Friday, April 9, 2010

Take me to see the voodoo queen, let her put a spell on me

I'm a natural born procrastinator. In fact, if you asked me to name one thing that I think I could do better than anyone else I know, I would have to go with procrastinating (although I'm pretty sure I can out eat just about everyone I know). Most self proclaimed procrastinators actually just never do the things they say they are going to do. I get my tasks done....EVENTUALLY, and usually after it's too late or the task has become irrelevant anyway. I keep the proverbial "to-do list". Everytime I cross an item off, I add five more. So this morning I decided to pick some tasks that I could complete by the end of the day. So I went through my list and scribbled down 6 activities that I would attempt to get done in no particular order:
  • Taxes
  • Insurance Claim
  • 5 mile run
  • tattoo
  • spreadsheet for mom and dad
  • blog post
And to my delight, by the time you read this, I will have crossed out all six items. The taxes aren't exactly complete, but I reached a stopping point and have to wait until America wakes up to try to find a 1099-R form (FUUUN!). 5 mile run got done with ease. I ran 16 yesterday, my longest run to date. I'll run 8.5 tomorrow to bring me up to 40 miles total for this week. Next week I will start to taper off my mileage and basically try to stay loose and rest up for the big race. I mailed an insurance claim to my travel insurance agency that I should have mailed in mid-February. Got the spreadsheet completed and sent to mom and dad and I'm working on the blog post now. And I got a tattoo. I'm the last of the Romero children to get inked, but that's alright because my tattoo is better than any of my siblings. And if you want to know where or what I got tattooed, then you'll just have to bring your ass to New Zealand and find out.

Before the Mt. Cook road trip there was another. The destination? Wanaka. Wanaka is commonly described as Queenstown's little brother or sister. It is eerily similar to Queenstown, only smaller and more tranquil. Wanaka, unlike Queenstown, pretty much shuts down after the sun sets. If Queenstown's nightlife is the main strip in Vegas, then Wanaka is Bingo Night at the 1st Presbyterian Recreational Hall. But that's not important, because that is not what me and Ben headed down to Wanaka for. Ben, from Scotland, is another proud employee of Winnie's kitchen. We made the hour long journey to Wanaka from Queenstown looking for the Big Nige Canyon.

Canyoning is one of those warm weather activities that I got really anxious to partake in again when the weather started to change here. I had also heard good things about Wanaka and a trip down there was on my to do list. The canyoning in Wanaka was rumored to be a little bit more intense than the Queenstown area. So we asked the boss to let us off on the same days, threw our bikes in Voodoo and headed down. The Big Nige canyon lived up to it's reputation, and it's hefty price. From the deep canyon website:

"With spectacular views out to the alpine scenery, it is particularly beautiful and hugely enjoyable. It features exciting abseils in strong water flows. The situations are dramatic and the abseils often take you into and behind spectacular waterfalls – visually sensational and very dynamic. Big Nige is a longer day – be prepared for around four hours of continuous descent (and the walk up the hill takes 40 minutes). As we descend we link into Niger Stream with its many jumps and slides – so you get in a lot of everything…
Group sizes are small and personal (max of four in a group). This trip is for people who want a bigger day of hands-on action and enormous amounts of fun….

As with all my New Zealand excursions, we got lucky. We had a small group, just Ben, myself and two others. We also had a great guide, Richard, who was an accomplished canyoner, mountaineer and climber. I'm always taken aback when I meet people like Richard. The
y are absolutely crazy. They take huge risks that could end in unfathomable injuries or even death, and yet they are the most down to earth people you will ever encounter. Luckily, Youtube was onsite to capture a few of my finer moments in the canyon, including the worst summersault in the history of summersaults. And I'm wearing a pink helmet, to add insult to injury.

We made it back to Wanaka in time to get checked into a hostel and hit the bike trails for a couple of hours. We learned just how quickly Wanaka shuts down when went out for dinner around 10:30 and found only two options available. We were the last customers to be served at the thai takeout joint we chose and they weren't happy about our arrival. Later we met an American at the only bar that stayed open past 11. The guy was wearing the exact same STS9 t-shirt that I picked up at ACL last fall and happened to be one of only six t-shirts I brought to New Zealand. Small world. The three of us completed the Rob Roy Glacier walk the next day right outside of Wanaka. I never would have guessed that frozen pieces of snow and ice would be so dazzling to look at. I've been fascinated with the handful of glaciers I've seen here and I still haven't seen the big ones (Fox and Frans Joseph) yet. I enjoyed my time in Wanaka and hope to get back there soon. There's a lot to explore there and apparently they have a really nice ski field as well.

Easter came and went without much fan fare from me. I opened on Easter Sunday and I think I worked a solid 10 or 11 hours that day. I tried not to think about the crawfish boils my family and friends were indulging in. But I did get a fabulous easter egg from my fabulous roommate Melissa.

Homemade and personlized, this egg was composed of chocolate over pink marshmellow and it was magnificent. The larda chefs at Winnie's are now all properly trained to bring me every bowl of icing, whipped cream, butterscotch, caramel and of course chocolate before they take it to the dishwasher. Between them and Melissa's steady stream of cakes, cupcakes and afgans; my chocolate addiction never goes long without being addressed. It's a good thing I'm running 40 miles a week.

Short Circuits

  • Let's go back to the Easter weekend for a second  to have a look at what I think is a strange regulation in New Zealand. Good Friday and Easter MONDAY are public holidays, or days in lieu, in New Zealand. This means they are simliar to federal holidays in the states: kids are out of school, government offices are closed and on and on. Here's the interesting part: the New Zealand goverment says that if you are open on a public holiday, you have to pay your employees time and a half on that day. This creates a tricky situation for the food service industry. They respond by imposing a 20% surcharge on their customers. So if on Good Friday you take your kids to church and then want to go have some pizza at Winnie's afterwards, you'll pay 20% more than if you did the same thing on Holy Thursday. The restaraunts are up in arms about having to pay their people time and a half. Most of them are trying to get through those days on skeleton crews to keep costs down. The customers are up in arms about the surcharges all over town. It's more money for me, so I'm happy about it, but every public holiday stirs up this huge debate and argument about that regulation.
  • A fellow Baton Rougean has arrived in the Queenstown area. Emily took a job in close-by Arrowtown and just happened to be travelling with lots of grits which she was willing to share with me. I enjoyed a delicious breakfast of grits and eggs the other day. Still haven't figured out how to describe them.....
  • If I hear "Walking in Memphis" by Marc Cohn one more time, I'm going to cut my ears off with the pizza knife.

Friday, April 2, 2010

I got that green light baby, I got to keep movin on

I tallied up some interesting figures a few weeks ago while sending an email to my sister. From that email: "I just did a mental count and the bedroom that I'm sitting in now is the 8th room that I have called mine since 2005. Those eight rooms have spanned 2 countries, 2 states, 4 cities, 2 apartment complexes, 4 houses, and 9 roomates." I've never considered myself a restless person, but the stats don't lie.

Mt. Cook

Last Wednesday night, Nate and I loaded Voodoo down with camping gear and food and started our journey towards north towards Mt. Cook. It was late when we left, after 10:00 if I remember correctly. With the knowledge that neither of us are "morning people" or particulary speedy at getting packed and moving, we decided to drive to Mt. Cook through the night so that we'd wake up there and be ready to rock and roll in the morning. I quite like driving at night. I spent a lot of time on Interstate 10 between Austin in New Orleans and everywhere in between over the past few years. I always found that highway to be easier to traverse at night. Having both spent the past few months working night jobs, there was no way we were going to get to sleep before 12:30 anyway. However, we realized along the way that we were missing all the scenic views of approaching Mt. Cook in the day light. We shrugged this small loss off and tried to slip quietly into our bunks at the hostel without waking up the six sleeping travellers in the room. We were out of the hostel and in the DOC office by 10:30 the next morning.

The DOC agent booked our beds in the Mueller Hut for a hefty $35 per person. She then advised us that the 1000 meter climb to the hut was alpine walk (above the tree line) and we should be prepared for snow, rain or both. She suggested waterproof boots, gaiters, and trekking poles. This caused a little uneasiness as I looked down at my worn out New Balance trail runners. We stopped into the local outfitters and rented gaiters. This provided a little bit of reassurance until I saw the 65 plus year old couple that had booked right before us heading out on the trail. They were decked out in full blown mountaineering gear: beanies, boots, poles, and packs about half the size of ours. I questioned whether I had the proper hardware to get this job done. We stopped back by Voodoo, filled the camelbaks up, layered up and chucked our overloaded packs on.

I've had startling good luck when it comes to weather and long walks and this day would be no different. The sun was shining bright and there was nice drafty breeze kept the mountain air swirling about us. We walked on a flat graded trail for about 15 minutes before we started climbing. At the this point our path ceased to be a guided trail and became a route. A trail is simple and easy. You are either on it or you aren't. Routes are a little bit more complex. A route is a series of markers, usually orange in color. There is a somewhat obvious path between each marker, but it's basically up to you to get from one to another. Routes are more technical. The rocks are bigger and there is some hand climbing involved. We quickly realized when we moved from the trail to the route that we misguided the warming power of all of our layers. Once I took my mid-layer shirt off I was surprised to find I was perfectly comfortable in a base layer thermal and a snow jacket long as I kept moving. When we stopped at the top with all the snow and wind it didn't matter how many layers I had on I was eventually going to get cold.

We encountered a quirky little hiking group on the way up consisting of two guys, a Russian and a German, and an Israeli girl. We continued walking with them for most of the way up. I eventually got seperated from the group as we encountered more snow. I became very conservative with my footing and I guess this really slowed me down as everyone else appeared to be confidently stepping through the snow covered rocks. At one point I became truly concerned that my shoes wouldn't hold up against the terrain. But a few minutes later I watched a guy walk down the steepest the stretch of snow on the walk and was overjoyed to see him wearing a pair of nikes. He smiled at my shoes and assured me that if I could keep them from getting too wet I would be alright. This was encouraging, but slowed me down even more as I began to obsessively avoid any sign of water.

We made it to the hut right at 3 hours and 45 minutes, about 15 minutes over the suggested time. The hut sits on a plateau (I think) surrounded by mountains. This plateau was covered in snow as pictured below.

Most of the pictures leading up to the snowy ones are either looking behind us into the Mt. Cook Valley where we started, or they are views of Mt. Sefton, which is due east of the hut if I'm not mistaken. We were the second group of many to follow that were arriving at the hut, which sleeps 28 and must have been near capacity that night. I found that the hut provided a perfect mix of simple comforts while still maintaining a very rugged feel. It is constructed completely of wood and contains no sort of mechanical heating or cooling system. Large windows are found on all walls to allow sunlight to warm up the hut during the day. At night the hut serves as nothing more than a shield from the wind. However we had no problems sleeping as there were about a dozen of us in a space no larger than a small garage. That's a lot of warm bodies to draw heat from. There is neither running water in the hut, nor power outlets. But there are sinks, gas burners and water tanks outside. There is ample lighting that runs off of some sort of battery system. I did not to think to ask about this, but there were definitely no generators running. Everything is on a timer in order to prevent overuse. The gas lines are on a 30 minute timer and the lights were on about an hour cycle. There are no bathrooms inside the hut, but an outhouse about 40 ft. away whose path was quite tricky to navigate once it got dark.

We checked in with Rod, the hut warden. Rod is a kiwi who works in Australia as a paramedic. He is part of a volunteer program that keeps the Mueller Hut manned 24 hours a day. He arrived at the hut, carrying all of his own gear and food and a few supplies for the hut last Sunday. His service calls for him to stay up there for a full week. It's a quite a committment when you think about it. From a very strategic location outside the hut he can get a cell phone signal and he also has a radio that he talks to the DOC with twice a day. Other than that, no communication with the outside world for a week. Rod turned out to be a really interesting character and later provided us with some dried onions for our pasta.

Throughout the afternoon we were awarded several great views of Mt. Cook as the clouds played peek-a-boo with the faces seemingly carved into the snow. Everytime the clouds lifted away from the mountain the entire hut would run outside with their cameras to take pictures. Rod claimed that it was the best weather day he had seen all week. Nate stayed close to the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of a falling avalanche, which are common. We ate better than most of our fellow hut travellers that night. They were carrying the basics: dried noodles and powdered sauces. Not us. We realized that one of the reasons our packs had been so heavy during the day was due to the amount of food we were carrying which included a pound and a half of ground meat, pasta, hummus, peanut butter, jelly, sliced bread, pita bread, a roll of salami, trail mix, banannas and about a dozen Nature's Valley bars. We also brought our own frying pan and pot. The hut has no waste disposal system. It's pack in, pack out so even though we ate most of what we brought up there, we had all the rubbish to deal with as well.

Two Americans arrived later in the afternoon and taught us an interesting new card game called Yannif. They had learned it from some Israeli soldiers. Apparently the game is immensely popular in the Israeli army, where it originated. It's a pretty simple play and discard game but moves much faster than gin rummy or 31, which we play quite frequently. So after a 500 point game of Yannif in which we polished off Nate's flask full of scotch it was time for bed. I slept well in the hut, being the last one to rise out of his sleeping bag.

We enjoyed breakfast and an intense game of scrabble with our hiking friends from the previous day, before setting out to descend down the mountain. We took our time going down, snapping plenty of pictures along the way. We left the Mt. Cook Village smiling with content at a great road trip.