Michael Meets Machu Picchu – Hiking the Classic Inca Trail (June 2019)

The time for my adventure had finally arrived. After more than a year of preparation and training, it was really happening!  The 4-day trek along the Classic Inca Trail to one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu, Peru is a little under 27 miles and scales two nearly 14,000-foot mountain passes.

The appeal of this particular trek is the stunning combination of Inca ruins, magnificent mountains, exotic vegetation and extraordinary ecological variety. The trail goes over high passes with unforgettable views, through cloud forest, and finally into subtropical vegetation.

I had two sighted guides from Achilles International – Houston and a guide from Colorado to provide me step-by-step instruction along one of the most demanding hiking trails in the world.  At 64, I was the oldest blind person to hike this amazing trail.

My guide from Colorado, Janice Koppang and I arrived in Cusco, Peru (11,152 feet) on June 9 to start acclimating to the high altitudes that we would be hiking.  My other guides, Bernie Tretta and Zach Cater-Cyker, and my photographer, Robert Harrington, arrived in Cusco on the afternoon of June 10.

Since Janice and I had the extra day while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, we took a tour of the Sacred Valley, Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Marai, and Chinchero. We saw several Inca archaeological sites, farmlands, small villages, and textile weaving that had not changed in hundreds of years.

On the morning of June 11, we had our Inca Trail briefing with our trail guide, Juan Carlos, from Kandoo Adventures.  I was the first blind person that he had ever guided on the Inca Trail.  We had to make a few modifications to the standard plans to accommodate my needs.  These mainly included time duration changes since I would be hiking about 30% slower than a sighted person.

Afterwards, Juan Carlos led us on a walking tour of Cusco city, the original Inca capital of Peru. It actually turned out, unknowing to us before we got there, that this was a special time of year for Cusco.  The city recognizes the month of June as a special celebration of the winter solstice and had festivals every day of the month.  Finally, we had our last restaurant meal prior to our trek, including the obligatory guinea pig (cuy) of Peru.

Early in the morning of June 12, we were transported in a shuttle van from Cusco to a little village near the start of the Inca Trail called Ollantaytambo, where we had breakfast.  From there, we drove to the start of the Inca Trail known as Km 82.  It is called this since it is 82 kilometers by train from Cusco.

There, we met up with the nine porters and two cooks from Kandoo Adventures, who carried most of our gear and supplies, including all of our food and water for the next four days of the trek.

Our Kandoo team also took care of our campsite setup and food preparation needs.  They were an awesome team, staying ahead of us each day to ensure that our lunch and dinner were prepared.

We had really amazing meals during the entire trek.  I don’t know how they did it, but the cooks prepared the best breakfasts, lunches and dinners I have ever had while hiking or camping.  The meals were unbelievable spreads of Peruvian delicacies.

There were no granola bars or trail mix to be found, except for those we brought ourselves and never touched the entire time.  They also prepared plenty of coca tea and had raw coca leaves available to chew on during the hike to help prevent altitude sickness.

The porters always had our campsite set up each evening by the time we arrived.  We would put away our hiking gear, wash up and then relax for a half-hour or so while sipping on hot tea and nibbling on some munchies prior to dinner.

The first day’s hike started around 10:00 AM from Km 82 (8,923 feet) and was fairly easy, a warm-up day.  Most of the trail was relatively wide and gently climbing pebble and flat rock surfaces.

The first 3 miles followed along the south bank of the Urubamba River to our lunch spot near the ruins of Llacatapata.  After lunch, the trail heads south along the Cusichaca River.  After hiking 7.4 miles in a little under 7 hours, we reached our first campsite, Wayllabamba (9,842 feet).

We had a relaxing dinner that evening. After dinner, we shared our thoughts and perceptions of the day’s hike and discussed the plan for the next day’s hike up to Dead Woman’s Pass.

We did have one complaint regarding the setup of the toilet tent too close to our sleeping tents.  After that night, the porters ensured that the toilet tent was always set a distance far enough away to to avoid any unpleasant odors.

Day 1 campsite with toilet tent in background close to the sleeping tents
Day 1 campsite with toilet tent in background close to the sleeping tents

On the second hiking day (June 13), we had breakfast around 5:30 AM and then broke camp at about 6:00 AM to start our most difficult and steepest ascent from 9,842 feet to just under 14,000 feet. The trail followed the Llullucha River through forests and plains.

I was huffing and puffing by the time we reached Dead Woman’s Pass after about 6.5 hours on the 4000-foot ascent.  I had never hiked elevations greater than 11,500 feet during my Colorado training hikes and could really feel the effects of the high altitude. [Side note:  The pass is so named not because of anything morbidly treacherous or ominous.  The rock formation of the pass resembles a woman laying down or sleeping.]

I don’t think I quite realized that we had reached the top until Bernie exclaimed, “You’re at the top, Michael.  You made it!”  Then I began hearing cheering and clapping from a small crowd of other hikers.  They had passed me on the way up and waited to congratulate me on reaching the summit.  Tears began welling up in my eyes upon hearing them.

We had our lunch break a little past the summit. Between pain meds and high altitude, I was feeling a bit woozy.  I actually had to take some oxygen for about half an hour.  After lunch, we began our trek down the backside of the mountain towards our next campsite.  This would be the easy part of our second day’s hike, or so I thought.

After about an hour and a half on the descent, my right knee pain was excruciating and I was going too slowly to make the next campsite by dark.  [Side note:  I had learned that the meniscus on my right knee had torn through about two weeks prior to the trip.  All I could do was wear special knee braces and take extra pain meds.]

Juan Carlos made a make-shift sling from a backpack which I sat on as two porters carried me the rest of the way down.  We had hiked a total of 6.8 miles from Wayllabamba, over Dead Woman’s Pass, and finally reached our second campsite, Pacaymayo (11,700 feet), in a little over 10 hours.

Michael being carried down the mountain on a sling by two Kandoo porters
Michael being carried down the mountain on a sling by two Kandoo porters

Each day, we woke up a half hour earlier.  So, on June 14, the third day of our trek, we left camp at 5:30 AM.  This was actually our longest, but most rewarding day.  During the ascent, we encountered Inca ruins that were simply amazing with spectacular views in nearly every direction.  After about 5 hours, we crossed over the second pass near the ruins of Runkuracay at an elevation of 13,500 feet.

During the descent, we encountered the Sayacmarca ruins and more stunning views.

After a few hours, my right knee was again hurting me too badly to walk, plus I was also woozy from the pain meds.  Juan Carlos took my backpack and made me hold on to two porter on either side of me.

As I draped my arms around the porters’ shoulders, we were literally running down the mountain at times.  However, I felt dejected that I could not hike the descent on my own and was being a burden.

We finally reached our third campsite, Winay Wayna (8972 feet) after hiking 9.9 miles from Pacamayo in a little over 13 hours.  I was totally exhausted and did not even feel like eating dinner.

Michael with arms draped over two porters shoulders hiking down the mountain
Michael with arms draped over two porters shoulders hiking down the mountain

The campsite had some sloping ledges and I had to pay special attention walking around.  One funny thing (or at least funny to the rest of the team) occurred when I needed to go to the toilet tent before dinner.

Because of the sloping ledge to get to the toilet, I asked Robert to escort me there.  When he left me, I went into the tent and sat on the toilet.  After a minute or so, I felt myself starting to tilt.  I quickly grabbed the tent poles and that turned out to be a big mistake.

The tent continued to fall over with a big crash.  I did have the presence of mind to at least hold on to the toilet bucket and keep it sitting upright, but everything else – tent and me were laying on the ground.

Juan Carlos bolted over to the toilet tent and lifted the tent and me back upright.  Then, I could hear the laughter in the distance of the rest of the team as I sat there holding onto Juan Carlos’ hand as I finished my business.

Later, back in the dining tent, Juan Carlos shared that in his 14 years of guided tours on the Inca Trail, he had never had anyone fall over in the toilet tent as everyone had a hearty laugh again while finishing our dinner.

On our fourth and final day of the trek (June 15), we again left camp a half hour earlier than the previous day.  However, this time it was not to ensure we made it to the next campsite before dark.  We were hiking in the dark for the short one-mile hike to reach the line of hikers waiting to enter the checkpoint for the 2.2-mile hike to the Sun Gate, the entrance to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail.

We encountered jungle-like trails and reached the Sun Gate (8,956 feet) about 4 hours after leaving our Winay Wayna campsite.  From the Sun Gate, we had our first glimpse of the World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu.

We could see the Inca archeological site below and the iconic Machu Picchu and Huanay Picchu mountains across the valley.  It was truly a spectacular sight and I felt so privileged and grateful to finally be here after all the preparation and training for the past year.  There was certainly something spiritual happening!

After about half an hour of soaking in the vistas from this vantage point, we hiked down to the Machu Picchu ruins and spent another hour or so exploring as Juan Carlos shared with us the story of this special place.

June15-5
Machu Picchu ruins as seen from the Sun Gate
June15-6
Machu Picchu ruins as seen from two-thirds of the way down the trail from the Sun Gate

My three sighted guides – Bernie, Zach, and Janice, photographer, Robert, and Juan Carlos and the entire Kandoo team did an incredible job guiding and leading me on this amazing journey along the Classic Inca Trail.  Not only did they have to focus on hiking this demanding trail themselves, they had the ultimate responsibility for providing me  instruction to negotiate my every step.

My safety was foremost on their minds as they sacrificed some of their own personal enjoyment of this remarkable place.  I am truly indebted to them for enabling me to accomplish this adventure. With their assistance, I continue to see that anything is possible, one step at a time.

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 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.

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 paid 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 was a life-altering experience for me and all those who join me on this journey, in person or or will join me by film.

Michael Meets Machu Picchu – Training in Houston (June 2018 – May 2019)

As indicated in a previous blog post, I began my mountain training in April 2018 with my first trip to Grand Junction, Colorado.  Over the next year, I planned and completed four additional mountain training hikes in Colorado and Utah (see previous blog posts on all of these mountain training hikes).

Many people have asked me what kind of training and preparation I did in the relatively flat lands of Houston, Texas.  My lead sighted guide, Bernie Tretta (director of Achilles International Houston) and I developed a one-year local training plan beginning in June 2018 to help prepare me for my trek to Machu Picchu.

For the first six months (June – November), the training consisted of a simple 3-days per week workout and a once a month, 2-hour hike at greater Houston area parks and trails.

The 3-day (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) workout started with a 45-minute inclined treadmill (5 degrees) warmup.  This was followed by a 1-hour upper body and core strengthening session. The Monday workouts also included a line dancing class to help with my coordination and balance.

The workout times and treadmill incline were increased over time so that by the end of the six months, I was doing a 10-degree inclined treadmill warmup and a 1.5-hour upper body and core strengthening session.  The 3-day workouts remained at this level through mid-February.

In August, I added a stairwell climb workout (Thursdays).  The stairwell climb workout started at 10 floors, then added 10 floors per month for the next three months (September – November).  The climb remained at 40 floors through mid-February 2019.  Also, beginning in September, I started a yoga class on Thursdays that will help with my overall body strengthening, stretching and balance.

Beginning in mid-February, my weekly training plan was as follows:

Mon:   Stairwell climbing (currently 40 floors), adding 10 floors every two weeks to reach max of 100 floors by mid-May; line dancing class; 1-hour 15-degree inclined treadmill warmup; 1.5-hour upper body and core strengthening

Tue:     Extended 15-degree inclined treadmill (currently 3 hours), adding 0.5 hour every two week to reach max of 6 hours; 1-hour Tabata circuit workout (beginning April 1)

Wed:   1-hour 15-degree inclined treadmill warmup; 1.5-hour upper body and core strengthening

Thu:     Stairwell climbing (currently 40 floors), adding 10 floors every two week to reach max of 100 floors; 1-hour yoga class

Fri:       1-hour 15-degree inclined treadmill warmup; 1.5-hour upper body and core strengthening

Sat:      1 to 2-hour aerobic activity (free choice)

Sun:     Off day

Additionally, throughout the one-year period, I had monthly training hikes with my guides from Achilles Houston, Bernie and Zach at local Houston area parks and trails.  We would alternate between the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Memorial Park and Huntsville State Park.  In addition to the actual hike, we worked on practicing efficient step-by-step call out signals and instructions as they led me along the trails.

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 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.

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 paid 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 was a life-altering experience for me and all those who join me on this journey, in person or or will join me by film.

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.

Michael Meets Machu Picchu – Ski for Light Training (Jan 27 – Feb 3, 2019)

For the 2019 Ski for Light International Week (January 27 – February 3), I traded in my hiking boots and trekking poles for ski boots and cross-country skis.  Although there would be no mountain hiking training here, I would be getting in some great cross-country skiing workouts at nearly 8,500 feet elevation.

Ski for Light (SFL) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to enhance the quality of life and independence of visually or mobility-impaired adults through a program of cross-country skiing.  They hold an annual International Week at different locations across the United States with participants attending from all over the world.  The 2019 SFL Week was the 44th Annual SFL event and was held at Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby, CO.

SFL promo photo - blind skier and guide standing on ski trail with arms raised in victory sign

I volunteered again to be the captain/coordinator of the 2019 SFL Team Texas.  We actually got started back in August 2018 with an info kickoff meeting and started signing up participants from across the state.

We ended up taking 17 Visually Impaired Participants (VIPs) from across the great state of Texas to the 2019 SFL event. There were 8 of us from Houston, 3 from San Antonio, 1 from Austin, 2 from McKinney, 2 from El Paso, and 1 from Midland.  Team Texas had the biggest contingent of participants of any state which was pretty remarkable considering there is no cross-country skiing in the state.

I flew from Houston to Denver with a few other friends (Bonnie Vegiard, Alma Balleza and David Cleveland) on that January 27 morning.  FMichael, Bonnie, Alma and David waiting at gate in IAH airportrom Denver, we met up with pretty much all the rest of the 150 or so participants.  Then, we took shuttle buses from the Denver Airport heading northwest through the snowy mountains to Snow Mountain Ranch, where we would be staying and skiing for the next week.

Once we arrived at Snow Mountain Ranch, there were plenty of volunteers to help us sort through our luggage, check in and get our registration materials, and find the way to our rooms.  There were three lodges with room accommodations for 2, 3 or 4 people.  I had already arranged to share a room with a friend from Houston, Wes Ferrell.

After settling in and getting a short rest, we were ready to head over to the “Commons” for the opening ceremonies.  The Commons would be where we would have all our breakfasts and dinners and general meetings.  Lunch would be served at the café at the Nordic Ski Center.

At the opening ceremonies dinner, there was the regular fanfare of introducing all the SFL board, planning committee and special guests.  Then came the fun part of introducing all the visually impaired participants and meeting our sighted guides for the week.  My guide, Einar Berg, was a very experienced skier from Norway and one of the original founders of the SFL organization back in 1975 (more on Einar to come).

The introductions were pretty much alphabetical and each time a Team Texas participant was called out, we rang our cow bell and had lots of cheering screams by the rest of the team.  By the way, this was also our first opportunity to meet up in person with most of the Team Texas participants.

And all Team Texas participants got a red ski cap, which had become our identity symbol the year before.  Everyone knew you were part of Team Texas when you were wearing your red ski cap out on the trails or around the lodge!

Most of us were pretty much beat by the end of the opening ceremonies and a day of traveling so we headed back to our rooms to get some rest for what would be an early start the next morning.

Most of the VIPs were up bright and early the next morning (Day 2) to attend the stretching class at 6:45 AM.  I chose to stay in bed a little longer and simply do my stretching in my room.  Breakfast was at 7:30 AM every morning at the Commons less than a 5-minute shuttle ride from the lodges (or you could take a 10-minute brisk walk in the cold Colorado morning air).

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After breakfast and the daily announcements, we headed back to our rooms to finish getting dressed and ready for a day of skiing at the Nordic Center.  Since it was the first day of skiing, most of us had to spend the first hour or so getting our ski equipment.

Then, depending on your skiing ability, you could take the beginner techniques class or immediately hit the trails.  Since this was my third year, I chose to go on outside and get acquainted with my ski equipment again on the snow before hitting the trails.

It was snowing off-and-on all day and the temperature hovered right around 20° the entire time. The skiing conditions were excellent!  But since it was my first day out in the snow, I quickly tired after a couple of hours and headed in for lunch and decided to call it a victory for the day.

Two parallel set of cross country ski tracks heading down a gently sloping trail with mountains and trees in the background

Apres ski activities each day included special interest sessions (presentations on various subjects by participants, guides, instructors, or SFL staff), followed by dinner and announcements and usually the night ended with some form of entertainment.

For this second night at SFL, there was a dance with a DJ.  Some of the Texas contingent decided to turn in early, but many opted for the dance.  Interestingly, a tradition which started my first year of going to SFL in 2017, the Team Texas VIPs and the VIPs from New York began hanging out together most evenings and tonight’s dance was no exception.

Day 3 proved to be another beautiful day of x-country skiing.  The day started out on the cold side, approximately 8°, but warmed up to the 20’s later in the day.  I did one of the 5K trails in the morning and worked on some techniques in the afternoon.

Then some of the Team Texas gang and New York contingent headed over to the tubing hill.  Tubing down the icy hill was such a blast, but we could only get in three downhill runs.  You have to walk back up the hill with your tube and after a day of cross-country skiing, we had hit our limit.

Wes, Alma, Tim, Bonnie and Michael (taking the pic) sitting in rubber tubes getting ready to go down the snow tubing hill

I then headed over to the lodge to the room that had been set up for indoor biathlon rifle shooting practice. Michael wearing headphones and laying on the floor practicing biathalon rifle shootingIt took me a while to get used to the beeping signal that indicated when I was close to the target and I could pull the trigger.  I got six bullseyes out of 10 shots.

For the night’s entertainment, there was Trivia Game or movie.  Team Texas decided to host our own apres ski party in one of our rooms.  It was a long night!

Michael and Cuqui standing in their skis after a mornings run on the trails

Day 4 started out sub-zero and I refused to go out skiing until it reached 10 @ 10 (10 degrees at 10:00 AM).  I did another fun 5K trail before lunch and then had to cut the afternoon short to just a 1K trail to get back in time for the sleigh ride we had reserved later that afternoon.  Cuqui Soto and I skied together that morning.

Some of the Team Texas and New York gang decided to go for a sleigh ride over the fields and through the woods.  The late afternoon was really beautiful and really, really cold.  It was such a relief to stop about half-way and huddle around the pit fires and roast marshmallows and drink hot chocolate.  It’s hilarious watching blind people roast marshmallows – they either come out still cold or totally burned black and crispy!

When we got back from the sleigh ride, some of us stopped off at the lodge commons area to finish warming up and participate in a sing-along around the fireplace.

The entertainment for the night was a silent auction.  After a quick run through the auction items, Team Texas held another room party.

Day 5 was another gorgeous day for skiing and a lot warmer than earlier in the week.  It actually got up to 30° with crystal blue skies and lots of sunshine.

I forgot to bring my knee brace which I use for extra support of my osteoarthritis in my right knee due to multiple torn meniscus and surgery over the years.  Therefore, I had to take it a little easier today and did an easy 5K trail in the morning and repeated the same 5K trail in the afternoon.

We had a pleasant surprise during the afternoon run.  We got to see several moose that were out feeding about 50 meters off the trail about 3/4 of the way along the trail.

The evening entertainment was a Square Dance, which a couple of the Team Texas members attended, but most ended up at another Team Texas room party.  It was hosted a different lodge from where Bonnie, Alma and I were staying.  We missed the last shuttle bus back to our lodge and had to try to find our own way back.

Of course, I said, “I know the way!” and we ended up getting lost.  After about 30 minutes out in the cold night air (which normally would be a 5 to 10-minute walk), a security guard drove up and helped us get back on the right track.  Bonnie and Alma didn’t follow me again anywhere for the rest of the trip.

I know it sounds repetitious, but Day 6 was another eximious day for skiing.  We had azure skies and perfect temperatures between 19° and 34°.  Team Texas started out the morning taking a group photo at the Nordic Center of the VIP skiers and then one of the skiers and their guides.

Team Texas holding their skis and poles taking their group photo out on the snow under bright blue skiesTeam Texas with their guides taking their group photo out on the snow under bright blue skies

Today I did one of the 10K trails (or at least most of it). We stopped off to visit an old homestead and have a picnic lunch along the trail. I was totally uncoordinated after lunch and fell 4 times.

At the end of the day, I tried out one of the sit skis used by the mobility impaired participants (MIPs). Now that’s a real workout!

Entertainment for this evening was “Norway Night.”  It starts at dinner with a traditional Norwegian meal and desserts (yummy).  Then, there was the special recognition and history of Ski for Light originating from the Norwegian version called Ridderrennet.  There was also special Norwegian music and poetry and the night ended with the Norwegian version of a conga dance line throughout the Commons hall.

Day 7 was finally here, but the BIG day came much too quickly for me.  The Ski for Light 2019 5K Rally/10K Race Day!  VIPs and MIPs could choose the 5K Rally or the 10K Race.  The 5K Rally allows you “race” against yourself and a predicted time that you provided two days prior to the Rally.  Most of Team Texas chose to do the 5K Rally.

The opening ceremonies started with the playing of the national anthems of the seven countries represented at SFL 2019.  Skiers had been given bib numbers based on their predicted times and we lined up by our bib numbers.  Skiers started every 20 seconds.

The fastest skiers reached the finish line in about 30 minutes and all skiers were completed by two hours.  It was so exciting as each skier reached the finish line and people were ringing cow bells and cheering them in.  We had lunch at the Nordic Center café after all the skiers were finished.  We would not find out the final results until later in the evening at the closing ceremonies and banquet.

That night at the Ski for Light 2019 banquet, we learned that Team Texas really cleaned up with 8 awards. We got third place (Alma) in women under 57 partially sighted and first (Mary Alice), second (Young), and third (LouAnn) for women over 57 partially sighted.

For the men, we got second (Tim) and third (Patrick) for men under 57 partially sighted; and second (Michael) and third (Henry) for men over 57 partially sighted. This is a real testament to the quality of the sighted guides that we had.  Team Texas ROCKS!

Team Texas after the banquet celebrating their victory holding up all their ribbons and medals

Bright and early the next morning, the fun and camaraderie of Ski for Light 2019 came to an end as VIPs and MIPs began leaving Snow Mountain Ranch and heading to Denver airport on the shuttle buses.  It was bitter-sweet time.

Early morning sunrise of a open field of snow and mountains in the background

I did encounter a little more excitement on my last leg of the trip back home after Ski for Light 2019 week. I thought I was going to have a nice quiet, but boring trip back home since I was flying later in the day by myself.

But several of the Team Texas group (Bonnie, Alma, and David – the same group I flew to Denver with a week earlier) took a $600 voucher on an overbooked earlier flight and ended up on my flight. The fun times continued all the way to Houston!

Here’s my swag from Ski for Light 2019. Michael's swag from the 2019 SFL eventBib number 56 in the 5K Rally/10K Race, red ski hat representing Team Texas, participant medal, participant lapel pin, Ski for Light decal, and second place ribbon for Men over 57 partially sighted in the 5K Rally.

After being back home for a day, I had time to reflect on the experiences of my third SFL event. I realize how truly blessed I was to be part of such an awesome event and the SFL organization. The camaraderie and enthusiasm of the nearly 150 visually and mobility impaired participants from all over the world, volunteer guides/instructors assigned to each participant, and numerous other volunteers, who helped ensure all aspects and details of the event ran smoothly were absolutely incredible.

We were blessed by beautiful weather, beautiful scenery, beautiful skiing conditions, and most of all, so many beautiful people reaching out to one another in fellowship and love. Whether learning or improving skiing techniques, passing one another on the ski trails, sharing a meal, enjoying the numerous apres ski activities, or simply sitting by the fireplace in the lodge and joining in a sing-along, I always felt welcomed and included as part of the SFL family. It was also so heart-warming to reconnect with old SFL friends and acquaintances and make new ones for the first time.

One of those new acquaintances was my guide/instructor, Einar Berg, from Stavanger, Norway. I was especially blessed to have Einar as my guide this year. You see, not only is Einar an expert skier and guide, he has been a part of Ski for Light since it began in 1975. He has been on the SFL board, helped develop SFL procedures, and an inspirational leader to so many over the past 44 years. As you can imagine, there has been much SFL history and stories over the years. Again, I was blessed to have Einar share so many of these with me during our time together over the past week.

Einar, there are no words that can express the gratitude I have for the guidance, support and most of all, the friendship you provided me this past week. Your dedication and love of the SFL organization and family is outstanding. Blessings to you, my new friend. Looking forward to coming to Norway and having you show me the Northern Lights.

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.

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.

Michael Meets Machu Picchu – Grand Junction, CO and Moab, UT Training Hikes (Nov 2018)

My third mountain training hike took me back to western Colorado and for the first time in Utah on November 4 – 12, 2018.  I first met up with one of my Colorado guides, Janice Koppang, in Denver to catch the Texans vs. Broncos football game for which she had season tickets.

It was a fun flight into Denver from Houston that Sunday morning with about a third of the passengers being Houston fans heading to the game.  I was sitting on a row with two other guys dressed in Texans football jerseys and one said that he spends his vacation time going to all the Texans away games – what fun that would be!

When we got to Broncos Stadium, Janice mentioned that there seemed to be a lot of Houston fans walking around the outside the stadium.  We then came to a small group of six Houston fans taking a photo op by the Broncos statues with the stadium sign in the background.

I promptly asked and jumped in and had Janice take the photo.  Then,the next thing I knew, Houston fans kept walking up and joining the group.

Within a couple of minutes there were over 100 fans crowded together in an impromptu flash mob!  One half of the group began chanting, “Houston,” and the other half replying back, “Texans”!

By the way, the Texans beat the Broncos and Janice and Bud were not very happy campers.

The next morning, we left Denver and headed for Grand Junction where Janice lives in western Colorado.  The mountains had gotten a couple of feet of snow overnight, so we were expecting to encounter some new powder as we approached the Continental Divide.  We stopped along the way to play in the snow, of course, and even had an impromptu snow ball fight.

As we passed the central Colorado mountains, the snow ended and we knew we would be encountering good hiking conditions when we reach Grand Junction.  We stopped at a quaint little rest stop along a river about an hour and a half before reaching Grand Junction called No Name, CO.

We got into Grand Junction later than anticipated, so only had time to go halfway up Serpents Trail. However, Janice and I did get to see a couple of big horn sheep feeding along the trail.

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For our Day 2 hike, my original Colorado friend and guide, Linda Lynch, and Janice took me to Old Gordon Trail in the Colorado National Monument area.  It was such a gorgeous day with azure skies.  The trail was an intermediate to difficult 6 1/2-mile out and back trail with an elevation change of about 1700 feet.

We encountered numerous hoodoos all along the trail.  A hoodoo is a spire of rock that has an easily eroded column and a more resistant cap.

Sometimes they look like mushrooms. They are kind of eerie, so they’re called, “hoodoos” and also have other names, from “fairy chimneys” to “goblins.” It’s a function of weathering and erosion in desert climates.

After we got back from hiking Old Gordon, we cleaned up and rested a bit.  Then, that evening Janice and Bud took me to a cooking class on South Atlantic cuisine.  A blind man cooking is not a pretty sight, but most of the dishes came out edible.

The next morning, Janice and I met up with another Colorado friend and guide, Karla Shrittter, and drove over to Moab, Utah.  We spent the next three days hiking several of the trails in the area which had the most unique rock formations I have ever encountered.

My Day 3 hike was on the incredible Fisher Towers Trail, which was about 4.5 miles out and back with an elevation gain of 2000 feet. It was one of the most technical and unique hikes I’ve done. We saw rock climbers scaling a pinnacle of 1000 feet. The area is a maze of soaring fins, pinnacles, minarets, gargoyles, spires, and strangely shaped rock formations.

For dinner that evening, we opted to eat at the famous Moab Diner on Main Street (the only street in town).  It’s an old-school digs with vinyl booths and serves breakfast all day.  They’re also famous for their signature green-chili dishes which I opted for.

After getting a good night’s rest and free breakfast in the motel, we headed off to Corona Arch Trail for our Day 4 hike.  Prior to the hike, we stopped off to watch some rock climbers on the cliffs literally lining the roadway.  We also checked out some of the petraglyphs carved into the cliffs.

It was another beautiful day with deep blue skies. The hike was fairly easy, 3 miles out and back with only a 450-foot elevation gain. The rock formations along the trail were fabulous and of course ended at the famous Corona Arch where we took our lunch break.

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After the hike, we drove over to Arches National Park to check out Balance Rock, Delicate Arch and the North Windows Arch.  You could spend years coming here and not see the myriad of rock formations.  Just incredible!

That night, everyone was in the mood for some Mexican food.  There were a couple of choices in town and we decided to hit the Fiesta Mexicana, your basic Southwest Mexican fare.  I did notice that Thai food seemed popular in Moab with about four Thai places in town.

We slept in a little later the next morning (approx. 7:30 AM) since we were planning to head back to western Colorado after breakfast.  We said, “Goodbye,” to Karla since she was planning to stay on to visit some friends in the Moab area.

On the road just outside of town is the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage, where we stopped off and spent a couple of hours learning about some of the very interesting film history of this place.

In the late 1940s, the legendary 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. 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.

John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Rock Hudson, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, Lee Marvin, Richard Widmark, James Stewart, and Richard Boone have all worked on location here at Red Cliffs Ranch.

More recently Geronimo, City Slickers, Thelma and Louise, along with other movies and more than 100 commercials, have all used the Moab area as a film location.

After the museum, we were back on the road and reached the Utah/Colorado border a little after noon.  We decided there was still plenty of time to make it to some of the trails on the western side of Grand Junction.  We spent a relaxing afternoon of hiking as Janice guided me through Devils Canyon with several interconnected sandy trails (my Day 5 hike).

We got in about 4.2 miles looping around the canyon, but only about 200 feet of elevation gain.  It was a nice break after the trails in Moab.

When we got back to Janice’s place, we cleaned up and rested a bit.  Then we got dressed to hit the night out at the Grand Junction Symphony Gala and Dance.  It was a semi-formal dinner and got to enjoy some great jazz and big band swing music and dancing.

The next day was a rest day – I really needed it.  I did attend my first Sons of Norway meeting. Apparently, there are a number of people of Norwegian descent here in Grand Junction.  The Sons of Norway is a non-profit organization that promote Norwegian traditions through cultural and social activities.

My Colorado hiking sighted guides (Linda, Janice and Marlys) who are members of thee Sons of Norway – Grand junction Chapter, invited me to the meeting.  We had a turkey dinner and silent auction and tribute to Veterans. Also, this group holds various outdoor activities for children and also supports our Ski for Light organization for the visually and mobility impaired.  More on Ski for Light to come in a later blog post.

That night, Linda invited us over to her place for a wonderful pot roast dinner and some kind of special Norwegian dessert that I can’t remember the name of?  It’s kind of like a waffle cone filled with sweet cream – very yummy!

The next day was my last hike (Day 6 Hike) for this trip.  All three of my Colorado sighted guides were on hand for this final hike – Janice, Linda and Marlys and friend Peggy. I am so blessed to have the best guides in Colorado. They have freely given their time, resources and hiking knowledge to help train me for my trek to Machu Picchu.

Wildcat Trail is a moderate trail with some very steep sections. We hiked a total distance of just under 4 miles, but with an elevation gain of 1400 feet. The day started out cold and sunny and got cloudy with some snow flurries later in the hike.

At times, I caught myself thinking, “What the hell I am I doing this for?”  But once we reached the summit and took our lunch break, it was all well worth it.  It was a really good workout for my last hike on this Colorado/Utah trip.

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.

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.

Michael Meets Machu Picchu – Steamboat Springs Training Hike (Sept 2018)

Heading out for the Labor Day weekend show – not to San Francisco, but to the mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs, Colorado.  This was my second mountain training hike.

Accompanying me were fellow visually impaired hikers, Mo Salama and Bonnie Vegiard.  For the first three days of hiking, we would have local Achilles Houston guides, Bernie Tretta and Zach Cater-Cykes and the last three days of the week would be Colorado guides, Janice Koppang and Marlys Laugsand.

Bonnie and I arrived first in Steamboat on the afternoon of August 31st and began scoping out the resort and town.  We found a quaint Mexican restaurant in town with open air seating and promptly ordered margaritas.  After our fill of food and drink, we decided to head back to the condo.  Being in unfamiliar territory and having to navigate by foot and the local bus, we wanted to make sure we got back before dark.

Mo, Bernie and Zach got in by late morning the next day.  After they settled into the condo, we had a quick lunch and headed out for our first hike – Creekside and Pioneer Trails. With only a half-day of sunlight, our trek was an easy to moderate 3 miles out and back with an 800-foot elevation change.

We encountered gorgeous tree-lined trails, wooden bridges, a very cold-water creek and only a handful of other hikers and bikers.  Upon reaching the bridge, everyone wanted to take a break and rest by the creek with its refreshingly cold water.

The next morning (actually every morning for the rest of the week) started with a hearty breakfast of veggie omelets, fruit and bagels and coffee – lots of coffee.  Mo turned out to be a pretty good short order cook.  He whipped up some yummy omelets for the whole gang.

After breakfast, we headed for the main Steamboat Springs ski mountain area where we hiked Thunderhead Trail winding along the Mt. Werner gondola pathway.  This turned out to be a moderate, but fairly steep 4.1-mile trail with a 2000-foot elevation change.

Since most of the trail was fairly open with few shade trees, the sun got pretty intense at times.  We were gasping by the time we reached the summit and decided to take a long lunch break and enjoy the view from the top.  After resting, the consensus was to take the gondola back down the mountain.

On day 3 of our trip, we tackled the Fish Creek Falls Trail which was the most challenging and also the most beautiful of all our hikes.  This 7-mile trail had an elevation change of 2000 feet and some sections of the trail with a maximum grade of 38 degrees.  Boy, that’s pretty steep!

We had a few anxious and adrenalin producing moments when we came to a couple of really hairy and narrow cliff sections where we had to side-step the trail and hug against the side of the rocks as we traversed the trail.  But we were rewarded with the smells and sounds of several waterfalls which fed into crystal clear babbling brooks along this trek.

Another highlight on this trek is when Zach spotted a moose on the switch back from which we had just ascended.  We heard other hikers following us and approaching the area where the moose was feeding.  We all began “whispering loudly” to let them know about the moose ahead of them.  However, from the conversation of the other hikers, we could tell they were oblivious to the moose and just passed on by without incident.

We only covered about 5.5 miles of the 7-mile trail when a thunderstorm began forming and we decided to head back down the mountain to drier and safer ground.

Early the next day, we had to sadly say so long to Bernie and Zach as they headed back to Houston.  But within a few hours, we were greeting our new guides for the rest of the week, Janice and Marlys from Grand Junction, Colorado.  After Janice and Marlys got settled in to their room, we went out and grabbed a quick lunch and looked for a short trail for our afternoon trek.

We remembered seeing the trailhead of Uranium Mine Trail the day before when hiking Fish Creek Falls Trail, so we decided to give it a go.  Janice and Marlys quickly got into guide mode for the three of us visually impaired hikers and we were soon headed up the moderate 1.5-mile trail with an elevation change of a little over 500 feet.

In addition to the closed-off mine entrance, highlights of this trek were another creek side rest stop and some off-trail rock climbing.  Since it only took us just under two hours (including our playtime on the off-trail rocks), we decided to go back to Fish Creek Falls Trail and do a quick one-hour trek along the initial part of the trail.

Day 5 took us to Three Island Trail in the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness.  This was our longest hike – 6 miles with an elevation change of just under 2500 feet.  The weather started out cooler at the start of this trek than any of the previous four days, in the mid-40’s and cloudy.  However, as we ascended, it quickly warned up and we were back in shorts and T’s for the rest of the hike.

We passed several creeks and beaver dams along the trail and again did some off-trail rock climbing.  But the highlight of the trek was what we dubbed the “goat lady” whom we encounter coming down the trail as we were half-way through our ascent.  She had with her four goats and a dog that almost trampled the “three blind mice” going up the hill.

When we reached the mesa at the summit of the trail, we were rewarded with some beautiful tall grassy fields and the glassy lake surrounding three islands.  It was such a gorgeous place to take our lunch break and relax before heading back down the mountain.

On our final day, we decided to do only a half-day hike on Lower Bear Creek Trail in the morning and then head over to the Strawberry Park Hot Springs in the afternoon.  That turned out to be a great plan since thunderstorms rolled in just as we were completing the trek.  After we got back in the car and drove to the hot springs, it began raining as we pulled into the parking lot.

We found a little pavilion where we took our lunch break and waited out the rain.  Then we were able to relax and soak our week-long aching hiking muscles in the multi-temperature pools formed by the natural hot springs.  It was heavenly way to end our week-long adventure!

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.

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.

Michael Meets Machu Picchu – The Genesis of My Training (April 2018)

I have always been adventurous and a bit daring since childhood.

But Linda Lynch and Janice Koppang didn’t know that.

Linda was one of the volunteer ski guides during a week-long cross-country skiing event for the visually and mobility impaired in January called Ski for Light. She is also an avid mountain hiker.

So I shared with her my dream of hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

That’s when Janice, also a mountain hiking enthusiast, walked up. We talked of her summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2014 and the next thing I knew, Linda and Janice invited me to Grand Junction, Colorado where they live to go on some training hikes in April. I would trade in my skis and snow boots for a backpack and hiking boots as they’d guide me through mountain trails.

I’ve always loved the great outdoors.

When I was a kid, our front yard had two cottonwood trees that my Dad planted. Within seven years, they were about 35 to 40 feet tall. My younger brother Ken and I loved the movie Moby Dick. We made a make-shift ship from large furniture boxes and would pretend to be on the high-seas chasing the great white whale.

We especially loved playing just before thunderstorms when the wind was howling and the skies were dark gray. The thunder and lightning set the scene for our sea chase and we didn’t mind the rain that pelted our faces.

I would play Captain Ahab, who had lost his leg in an encounter with Moby Dick and Ken played the first mate, Ishmael. We switched roles as our cottonwood trees grew taller. I was more adventuresome and would climb to the top of the trees, which we pretended to be our ship’s lookout mast.

My mom always knew where to find me whenever a thunderstorm was approaching. I can still hear her calling out, “Michael Dale McCulloch, get down from that tree before you get struck by lightning!”

Ah, the thrill of clinging to a tall tree branch swinging in the wind and rain on a summer’s afternoon. Now, 50 years later, I hope to not cling to any tree branches on my pending adventure.

On April 15, I began my first five days of hiking some of the best trails in western Colorado — the genesis of my training for Machu Picchu.

Most days, it was Linda, Janice and some of their other hiking buddies. I had a blast hiking trails such as Devil’s Canyon, Hawkeye, Lower Monument Canyon, Canyon Rim (rest day), and Serpents.

My favorite hike was the Lower Monument Canyon Trail on Day 3. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, cool with azure blue skies.

I know what you’re thinking. How can a visually impaired man tell the type of sky?

I have light perception and see shadows in my right eye, so I can distinguish bright from cloudy skies, for example. Regarding the description of the surrounding area, I depend on my guides telling me about it. If they’re quiet, I ask.

The trail was an easy to moderate 5-mile hike with an elevation change of about 900 feet from the trailhead to Independence Monument.

The views along the sandstone canyon hike were outstanding, including several popular rock formations –Lizard Rock, Kissing Couple, Declaration of Independence Slab, and Independence Monument.

As we hiked, it was obvious Linda and Janice were very experienced mountain hikers and certainly knew what they were doing. They were also awesome in providing sighted guide assistance. I felt completely comfortable with them and trusted them with my life.

I even tested them a bit. I love going to the edges of the trail ledges (but nothing beats a treetop). They were always quick to grab me … and chasten me.

They passed my test and I asked if they would join my two Houston guides on my Trek to Machu Picchu. Janice will be joining us in Peru!

My next mountain training hike is planned for September 1-6 in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Adventure surely awaits. Michael sitting on rock ledge overlooking Monument Canyon

Help inspire and empower others as Michael breaks down barriers. Please consider donating to his documentary project.

DONATE   All donated services may be claimed as tax-deductible donations in kind to Achilles Houston, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.