Conquering Mount Kinabalu

“This may be the last note I ever write to you…,” I wrote on a postcard to my sister, as I tried to warm up and regain some energy at the Laban Rata rest house on Mt. Kinabalu. I had hiked up the first part of the trek to the summit earlier that day and was exhausted already thanks to the steep ascent and high altitude.
As I looked out the window and saw the peak rising up out of mist and then flipped over the postcard to study the rope course I was going to have to manoeuvre in just a few hours at 3 am with only a headlamp for light, I wasn’t sure if it was altitude sickness or the thought of what I was going to have to do that was making me feel slightly nauseated.

I spent a fairly sleepless night in an uncomfortable bunk bed, waiting for the 2 am alarm with trepidation and anticipation. When I did sleep, I kept having a falling feeling, and would wake up after dreaming about multiple ways I could have fallen off of the mountain – both on the ropes course and while trying to climb back down the 70% slope I’d hiked up the day before.

Of course, once the alarm sounded, I just wanted to roll over and go back to sleep, but we set of at 3 am with our guide. We hiked up past the tree line, got past the initial ropes course, and started walking up the flat surfaced, but inclined rock leading us to the top. Our guide (my new hero) noticed how petrified I was and held my hand all of the way up, directing where I should place my feet for the best grip. I’m pretty sure that I zoned out for part of this, so that I didn’t have to think about what I was doing. Looking back I’m not sure if it was a good idea (because I didn’t panic) or a bad idea (I was zoned out while climbing a steep mountain…so many things could have gone wrong!). We made it up to the summit in time for the sunrise, which was absolutely stunning. The sun started to spread over all of the clouds and other jagged peaks below our vantage point started to catch the light; it was an awe-inspiring view, and worth the struggle, both mental and physical.
Unfortunately, my dad said he would not pay for a helicopter to pick us up at the top, so we started our descent. By the time we made it to Laban Rata, I was feeling sick again, but I’m assuming it was due to a lack of sleep and calories, because once I had some food and multiple cups of tea with heaps of sugar, I started to feel revived. In fact, during the first hour or two of the 2nd stage of climbing down, I thought it was easier than the initial hike up. I can only attribute this to the altitude and the fact that it was noticeably easier to breathe. I made the rookie mistake of thinking we must be nearing the half-way mark away from Laban Rata, when I saw a kilometer marker and realized that I still had 4.5k to hike down. Then each half kilometer seemed to go by even more slowly than the last. By the last 2 kilometers, my legs were shaking and my knees were begging me to stop. I opened a can of Coke I’d been carrying, which tasted like an elixir of the gods, and keep going. I was not going to pitch a tent on the side of the mountain and risk some mosquito-borne disease!!
Miracle of miracles, we made it down safely, albeit with a few cuts, bruises, and limbs that were making sure we realized what we’d made them do in the last 27 hours. We spent the next 2 days at a resort nearby, choosing to lay by the pool and avoid as much physical activity as possible. We did venture into town to see the wet and dry goods markets, but that was as much walking as we permitted ourselves. In the dry good market, I did see a big rat scurry under a clothing display and smelled plenty of unsavory aromas, so it was worth the extra exertion to go into town, just to remind myself that the majority of life in Sabah does not occur at a resort.
My parents came up with the idea to hike climb Mt. Kinabalu because it is the 5th highest point in Southeast Asia, but doesn’t require technical equipment. We have done a lot of hiking as a family, from spending over a week hiking throughout the Salzkammergut region of Austria to hiking all the way into the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back out, but nothing had prepared me for this experience. I’m in fairly good cardiovascular shape – I run just about every day and have done a few half-marathons over the last couple of years, so I wasn’t concerned about the difficulty; after all, I’d read that if you were in decent shape, you would be able to do the climb. Well, I suppose that is true, because I did the entire climb, but I wasn’t prepared to be practically incapacitated for the next 2 or 3 days because my legs were so sore. If I ever do this type of hike again, I am going to do a lot more hill or mountain work beforehand!

The Travel Section of the NYT Got to Us…

As much as I like to adventure and explore, it’s rare when a fleeting idea turns into reality. And this particular adventure happened because of my mom’s voracious appetite for beach-combing in Michigan and kitschy little bookstores. (Although I don’t think I could totally rule out my desire for a short getaway either). In May, I got sucked in to the New York Times travel section online and stumbled across an article that screamed, “YOU MUST TELL MOM!”. The article was called “As American as Cherry Pie”, but pie was mentioned as an added bonus to the article’s centerpiece: the McLean and Eakin Booksellers store tucked away in quiet Petoskey, Michigan. The article’s author, a fiction writer herself, raved about the stores’ employees—women who can pin you with a book recommendation (or several) based on what you’ve read recently and lead you down a path to accumulate as many books as you possibly can, all while having an appetite to actually buy and devour each written word encased in their covers. I immediately posted the article to my mom’s Facebook wall, knowing that she would probably think “oh, wouldn’t that be nice?”. Now, mind you, my family (especially my mom) is known for packing up in record time and headed to some place that’s a few hours drive away just to soak up some new scenery. I guess I didn’t realize the extent of this genealogical effect until my mom commented on my post on her wall with these words: “I love a good bookstore! And I love Michigan! So a good bookstore in a place I love IS heaven! When do you want to go?”. Within a few short hours of me telling her about the article and the cute little bookstore we could peruse, we had decided on a date to take the plunge, to drive up to Petoskey, and spend a relaxing couple of days reading and beach-combing.

The first leg of my trip included a lakeside scenic trip from Chicago to Grand Rapids. Amtrak’s line toward G.R. curves around the lake, and, when the summer sun was setting, I found myself feeling like I wasn’t in the Midwest at all. The lake looked like the Pacific and I was going north along the east coast. …Except I wasn’t going that east and my train stopped smack dab in the center of Michigan. My mom scooped me up & we navigated our ways to our hotel for our one-night stay in Grand Rapids, resting up for a short mid-morning drive to Petoskey.

The drive northward is straight out of a Hemingway novel (or so I’ve been told). The relative flatland of southern Michigan gives way to rolling topography the farther north you get. Case in point: our romp to Deadman’s Hill. After seeing a tiny roadside sign reading “Deadman’s Hill Lookout”, we knew a U-turn was in order. We flipped the car, drove down a well-paved road that transformed itself into a pebble road needing some maintenance, and drove up to the lookout. After walking from the car to the outlook, we came to the sign pictured here, which reads: “The period of early logging in the hills of the Jordan River Valley was marred by several fatal accidents. The last known and best recalled tragedy took the life of 21-year old Stanley (Big Sam) Graczyk, a fun loving lumberjack, soon to be married. He became legend on May 20, 1920 when he was killed while driving a team and big wheels loaded with logs down a steep slope near here. Anthony (Tony) Wojciechowski who was with Big Sam when he died is responsible for the accurate recounting of this legend. This high point, with its commanding view of the valley, has ever since been known as Deadman’s Hill”. From there on out, Sam and Tony were the stewards of our adventure, although our adventure wasn’t quite as adventurous as theirs.

It turns out Hemingway’s influence was not limited to the fact that we were visiting his old stomping grounds. For dinner the first night in Petoskey (which was a Sunday), we went to the City Park Grill. Turns out Hemingway used to sit at the seat second from the end at the bar, scribbling away his novels. The history goes beyond fiction writers and straight to our taste buds from there. As both my Mom and I are always open to trying a new brew, both of us ordered the hoppy Hangin’ Frank from Short’s Brewery in Michigan. Yes, “Hangin’ Frank”. Whatever you’re picturing, it’s correct. The keg pull at the bar immediately caught our eye, probably because of such a literal and straightforward interpretation of the guy after whom it’s named. Turns out Hangin’ Frank is an IPA made exclusively for the City Park Grill and is named after Frank Fochtman, a former owner of the grill and the establishment’s longtime running ghost. Let me tell you, I am not a seasoned “dead-guy-dedicated” beer drinker. In fact, I’ve never had a beer named after a ghost before. But having experienced this “first” in the Grill that Frank actually haunts, I can tell you the beer was even more tasty than if I hadn’t known the story behind the brew.

After dinner, we walked down to the pier and meandered a bit of the lakefront immediately accessible to the central business district of Petoskey. The sun was going down and it was one of those summer nights when you felt like you could take your time doing whatever you were doing, but upon calling it a night you would be totally unable to tell someone exactly what it was that you did. ….Or maybe we had just reached the point of extreme relaxation. The next morning we had planned to go to American Spoon Cafe for breakfast, having passed by it later on Sunday past hours. I literally could have spent the entire afternoon at the cafe reading. And although it wasn’t the sunniest of days, the entire cafe seemed to be flooded with light. The gelato looked enticing but I was in the mood for something hearty and unique. I landed on the Smoked Whitefish Omelette and a cup of fresh Joe. I was NOT disappointed. I can still taste the smoked whitefish in my mouth! If I had already found a tome to devour, I would have been happy at American Spoon for at least 5 hours. But alas, we had not yet visited the Bookstore that had given us an escape route to Michigan.

I know I’ve been leading you on. I know that I have intentionally created hype surrounding the bookstore that was supposed to be the answer to our book-loving and book-buying dreams. Alas, I was not as impressed with the bookstore as the writer of the New York Times article. But that didn’t stop me from buying three books and finishing one in the next day, before arriving back home in Chicago. Every avid book reader I know could probably think of a bookstore that seems to be good lucky for him/her; a place where he or she can always go to find a book, no matter what kind of book they might be in the mood for. I’m not saying “don’t go to McLean and Eakin”. I’m saying “allow the books in their selection to talk to you”…and if you happen to walk out of this treasure with a stack of books you just can’t wait to crack the spines of then please DO write me and give me your take on the store!

Other than great food (that comes with great stories), a recommended bookstore (yes, despite my reservations), and a breath-taking shoreline (literally), Petoskey offers the chance to delve into a dream of being a homebuyer for all those that are not already (or who would love to own a summer home). Driving north of Petoskey’s downtown area, you come across a one-mile stretch of houses that are right out of a summer dreamland–where all the kids are neighborly and nice to one another K-8, and where parents really have not a care in the world. And to be honest, I think I would have no choice but to lead a carefree life if I lived in one of the Bayview Association homes.  I’ll leave with your own dreams……