These are our favorite manta photos from our recent sailing and diving trip to the Socorro Islands in Mexico!
8 Most Beautiful Photos of Giant Manta Rays
8 Most Beautiful Photos of Giant Manta Rays
8 Most Beautiful Photos of Giant Manta Rays
8 Most Beautiful Photos of Giant Manta Rays
8 Most Beautiful Photos of Giant Manta Rays
8 Most Beautiful Photos of Giant Manta Rays
8 Most Beautiful Photos of Giant Manta Rays
8 Most Beautiful Photos of Giant Manta Rays
8 Most Beautiful Photos of Giant Manta Rays

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe did it! We are back from our biggest offshore sailing and diving trip. We sailed 220 miles south of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to the Revillagigedos, a volcanic group of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. We spent 18 days at Isla San Benedicto and went scuba diving with giant pacific manta rays and also sharks.

I feel deeply satisfied we pulled off this advanced dream trip. I also feel filled to the brim with love for my husband, who gave me so much support during this journey. It was difficult at times. Sometimes I didn’t handle stress very well. The sharks frightened me at first. Sharing close quarters with family for three weeks was sometimes tense. I was shaken by a couple close calls where I felt our safety was at risk. But through it all, Brian loved me, encouraged me and helped me enjoy this amazing trip. Our relationship was strengthened by this experience, which I think is a good sign for our plans to cross the Pacific Ocean next spring to the Marquesas.

Brian and I will also forever love the giant manta rays which thrive at Isla San Benedicto. We swooned over these creatures so much we made up songs about them. You really do lose your mind a little being at remote islands for so long. We would take Christmas carols about “Santa” and make up a “Manta” version. “Manta, baby…”, “Here comes manta clause…”, etc. I’ll never forget the special times diving with the manta rays and how they would swoop gracefully around us, eyeing us curiously and coming close.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFew private boats venture to these islands. During our stay at Isla Benedicto we only saw two other private boats. We saw about a half dozen large liveaboard dive boats, and this is said to be one of the top ten diving sites in the world. It was absolutely amazing and I can’t wait to go back.

What an intense trip. My comfort limits were stretched in all directions. I watched Magic ride bigger waves than ever before and went scuba diving with aggressive sharks for the first time. We lived on the boat for three weeks with Brian’s mom Sue, and her husband, Tim. We never went ashore on the island, so for the entire 22 day trip our feet never touched land.

It was the most rewarding trip ever.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe left Cabo full of Costco provisions and headed south during the tail end of a wind event. We hoped to have about 10-15 knots for sailing. The wind had been stronger during the previous days, so we got to ride some pretty big waves in the Pacific on the way south to the islands. Our catamaran coasted comfortably and only a couple items flew off the shelves.

A small warbler visited Magic to rest and get a drink of water on the way to the islands. She was very friendly, hopped on our legs as if we were a piece of furniture and explored both hulls of the boat. She certainly made herself at home, then mysteriously disappeared sometime after the sun went down.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a two day passage we arrived at the beautifully stark volcanic island. Tall cliffs made of jumbled gray and brown rocks formed the north side. There was no sand in sight. Pale green vegetation blanketed the steep upper slopes of the island, which is an active volcano. Its last eruption was 50 years ago, and we regularly found little bits of pumice floating in the water nearby.

We planned to anchor in a cove at the south end of the island, and thankfully there was a tiny, grey sand beach there and good holding for Magic. The beautifully curved volcanic cone rose steeply behind Magic and became a glorious backdrop during sunrise and sunset when pale pink light would paint its rippled slopes. Dark brown fingers of igneous rock reached out from the base of the cone at the south end of the anchorage. This was the wildest and most beautiful place we had ever taken our boat.

IMG_0428 (Large)The next morning a huge Pacific Manta Ray glided by close to Magic to welcome us to the island. I impulsively jumped in the warm water with my snorkel and mask to meet this wonderful creature I’ve heard so much about. Indeed, the black and white ray was friendly and curious. It made a close pass and my heart somersaulted. It flapped beautifully in the water right past me and kept on going.

Once the manta was gone I looked around and saw a six foot long shark right below me, way too close to my bare feet and I was really not ok with that. I swam about 20 feet back to Magic, swiftly but trying not to splash, my body pulsing with adrenaline.

Brian got our reef fish identification book and we looked at some photos. We hopped in the water to peer at the shark once more. We identified it as a Silky Shark, which the book said was typically wary but considered dangerous. Hmmmm. We would grow to accept this shark as our “pet Silky” over the coming weeks, because most days it could be seen circling our boat. After snorkeling with it a couple times I was satisfied it seemed sufficiently wary, although it was always on my mind when I thought about jumping into the water to cool off.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe saw sharks on nearly every dive, usually White Tip Reef Sharks or Silky Sharks. They were usually mellow and wary, but not always. We aborted one of our dives when three Silky Sharks began showing too much interest in us. They swam around nearby for a few minutes and then one of them circled us a couple times, coming between Brian and I. Brian swam over to me and smacked the circling shark on the tail with his underwater camera, but that is a story for another day.

Our fantastic memories of diving with Giant Pacific Manta Rays will always win out over the memories of aggressive sharks. The rays were the most interesting, curious and beautiful marine animals I have ever met. We’re excited to return next year and frolic with them again.

I will write more soon. It takes time to reflect on a trip like this, to make meaning of all the wonderful and difficult events, and to process all the lessons we learned.

Next Article: Encounters with Giant Manta Rays

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stopped to enjoy an amazing dive while sailing to Cabo. We anchored near Cabo Pulmo Marine Park and went diving outside the boundary of the marine park at a cove called Los Frailles. We found a tremendous school of Bigeye Trevally swimming in graceful circles at around 20-30 feet.

Swimming through the middle of these fish was dark and disorienting, but so fascinating I couldn’t stop doing it. The school was so thick they actually blocked the light from above. Below is a short video of our dive, or click here to see the longer version.

IMG_3808 (Large)Caution: This is a sexist list.

My experiences have shown me women are mostly on the receiving end of the whole “baby can I take you (backpacking, kayaking, canyoneering, mountain biking)?”

In my many years of canyoneering, climbing and biking I have only heard of three times when a woman introduced a man to an adventure sport. Yet I see men do this all the time. They are passionate about their sport and their partner, so what could be better than combining the two?

When this goes well, it goes really well. Achieving adventurous goals fuses a couple together with a bond that is much stronger than say, going to a dinner and movie together. When your romantic partner is also your activity partner, you have created an ‘adventureship’.

A couple who defines adventure as one of their strongest connection points. People in an adventureship pursue adventures together and in the process they learn to overcome challenges and work together to reach goals.

Study this list carefully, then go off and create the adventureship of your dreams!

1. How Interested is She?
So you want to invite a lady on an adventure with you. You want it to be the first of many wonderful outings together. First she must be interested in the activity. You may have some idea about her interest level from your past conversations.

It’s best if she suggests trying it herself. Then you know she will be an enthusiastic participant. If she hasn’t brought it up you could follow up a vivid description of your latest adventure with a simple comment like “it would be great if you joined me sometime”.

See how she responds. If this doesn’t get a positive response say no more. You will get nowhere by pressuring her. Your attempts to talk her into an adventure will almost always end badly.

Simply talk positively about your activities and be patient. Describe beautiful scenery and encounters with animals. Talk about how your adventures have enhanced your life or how beautiful the stars are when you get away from the city. Give her an enticing, yet accurate view of your favored activity. Focus on the positive aspects and do not brag about how tough anything is.

When you invite someone on an adventure in which you are experienced and they are not, you unwittingly become the leader. It’s important to recognize the role you’ve fallen into and consider how much experience you have leading others.

A good leader is organized. Create a gear list and double check you’ve packed everything. Photocopy the guidebook beforehand. Bring a map. Fill your car with gas and clean it before the adventure. Rather than tossing your gear in a pile in the backseat, take the time to place items in duffel bags or bins. Show you took the time to plan and organize before the adventure. This is the first step to building trust.

She will be trusting you to shepherd her through something about which she knows nothing. If you plan something and it doesn’t go well she will trust you less.

Never give orders or say out loud that you are the leader of any expedition. Conduct yourself with a quiet confidence and make her comfort and safety your top priority when making decisions. Show confidence in your role as leader and she will be more relaxed.

A good leader keeps a cool head no matter what happens. Blowing up or displaying your anxiety can really scare her when she’s depending on you.

Your goal for the adventure should be to share great experiences and create memories with someone you care about. Throw out any expectations about distance or speed. Instead, focus on her. Is she enjoying herself? That means you’re a good leader.

3. Pack Treats for Her12391129_10208105278852287_8677004293162265410_n
Think of a couple items you can secretly stow in your pack that will add to her enjoyment of the adventure. Extra water and food are always good. You can offer her a granola bar if she begins running out of steam or encourage her to drink some of your water if you notice she is running low. Consider packing an extra coat or some heat-producing hand warmer packs if weather is cold.

You can really make her feel special by bringing a favorite drink or a small pillow for her on a backpacking trip. If she loves a good steak, you can freeze one and pack it for the first night’s meal. She will swoon. Find out what her favorite foods are and then bring along the best version possible of these items. Fine chocolates, gourmet beef jerky, a fine bottle of wine or a carefully packaged slice of cake can be memorable treats in the wilderness.

You could even pack a small cooler with dry ice and ice cream, then have root beer floats in a beautiful location. The more effort you make the more impressed she will be, as long as you bring something personalized to her unique preferences.

1053488_10201579342424263_655437164_o4. Check the Weather
Weather will make or break your trip. Backpacking in the rain or kayaking in the wind will quickly kill her stoke for the activity. A sunny day with comfortable temperatures contributes greatly to the success of nearly any outdoor adventure. It’s essential to have good conditions for a first experience.

It is better to reschedule than to go out in questionable weather and have a less than wonderful experience. Her first impression of an activity, and how she feels while doing it, is powerful.

Always have a backup plan. What if you get to the trailhead and it starts raining? Make sure you know of a nearby restaurant or something else that will be fun for both of you. It’s easier to reschedule an adventure when you know you have a good plan B.

Be careful about just going for it anyway if the forecast is poor and she still wants to go. It’s best to express hesitation about the weather and then allow her to talk you into doing it anyway. Under no circumstances should you suggest continuing the activity in inclement weather if she is unsure.

11728961_10207579338500415_4058228172983668718_o (Large)5. Encourage, Encourage!
Anyone who becomes an expert at anything was once a beginner. She may have a difficult time at first and it’s your job to be positive and praise her efforts.

As she takes her first “steps” in this new activity, find things she does well and praise her for them. Do not overdo it or it may seem condescending. Make one encouraging comment soon after beginning the activity and at regular intervals after that. For example, when she pulls herself up on her first climbing hold, say “very nice” or “good job”!

6. Learn Her Pace
Everyone has a natural pace and it’s rare to find two that match. Pay special attention to how your pace compares to hers.

When one person struggles to keep up with the other they will tire more quickly and have less fun. A slower person chasing a faster person is not a sustainable way to hike together. Once you determine who has a slower pace it’s best for that person to lead most of the time.

If you begin in the lead make a conscious effort to go more slowly at first and only increase your pace when she is right behind you. Encourage her gently to take the lead if you notice her pace is consistently slower than yours.

IMG_1276 (Large)7. For the Adventure Curious: The Two Mile Rule
You have some big questions to ask yourself so you can make this a great experience.

How adventurous are her current activities? Does she enjoy challenging herself?

If she’s already adventurous you can simply show her how awesome your activities are. Once she’s had a good experience she is likely to include them in her adventure schedule.

Or, maybe she is only somewhat adventurous. She hasn’t done anything similar to the activity you have in mind. Maybe she enjoys hiking but hasn’t been on a rope. She may not be super fit or confident. She may be “adventure curious”.

Adventure Curious
: having a limited amount of experience with outdoor activities and thirsting for more. The adventure curious partner’s enthusiasm can be endearing, but this person does not realize how tough glamorous adventures can be.

There is a good possibility an adventure curious lady will learn to love adventures with you. You can show her a good time in small doses. As she grows to love something and does it more frequently she will get into better condition. Soon she will be the one suggesting bigger adventures.

Begin slowly and cautiously with an adventure curious partner. The goal of the first adventure together is to leave her wanting more. The most important thing is to make sure she doesn’t feel overwhelmed. You do not want her to wonder “how many more hours until this is over?”
For the adventure curious, your first adventure together must be rated easy or the equivalent. It must be no more than two miles (or a half day).

To the experienced backpacker, an easy two mile hike to spend one night in the backcountry sounds boring. To the inexperienced, unconditioned hiker it can present plenty of challenge and excitement. It also allows an option to retreat if conditions become uncomfortable, like all your gear gets wet in an unexpected rainstorm or a foraging rodent tears your tent apart. Sometimes things just happen.

Mountain Biking
Mountain biking is hard, even if the trail is rated easy. She will probably be challenged if it is her first ride no matter which trail you choose. Do not subject her to big climbs or descents. There will be plenty of time for that later. Remember, you want to leave her wanting more. This means taking her on a short, scenic, two mile ride. This will build her confidence. You do not want her to think “how many more miles until this is over?”

Choose a trail system with loops. If she is left wanting more at the end of the first short ride you can do another short ride, also on an easy trail. Her confidence will soar when she easily completes an adventure you have planned for her, and she will trust you more when you plan future adventures.

Technical adventures like canyoneering can be intense, and the first one should be limited to a half day or less. Make sure she’s comfortable rappelling. If you’re not sure about her experience visit an indoor climbing gym together before the outdoor adventure.

Definitely don’t teach her to rappel while doing a technical canyon. What if she hates it? There she is, stuck in a slot canyon with you. Is she going to be able to ascend the rope and get out of this mess you’ve gotten her into? It’s not going to be a good day for either of you if the first rappel doesn’t go well.

Canyoneering adventures are committing, meaning you are stuck in the canyon until certain steps are taken to complete the adventure safely. Nothing is worse than being trapped in an adventure you’re not enjoying, especially while wearing a cold wetsuit.

The sport of canyoneering can have so many variables there is no way to predict all the things which could create discomfort. It’s best to keep it short and see if she how she responds. She may get cold, dislike exposure or have gear that isn’t comfortable in confining spaces. You will definitely learn a lot by doing canyoneering adventures together. Personally, I think any canyoneering date equals at least five conventional dates!

Also, planning for a half day adventure means you free up time for breaks in the sun, picnics, stolen kisses and other pleasurable moments. You can stretch out the adventure to a full day if it’s going well, or move more quickly if she prefers.

Kayaking together to a beautiful, secluded beach for a picnic lunch would be fun for a lot of ladies and a great way to introduce her to the sport. Follow the half day rule and make sure the water you choose to paddle is rated easy. The best way to introduce her to kayaking is by renting a large, stable, double sea kayak. Paddle it on a beautiful lake together on a calm day.

Paddling separate boats or paddling on a river instead of a lake could work, but consider the added risk. She could become separated from you. She could fall out of her boat and lose her paddle. Is there a road next to the river to allow retreat if things do not go well? Keep these risks in mind as you plan your trip. Try to plan the safest trip possible and avoid any unnecessary risks.

5548_10200669233087351_1109313891_n8. What if she’s much more than adventure curious? She’s a superhero!
Does she already enjoy her own adventures without you? Great! She sounds like a good candidate for an adventureship. You still need to be cautious and learn her pace and levels of risk tolerance when you plan your first adventures together.

Her expectations will be higher than an adventure curious lady. She has already planned and led her own trips and she will expect you to be prepared, organized and thoughtful about all aspects of the adventure.

She may be hard to please. Pay attention to safety and details when planning an adventure with her and you will gain her respect. A smart approach is to join an activity with her friends and be an observant participant. You will gain valuable insights into her comfort levels and pace.

For your first outing together, encourage her to take an active role in planning. In this case you are not taking a lady on an outdoor adventure. You and she are creating an experience together. A lot of the same points apply, but the length and difficulty of the adventure are more flexible. She may continue to expect you to act as the leader if you are more experienced, and she will still appreciate treats.
Please share this post so more successful adventureships begin and flourish in 2016!

Want more adventure and romance? Read about my first date with my husband, which began with rappelling waterfalls and ended with a busted van and supersoakers.

P1070846-2 (Large)We’ve been out on our sailboat, Magic, for nearly a month now exploring the fascinating Sea of Cortez in Mexico. I had the week off from my job at the university for the holidays so we did not need to stick to our usual anchorages with cellular service. We visited a new anchorage near La Paz named Caleta Partida and found a fun surprise: mobula rays!

Brian guided Magic into an unfamiliar bay with steep, orange, rocky sides. The water was dark and deep. I spotted a group of white-finned creatures slowly cavorting around the bay near the surface of the water. I quickly grabbed the binoculars and confirmed they were rays, and at least two dozen! Now was my chance to fulfill a dream but we had to act quickly.

P1070794 (Large)We continued into the bay, anxious to drop our anchor and see if we could get in the water with the rays. As the depth became shallow the water turned a pale turquoise and we could see the white, sandy bottom. We anchored in fifteen feet of water and immediately dropped the dinghy. We zoomed away with snorkel gear in the direction of the cavorting rays.

It was easy to find them. Their white fins gently thrashed at the surface, disturbing the calm water. We stopped right next to the group, and gasped with delight as about twenty rays swooped under and around our inflatable dinghy. I put on my snorkel, mask and fins and gently lowered myself into the water. Brian waited in the dinghy to pick me up after I snorkeled with them.

P1070837 (Large)A group of rays whizzed by with mouths agape and wings gently flapping. With each flap of their brown wings a sliver of bright white belly was revealed. They were only a couple feet away and I was frozen. I was both stunned and delighted by their close proximity. I had impulsively decided to share their space without stopping to consider how they would react. Now I considered it.

I was floating there thinking hard about all this when I began to drift away from them. I turned my body to join them.

P1070827 (Large)My heart beat quickly as dozens of rays flowed all around me like silk. They allowed me to penetrate their group but always kept a few feet of distance. They seemed almost close enough to touch. They knew exactly where they were in the water and stayed out of reach. They were friendly enough, yet polite about my personal space. What wonderful creatures!

The entire group would move together, turning at the same time, marching to a hidden rhythm only they could hear. It was exhilarating to join them and see them flapping around me in every direction. I enjoyed about ten minutes with them, then Brian jumped in with them as I waited with the dinghy.

IMG_8401 (Large)Swimming with the rays was completely spontaneous. This wasn’t on any bucket list but as soon as I saw them I knew snorkeling with them was a dream to be fulfilled. This was a dream I had forgotten about, but had felt the pangs of many times in the past. Each time I saw a ray jumping in the Sea of Cortez, or heard about the groups of friendly rays in the Caymans or Hawaii I wanted to know what it would be like to swim with them.

P1070806-2 (Large)There is no way to know when nature will give us these magical opportunities. I’m so grateful this happened and that I had a camera with me at the time!

P1070383-3 (Large)The newest addition to our gypsy caravan is a fun 2001 Jeep Wrangler, which we have been towing behind our 2004 Sprinter van.

Our caravan has reached a point of perfection. We have a comfy converted Sprinter for living and a spunky little Jeep for exploring. The Jeep grants either of us the freedom to go where we want, when we want. We can enjoy 4×4 terrain not accessible to us in our van. On a more practical note, we have a spare vehicle in the event of a breakdown. And yes, the Jeep is insanely fun to drive.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s become important for us to have the freedom to do things separately sometimes. Go ahead and make your jokes that the honeymoon is over, but all the married couples out there will hear me loud and clear that a little breathing room is essential sometimes.

Brian and I got married a little over a year ago and we live together in our Sprinter van and on our sailboat. We are rarely more than 40 feet away from each other, which is like being roped together on a glacier for years at a time. Yes, we adore each other but sometimes we have different ideas about what to do and when to do it. I want to spend a lot of time with my friends. Brian wants to do endurance adventures which sound too painful for me to want to participate, like 40-50 mile trail runs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’ve done pretty well together in a small space, but we were starting to dream of a handy escape pod either of us could use whenever we wanted. We bought a Jeep from a Craigslist seller in St. George, Utah. It was reasonably priced and already had a tow bar! Score!

Immediately after buying it the Jeep began paying big dividends. I was driving it for the first time, following Brian in the Sprinter. Big, black clouds of smoke started to come out of the exhaust pipe of the Sprinter and I texted Brian frantically: “pull over!”. A hose Brian recently replaced came loose and caused the clouds of smoke. No worries, Brian hopped in the Jeep and went to the hardware store to get the correct tool to tighten the hose clamp on the new hose. Problem solved!

12029689_10153817719588072_9194444911192391510_oNext, we arrived in Springdale, Utah. Several of my friends were going to a music festival that night and I hadn’t seen them for several months. I was beyond excited to be with them and Brian wanted to relax that evening and not go out. I raced off in the Jeep and stayed out late with my friends. I felt light, elated, like the world was at my fingertips again. No longer did I need to reach consensus with my partner to go out and impulsively enjoy myself. The next evening I watched an eclipse with the same dear friends, and it became an evening I’ll always remember.

The Jeep has already proven to be a great thing for us and I’m surprised more people are not towing Jeeps behind their vans. As we began to explore the idea of towing a Jeep with our Sprinter we didn’t find much information. A lot of RVs tow Jeeps but it’s rare for a van to tow a Jeep. I think MORE vans should tow Jeeps, since it makes a nomadic lifestyle more satisfying and fun.

One of my goals for this blog is to provide useful information about living in a van, so here are the details about towing the Jeep. I am just the reporter. Brian did the work, and he did a great job!

1. Get a tow bar and trailer hitch, obviously.

2. Add an Auxiliary Braking System to the Jeep
Most RVs towing Jeeps don’t have this, but a Jeep weighs little compared to the monstrous weight of a large RV. Our Jeep weighs about half what our Sprinter does, with an approximate weight of 3,300 pounds for the Jeep and 6,300 pounds for the Sprinter. The brakes on our Sprinter would wear out quickly if they were providing braking for both the Sprinter and the Jeep being towed.

Here is how our auxiliary braking system works. When the brake pedal in the Sprinter is pressed, the auxiliary braking system also presses the brake pedal in the Jeep. We chose the SMI Stay n Play Duo auxiliary brake system and have been happy with it. Brian and our wonderful family member, Tim, installed it in several hours. It does require cutting the brake line, so be ready for that. This braking system is easy to set up each time we tow, with only a simple switch to activate it.

3. MPG
When we’re not towing the Jeep we get about 20 mpg in our Sprinter. While towing the Jeep it decreases to 15 mpg, which we are still pretty happy with.

4. Drivability
Driving the Sprinter while towing the Jeep feels good. Acceleration is a bit slower and so is braking, but otherwise driving it is a smooth experience. Brian and I have both driven it on highways and in cities and we agree it drives well. It is important to go more slowly on highways and to drive defensively in cities, but that’s true anytime a vehicle or trailer is being towed.

5. Never back up while towing the Jeep. No, really! Even if you’re an experienced trailer driver, like Brian, the Jeep is nearly impossible to back up successfully.

I hope after reading this more people with Sprinters will consider the added benefits of towing a Jeep. It has made living in a van better in many ways for Brian and I and we love our Jeep!

On a side note, it’s important to follow proper procedures when towing the Jeep. Towing it incorrectly will ruin the transmission. We had to rebuild the transmission in our Jeep soon after purchasing it, and the shop who repaired it suspected it was towed incorrectly by the previous owner. It’s important to follow a checklist and approach the towing process with the proper diligence. It’s kind of early for us to pay a big repair bill, and we’re quickly learning about the extra love a Jeep needs (and deserves).

11187269_10206829526315579_5847633943282300870_oMountain biking is hard. Really hard. But I always wanted to love it. It looked fun and exciting. Mountain bikers always had great leg muscles. So I went for it. I found a used bike with the help of my friend Matt, and then started getting my butt kicked every time I rode. I panted hard uphill and clenched the brakes in fear on each downhill. Later on these would come to be known as my “false starts”. I’m an unlikely candidate for mountain biking. I was never that good on a bike, even on flat ground.

1275927_10202205540038812_1987344339_oThen, Matt found me a husband who became my mountain biking mentor. My true love for mountain biking began. Brian encouraged me to ride regularly and fed me water and Clif bars along the way. He would call out “good job” as I pedaled hard uphill and my legs would spin faster. He’s a skilled mountain biker who enjoys long rides and bike-packing (backpacking on your mountain bike), so his huge enjoyment of the sport was also inspiring.

11312788_10207133339070708_22818522475874109_oWe traveled all over the west in our van with our mountain bikes riding on a rack on the back. We visited delicious mountain biking destinations like Moab, Sedona and Crested Butte. There’s nothing more inspiring for a new rider than to suddenly be in a place which is cherished by pretty much all mountain bikers.

We did many ten mile rides on varied terrain. My confidence grew and I wanted to try my first long ride, 26 miles on the McKenzie River Trail in Oregon. I found out what a saddle sore was about 15 miles into the ride. We quickly aborted the ride and Brian went to get the Sprinter while I rested my injured parts. The next weekend we tried again (with lots of chamois cream) and we made it! It felt incredible to complete that ride, especially after failing the first time.

11953523_10207794000266825_3665510506410659414_oWe continued riding in Colorado this summer. We rode all the classics around Crested Butte and then did a 35-mile ride on the Monarch Crest Trail! This ride began at 11,300 feet and was simply spectacular. It offered plenty of smooth single track trail through green alpine meadows and nice forest riding as well.

Now I have about 100 rides under my belt, some of them pretty long and hard. I’m stoked to have made such progress! It definitely took a lot of patience and persistence. After two years of biking I can look at my collection of rides and say that I’ve become a mountain biker.

12049549_10207762528690253_1433115202285718913_nIt feels great to have worked up to such long rides, but my skills still need some improvement. I clench my brakes hard when I ride downhill and walk a lot of technical obstacles.

Two of my girlfriends who are great riders suggested a dropper seat post and I’m going to try that when we return from the boat next spring. Hopefully it helps, because I feel too high off the ground when I ride downhill. I love my big 29er bike, but sometimes feel like an awkward 5’11” bird perched on top of a tall seat post. Lowering my center of gravity should help me bounce over rocks more safely and comfortably.

887467_10207827623187377_1105679168592285859_oI ride cautiously, and my philosophy is that this sport doesn’t have to be dangerous. I’ve ridden expert trails all over the west, increasing my skills gradually and walking anything outside my abilities. I’ve gotten tremendous exercise, seen beautiful places, and enjoyed myself a lot.

In closing I’ll share my dirty little mountain biking secret. I’ve never crashed. Not even once. Not even a small, avoid-a-big-crash-by-taking-a-little-crash crash. I’m attentive and lucky. Cautious and quick to dismount when I see a hairy obstacle. But that’s just how I am, and even cautious people like me can learn to love mountain biking!

P1030095 (Large)I like to look nice even though I live in a van. I try to get a haircut and highlights on a regular basis. Sometimes it can be a pain to find a good salon when I’m travelling.

I usually find salons by looking for five star reviews on yelp or google. I thought this would be a foolproof way to get decent results. Not so. I got burned big time by this recently. I don’t want to name the salon on my blog because that’s mean. The stylist tried her best but my hair looked terrible when I left the salon. She styled my hair in a dark corner so I didn’t even see it until I was outside. Later, I called to complain and they had me come in the next morning to get it fixed. The same stylist worked on me and I looked even worse. I didn’t go back a third time.

Have you ever had your hair ruined? Well, how about after spending over $100 on it? Yeah, then it hurts even more.

P1030110 (Large)I am fed up with random salons. My regular stylist in Boise is skilled and does a great job. Other stylists I meet out on the road are a mixed bag. A lot of them seem to not be listening. I always ask for the same thing yet wind up with very different results. The results are great only about half the time. It’s frustrating, to say the least.

I’m not ready to give up. I want bright, beautiful, freshly cut hair. I just do. I’m sure this is some sick result of my societal conditioning regarding women and beauty but it’s hard to set it aside.

I went to my regular stylist in Boise and asked if she would teach Brian how to highlight my hair. Luckily, she said yes! Brian took a short video and my stylist gave him detailed instructions on how to apply foils and carefully brush the thick, white paste on small sections of hair. She also gave us a bit of leftover dye and showed us how to mix it.

P1030120 (Large)Allowing my husband to dye my hair would be a trust building exercise. Brian was enthusiastic about trying. He’s seen how disappointed I have been after some of my salon visits. I was optimistic he could do as good a job as most salons. I promised not to be upset if it didn’t turn out well.

We mixed up some dye in the van one afternoon. Brian brushed it on one thin layer of hair. We waited in suspense for 20 minutes and then washed it. It looked great! Using the right color and applying it sparingly is just as important as a cosmetology degree, apparently.

Then the big day came when Brian would use up the rest of the product to add more highlights to my hair. The test strip had come out well so we felt like we could proceed with the bigger job. He highlighted the top layers of my hair while we sat in the van. We parked in front of the hostel in Crested Butte, Colorado for this task. They had showers there so I could wash my hair afterward.

It was fast, easy and I didn’t need an appointment. My hair turned out great! I am so happy with it. By closely following instructions and using the right product we were able to get great results.

I think we are onto something here! I am excited to forgo salon visits for awhile. Whenever I visit Boise I’ll see my fantastic stylist, but for regular touch-ups the van is my salon!

DSC00820It was a big moment: my first via ferrata. A via ferrata, or “iron road” is a protected climbing route in the mountains. This promised to be an exciting adventure. It would be a dizzying traverse across a mountainside with nothing but an iron cable affixed to the rock to keep me from falling hundreds of feet. This via ferrata, one of the top ten in the world, is in Telluride, Colorado.

There are very few via ferratas in the United States. They are much more common in Europe, where they enable climbers to travel long distances through the mountains without specialized mountaineering skills and equipment. An iron cable, iron rungs, and sometimes bridges and ladders are the only protection provided in these steep and exposed places.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI used a special tether for the via ferrata which was designed to expand like a spring if I took a hard fall. It would prevent violent jerking at the end of my tether if I came off the rock. Two tethers were attached to my rock climbing harness, and away I went! I would also recommend a helmet and pair of gloves with a rubber palm.

I spotted a couple people doing the via ferrata with absolutely no gear at all. Unbelievable! No harness, no tether, no helmet, no gloves, no pack. They were treating it like a hike. I couldn’t imagine!

It was about 9 AM when Brian, myself and about a dozen other friends gathered on the side of a mountain in Telluride. Bridal Veil falls set the background for the via ferrata, and thick forest surrounded the tall waterfall.

DSC00704There was plenty of activity as everyone assembled gear and formed a colorful, excited circle. We did a little group cheer and headed up a steep and skinny trail. This trail climbed briefly and then leveled out as it traversed along the side of the mountain. The route quickly became more exposed as it threaded its way along the side of a cliff. Anyone with a fear of heights would likely go no further, and we hadn’t even seen the portions of the via ferrata secured with an iron cable.

DSC00770We hiked along the well maintained and easy to follow trail. This was no stroll in the park, though. There was a drop of several hundred feet right next to it, within stumbling distance. I moved quickly but carefully, mindful of the exposure next to me but not worried about it. After all these years of canyoneering and big rappels I don’t have very many feelings about big drops anymore. It used to make my heart pound but now if I have a secure place to stand I feel comfortable.

DSC00828Soon the trail was too dangerous to hike without protection. A sharp corner lay ahead of us with sketchy footing underneath. An iron cable was attached firmly to the rocks and curved around the corner. We got our tethers ready and I noticed how exposed the footing was on this first corner, and it would only get more difficult from here. I haven’t done any climbing in a long time, am I ready for this? Sonny was in front of me and encouraged me to continue.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASonny and his wife Calius had done many via ferratas before and felt completely confident. Sonny offered to stay right in front of me and Calius offered to take plenty of pictures to commemorate my first via ferrata. All photos in this post were taken by them. What great friends I have! Brian was right behind me and he had done this same via ferrata a couple years ago. I felt surrounded by wonderful, supportive people and it made it easier to clip my carabiner on the iron cable, then tenuously follow Sonny around the corner.

DSC00850I moved along the cliff, tethered to the iron cable with my carabiner. I couldn’t help noticing there was a real risk of a fall of several feet. The iron cable didn’t feel as secure as being belayed during a rock climb, since there was usually plenty of slack in the tether. Plus, in the event of a hard fall the tether will expand by an additional foot to break the fall.

The traverse continued with big views of green trees under us and the city of Telluride far below. This was a place of incredible beauty. I was moving along quickly and enjoying the sights around me when I came around a corner and my breath caught in my throat.

P1020730 (Large)I had arrived at the biggest traverse on the route. I had seen pictures of it. This was the spot where people clung to little metal rungs and moved across a sheer vertical rock wall a full 500 feet off the ground. Moving my tethers correctly along the iron cable here was of utmost importance, otherwise a mistake would almost certainly mean death.

It’s essential to stay calm and mindful during activities like this. Every movement of the carabiner has to be right, every clip, every time. Fear only distracts you, making the experience more risky. Better to stay calm and place all focus on the gear and the process of moving it safely from cable to cable. I’ve learned to not even look down in situations like this. It doesn’t help.

DSC00783Sonny moved out onto the big wall, stepping from rung to rung, clipping and unclipping his two carabiners. Now it was my turn. I ventured out onto the first metal rung, which was secure and trustworthy. I moved over to the next rung, and using one hand moved my carabiners to the next portion of the cable and screwed the gates shut. I had to grip a rung with one hand and move the carabiners with the other, all with a 500 foot void below. This was the most intense part of the experience. My heart was pounding!

DSC00785There were two problems. First, my palms were sweating and it made my grip on the rungs slippery. Second, these rungs were not made for tall people. A couple of them were so close together I had to scrunch my body in an awkward position to keep my feet on one rung and my hands on the other. There were no other foot or hand holds so the rungs where necessary here. I was also forced to pause in uncomfortable positions while using one hand to move my carabiners onto the next portion of the cable. I just kept moving, rung to rung, keeping my full attention fixed on my next move. Feet, hands, carabiner. Feet, hands, carabiner. Soon I was back on solid rock and the big wall was behind me. Wow, that was exciting!

DSC00896There was still some challenging climbing ahead of us after the big wall. One section of the route was overhanging and required us to traverse a short distance while hanging from metal rungs using our arms. In the middle of the overhanging I had to rely on one sweaty hand to keep me on the rung as I moved the carabiner with the other hand. There were many surprises along this wonderful via ferrata, and soon we found a small tree right in the middle of the route! I put my arms around it in a loose embrace to grab the rock on either side, and felt almost as if I were dancing with it. We enjoyed ourselves very much on this fun route, and felt safe and protected at all times. No one took any falls that day.

P1020742 (Large)At the end of the via ferrata we found our last surprise of the day – wild raspberries! Calius and I ate many berries, Sonny ate a few, and Brian looked on with amusement. Eventually, we all headed down the mountain full of excitement over the great experience we had shared.

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P1010174-1 (Large)Our 100 mile backpack starts tonight! We’re hiking the southern portion of the JMT in California. We’ve trained by doing a couple grueling weekend trips, but we don’t have any long distance backpacking experience (yet). Our training trips have been pretty painful at times, and we hope we’ve learned enough lessons on these shorter trips to help our big trip go smoothly.

Nothing gets you ready for backpacking like backpacking, so we dove right in. We started training by doing a popular backpack called the Northern Loop in Mount Rainier National Park. It was 33 miles and about 9,000 feet of elevation gain. We did it in three days.

P1010438-1 (Large)Oh, the pain. Each day we descended 3000 feet, and then climbed 3000 feet. I read about the Northern Loop years ago and always dreamed of doing it. It’s amazing and I highly recommend it. But not as your first backpack of the season. Oh my.

The scenery was breathtaking and it helped to distract us from the physical difficulties. We hiked next to the tremendous Carbon Glacier and felt the cold breeze blowing across. We swam in shallow, warm Mystic Lake. We crossed brown, violent glacial streams, sometimes on bridges and sometimes on sketchy logs. We hiked through beautiful forests and enjoyed wonderful drinking water from small, gurgling streams. We met two fun park service employees dressed in sparkly fourth of July outfits, and invited them to camp with us at Mystic Lake. We had a lot of wonderful experiences, but each day it got harder and harder to climb with my sore leg muscles.

P1010459-1 (Large)The pain eventually wore me down, and on day three we had a fight. Brian told me I was complaining and I burst into tears. We quickly made up and decided we will do our best to avoid backpacking fights because they’re awful. There you are, in the wilderness, with one other person. The last thing you want is tension between you as you hike through a beautiful place, trying to enjoy it but not really enjoying it at all. We agreed I should plan our next trip and gather all the information for it, so I don’t feel overwhelmed by the difficulty. For the record, Brian did not pressure me to hike the Northern Loop. I was enthusiastic to do it, but also a little too optimistic about my abilities. Our long Sierras backpack will not be as difficult as the Northern Loop, so that’s reassuring.

P1010766-1 (Large)I got to work planning the next training trip. It was my birthday weekend and I was excited to hike by waterfalls and eat berries on the Eagle Creek Loop in the Columbia Gorge. It was only 22 miles with 4000 feet of elevation gain, so overall it was easier than the previous trip. We were already in the Columbia Gorge living in the van at a nice $10 campsite and canyoneering the wonderful waterfalls and creeks of the gorge. This backpack trip was right in our “neighborhood”, only a 10 minute drive.

The side of the loop with the waterfalls (Eagle Creek) was really impressive. We saw a dozen waterfalls, and the best was Tunnel Falls. The trail went behind Tunnel Falls and through a short tunnel before it emerged on the other side. Small water droplets flew in the air and lush ferns surrounded us as we prepared to pass behind the thundering falls.

P1010654-1 (Large)Once in the tunnel, the sound of the waterfall became extremely loud. The black, rocky sides and ceiling of the tunnel were dripping wet and there were some small puddles on the floor. The tunnel was about 20 feet long and tall enough to stand in comfortably. Tunnel Falls was the highlight of the backpack trip.

We also hiked through beautiful forests and foraged for blueberries and raspberries. The climbing was still painful, especially one day where we climbed nearly 3000 feet. That night my back and legs hurt badly, but then in the morning I felt ok and ready to hike again. I might be getting a little more used to those stiff 3000 foot climbs.

I can do everything with relative ease except the 3000 foot climbs with a heavy pack. There isn’t time to train more, though. The big trip is here. Brian has agreed to help me by carrying my pack up some of the 3000-4000 foot passes if I’m in as much pain as I was during our training trips. On one hand, I feel ashamed. Why didn’t I train harder, lose weight, or do more to prepare for this trip? I hate the idea of not being able to do these climbs without hurting so much.

This is no time to question the past. We talked about the upcoming backpack and decided we both really want to do it. We will do whatever it takes to make it happen. Brian says if he were hiking solo he’d be hiking hard for 10-12 hours per day anyway, so to help with my pack sometimes is no bother. It’s still a tough concept for me to swallow. It requires me to examine my independent approach to life, that I can do anything I want, that I don’t need anyone.

We’ll be doing this backpack trip as a team, and I am trying to come to terms with that. If it means Brian hikes up some of the steeper parts of the trail twice to get both our packs and I swallow my pride while he does it, then ok. That may be what it takes to complete this hike.

We will hike a portion of the John Muir Trail from South Lake to Whitney Portal, travelling over 100 miles in 14 days. During the trip we plan to summit the highest mountain in the U.S. (Mount Whitney). We’ll have no resupplies for food, so we’ll start hiking with enough to last two weeks. Food alone will weigh over 40 pounds.

I’m excited, and sure we can do this together! I’ll let you know how it goes.

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About the Author

Hi, I’m Lisa. I’m a tall, blonde superhero and I live in a van and on a sailboat with my superhero husband, Brian. I do it all. I rappel big waterfalls, scuba dive with sharks, dodge encounters with bears and wolves, and work remotely as a full time computer programmer.
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About the Van

Hi, I’m Vanifest. I’m a big, 4x4, off-the-grid van complete with solar panel for power. I'm a 2000 Dodge Ram Van and Lisa has had me since 2009. Read more about me here.


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