Michael Meets Machu Picchu – Grand Junction, CO Training Hikes (May 2019)

My fifth and final mountain training took me back to one of my favorite locations, Grand Junction, Colorado on May 16 – 27.  Grand Junction is an ideal place for hikers since its situated in a valley (Gran Valley) surrounded by mountains on all sides – the Book Cliffs to the north, Grand Mesa to the east, Dominguez, to the south and Colorado National Monument to the west. Getting to any of the hiking trails is only a 20 minute to one-hour drive by car.

My three Colorado guides, Janis Koppang, Linda Lynch and Marlys Laugsand, all live there and are avid mountain hikers. I first met Linda at Ski for Light (annual cross-country skiing event for vision and mobility impaired individuals) in 2017.  She then introduced me to Janice and Marlys during my first training hike in Grand Junction in April 2018.

 

My two-hop flight on Thursday, May 16, from Houston to Denver and Denver to Grand Junction were fairly uneventful, although there was some heavy turbulence on the second hop that interrupted my nap.  I had a long layover in Denver and had a chance to have a relaxing lunch at a Smash Burger in the Denver International Airport.

Michael standing in front of Smash Burger sign with two big-screen TVs in the background in Denver Airport
Michael standing in front of Smash Burger sign with two big-screen TVs in the background in Denver Airport

When I arrived at the Grand Junction airport, Janice picked me up and we went back to her place where I would be staying for the next 12 days.  After getting settled in to her spare bedroom and catching up, we went to meet up with some of her friends for dinner at a nice little Italian restaurant, Pantuso’s.

The next day (Friday), I was eager for my first mountain training hike in the mountains.  My guides, Linda and Marlys, took it easy on me for my first day out as they led me on Hawkeye Trail. It was a near perfect day for hiking with temperatures in the 50’s and partly cloudy skies.  Hawkeye is a moderate rated trail of 7.7 miles out and back with an elevation change of about 1200 feet. By the way, Janice, who will be going with me to Machu Picchu, had grand jury duty and could not make this training hike.

 

Hawkeye Trail is not very steep since it has so many switchbacks, and I mean lots of switchbacks. We didn’t encounter any other hikers on the trail. This is also a favorite local mountain biking trail and so we encountered numerous bikers coming and going.

 

There were numerous types of wildflowers in bloom all along the trail.  Linda and Marlys could name every flower and cactus we encountered.  Pink flower growing out of some rocksLinda is a bit of a horticulturist and said her sister often texts her photos of plants, flowers and trees to have her identify them.

I did have one little incident on the way down the mountain. I had just taken a medium step down off of a rock.  I lost my left foothold on some uneven rocks and did a face plant onto a small flat rock and some short prickly shrubs just to the left of the trail.

Linda was in front of me and Marlys was behind me. I know they must have felt helpless as they reached out for me as I was falling and there was nothing they could do. No serious blood was spilled, only a slight ego bruise for being so clumsy. I hate it when that happens.

On Saturday morning, I took it easy and went to Janice’s fitness center, Mesa Fitness, and got in a very short 1-hour upper body and core strengthening workout.

56815922_10156897827641011_1878218576117104640_nThere was lots happening in town this weekend.  The Grand Valley Scottish Games and Celtic Festival, Grand Junction Off-Road Bike Race, and Four Peaks Downtown Music Festival, to name a few.

 

Janice and I decided to take in the Scottish Games and Celtic Festival in the early afternoon. On the way to the festival, we stopped off to visit some friends, Irene and Gary Jessen.  Irene is a stained-glass artist and every window of her home is filled with a piece that she has created over the past 40 years.

She primarily does stained-glass creations as a hobby and rarely sales any of her work.  She will give her pieces to friends and family or donate pieces for charitable fund raisers.  After seeing a gorgeous geisha she had displayed in her bedroom, I was in love.  I asked Irene if she would create a piece for me similar to that one and she agreed.  However, she said it may be a while since she was working on two other pieces for other friends.

Irene is a truly remarkable woman.  She has stage 4 cancer and has been undergoing chemo treatments for the past 10 months.  But you would never know it by being around her.  She has a joy and will to live life to the fullest and serve and see that others’ needs are met in spite of her personal pain and circumstances.  God bless you, Irene!

When Janice and I got to the Celtic Festival, we were pretty hungry so we started checking out the food vendors.  We saw a couple of guys walking by wearing kilts and thought they looked pretty authentic in their Scottish garb and asked them, “What’s the best food here?”  They both immediately replied “BBQ.”  Yeah, right, we were not about to get BBQ at a Celtic festival.

They then pointed us to the vendors selling meat pies and

Michael standing in front of Gordon clan tent with two Scots from teh clanoff we headed.  I had a traditional shepherd’s pie and Janice had some kind of curry chicken pie.  I was a bit disappointed that there were no Scottish eggs anywhere on the festival grounds.  It’s been years since I have had a Scottish egg.

There were a number of exhibitors that were representing Scottish clans, but I never found a McCulloch clan, the other half of my family heritage.  We did stop off and talk with a couple representing the Gordon clan.  It turns out the the Gordons were actually formed by a group of people that had been kicked out of their original clans. So, Janice and I were adopted into the Gordon clan on the spot.

Another interesting exhibitor was the 79th New York Highlanders guard unit that fought in the Civil War.  They were dressed in official looking uniforms and showed us replicas of the weapons used during the era.  Also, we learned that the guard unit was authorized to carry a special flask by President Lincoln for their Scotch whiskey.  We told them we had gone to the Scotch tasting tent earlier, but decided to skip it when we learned that it cost $45 for 5 small shots of various whiskeys. They promptly pulled out their flasks and offered us a shot of their Scotch!

 

We finished up by watching a few Scottish bagpipe marching bands play and then headed back downtown for the Music Festival being held there for the weekend.

When we got downtown, we found there were three stages set up several blocks apart for the various bands that were playing.  We listened to a couple of bands and drank some of the local beer.

 

 

We ran into Irene and Gary at the last stage where a jazz band was playing.  After a while we were getting hungry and decided to get some sushi., but the sushi place was not open yet.  Irene was getting tired and so they decided to call it a day.

 

Michael ordering fish tacos at Surfing Salman food truck

Janice and I wandered around and found a fish taco vendor and had some yummy salmon and cod tacos. After chowing down the fish tacos, we listened to one more band before calling it a day ourselves.

 

On Sunday morning Janice took me to Liberty Cap Trail for my second mountain training hike. There were a few more clouds than on my first training hike, but still no rain. Temperatures were perfect for hiking, in the upper 40’s starting out and holding in the 50’s for the entire hike.

Liberty Cap was a moderate 4.7-mile out and back trail with an elevation change of 1500 feet.  It had some very steep rock steps throughout which was great training for the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

 

I got a little dizzy at one point during the ascent, but after a short break, felt strong the remainder of the hike. As we were climbing up the steep sections, I kept thinking to myself (and dreading) about having to come back down this same trail.

After ascending the Lower Liberty Cap (about 2 miles) we decided to check out the Corkscrew Trail. It would be a little easier hike for the descent back down the mountain. Boy, was I relieved that we would not have to hike back down the Liberty Cap Trail.

But that relief was short lived.  Janice remembered that there had been a rock slide on Corkscrew Trail during the past winter. After hiking a little less than half a mile, she called the Colorado National Monument Visitor Bureau to see if that rock slide had been cleared.

They told us that the trail was still too dangerous to hike, so we turned around and headed back to go down Liberty Cap. The extra 3/4-mile hike was not a waste though, because we encountered some historic cattle fencing and gates along the way. Even though I was dreading going back down Liberty Cap Trail, my fears were unwarranted as Janice led me back down safely and without incident.

 

Monday turned out to be a bit of a play day as well as a workout day for my third mountain training hike.  For a little variety, my three Colorado guides, Linda, Janice and Marlys, took me snow shoeing on the Grand Mesa (about an hour northeast of Grand Junction). With all the snow they had this past winter and spring, there was still a 3-foot base with fresh snow this past week. We even got some new snow while we were out.

Janice had an extra pair of snow shoes that I could use and I could add a snow-baskets onto my hiking poles so I was all set.  Oh yeah, and Janice loaned me a pair of extra gaiters, but they were a bright pink.  I looked so cute!

We parked near a service road and decided to hike up the unused road/trail. There were no tracks on the trail, so we were fortunate to be the first ones to hike it since the last snow.

 

The trail was not very steep, but a steady climb over the three miles out and back. We started out at 9770 feet elevation and climbed to 10,014 feet.

It was such a fun day as we joked and laughed along the hike, making snow angels, feeding birds (they don’t like green M&M’s) and sharing snacks. When it started snowing, we had to try catching snowflakes on our tongues, of course. Oh, we also got in a pretty good workout.

 

At the point where we reached 9950 feet, Linda suggested we should climb a small ridge off the trail for the additional 50 feet to reach our 10,000-foot goal. Well, that was easier said than done. It was very steep, going up the 50 feet in about 100 feet. My snow shoes came off twice during the ascent, but we made it to 10,014 feet and claimed victory.

 

After we descended the ridge, we looked for a place to stop and have a snack break.  There were no easily accessible rocks to sit on, so we just stood and ate our snacks right on the trail.

After our snack break, we heading back down the trail.  When we got back to the car, we began looking for a place to have a late lunch.  We found the Blink Coffee House open and had some of the best pork green chili that I have ever had.  Some of the ladies also tried the chicken poblano soup which they said was also very yummy. I always have the greatest time when I hang out with these three lovely ladies!

Tuesday was also a day of leisure and exercise as Janice took me tandem bike riding.  Originally, we were supposed to meet up with some of her other friends about halfway along the trail.  However, they all cancelled the night before or earlier that morning due to the forecast of rain.  Janice and I waited a couple of hours and the sun came out and it turned out to be a beautiful day in the upper 50’s.

We rented the tandem bike from Brown Cycle shop in town. They had two types of tandem bikes, one was the standard bike with the rear rider having fixed handle bars.

Michael and Janice standing next to tandem bike at Brown Cycle ShopThere was also a special one they had modified to have the second rider in a recumbent type seat on the front of the bike.  We did a practice run on that one and I felt very vulnerable in the front and lower to the ground.  Also, Janice felt like it was harder to steer and control this bike. We opted for the standard tandem bike.

We rode from downtown Grand Junction to a small town to the west called Fruita. The bike trail we took follows along the Colorado River and was aptly named Riverside Trail. It was a fairly easy 26-mile round-trip ride through various types of terrain.

We first stopped at the new facility of Colorado Discover Ability, a non-profit organization that supports people with disabilities and veterans to participate in numerous outdoor adaptive recreational activities.

The facility was a warehouse type building and contained all types of bikes for people with disabilities, rafts, kayaks and other equipment. Additionally, it housed their office and had room for expansion. We also learned that we could have rented a tandem bike from them at about half the cost of what we paid at Brown’s.

The bike trail took us by neighborhoods, industrial areas, desert areas, farm land, ranches and a golf course. We went through several underpasses which had a myriad of colorful paintings by local artists on the walls of the underpass. There were a couple places along the trail where we had to stop and walk the bike through some very narrow 90-degree turns.

 

At times the trail followed very close to the river where I could hear the rushing water flow.  Being by the river, the bike trail was fairly flat for the most part.  There were a few sections of the trail where we had to drop into lower gears to make it uphill.

When we got to Fruita, we found a McDonald’s with outdoor seating to take a rest break. We ordered some coffee and ate our snacks while we basked in the warm Colorado sunshine.

Michael relaxing at an outdoor table at McDonald's and eaning against a wall

After our break, we rode a short distance to see the Western Slope Vietnam War Memorial.  A local Fruita Vietnam vet had organized a fundraiser to build the memorial which had plaques with names of veterans killed in the Vietnam conflict similar to the memorial in Washington, D.C.  There were sculptures of a mother and father welcoming home their son from war and on top of the memorial was a helicopter from that era with U.S. flags around the top perimeter.

 

Michael and Janice standing next to tandem bike in front of Brown Cycle shop with arms raised in victory sign at the end of the ride

We then got back on the bike and began our 13-mile ride back to Grand Junction. We took a more leisurely pace on our return ride.  When we got back into town, I shot a short video to capture our triumphant return to the Brown Cycle shop.

Since I had not been on a tandem bike in over a year and a half, my legs got a great workout. And my butt got good and sore for the next three days!

 

We had another outstanding day of hiking on Wednesday (mountain training hike 4) as my guides for the day, Linda and Janice, led me on the Palisade Rim Trail. The parking lot and trailhead started on one side of the highway and there was an underpass to hike through to get to the other side where the main part of the trail ascended Palisades Rim.

 

However, because the water was up from all the snow melting, we had to take a temporary trail which took us over the highway. The trail was an easy to moderate 5.2-mile out and back with and elevation change of about 600 feet. I needed this easy trail after the 26-mile tandem bike ride the day before.

 

The temperature was perfect for hiking, in the low to mid 50’s. We did encounter a little rain on the way down, but it lasted only about 10 minutes. We only needed to cover our heads and did not even need our rain gear.

 

The trail winded through many boulder areas and rock formations. The backdrop of the valley below and the opposing canyon walls made for some great photo ops. At the mid-point of the trail we found some huge rocks with numerous petroglyphs of deer, big horn sheep and other animals.  I even found one rock with a hole in it that looked like a good place for rattle snakes to hide out.  However, poking around with a stick for a bit proved me wrong.

 

After the hike, Linda needed to get back home to take care of some errands. Since we had brought two cars, Janice and I decided to drive into the little town of Palisades.  We ended up at the Slice O Life Bakery and enjoyed some tasty turkey sandwiches. They also have some delicious bread and many pastries and cookies there.

I just can’t say enough for these amazing women who provide me step-by-step instructions to get me up and down these mountains safely and provide their invaluable hiking knowledge.

After Janice and I got back to her place, we cleaned up and rested a bit.  Then, we headed to the WAC (Wednesday Afternoon Club) at Enzo’s Bar.  This is a group of singles that meet for happy hour every Wednesday at various bars/restaurants around town.

Most of Thursday was pretty much a wash as it rained all day.  It was such a lazy day. I did manage to get in a 1-hour upper body and core strengthening workout. Then Janice and I headed over to REI to do some final Machu Picchu preparation shopping.

Later in the afternoon, I crashed an RCS (River City Singles) women’s garden party hosted by Peggy. There were about 9 women in total and me, the only guy allowed. We also celebrated birthdays for Fran and Ella. Janice and I had picked up some red noses from Walgreen’s a few days earlier, so we also celebrated Red Nose Day.

 

Peggy was such a great hostess and served a delicious meal.  These beautiful ladies were a real hoot!

 

On Friday, for my fifth mountain training hike, Linda and Janice took me across the state border into Utah to hike Fisher Towers Trail in the Moab area. Eric Johnson also joined us for the hike.

This moderate trail was 5.2 miles out and back with an elevation gain of a little over 1000 feet. Although this was my second time to hike this trail, I still consider it to be the most technical and unique hikes that I’ve done.

Since it was the start of Memorial Day weekend, we encountered quite a few hikers coming and going. There were even two couples with the dads carrying their little ones in child carrier backpacks!

We also saw rock climbers scaling a pinnacle of 1000 feet. The area was a maze of soaring fins, pinnacles, minarets, gargoyles, spires, hoodoos and strangely shaped rock formations.

Side note:  In the late 1940s, the legendary filmmaker, John Ford, discovered the rugged beauty of Moab’s Canyonlands and filmed the first of many movies here. The first major motion pictures filmed in the Moab area were set on Red Cliffs Ranch, not far from Fisher Towers Trail. Wagon Master, Rio Grande, Son of Cochise, Warlock, The Commancheros, Cheyenne Autumn, and many others used the ranch and its magnificent scenery as a backdrop.

Throughout the hike, the trail constantly ascended and descended and had sections of uneven rock steps and slip rock. Some could be walked straight on and others required side-stepping due to the steepness. About mid-way along the hike, there is a little drop off section of the trail that requires climbing an 8-foot ladder to continue on the trail.

At the trail’s end, I met a young lady, Becca from Maryland, who was nice enough to let me join her out on a rock ledge overlooking the canyon and get a few pics.

My guides (especially Linda) always get apprehensive and a bit frustrated with me whenever I go out on a high ledge like this. I know they are just concerned about my safety and I love them dearly.

Saturday was another day of leisure and light exercise. In the morning, I went to Mesa Fitness Center and did a 1-hour inclined treadmill warmup and a 1-hour upper body and core strengthening session.

In the afternoon, Linda took me to the Junior College (JuCo) Division I World Series. We got to see the last four innings of the Walters State vs. Cowley game (not sure where the schools are located) in which Walters State won. Then, we watched the first five innings of the Navarro College (Corsican, Texas) vs. Chipola College (Marianna, Florida) game in which Navarro was leading when we left.

Linda did an awesome job of calling play-by-play so I could keep up with what was going on in the games. There were a couple of plays that I had never seen before in a baseball game.

First, the pitcher balked with no one on base and a 3-2 count on the batter.  The batter was awarded first base.  The second play was a double steal with men on first and second.  There was such chaos in trying to throw out the runners and get them in a run down.  Eventually, the runner on first went back to first and the runner on second made it all the way home.  Kind of reminded me of some of the plays in my 7-year old granddaughter’s softball games.

This is the same field where the Grand Junction Rockies play (AAA minor league team for the Colorado Rockies). It is such a gorgeous field right in town with the mountains in the background of the outfield fences.

Also, this was the first time I had been to a game in an outdoor field (other than a high school game or little league) since going to college games at Rice U. It was an absolutely beautiful day to be watching baseball outdoors, and eating hot dogs, popcorn and peanuts.  I had such an eximious time!

On Saturday evening, I went to see some live music with Linda and John at The Radio room in the WAFM studios.  A group called CupaJo, out of Denver, was performing. They played Funk, Chicago blues, New Orleans R&B, Jazz and early style rock ‘n’ roll. The opening act, Bittersweet Highway, a folk style duo, was also really good.

On Sunday, I went with Janice and Eric to Rattlesnake Arches Trail for my sixth mountain training hike. Janice was my only guide on Rattlesnake Arches, an easy to moderate hike of 6.2 miles out and back with an elevation change of about 1000 feet.

We had to use Eric’s 4-wheel drive pickup to access the Rattlesnake Arches Trail from the Upper Trailhead on Glade Park. The dirt road was very rough and we could only go about 7 miles per hour. Even with Eric’s truck, we had to stop about 2.6 miles prior to reaching the trailhead because of the uncertainty of the narrow dirt road.

That meant this hike would be different from all the other I had been on during this trip. The first half of the hike was a descent to the arches. I hate descending at the beginning of a hike because it means the second half would be primarily a climb when we would be the most tired.

As we descended the narrow dirt road, we encountered a number of very steep downhill sections. As we got closer to the trailhead, the descent got a little easier.

After leaving the trailhead, we were supposed to be able to see a cluster of about 7 or 8 arches within a mile of each other. We found the first arch fairly easily. The arch was actually down in a canyon area.  I could hear some hikers out on top of the arch.

When I started walking down towards the arch, Janice grabbed my arm and said she would not guide me down because it was very steep slip rock and had a narrow rock bridge crossing over to the arch.  Also, there was a dog sitting patiently waiting for its master who had gone out on top of the arch.  I guess the dog had more sense than the rest of us.

We missed the second arch and could only see the upper section of the third arch. Thunderstorms were forming in the west, so we thought we should start heading back. Else we would be hiking back uphill on a slippery and muddy dirt road.  Also, we were on a deadline to make it back to meet up for dinner with my other guides in Grand Junction.

Eric went ahead and hiked and got a ride back to his truck. Janice and I only had to hike about 2.6 of the 3.1 miles of the ascent back up the mountain before Eric picked us up. Boy, were we glad to see him – actually his truck!

After we got back to Janice’s place and cleaned up, we headed to town to meet my other Colorado guides, Linda and Marlys, for dinner.  This was my last night in Grand Junction and we celebrated at the Feisty Pint restaurant/bar. I know I’ve said it before – these are such amazing and giving women!  I love them dearly.

My last day (Monday) before heading back to Houston started rainy and cold.  We decided to go by Sam’s Club because Janice had heard that they had some Eddie Bauer hiking sandals on sale.  I wanted to get these for the trip to the Galapagos islands after the Machu Picchu trek.

The volcanic rock we would be hiking on the Galapagos is supposed to tear up the soles of any shoes, so I wanted something inexpensive that I could just wear and throw away afterwards.

After buying the hiking sandals , I decided to go do a little 1-hour upper body and core strengthen session at Mesa Fitness.  It was around noon by then and the sun came out.  Since I still had a few hours to kill before my flight later that evening, I texted my guides to see if they were up for one last hike.

All three of my Colorado guides, Linda, Janice, and Marlys, plus friends Peggy and Eric came along for the hike on Serpents Trail.  This is the local neighborhood walking trail.

The trail was an easy to moderate out and back 4-mile hike with an elevation change of about 800 feet. I was in my full training gear when everyone else was dressed like they were going shopping at the mall.

The trail is only about 15 to 20 minutes from downtown Grand Junction and is a quick way to burn off a few calories and clear the cobwebs from your head. It is a very scenic sandstone rock lined trail.

About 1/3 of the way up the trail, there was a rock formation that looks like a lizard looking up. It has a little flat section where the mouth would be and hikers try to throw a rock out about 20 feet to land on the flat section and “feed the lizard”. It took me three tries, but I was able to “feed the lizard”.  Linda was also able to land her rock on the lizard’s mouth

There was also several places along the trail as you’re ascending the mountain and on left-hand switchbacks where you can see a rock formation in the distance resembling a woman’s breast.

It was such a fun way to end my trip to Grand Junction and do my final mountain training hike prior to heading down to Machu Picchu, Peru!

Ultimately, I want to document the larger story of my journey in the film “One Step at a Time.”  The goal of this documentary is to bring hope, inspiration and the joy of achievement to all through an impressive chronicle of determination and resiliency.

I have had several personal blind friends die much too early in their lives due to a complication of factors, including poor exercise and diet choices.

My hope is that this documentary will be seen by tens of thousands for years to come to empower the blind and others to live a healthier lifestyle through physical activities.

Filming of my training process has already begun.  A promotional trailer has been prepared for my documentary film:  https://vimeo.com/325679780

If you are interested in being a part of this film, you may make a donation on my personal fundraising page: http://bit.ly/2uzITej

My three guides and I are paying all of our own expenses for this trek (travel, tour package, equipment, etc.).

Funds received will go exclusively towards capturing, creating and distributing this film.

All funds for sponsoring this documentary are tax-deductible to Achilles International Houston, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Thank you for your consideration for what promises to be a life-altering experience for me and all those who join me on this journey, in person or by film.

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