort Davis (reconstructed)

This all made me think of my early days in Fort Worth. We lived then in the new suburbs on the edge of ranchland. In our childhood explorations we could find tarantulas and horned toads, tumbleweeds and cockleburs, scorpions and butterflies. The land seemed to stretch forever into remoteness and romance. When we looked up we could see the Milky Way and thousands of stars.

Fort Davis felt like that Fort Worth of long ago. The contentious Presidential race was irrelevant. The old cashier at the local market wanted to share interesting stories rather than to ring up grocery items. The buildings and houses looked like stage props for an old Western, until you realized that they were still in use, probably by the same family that settled here a century or two ago.

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Rhyolite porphyry in fantastic shapes from volcanoes 35 million years ago

Fort Davis itself lies at the base of a rhyolite cliff, the south side of the caldera, or box canyon, that held our cabin. With just a few steps we could reach the path to climb the cliff shown above. Without realizing it, we zoomed even further back in time, to an era of intense volcanic activity, which created the Davis Mountains. The rhyolite columns, tuff and pumice, volcanic peaks and domes, took us entirely away from the human world.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the UT McDonald Observatory (from mcdonaldobservatory.org)

But not long after that we learned what time travel could really be. We went to the nearby University of Texas McDonald Observatory, which takes advantage of the clear mountain air.

Among many projects at McDonald is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX). This seeks to uncover the secrets of dark energy, using the large Hobby-Eberly Telescope and to survey the sky 10x faster than other facilities can do. It will eventually create the largest map of the Universe ever, with over a million galaxies. In doing so, HETDEX will look back in time 10 billion years.

If there is anything more amazing than the mind-stretching that Fort Davis does, it is that the area is so little visited. In addition to the sites mentioned above, there is a state park with numerous hiking trails, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens, interesting towns such as Alpine and Marfa, and the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, under the trees at Balmorhea State Park, which takes one back to the wonderful CCC projects of the 1930s.

 

Coast Sweep, Provincetown

Each Fall, nearly a million people join together for the International Coastal Cleanup. This is a worldwide, collective effort, which is simultaneously a depressing reminder of what we’re doing to our planet and an inspiration  suggesting that people can change. More than 18 million pounds of trash were collected by nearly 800,000 volunteers in 2015. This is about 0.1% of what’s added each year to the oceans.

In Massachusetts, the cleanup is called Coast Sweep.  Yesterday we joined a group from the Center for Coastal Studies. CCS does many things, but is most famous for having freed more than 200 large whales and other marine animals from life threatening entanglements with fishnets, lobster lines, and other human made dangers.

Long Point lighthouse, with Hindu boat in the background

Long Point lighthouse, with Hindu boat in the background

We were enticed in part by the ferry ride to Provincetown Long Point provided by Flyer’s and a lunch afterwards at Napi’s Restaurant. We had the gift of a beautiful morning, doing light work with interesting people amidst stunning scenery.

In our orientation, we learned what we should pick up and how to record it. A handy poster made by an Americorps worker helped with the relevant categories (including netting, lobster trap vents, rope over/less than a meter, shotgun shells, plastic fabric, tampon applicators, plastic bags, balloon ribbons, styrofoam, and mystery objects).

Each group had a recorder and one or more 19-gallon Ikea bags for the debris. Those bags are made of woven polypropylene, a plastic, but at least they’re reusable. In addition to items in the big categories, we found a toilet seat, copper plating, still-full mustard containers, fishing lures, and more.

For Long Point, these items mostly wash in with the tide, and concentrate in the wrack lines. Much of the plastic will wash back out to sea with the tides and be eaten by fish (and subsequently by people), turtles, marine mammals, and other creatures, unless we can remove it first.

October 9-16 will be Wellfleet Ocean Week, with events at the Library, at Oysterfest, and other venues. There will be a Coast Sweep on October 10 at Mayo Beach in Wellfleet, coordinated by the Wellfleet Conservation Trust.

Ocean Week will introduce the founders of 5 Gyres,, who helped bring attention to the problem of microbeads. These are tiny beads of plastic that are put into toothpastes, facial scrubs, and other products at a rate of 8 billion per day. Last year, Congress passed and the President signed a bill to ban these pollutants. It’s a rare instance in recent years of positive new action by our government and one in which the US is a leader.

Coast Sweep doesn’t even pretend to dent the world’s plastic pollution, although it does help to make specific beaches on lakes, rivers, and oceans more pleasant. The hope is that it brings awareness of what we collectively are doing to our planet and perhaps lead to changes in our addiction to plastics.

Evaluating the trails

Evaluating the trails

Phoebe, Sam, Nia

Phoebe, Sam, Nia

We had a wonderful group of visitors from the Dorchester area over Memorial Day weekend: Priscilla (6), Nia (8), Phoebe (10), Sam (12), and Jane (73).

I knew that we were in for some special experiences when Phoebe ran in asking “Can we go to the Library?” That had been the highlight of a previous trip. Then Sam added, “Can we go to the beach, too?” The latter seemed like a reasonable request to add for a sunny holiday weekend.

At the Library

At the Library

We managed to visit bay, ocean, and pond beaches. And the Library, of course. But we also set out to evaluate some local trails. You can see the evaluation sheet below. I fear that some of the drawings don’t reproduce well. But we got some good feedback on trails.

Priscilla, discussing books with Anna

Priscilla, discussing books with Anna

On the Wellfleet Conservation Trust’s new Drummer Cove trail, Sam identified the #1 hit, fiddler crabs, especially one in particular, who is named Bob. He also called for more trail markers, which was understandable, as the trail was just cleared last week and hasn’t been marked yet.

Phoebe’s favorite thing “was the breeze and the shells on the way.”  Her refrain throughout was for more shells. She and the others identified oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, slipper shells, winkles and more. For improvement, she recommended less pollen, which seemed to color everything yellow and cause some sneezing.

Sharing books and a swing

Sharing books and a swing

We also walked across Uncle Tim’s Bridge, through Hamblen Park, down to the “yes” benches. Priscilla, who perhaps wishes she were older, claimed her age as 6000, but I think it’s closer to 6. Her favorite thing was “fiddler crabsssssssssss” (there were many). For what to improve, she said “??????nuthing?”

Nia’s favorite was the baby diamond-back terrapin, which the group wanted to keep, but we let go on his/her way. For improvement, she wanted “to write more in Steve [Durkee]’s notebooks by the ‘yes’ benches.”

We also saw an osprey at the pier, and somehow managed to locate ice cream.

Diamond back terrapin

Diamond back terrapin

Along Duck Creek

Along Duck Creek

Hamblen Park

Hamblen Park

Fiddler Bob

Fiddler Bob

Ant eating inchworm

Ant eating inchworm

With just a little help

With just a little help

Braving the surf

Braving the surf

Surfers at Newcomb's

Surfers at Newcomb’s

Mac's at the pier

Mac’s at the pier

Percy

Percy

Trail evaluation

Trail evaluation