Category Archives: Travel

What I learned from a towering wall of Alpine ice

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Mountaineer Joe Simpson called it ‘the beckoning silence of high places’ – the lure that pulls people to the mountains, often to their most dangerous spots.

I’ve been to few places higher, or more silent, than the icy glacier that sits atop the Monte Rosa massif, the mountain chain which borders Switzerland and Italy, a sea of ice flowing down a frozen valley beneath the peaks of the Dufourspitze, Zumsteinspitze and Parrotspitze.

Six years ago this week I traversed the massif, climbing eight peaks in five days and pushing myself to limits I wasn’t even aware of.

Over the course of the week I came dangerously close to losing a glove in high winds on the Zumsteinspitze, assisted in bringing a fellow climber down after he was struck with altitude sickness, and – the payoff for repeated endurance tests – witnessed a series of incredible summit vistas.

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

I also took not-insignificant risks, one of which is pictured above. The picture was snapped as I descended from the Signalkuppe (4,554m), travelling by a hanging serac wall under the Parrotspitze (4,432m).

At the time the huge mass of ice above barely registered, despite it being mid-afternoon and a dangerous time for avalanches. I’d been climbing for 12 hours. Like the other members of the small group I was with, I just wanted to get down – and the route under the Parrotspitze was the most direct way.

In fact, given my tiredness, light supplies and the hour of the day it was the only option.

Perhaps that’s why the danger never registered at the time – when you’ve a single route forward and no way back it’s pointless to dwell on a concept like risk (or tiredness, or freezing feet, or an unquenchable thirst and a very finite amount of water in your flask).

Afterwards – if there’s an afterwards – you applaud yourself for your bravery, or dig up your photograph and write about it all.

I’m reluctant to draw life lessons from trips to the mountains, but when the Monte Rosa picture popped up on a social media feed this week it occurred to me that risk is a phenomenon that takes up as much space as you allow it to.

If you’re on a single path, to a single destination, it becomes – as it was under the Parrotspitze – simply part of the landscape.

Under the mountain - Parrotspitze, 2010

Under the mountain – Parrotspitze, 2010

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A Route 66 of my own

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

It’s 31 years since Route 66 – the blacktop mythologized by John Steinbeck as ‘the mother road’ – was decommissioned.

The highway disappeared from maps but not, of course, from popular culture. The likes of John Steinbeck – who put his fictional Joad family on the road in The Grapes of Wrath – and Nat King Cole – whose (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 became a rhythm and blues standard – took care of that, long before the last road sign was taken down in 1985.

The highway, established in 1926, ran almost 4,000km west from Chicago to Los Angeles. What started as a route for trucks became a path to a 20th century manifest destiny – the road to a place in the sun, in the golden groves of California.

It entered the American consciousness during the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s, when thousands of families from Oklahoma and Texas drove or hiked west seeking work. Route 66’s mythology was sealed in those years – a byword for migration, freedom, escape and the loneliness of a vast country.

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

During the Second World War it became a key route for transporting munitions to the ports of the west coast. The road fell to leisure use in the 1950s – a convenient route to California that ran close to the Grand Canyon and across the vast southwestern desert.

By the time I came upon Route 66 – almost 20 years ago – it had ceased to exist.

I encountered it by accident. Driving across the US in 1999 my travelling companions and I stopped in Williams, Arizona, a small town on I-40, the interstate which replaced Route 66. We only discovered when we parked up that we were doing so on side of the famed highway itself.

Steinbeck’s “long concrete path across the country…the road of flight” was quiet that day, hosting the sporadic lunchtime traffic of a small southwestern town. The ghost of Tom Joad had long since moved on.

As all of us do. Next month I will set out on a Route 66 of my own, departing Ireland for the Pacific North West. While packing possessions this week I came across a photo I took in Williams on that day in August 1999. A fitting sign, as I step back onto the Mother Road.

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

 

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The high wilderness of Lugnaquilla

Descending above Kelly's Lough, July 2016

Descending above Kelly’s Lough, July 2016

Lugnaquilla’s not a marquee mountain.

It lacks the height of Carrauntoohill, Ireland’s highest peak, or the spectacular ocean views of Brandon or Mweelrea. It’s not a pilgrim site, like Croagh Patrick, or close to a famed smuggler’s path, like Slieve Donard.

But what it lacks in pizzazz it makes up for by its wildness. It may be only an hour’s drive from Dublin but Lugnaquilla presides over a high, windswept wilderness, a landscape of moors and tarns and very few people.

For that reason it offers city dwellers short on time – or tourist hikers – a day hike do-able from the capital.

Over the years it’s offered me – depending on the season – lunar-like landscapes of snow and ice, driving rain or hours of cold, high sun. And always the wind, blowing from the Atlantic across the flat Midlands and up the ramp of Camara Hill, or from the north over the whale’s back of Mullaghcleevaun.

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

I can always get up there more often. Living in London in the 1790s, William Wordsworth would think of the mountains of the Lake District, writing “’mid the din,  Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet”.

I’m often struck by the same. And so, coming off a busy home schedule last week, I pulled out my boots, emailed friends and arranged a hike to the ‘Hollow of the Wood’.

Having tried many routes over the years the most favourable ascent, to my mind, is that from Glenamalure, a glacial valley to the mountain’s north, reportedly the longest of its kind in Ireland and Britain.

This was the remote place where Irish rebel Michael Dwyer hid out from the British at stages in the years after the 1798 rebellion. It’s easy to see why – the nearest sign of civilisation, the townland of Aghavannagh, is known to locals as “the last place God made”. Even at the 9am in the height of summer our group were the only ones setting out from Baravore ford at the head of the valley.

The route up is navigationally easy. A path leads past a youth hostel and up into the heart of the Fraughan Rock Glen, where the first of three steep pulls, alongside an unnamed river (surging in winter), brings you up  into a cwm below the summit itself.

This is where the isolation of Lugnaquilla becomes apparent. On the many occasions I’ve ascended this way I’ve rarely encountered other hikers in the huge, grassy, stream-streaked bowl.

Summit - 925m

Summit – 925m

On crossing the cwm the ground gets steeper, before levelling out at the foot of the final ascent, which brings you onto the saddle of the mountain.

This flat, barren landscape can present navigation problems. But a combination of timing and sheer luck last Saturday saw us reach it just as the clouds cleared, revealing the Glen of Imaal to the west and the Irish Sea to the south east.

However, with thundershowers forecast this was no place to linger. After a brief breather at the summit cairn (925m) we descended to the east, across to Clohernagh (800m), which hangs above Kelly’s Lough, one of the highest lakes in the Wicklow Mountains.

From there we descended to the cliffs at Bendoo, where we picked up the head of the ‘Zig Zags’, a trail which provides a knee-testing descent back down to Glenmalure.

We didn’t waste time, completing the 15.5km walk in four and a half hours – clocking up a 800m ascent in the process.

As for wildness, we had it in spades. We encountered no-one on the ascent, a couple of hikers on the summit and perhaps a dozen descending the Zig Zags.

For much of the hike we could have been walking hundreds of years earlier, alongside Michael Dwyer or Wordsworth, feeling – as the latter put it:

A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky…
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Always bring a map – in this case OS 56

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Every picture tells a story, or does it?

New York, 2003.

New York, 2003.

The past picks curious times to come back and haunt you.

As I picked through boxes of old paperwork last weekend a picture fell out. There I was, back in the early Noughties, looking bedraggled as I perched on the edge of a bunk bed in a divey hotel room.

The image is black and white, which suits the grimy surroundings of the place – a fleapit hotel north of 100th Street on New York City’s Upper West Side.

At least I think it was.

I’d like to write that the picture brought me back, unlocking a store of memories from the time. But this room’s closed to me. I’ve no idea what circumstances led me to the hotel, though a shortage of money on a trip to the city was surely the cause.

Likewise this was – I think – taken on a visit during which my friend S and I played a series of open mics, but in the absence of any instruments I can’t say for sure (is that a leaning guitar case on the right hand side?)

As for my shoeless tee-shirt look, I’d most likely put that down to a late night – of which there were a few at the time. Or, more charitably, it could be the sweat of humping a backpack and a guitar case uptown on the subway. Or the absence of AC in a $50-a-night room.

It’s the sort of image that calls for a good backstory, that cries out for a New York anecdote to put Patti Smith’s Just Kids to shame. But if there was one, it’s gone.

That’s sobering. How many more days, weeks or months have I lived and lost to memory? Conversations, experiences, thoughts and emotions that will never be recalled? All pushed out by a new password or a shopping list or an email I’m writing to a colleague.

At least it looks like I had a blast, somewhere in New York, sometime in 2003.

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Venice – five ways

Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone – but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear…

La Serenissima was already sinking when Byron wrote his famous verses about the city more than 200 years ago. Nowadays the city is subsiding into the surrounding lagoon at the rate of 2mm a year.

Not that it matters to most of us. The waves could be lapping at the altar of St Mark’s Basilica and it would still be crowded with visitors. I suspect that even in the depths of winter, amid fog, rain and blasts from the bora, the sidestreets around the Piazza San Marco and the market stalls of the Rialto are still full of sightseers.

But that’s no reason not to go, and so I found myself standing on the Viale Giardini Pubblici last week, as the April sun sank behind the Salute and the last light of day fell across the Grand Canal and onto the Riva degli Schiavoni.

The great landmarks of Venice – San Marco, the Canal, the Salute – are well known and well populated. But there’s another Venice to the one trodden by cruise-ship groups and tired families, of course. Here’s five ways to experience Venice that mix up the well-known with the less visited.

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Early evening libations in Harry’s Bar

This simple decor of this small room, where Giuseppe Cipriani opened a bar in a former rope warehouse 85 years ago, belies its reputation as one of the world’s most famous watering holes. The home of the carpaccio, the bellini and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, it serves a fine Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail with a ‘doppio’ measure – Papa would hardly approve of anything less.

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A stroll around Peggy Guggenheim’s pad

After stints in London and Paris the bohemian art collector Guggenheim settled in Venice in 1949, setting up residence in a 18th century palazzo on the Grand Canal, which housed her collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Futurist and Abstract Expressionist paintings. Her house now serves as a gallery for the paintings. The view above is from her living room, through a window nestled between a couple of Kandinskys.

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Crossing the lagoon to lunch in Burano

“A wide brackish waste surrounds it, exuding dankness…it is a muted scene…but in the middle of it there bursts a sudden splurge of rather childish colour…this is Burano”. So wrote Jan Morris of this small island, home in its heyday to fishermen and lacemakers. Forty-five minutes across the lagoon from Venice, it’s a million miles away in spirit. Small, house-proud, well-swept and very well-painted, Burano is a reminder that the people of the Venetian lagoon were – before the yachts, celebs and royalty – ordinary seafarers and merchants.

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Browsing the gondolas at Libreria Acqua Alta

This bookstore has a novel (sorry) way of keeping its stock dry from flooding – sticking the titles into gondolas. That’s not the only gimmick in this chaotically-shelved shop – a series of steps in the backyard are made of old encyclopedias, while canoes and other odd vessels can be found crammed with paperbacks.

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On the waterfront at the Viale Giardini Pubblici

We rented an apartment for our stay in the quiet Castello district, near to the Giardini Pubblici, the gardens created by Napolean Bonaparte when he took control of the city in the early 19th century. The quayside fronting the Giardini is remarkably quiet, used mainly by local strollers and joggers, yet affords beautiful views west along the Grand Canal, taking in the Salute, the Campanile di San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. ‘States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die’…anyone for an aperitif at the Danieli?

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Skipping the masterpieces in the Uffizi

In 20 or 30 years I might suddenly feel bad about it –
Stuck in traffic somewhere, or in a supermarket queue,
Assuming that cars and foodmarts haven’t gone the way of the Medicis by then.

But what person could stand in a gallery – even in the Uffizi – when they could sit
Above the Arno and the moving city on this April morning.

I can see it, stuck at the wrong party beside the wrong person,
Who’s just asked the wrong question.
“How could you visit the city and not see the Venus?”

And I’ll respond then – as I respond now –
“I saw Venus come out of the river, a badger with a fish in her mouth,
And Florence alive above her” .

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What a two-decade old photo taught me

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Nevada was in the news this week.

And not the good Nevada – the 24 hour, ‘where’s my credit card, actually where’s my trousers?’ Vegas Strip Nevada. Or the eerie lunar landscape Nevada, beloved by hippies. Or even the escape-from-everything-and-start-anew Nevada.

Nope. Instead we had the Nevada of furious politicking, of promises and press conferences, of caucuses and crackpots. Of, worse still, Donald Trump.

But the headlines from the Silver State put me in a nostalgic mood, as did a picture I came across, taken by a friend en route from California to Nevada almost 20 years ago.

It shows a 21-year-old, tired and likely hungover, Irishman posing on a sandy hillside in bleaching sunshine, the desert floor in the distance. My recollection is that this was taken in August 1999, somewhere west of Death Valley on Route 190, shortly before a group of pals and I drove into the basin and on to Las Vegas.

The previous evening had been spent sleeping in the backseat of our rental van parked somewhere on the edge of Yosemite National Park. The following night was a sleepless one, which started with a spectacular thunderstorm on the Vegas city limits and ended at 6am the next morning, sipping refreshments in the dollar slots and wondering where the last 12 hours went.

Then, after a couple of hours’ sleep, we drove out of Vegas and across the United States.

As can probably be gathered from the picture above, my worries at the time barely extended beyond the ensuring 24 hours.

I recall that I had to get to New York City by a certain date to catch a flight back to San Francisco. I had nowhere to stay on the West Coast but I figured that would work itself out. In the end it did, via a payphone call from a Greenwich Village bar to pals in the Sunset who had a spare mattress on their floor.

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After that I had a flight booked out of SF to Dublin. Friends were returning to college or work but I didn’t have a job lined up, or a place to live. It didn’t bother me much. It worked itself out too. The rest, as always, is history. Here I am.

That brief, blazing roadside stop on 190 came to mind this week as I spent too much time testing my blood pressure limit, reading about megalomaniacal politicians, the cracks in the Chinese economy, the weakening of the euro  – all the good psychic dread stuff.

As I did it occurred to me that I need to balance this stuff up. I need to let go more often, to let the future happen.

Above all, I need that guy in the photo to swing by for an hour a week, to set me straight. And I need his hair.

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London – five ways

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

“Go to London! I guarantee you’ll either be mugged or not appreciated. Catch the train to London, stopping at Rejection, Disappointment, Backstabbing Central and Shattered Dreams Parkway.”

Dr Johnson drew one of these conclusions, Alan Partridge the other.

London’s usually been more Johnson than Partridge for me, mainly because I visit and don’t live there, thereby avoiding the huge rents and long commutes of a life spent living in or near the British capital.

Having seen most of the sights over the years my visits nowadays are weekend breaks with my other half, or to visit friends. Over time I’ve found a number of tried-and-tested spots in the city, tried and tested. Here, in the spirit of a recent post about New York, are five ways into London.

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Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Waking up in Soho

With my dignity intact, hopefully. We usually stay near Portland Place, an office-tastic enclave that’s just five minutes’ walk from Soho Square. A year or so ago, walking along a side street off the Square we came across Milkbar, a small brew room serving coffee hailing from the unlikely bean hotspot of Stockholm. A flat white order necessitates a hipsterish 10-minute wait in a mostly-empty room, but it’s worth it.

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Bookshopping, Edwardian style

If I’d a Ulysses first edition for every time I’ve heard a store labelled ‘a temple of books’ I’d be, well, probably buying armfuls in Daunt Books. Less a temple and more a neatly-kept church of reading, the bookshop – on Marylebone High Street – boasts an impressive gallery-style main room, lined with travel and history books. Daunt Books is known for the two genres, but elsewhere there’s plenty of the usual fiction, literary tea towels, pricey Moleskine-type notebooks and posters too. The main room’s the gem, though.

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A pint, a paper and a pooch

Away from the crammed dens of Soho the gentlemanly Masons Arms in Fitzrovia is the type of London pub you read about but usually find full of tourists or stressed office drinkers. Come here on a weekend and you might meet Hector (ab0ve), a French bulldog and regular. Aside from his company the bar offers four cask ales, four storeys of floral displays to the building and oddly (or perhaps not so oddly, all told) also does a sideline in Thai food. And the counter tops are perfectly-sized for newspaper reading – a vintage pub all round, then.

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Nose-to-tail nibbling

It’s not big and it’s not clever – which is why I try make it to St John Bar and Restaurant whenever I’m in London. Fergus Henderson’s ethos and reputation is well documented, as is his roast bone marrow and parsley salad. This time we skipped the restaurant, opting for a table in front of the bakery and a nibble through the bar menu. What to order after smoked mackerel, black pudding under fried egg and Welsh rarebit? How about the plate of Beenleigh Blue, Innes log, Federia and Riseley, washed down by the house’s own label cabernet-syrah? Which left just enough room for the burned cream at the end.

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Sweating it off in the royal circle

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”, said one of the city’s famous sons. In my case the palace of excess on St John Street led to a road of martyrdom around Regent’s Park the following morning. The Outer Circle run clocks in at 4.5k, but any dawn excursion should go straight through the park itself, taking in the lake and gardens. You could walk, of course – this being a city known for its genteelity – but where’s the excess in that?

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Travelling 4,600 miles for a decent sandwich

Luc Lac pork banh mi, with salad and broth. Pic Clare Kleinedler

Luc Lac pork banh mi, with salad and broth.
Pic Clare Kleinedler

Want to try the world’s best sandwich?

Fly to Portland, Oregon, take a cab from the airport direct to the corner of 2nd Avenue and Taylor Street, walk into Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen and order the grilled pork banh mi.

The commute might cost a few hundred euro but the sandwich itself is just $8. If it’s the middle of winter (as it was when I ate there) and you’re feeling flaithulach, go for a bowl of broth on the side.

This is a lunch which could restore your faith in many things – the much-abused art of the sandwich, pork with proper flavour, humanity itself (if your visit follows 17 hours of  flight and a chilly morning dodging showers blown up from the Willamette).

We discovered this when we hit Luc Lac a day or two before Christmas, our heads still somewhere over the mid-Atlantic, in need of sustenance.

Our knackered palettes rejoiced. The moist pork was mouth-melting, the part-rice flour bun the right side of light, the broth a restorative to rival Jameson’s finest. It was the Greatest Sandwich In the World.

Ok, I may be exaggerating. Just a little. I’ve had plenty of good sandwiches in recent times, and even a few good Vietnamese ones (not least at my father-in-law’s LA staple Golden Deli) – but none of the latter in Dublin.

It’s not for want of shoe leather. For the past couple of years my wife and I have sought out a banh mi whenever we’ve spotted a new Vietnamese place in our home city. Finding these eateries is easy because there’s so few of them – Vietnamese food hasn’t made the same inroads on the Irish palate as Chinese or Japanese.

All about the baguette. Pic: chrisandhilleary

All about the baguette.
Pic: chrisandhilleary
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My favourite in Dublin, Pho Ta in Temple Bar, serves banh mi but not on a rice baguette. The situation is similar at Aobaba on Capel Street – the filing’s the familiar pork but the bun’s all too Irish. Walk up to Parnell Street’s Pho Viet and you’ll get a great pho ga (chicken noodle soup) but won’t find a banh mi on the menu.

A discreet ‘what’s up with the bread?’ enquiry to a staff member at one of these places yielded the answer that no bakery in Ireland makes baguettes using rice flour. Yet.

Given Dublin’s bread revolution this situation will surely change soon. After all, 4,600 miles is a little far to travel for a sandwich.

Unless you’ve tried Luc Lac’s grilled pork baguette.

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Winter hiking above the Angels

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Ascending the fire road

I was probably half way, and two pints of sweat, in before I thought: “this is a good idea”.

After all, who hikes on their Christmas break while battling eight time zones of jet lag and seasonal quantities of food and drink?

That’s the question I asked as my brother-in-law and I pulled into a parking lot above the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena last week, just after the Christmas weekend.

We’d promised each other an easy ramble in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Of course it never works out that way.

Thirty minutes in and the gentle grade up through Millard Canyon already reminded me that no amount of flat running or biking can prepare your thighs for the upward pull of a brisk hike.

But the clear, crisp canyon breezes and southern California sun made for an easier trek than my last mountain outing in winter, a wind and rainswept day on Lugnaquilla.

Keeping on track

Staying on track

As we ascended, below us, in eerie green-brown silence, lay a city of 10m people. Ahead – with the exception of a stray biker or two – the path was clear. The city of Los Angeles, that great mechanised metropolis a mile or two away, was just another part of the scenery – alongside the lightening-battered weather stations or the broken-up fire road we were hiking on.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” wrote John Muir, the high priest of the Sierra (who I doubt ever troubled himself with as minor as hike as Brown Mountain). I’d add that it’s also the clearest way into one’s mind, particularly a mind sedately muddled by the temptations of the holidays.

By the time we came out at the Brown Mountain Road junction (710m – an ascent of 400m from our start 80 minutes earlier) our minds were clear of anything but the desire to drink water and photograph the views – south to the Pacific Ocean and north and west into canyons of wilderness.

We could have gone on of course – with the summit ‘just’ another 650m up. But common sense – or the part of it which resides in tiring leg muscles – prevailed. Not before a speedy, if dusty, descent down into the City of Angels though.

On the way we even briefly encountered that rarest of phenomena – Los Angeles rain. Winter hiking indeed.

View from Brown Mountain Road Junction.

View south from Brown Mountain Road Junction

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